Watercolor brushes can cause a lot of grief for beginning painters. After all, one can paint with inferior paints (sort of), and most student-grade papers will do (at least for a while), but when it comes to watercolor painting, one thing that absolutely won’t work is a bad brush.
And how to choose? The selection of watercolor brushes is enormous! Synthetic vs natural vs size vs shape… the list seems to go on forever.
Whether you are a newbie painter or a lifelong watercolorist, these 5 facts about watercolor brushes may help cut through some of the clutter and confusion. So just in case you didn’t know…
1. There's no standard for brush sizes and/or names.
The label “number 6 round” really means nothing. Okay, usually it means the brush is round instead of flat, but there are also other names like fan, blender, rigger, stippler, filbert, liner, bright, dagger, quill, mop… and even names like cat’s tongue, rotary tree, lizard’s lick, and more. A manufacturer can name a brush anything!
Size labelings also vary and have no universal measurements. For example, one manufacturer may label a brush “Size 10” while another brand’s brush labeled “Size 8” is actually larger. To accurately compare brushes, go by shape (how it looks, nothing more), ferrule circumference, and bristle hair length. Most distributors and manufacturers list these measurements in millimeters.
2. Synthetics aren’t necessarily “cruelty free.”
Before we dive into this hot topic, please know that I will always encourage you to follow your conscience, and I respect all opinions on this subject. However, it’s extremely important to research both sides of any story before forming an opinion.
Synthetic brushes are far from eco-friendly. Basically, their filaments are comprised of polymers similar to plastics. (DuPont, a massive and highly controversial chemical company, has invented many of the processes and ingredients used in synthetic brushes including Taklon.) Production of these brushes requires major amounts of energy and petrochemicals, which results in considerable amounts of toxic byproducts and waste.
Also, synthetic bristles won’t last nearly as long as natural bristles, which results in more waste. So nothing about this process, from production to disposal, is kind to the earth— which includes all its inhabitants— so I would never consider synthetic brushes “cruelty free.”
Please don’t misunderstand. I keep both natural and synthetic bristled brushes in my supply stash. However, I purchase both types with care and thought involved, I purchase very little, and I take care of what I do purchase so it will last. I only share this information to urge you to consider all aspects of a situation before you jump into a picket line, or worse, trash your sables to buy synthetics.
3. Even the cheapest brush is worth proper care.
In our flawed human minds, the more we pay for something, the more we tend to care for and value it. No matter what you paid for a brush, it will always, always last longer when treated well. (I hope to get many more years of use from both brushes in the photo.)
Besides, it’s irresponsible to trash a brush just because it’s cheap. Not only does this throw money down the drain (that those in less fortunate circumstances would be thankful to have) but the use-and-discard mentality also trashes our earth.
Are there situations that call for a junky brush? You betcha. And I’ll quickly admit that not every brush is worth saving. However, I think it’s best to invest money in quality products whenever possible and then also invest the time to learn proper brush technique, care, and maintenance. This article shares tips on how to keep your watercolor brushes happy.
4. You can get a dud.
It’s rare, but it happens. Occasionally, something goes wrong with the materials or in manufacturing that results in a flawed brush. If you have trouble with shedding, bristles splaying, or a brush that won’t maintain it’s edge or point, you may have gotten a bad brush.
Granted, some brushes are bad across the board, but quality control issues do arise, and it's not always easy to recognize the one lemon in a long line of cream puffs... at least until you use it.
Always check return policies before you purchase, and if all else fails, reach out to the manufacturer. (Here are some sellers that I trust.) Most brush companies readily stand behind their products and will work with you if there is a quality issue.
5. Less is more.
When I first began painting, I listened to a lot of advice and made a long list of brushes I would need. Thankfully, I never got around to purchasing most of them. And in regards to what I do have, I could easily make do with less.
When it comes to art supplies, invest money in quality, not quantity. If you are just starting out, probably two rounds— maybe something like a size 6 and 10— are really all you need. I paint entire paintings with only a size 10 round. Some artists only use a small flat.
If your brush cup is overflowing, it may be time to take a good, long look at what you really use. It will probably be less than you think.