Choosing a watercolor brush from a catalog or store shelf can feel as if you're trying to make an accurate shot in the dark. After all, the only real way to know how well a brush performs is to use it.
However, you need not enter an art store unarmed. Understanding a few things about watercolor brushes can greatly aid the decision-making process.
Below are 5 tips that can help you choose a proper watercolor brush... or at least look and sound like you belong on the shooting range.
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1. Know the lingo.
When artists talk about watercolor brushes, there are some terms you are going to hear over and over again. Though it often sounds like a secret, cult language, it’s not. Here’s what it all means.
Capacity: This is how much water and/or pigment a brush can hold. This depends on the bristle material and belly size. For example, a rigger brush which has a naturally thin profile will have much less capacity than a size 10 round.
Point: How well the brush comes to a crisp point when wet and holds that point during use. Many beginners freak out when their expensive, natural hair brush dries and then splays like an old toothbrush. This is completely normal with natural bristles (not synthetics!) and should correct itself after a few dips into water. If it doesn’t, it's probably a sign that something's wrong.
Snap: The amount of snap a brush has is determined by how quickly, or if at all, the bristles snap back into parallel with the handle after they are bent at an angle. Some brush fibers, like squirrel or goat, will have very little snap. Some fibers, like hog hair or Taklon, have a lot. Whether or not you prefer a snappy brush for watercolor depends on personal painting style and preferred techniques.
Spring: Spring refers to how well the belly of the brush controls itself on the page. Spring differs from snap in that a brush can have very little snap, but a quality brush should always have spring. For example, mop brushes are created to be pulled around the page and typically have little snap, but they do have spring— at least the good ones do. Lack of spring can cause a brush to splay when it hits the surface instead of maintaining its shape or edge, and too much spring can cause a brush to constantly dump its pigment or water load.
Flow/Release: This is the rate that the color flows from the tip of the brush and is released upon the page. A high quality brush will have an even, consistent flow rate which results in a steady release onto the paper. Natural hair bristles are known for being masters at this because the cellular structure of the hair’s surface gives aid to this attribute.
Dump: This is what happens when a brush releases its entire pigment load at once. Usually not a pleasant thing and results in blotchy paintings and extremely frustrated painters.
2. Think long term.
Many beginners start with cheap brushes and plan to upgrade later. (Speaking from personal experience here.) The problem with this is that, one, you have to paint with an inferior brush, making the best beginning efforts even more of a struggle. Two, you’ve spent your hard-earned dollars on something that is temporary and will cause you to spend even more money in the future.
In the financial world, this wouldn’t be a wise investment.
When purchasing art tools, consider quality instead of quantity, and really take your time to make sure what you are purchasing is right for you. However, don’t assume that the most expensive materials are always going to work the best for your painting style. (In fact, I love these über affordable brushes!) More on this below.
3. Go big.
A common rookie mistake is buying brushes that are too small. Yep, I did it also, but I’ve since learned that a quality large brush with a good point is much more versatile and useful. It can handle everything from large washes to fine details, or at least fine enough for everyday watercolor painting.
It’s not true that if you paint small, you need small brushes. I rarely paint any larger than 5x7 inches, and my favorite brush is a size 10 or 12 round. I can easily execute a business card sized painting with this one brush.
Unless you are into extremely detailed illustrations on smooth papers, you’ll probably rarely use anything smaller than a size 4 pointed round.
4. Opt out of the “natural vs synthetic” battle.
There are advantages and disadvantages with each brush that should be considered far beyond the issue of natural versus synthetic. Even within these two categories, there are broad characteristics. A lot of what suits you depends on how you paint as well as the arrangement and shape of the bristles.
However, in regards to natural and synthetic bristles, there are some things to consider.
Synthetic bristles are typically the most affordable of the two (often by a long shot), and they have other advantages. Synthetics tend to keep their full spring and snap even when wet, and if shaped properly, they can be superior at holding a point. However, their fibers lack the scale layers that natural hair has, so they struggle to grab and hold onto a large charge of paint resulting in a tendency to dump their pigment load onto a page. And even with the best of care, synthetics have a limited lifespan. From production to disposal, I think these are the least earth-friendly option. (You can read more about that here.)
Natural bristles can be quite expensive, but with proper care, they can last a lifetime or longer. Plus, natural hairs have innate characteristics that (so far) can’t be duplicated. Each filament has an outer casing (cuticle) that’s covered in scales plus an interior hollow tube (medulla) that allows the hair to absorb a great deal of moisture and provide an even, steady release. However, there are a wide range of characteristics between brands and hairs. Each species of hair has a different shingle pattern that offers unique characteristics in picking up and depositing paint, so it may take some time to find a natural hair brush that suits you.
When it comes to choosing a brush, it helps to be openminded. If you prefer natural hair for painting, I think it’s still worthwhile to keep a few synthetics on hand for scrubbing, lifting, and mixing. If it's against your conscience to purchase something that contains animal products, go into it knowing that nothing can replicate natural hair, but do what your heart deems best.
5. Ignore price.
Okay I know that unless you’re extremely wealthy, no one can really ignore price. However, when choosing a watercolor brush, price shouldn’t be the top, decision-making factor. A $200 brush won’t make you a better painter. (Dang it.) Practice and effort will always trump fancy tools.
Also, price doesn't always reflect quality or how well a brush works in your hand. Instead, it’s usually a more accurate picture of materials used and the country of production. Just like in any retail situation, you’ll pray a premium for certain brand names. Import fees can also tack on a pretty penny but don’t increase the quality of a brush one whit.
The fact of the matter is that some brushes just won’t work for you, even if they cost $200. However, you probably won't find a decent watercolor brush in the craft aisle at Walmart. Your favorite choice of brush will depend a lot on how you paint, not on how much (or little) you paid for it.