I own and use only a handful of watercolor brushes, and one brush I can't do without is a rigger brush. I highly recommend adding a one of these multipurpose brushes to your collection, especially if you enjoy nature sketching. When it comes to painting grasses, tree branches, animal fur, flower stems and even some leaf shapes, I’ve not found a brush that works better.
The name “rigger” supposedly came from the brush’s original purpose; its narrow shape was created as a specialty brush to paint the rigging lines on sailing vessels and ships. Since then, artists have used it for a myriad of purposes.
Because of a rigger’s precise line application, these brushes can also be used to produce a pretty script. In fact, many manufacturers call these brushes “script” or “liner” brushes. Since there are no industry standards regarding brush names, sizes, and shapes, any long and narrow bristled brush can be used as a rigger.
Below are some tips for choosing and using a rigger brush for watercolor.
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Choosing a Rigger Brush
Some painters like the performance and cost of synthetic hair brushes, but when it comes to purchasing a rigger brush, I recommend splurging for a natural hair bristle.
Because a rigger typically lacks a large belly, it doesn't hold a lot of pigment. Since synthetic brushes have a harder time holding onto watercolor pigment, a synthetic rigger has a greater tendency to dump its load and produce a lumpy, watery line. Natural bristles will hold more pigment and be more consistent with release. This will allow you to produce a smooth, uniform line.
I own two rigger brushes, an Isabey Series 6222 sable rigger in a slim size 3 that stays at my desk, and a Rosemary R5 sable travel/pocket rigger in a size 6. (You can read my full review of the Rosemary at the link. Unfortunately, it has not performed well for me, but I love love love this Isabey!)
A word of wisdom.... Be sure to choose a brush size that will work for what you will be painting. Though the Rosemary brush is lovely, the size 6 is a bit too large for painting in a small, travel-sized sketchbook. It’s a pity, because that’s what I really needed it for. My mistake.
Using a Rigger Brush
When loading a rigger brush with watercolor pigment, be sure to load the entire length of the bristles (from tip to ferrule) and not just the tip. Even though this brush is slim, it can hold a surprisingly large amount of pigment if it’s loaded properly.
Rigger brushes can handle a bit of dry brushing, but it will produce the longest, cleanest line when the pigment is quite wet. After loading, it may help to tip it off or blot the ferrule end of the bristles on a sponge or towel before painting. This will remove any excess water but leave the pigment behind. I constantly do this with all my brushes when painting, but a rigger’s flow is especially aided by this.
I tend to be a pusher when I paint, but a rigger works best when pulled across the paper. Pressing lightly while pulling across the page will produce a line with a consistent width— perfect for most flower stems and rigging lines. Lifting upward while pulling across the paper will produce a line that is thickest at the onset and tapers to a nice point— perfect for tree branches and grasses.
When using a rigger brush, I tend to turn my paper to allow me to pull the paint in the direction I need. Many times, I will paint grasses or tree branches with my paper upside down!
Below are a few samples of some quick watercolor doodles made solely with a rigger brush. It really does lend itself to wide variety of shapes and marks.
Watercoloring with a Rigger Brush
Below are a few more samples of watercolors where a rigger brush was heavily used. It works especially well with coastal and marsh grasses and palm tree fronds, and it makes animal fur seemingly come alive. I also used a rigger to paint the bamboo in the panda sketch featured at the end of my post here. (Just click on the photos to enlarge.)