Brushing Up

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.

Yes. 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?

Blick Brush Size Chart

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.



  1. I have found cheap hair brushes are fine for adding hairs to your paintings. They shed like corgis. But yes, generally the biggest brush that can do the work is the best brush for the job. If you were painting your room, you would (hopefully) go for the 9″ roller rather than the 2″ brush. The same is true in the art world.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I agree good brushes makes diffrence πŸ‘πŸΌfew months back I bought Escoda and WN brushes they are really good. I have one bamboo brush too which my husband bought me from Japan but it’s too good for watercolor painting!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m very happy with my W&N brush and will definitely be buying more good ones. They do make a difference. Glad to see you back, BTW. All settled in now?


  3. I actually started by just buying Walmart brushes and seeing what worked for me before learning all the terms I should have! Good brushes are a good investment, as far as I can tell, but the best brushes I ever found were Pennelli brand. I found them in a pack for four dollars at a Ross Dress for Less store (that store is completely random in what they sell at any given time, but I get lucky sometimes and find art supplies there).
    I loved reading this post! I’m not so competent at watercolors, or the brushes needed for watercolor, but I certainly know the importance of non-shedding, reliable paintbrushes! πŸ™‚

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I heard about another brand yesterday I wasn’t familiar with. An artist I watched on Twitch.TV uses them. Trekell is the name. I get most of my art supplies from Amazon, so I’ll look for Pennelli and Trekell both. Thanks for the comment!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. What a great topic to share, Judith. πŸ™‚ I have been confused with brushes too and this post is just so timely. Because of the high exchange rate of dollar to peso, I am very picky with what brush to buy. I started with daler rowney aquafine in 6, 4, and a 10/0 liner I got in Malaysia. Then just two months ago I invested in an escoda optimo 6 and 2 and a 20/0 silver ultra mini spotter. These new brushes hold a lot of water and are really good, but so expensive. I still use all my other brushes most especially the 10/0 liner which I love dearly. Thank you for this post, Judith! πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed the post, and you’ve highlighted where I get so confused. All those “spotters” and “liners” and those other tiny little brushes! I don’t think I’ll be doing too many super-fine details, but it amazes me to just look at some of those tiny things! I think my next splurge will be for a really good mop brush.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Interesting post Judith. The views on brushes out in the world showed me this is where we each have to experiment and find what works for US. Most books i have say to buy the most expensive brushes you can. But then I have seen interviews with contemporary masters who mention in passing that they use very cheap brushes, and then only one or two sometimes. I have a flat, mid priced watercolor brush I bought in a College Station TX, Hobby Lobby about 20 years ago and I still paint almost just with this one brush. It holds a perfect edge still after all these years. Funny world!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re right. We have to find what works for us…in every regard. As a beginner with watercolor, I can’t say what’s right for me because I’m still experimenting. I’m starting to settle in on a few preferences, though, so now I think I know enough to make a few wise investments when it comes to brushes.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. don’t forget intuition. i have on occasion bought brushes because they were beautiful or because i simply had to have one. also the same applies to using them for me. I have done things just so i could use the brush so to speak. brushes can be as inspirational as color or view. good luck with the joy.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s an excellent thought! I’m going to be doing another post on brushes and brushwork soon, and I would love to share your comments, with your permission. On a sad note, my favorite brush recently fell to pieces in my hands. I was devastated. Guess it’s time to do a bit of shopping. Thanks so much for visiting the blog and sharing your thoughts.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Hi Judith! Thanks for the follow this morning – I was reading through your blog at the same time and have been loving what you post! I think my students will benefit also from your resource pages. I’ll point them over here!

    About brushes: have you tried the Rosemary brushes yet from the UK? They cost an arm and a leg but they’ve changed how I paint. Also I’ve been abusing them for a few months now and they’re holding their own – that’s a first for me. Cheers!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Christy. I really like your blog! I will definitely check out the Rosemary brushes. I appreciate the tip. And your students might like tomorrow’s post on my blog. It’s about the basic elements of drawing. πŸ™‚


  8. I’m not really into paintbrushes, because it adds a layer of complexity to the creation process that I don’t really care for at times. I sometimes get the urge to try something out and if the process hinders me it frustrates me. I’ve been using spray bottles a lot more than brushes (still do sometimes) because the paint goes in and blends up on its own when shaken.. leaving me with all my braincells intact to enjoy the colours! Hahaha… Thank you for sharing your adventure. I will come back to this whenever I get stumped on brushes ❀

    Liked by 1 person

      1. All kinds, even the cheapo ones deserve a spin! I use both acrylics and watercolours, and I don’t discriminate πŸ™‚ Besides spray bottles I also use toothbrushes and sponges to vary the fun! Take care and have a fantastic week!

        Liked by 1 person

  9. Hi Judith, nice to have found you, and you me! On brushes, I got into such a state with brushes in the old days due to my inability to keep them clean, that I started using knives and my own carved sticks (cf. many years ago, and now seldom have recourse to brushes. Painting knives have many advantages, and square ended sticks give the same effect as ‘brush marks’. I love the ability to build up a patina and the ‘pasted’ effect I’m after with knives, especially the square-ended ones. Have you tried knives?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve used knives a little bit, and I want to do more with them. I’m needing to buy a good set of palette knives. I’m horrible about cleaning my brushes. I go through spells where I’m very strict with myself and keep them clean — and I do see a difference using them — but then I get lazy again and slack off. I will definitely try using knives — and sticks, too!


      1. I relate to that very much. Do try sticks. The square ended ones I mentioned I find most useful because you can do so much with them. The right angle corner allows surprising precision while the end and sides mean you can do broad sweeping strokes. I’d be interested to learn how you get on. Thanks

        Liked by 1 person

  10. It’s all about experience. I tell my students to bring a basic minimum of 4 brushes- one small round brush- one that you feel comfortable using to sign your name. This is your detail brush- the brush you use last. The other round brush is large with a VERY good tip. This is your basic work brush. Buy the biggest one you can afford- it will hold a lot of paint, and the tip will work like a finer brush. Black Velvet is a great brand, but expensive. It’s a good investment. Also buy 2 flat brushes. Think of your flat brushes as drawing tools. For the flat brushes, you are looking for good edge control, so if you are buying the cheaper ones in the packs- replace the brush as soon as you lose edge control. I like having a 1/2″ and a 1 1/2″ as my two sizes. Use your flat brushes to make long narrow marks with the side, wide flat marks with the broad side, and details with the corners. If you paint consistently with those 4 brushes, you will know when you need to add another brush to your set. It will be when you want to make a particular mark that another type of brush to help you be more expressive. There are so many different types of painting styles and so many different genres to paint, so the collection of paintbrushes becomes a very personal thing to each artist. Good luck.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for your advice on brushes! Now that I’m oil painting, I really want to have the right brushes — the ones that work for me. I’ve been working on brush strokes and different blending techniques, and your suggestions are excellent. Instead of fumbling around with a dozen different brushes, I’m going to following your advice and build from a solid foundation of four essential brushes. I think this will help me immensely!


  11. I have basically 3 kinds of brushes- the soft hair brushes that hold water for water color; the synthetic brushes and the bristle hair, stiff brushes for oil painting. I also use synthetic ones for acrylic paint.

    I think it’s not the price, but the careful use and proper cleaning of brushes that determine their performance and life/length of use. I rarely have to replace brushes and never buy expensive brushes. ~Liz

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Lately I’ve been lax on cleaning my brushes the way I should. It really makes a difference, so I’m getting strict with myself again and making sure I clean them carefully — and lovingly — each day after I use them.


      1. If our brushes serve us well, we ought to do better and better art work (hopefully). Water color and acrylic brushes have to be cleaned and dried daily, but sometimes with my oil painting brushes I bag them. I wipe the paint off, put them in a plastic see through bag, squeeze the air out first and use a twist tie. The brushes will keep moist so that I can use them again the following day. ~Liz

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I’ve never tried bagging my brushes. My bad habit is leaving them sitting in the cleaner. I know I shouldn’t. I have to be really strict with myself about cleaning them when I put my paints away each day.

        Liked by 1 person

  12. I learned the hard way about why brushes shouldn’t be left soaking. The paint began to crack and splinter off on the wooden brush handles. That happened to some of my best oil painting brushes. The wood expands from moisture and the paint begins to fall off. Also, lay your brushes flat to dry them. I usually pat them dry, shape the bristles and lay them on a towel. So much for brush care…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the tips. Yes, I will start taking good care of my brushes again. It is a struggle. I’m very good about it for a while… and then I get lazy again.


  13. Hi Judith, thank you for the follow to my little blog. This is wonderful information, which I shall try to absorb. I’ve always subscribed to “you get what you pay for” but you still need to know what the heck the brush is really for as well. Being vegan I buy mainly synthetic brushes and I don’t yet have a large collection. All information is appreciated. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. There is a light breeze flowing into my lounge window bringing a freshness in this morning Provencal heat. It is your post. How in the midst of all the turmoil (are we worse than other times in history), here you are agonizing about a paintbrush! How very lovely. How free. How open. Creative and dear. Thank you for being. And thank you for your support of my post. – will


  15. Pretty interesting. My daughter is still kid – just starting her painting journey. I will let her read this. But just like any other profession, tools are absolutely vital for a great work. Knowing the tools, in this case brush and paints, are a must first.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. For me, learning about brushes was the most confusing and frustrating part of my art journey. I’m only now really beginning to know and understand the differences between various types of brushes. A lot comes from experience, so encourage your daughter to try different things. πŸ™‚


  16. Thanks for weighing in on which brushes you need and your honesty about having too many. I’ve never painted with watercolors (and only one or two other times with other mediums), but I appreciate the list of basics in case I feel that I can do this. After all, Grandma Moses was 80 when she started, wasn’t she?
    Thanks, too, for following our travel blog, Oh, the Places We See. I’m happy you want to travel virtually with us!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Virtual travel is the only way to go LOL. I love learning and exploring new places, but I don’t enjoy the actual travel experience. Staying home and “traveling along” with others makes me very, very happy.

      Liked by 1 person

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