Back with the Brushes Again

Brushes, brushes, brushes. Without a doubt, brushes are very important in painting, and I’m glad I’ve finally found my way through all the questions and confusion I once had on the topic.

When I first began painting, I began — as so many artists do — with watercolor. Later, I tried acrylics but was never happy with the medium. Finally, I picked up oil paints, and I knew I’d found my artistic home there.

Initially, though, as a fledgling artist, I naively thought that basically a brush was a brush, that any brush would work for any medium, and that there really wasn’t much difference from one brush to another. How little I knew!

Learning about brushes was definitely a trial-and-error process. Each time I read a book by a different artist, he or she recommended different brushes. Same with the online tutorials I watched. While each artist was quick to suggest his or her preferred brushes (brands, styles, bristles, and sizes) I wasn’t getting much information about how or why brushes varied so much.

After buying, trying, and ruining a lot of brushes, I finally found what works for me when it comes to oil painting. Filbert brushes — one set of bristle, one set of sable (which is actually red weasel) and I’m good to go. I’ve learned a lot about when and why to use various ones, and overall I feel much more comfortable now in oil painting.

But what about watercolor? Yikes! Going back to watercolor means going through all those old watercolor brushes again and trying to figure out what I need and why! For my watercolor doodles I’ve been using a little pack of round sable brushes I had tucked away among my art supplies. They’ve worked well so far, but as I make my way through Watercolour Painting with Aubrey Phillips it’s time to take a look again at watercolor brushes.

This is precisely where and how Phillips begins:

There is a bewildering array of brushes, paints and other materials on the market, and a beginner may feel confused when confronted with them all. — Aubrey Phillips

His advice is to “start simply with a few brushes and a small palette.” For now, I think my little sable set will do just fine. Still, I’ve done a bit of research, and I’ve learned a few interesting things about watercolor-specific brushes.

Watercolor brushes tend to have short handles compared to brushes for acrylics or oils. Why? Because artists who paint with acrylics and oils are more likely to work on an easel. We stand before our painting, and we step back as we work. We need long-handled brushes. Watercolor artists, however, often work sitting down. They’re closer to their work, and may have their paper horizontal instead of vertical. Shorter handles work well for such close-range painting.

Another difference is the type. As I’ve learned, oil brushes can have stiff bristles or softer ones. For watercolor, however, you want only soft brushes. Watercolor painting involves gently layering colors. Rough bristles would quickly destroy your art! While you can find watercolor brushes made with soft synthetics, the always-soft sable (again, usually red weasel hair) is a good choice. Synthetics tend to be more affordable though, so if price is a consideration, that’s probably your best course.

The real confusion comes when you look at the many different shapes and sizes available. There are round brushes, flat brushes, brights, filberts, mop brushes — or hakes — as well as specialty brushes with imaginative names like swords and daggers, and cat’s tongue. There are also fan brushes, riggers, and script brushes.

Do you need them all? Probably not. Especially not if, like me, you’re more interested in playing than in creating masterful art. Now, playful art can be masterful in its own way, but you get the point. If your primary purpose is to have fun, don’t stress yourself out about buying the right brushes.

A little set of round brushes, a rigger for fine lines, and — if you want to go big — a 2″ or 3″ flat brush should be enough for making messes and having a good time. That’s my recommendation, at least, but I’d love to hear suggestions from real watercolorists, so please feel free to leave comments!

Of course, you might also want to try a variety of shapes and sizes, and I found this set from Blue Squid that offers just that.

Blue Squid
This set has a bit of everything!

So, yes, indeed, there are differences between oil, acrylic, and watercolor brushes, and I’m glad I understand those differences now. I know, too, what to look for in a good watercolor brush.

  • Capacity: How much water or pigment can the brush hold?
  • Point: Does the brush come to a crisp point when wet?
  • Snap: Will the bristles “snap back” into place after they’re bent?
  • Spring: Is it easy to control the brush on the paper?
  • Flow: Does the brush release a consistent flow of pigment?

Now, I’m set to begin my creative adventures in watercolor — doodling, drawing, washing, and painting, and most of all, having lots of fun! I have my brushes. I’m armed and dangerous!



  1. Dear armed and dangerous, this is a wonderful post and I appreciate the links to your weapons of choice! You have inspired me with your doodles, and just may give this a try and see what happens!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, I hope you do a bit of doodling! I am having so much fun. Tomorrow’s post will show a few more of the little things I’m working on. Doodling this way is giving me a chance to appreciate “fun art” and to not focus on achieving specific results. It’s very freeing!

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  2. I’ve decided that a proper answer will have to come as a blog post of my own as it will be too long for here.
    It all depends on how you want to paint: a gestural painter needs different brushes than someone who does botanical art. For me brushes have only really become important in the past year or two, pigment and paper were far more important to my progress. I have a big Chinese brush, good point, holds loads of water but doesn’t dump it as synthetic brushes do, no snap which I like (it is a brush with character) and cheap (I sometimes use a hake instead). I use these to paint, not just to wet the page. Then last year I invested in a Rosemary & Co 5/8″ long handled dagger, sable blend and a 3/8″ squirrel sword (another one with lots of character). I’m mentioning the company just so that it is clear what I mean with dagger and sword. A long handle on the dagger to stop me fiddling, the sword you can’t possibly fiddle with, too much character.

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    1. Brushes can be so confusing! I’m finally figuring out what I really want and need in my brushes, at least with oil painting. Now that I’m playing with watercolor again, I feel almost like I’m back to “square one” and needing to play with lots of different brushes. I haven’t really done enough with watercolor to make good choices about what’s best for me. A lot of my artist friends encouraged me to invest in good quality watercolor brushes years ago. I did buy a few really good ones, and they did seem to help me improve, but then again, I’ve gotten good results from cheap brushes, too, so I’m inclined to think it makes more difference who’s wielding the brush than how much it cost! For my watercolor doodles, I’m not going to worry myself too much about “the right brush”. I want to just have fun with it, learn what I can, and try different things. Feel free to jump in and make suggestions any time! Your input is valuable to me.

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      1. That’s really it, unless you have some skill under your belt in using wc or oil, the brush won’t make that much difference really. Ok, cheap synthetic ones tend to dump all the water the moment they touch the paper, doesn’t help your skill building. I’d say a round one, biggish, minimum size 8, would be all you need to start, or just a Chinese brush which you probably have lying around anyway. What made me improve most is pigment and paper. Swapping to artist quality pigment and (thank you Bridget Woods) finding colours that work for me. The traditional palette of cadmiums, ultramarine, alizarin crimson and earths (umber, sienna etc) does not work for me. And then there’s paper. Yes, you can paint on anything but you have to be very clear that if you use poor quality paper that you will be learning bad skills in handling wc because of having to manage the limitations of the paper. It may feel very expensive, but it isn’t really, you tear one big sheet in 4 or 8, or smaller even, paint on both sides, compare to the cost of a cup of coffee/bottle of wine, not that expensive at all. It is as Angela Fehr says, it is NOT the case of practice makes perfect, because you can be practicing bad skills. It’s perfect practice that makes perfect.
        The most important thing to learn, and I’m still learning that, is to use water, lots of it, no, more than that, lots more than that.
        It’s only after years of practice, with proper pigments and paper that the right brush shape has become important to achieve the effects I am after.
        I do use wallpaper liner and cheap paper but that is for messing about, using up discarded colours, practicing drawing with a brush, composition etc, NOT for experimenting with colour or learning skills.
        Watercolour is a very long journey, but falling in love with watching pigments mingling on paper, it doing its own thing with me only being able to gently coax is totally addictive.

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      2. Thank you so much for this magnificent little post! It really says it all — all that I need to know, all that is truly important. I’m grateful to you for taking time to share your knowledge. I agree that for watercolor novices like me, worrying too much about or spending too much money on brushes might be counterproductive. I agree, too, that a good quality paint makes a huge difference. That was one of my recent experiments — the results of which will be posted soon. I compared paints from all the different watercolors I have, from the very, very cheap to my costly M. Graham watercolor. Yes, there is definitely a difference. As for paper, I’m content to play on newsprint right now because it IS playtime. For my bookmark projects I’m using a reasonably good watercolor paper. I do have some Arches that I’ll use when I try painting different scenes. Another experiment I did as part of my 100-day learning project, was to look at all the different pigments. How many blues do I have? Which ones do I really want or need to use? How many red? How many yellows? My next project will be doing a bit of color-mixing practice. I did this with oils before, and it helped me choose my own “personal palette”. I want to be able to do something similar with my watercolors. I know it’s easy to get carried away with information about staining level, opacity, undertones, hues, and so much more, but since my highest priority right now is having fun with my watercolors, I want to keep it simple, identify the pigments I like to work with, and come up with a few “basic mixes” for secondary colors. Simple is good for me right now. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

    1. For me, brushes were the most confusing part of learning to paint! I didn’t know which end was up, so to speak. I tried so many, had no idea what I needed or didn’t need, so it feels good now to be sorting things out and understanding the differences from one brush to the next. Thanks for visiting the blog and sharing your thoughts!


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