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.
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!