Of all the things I’ve learned and read and done — or tried — over the last year as a new artist, nothing has confounded me more than paintbrushes.
I’ve watched a lot of watercolor tutorials. I’ve read a few step-by-step instruction books on watercolor, too. Most of them rarely mention what size brush to use. So how am I supposed to know?
Somewhere along the way, I picked up the idea that most watercolor artists use the largest brush practical for the area they’re working on. Which means that there’s no set rule, of course. You don’t always have to use a particular size for a flat wash, or always use a particular size for painting a tree. Of course there are no rules. One artist might choose to work on a 5 x 7 sheet while another prefers something much bigger. The best rule of thumb, if there is one at all, is the logical rule to use what works best.
But as a beginning watercolor artist, how was I supposed to know which brush would be best for me to use?
I’ll be honest though. Even when an artist or tutorial mentioned a specific brush size, that didn’t put an end to my confusion. One class at Craftsy lists an 00 and 000 brush for fine detail, but do you see such a creature listed anywhere on the handy brush size chart from Blick?
Is an 00 brush the same as a 2/0? Is an 000 the same as 3/0? If so, why can’t they just say that! It would make it so much easier for folks like me.
But size isn’t the only thing that matters. There are all sorts of different brush shapes. There are mop brushes, hake brushes, filberts, and flats. There are round brushes, riggers, bright brushes, and egberts, and I have no clue what either of those last two are.
Experienced artists know and can make the proper choices. New artists like me are totally befuddled when it comes to picking out brushes.
Next, there are the bristles themselves. Synthetic or natural? Sable — which, I understand isn’t usually real sable at all — squirrel, goat, or what? There’s nylon, there’s taklon, and there’s even gold taklon, and what the heck is the difference?
Like many new watercolorists before me, I solved my brush problems by simply buying a whole lot of them. You know, grabbing those packages of dozens of brushes — all shapes and sizes — that you can pick up at Wal-Mart for next to nothing. I was taking the “broadside” approach. If you’re playing Pirates on the computer — a game this Treasure-Island-loving gal enjoys immensely — you don’t worry too much about aiming when you fire on another ship. You just fire all your guns, and you keep firing until the ship goes down. Fire enough, and you’ll hit your target.
It works in Pirates. It’s not such a great strategy for watercolor.
I have more paintbrushes than I need. I know that. The problem is that I still don’t really know what I do need and what I don’t. But I’m learning.
Recently I found David Bellamy’s Complete Guide to Watercolor, and he spells it out clearly.
- Large squirrel mop for washes
- No. 7 or 8 Round
- No. 4 Round
- No. 1 Rigger
- 1/2-inch flat
Later additions might include:
- No. 10 or 12 Round
- No. 6 Round
Nice, but not essential brushes would be:
- A fan brush
- An angled flat brush
Armed with this information, I set off to go brush shopping. What I needed most from the list was that little No. 1 rigger. I’ve already learned my lesson about buying cheap watercolor paper and lesser-quality paints, and I’ve been told I should invest in good brushes. So I did.
I love my new brush, and I’m amazed at how much difference having the right brush makes in painting. From now on, much of my art supply money is going for brushes. All the cheap ones I’ve gathered up over the past year will eventually find their way to my Kiddies’ Craft Basket for the grandkids to use, along with that cheap watercolor paper, and those cheap paints that dried up in the palette.
Maybe I’ll eventually learn what an Egbert or a bright brush is, but maybe I don’t really need those. If I do, I’ll be sure to buy a good quality brush right from the start. It really does make a difference.