Your brushes are your second most important tool in watercolor painting, next to your paper. But since your watercolor brush lasts hundreds of paintings and your paper only lasts one painting, it's worth investing in a good brush that suits your painting style.
While you can paint good paintings with a bad brush, it's much harder to paint well. So don't bother with bad brushes. They usually don't last long and are frustrating while they're around. On the other hand, the most expensive brush is not necessarily the best brush for you.
Brushes don't last forever, just a very long time when treated well. They are tools meant to be used. From medium price range up (-20), cost is not necessarily an indicator of quality. (For really cheap brushes, low price usually means low quality.) Lots of house brands are made by very well known manufacturers. And well known manufacturers outsource some lines, so never pay just for a name.
Most artists keep a few ratty brushes around, well past when you'd think they would be good for anything. Sometimes a blown out brush is perfect for tree texture or a stub of a brush is perfect for pulling out highlights. You never know until you find the perfect tool to achieve what you want.
A good brush will last hundreds of paintings. Brushes are disposable, though. They have only so many paintings in them before they simply can't achieve the tiny lines you want. When they get to that point, either repurpose them or throw them away. There is no point in frustrating yourself.
Once you've reached a certain level in brushes, it's more about the artist's skill than the quality of the brush. A good brush makes watercolor painting easier and more fun. It's not a magic wand!
The handle should be made of solid hardwood, such as beech.
It should feel good in your hand. It shouldn't be weighted unevenly where it flops or you have to hold it at the ferrule. You want it to feel like an extension of your hand. You're going to be holding it for hours!
Not all brushes are comfortable for all artists.
|Ferrule||The ferrule is the metal part of the brush.
It should be smooth, with no gaps for water to leech in and rot the handle. Seamless is best.
It should be double or triple clamped evenly. This makes for a solid seal.
Most Asian brushes are attached directly to their handle with no ferrule.
|Heel||Brush hairs are clamped in the heel. You don't want to see gobs of glue here. That means it hasn't been well made.
|Hair or Tuft||
The hair should lie sleek, with no stray hairs flying out.
The type of hair changes the brush completely. The shape, stiffness and water retention of the hair type makes the brush. Types of hair and properties are explained below.
You only see about half the hair. The other half is in the ferrule for a firm hold. The tight clamp of the ferrule holds the hair in the brush, not glue, which would break down with the rough treatment we artists give brushes.
The hair on a good brush is shaped into place, not trimmed. Brush making is very much a fine craft, with years of experience used in making the best brushes.
|Belly||The belly of the brush holds your water reservoir.
How much water stays in the brush changes the type of stroke and how long you can paint for. How it distrubutes the water changes how the stroke looks. Is it going to let all the water go at once or in a steady stream?
|Tip||The part you actually paint with!
This is the only part that touches the paper. It must come to the type of point / edge you want.
Different types of brushes are weighted for different strokes. The handle shape and material, brush hair and length, ferrule weight and size can all change the balance point of the brush. A brush for tiny delicate strokes will naturally be held close to the brush hairs, near the ferrule. A rigger or liner brush should be held near the tip of the handle for long smooth strokes. As a general rule, the bigger and longer the strokes the brush is designed for, the further from the hair your hand should be.
My ideal basic round brush's balance point will be a bit past the ferrule, where the handle will naturally bulge slightly to enhance your grip. A minature artist would have a completely different balance point preference.
Knowing how you like your brushes balanced means you can choose the best brush to suit YOUR painting style.
Frankly, if you find a big brush (such as the #14 Ox Hair Scholastic in my video lesson) weighted heavily toward the tip, it's not going to be a great brush. It's going to feel heavy and clunky in your hand.
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Different Brush Hairs
Different brush hairs lead to vastly different effects.
Let's start off with the fact that cold climates lead to longer haired animals whose hairs are best for watercolor brushes. That's why so many excellent brush hairs are sourced from Siberia.
Snap refers to filling a brush with water and flicking the water off sharply. The brush should snap to a sharp point if it's supposed to have a sharp point.
Spring means how flexible the brush is at different strokes.
Can you paint a zigzag and have the brush move with your hand smoothly? Or does it obstinately remain in the shape it started at?
Different brush hairs have different amounts of spring and snap.
My recommendations for brushes? Don't buy very expensive brushes until you have been painting awhile. Your style may change. For example, I never use flats so an expensive flat would be wasted.
Start with a very few good quality basic synthetics and once you know the shapes and sizes you like, then buy your dream brushes.
I used primarily synthetics for years. A good synthetic will not hold you back in painting.
Lately I've been enjoying mixing in some natural hairs, especially squirrel because of the huge amount of water it holds.
Always keep in mind that brushes do wear out eventually. When a pointed brush no longer comes to a sharp point, it's worn out. They last a lot longer with good care. Always rinse your brushes completely free of pigment after a painting session. Never let your brushes soak in the rinse water. That's a quick way to rot the wood and brush hairs.
I hope this article gives you some ideas about what the best watercolor brush for you is. Happy Painting!