Brushes for the watercolour artist - a guide by Tony Paul

1. Round
The main workhorse brush of the watercolourist, available in a good range of sizes from No. 2/0 to 20, with a round metal ferrule and usually a head that swells slightly from the ferrule before tapering to a fine point. They hold a good amount of colour and will deliver anything from broad to pencil-thin strokes.

2. Filbert or cat’s tongue
These have flattened ferrules and the hair is aligned to provide a rounded, rather than a square-shaped end. The rounded, or sometimes pointed, tip allows small touches of detail to be applied. This type is more often used in oil and acrylic painting. Filberts are available in a good range of sizes.

3. Flats also long flats, short flats or brights
Flat brushes are made in a variety of widths from No. 00 to around 1¼in. (3cm) with a flattened round ferrule and handle. Beyond this width they are bound on to a beaver tail flat handle. Long flats have longer hair, they are softer in use and hold more colour, but may lose their shape earlier. Short flats, or brights, have shorter heads, giving a stiffer brushstroke that will hold less colour, but they keep their shape well.

4. Angle or chisel
This type of brush is made in a similar way to flat brushes, but the hair is aligned to give an angle. Originally made for signwriters, they are favoured by some watercolourists.

5. Fan
Initially made as a blending brush for use with oils, it has been hi-jacked by the watercolourist to create tree and foliage effects. The end of the ferrule has been flattened and shaped to fan the hair out, giving a thin, even crescent of hair, which when wetted clots into several mini brushes.

6. Sword or dagger
An extreme version of the angle brush (No. 4, left). Usually made in softer hair, the taper can be quite extreme. The watercolourist enjoys the paint holding capacity for big, free washes with the fine tip for detail. Made in limited sizes.

7. Mop
The mop brush was taken up by the watercolourist simply because it holds prodigious amounts of colour and has a fine point. The head is fixed to the handle with polythene (originally quill) bound with brass wire. Polythene is used, because it doesn’t harden with age. The standard mop head is of squirrel hair, but, nowadays, versions with synthetic or sable heads are available. I like squirrel mops in the larger sizes for creating big washes, but smaller sizes are limp and unresponsive. The brushes are made in a moderate range of sizes.

8. Rigger
This round long-haired small brush was designed for the marine artist to paint a line of rigging in one stroke. It is still useful for this and for other fine work, having a longer paint reservoir than the standard small round brush. The brushes are made in a limited range of sizes with sable or synthetic heads.

9. Spotter is made for photo-retouching and miniature painting, with sable or synthetic heads. Whereas most brushes are engineered to hold as much paint as possible, the miniaturist needs only tiny amounts of colour, but a very fine point on the brush. The head of a spotter is short, but with enough of a reservoir to give a controlled flow to the point. Spotter brushes are made in a limited range of small sizes.

10. Hake
A hake is an inexpensive flat brush. Its goat hair head is stitched in the oriental way into a split wooden handle. This kind of brush was popular in the 1980s.

Which are best - sable or synthetic brushes?

Sable brushes are the first choice for most watercolourists. Sables have excellent paint-holding qualities as well as all the other characteristics required of a good brush.

The paint-holding capacity is very important, because when you apply a wash you want to be able to work quickly and if possible cover the whole area in one sweep. The more often you have to stop and reload a brush, the more likely it is that the paint will dry and so leave hard edges within the overall area of colour.

The finest brushes are made from Kolinsky sable. Less expensive types include red sable or pure sable, which are also lovely brushes to use.

Providing they are properly looked after, quality brushes always prove the best investment, not only economically but also because of the more sensitive way of working that they allow.

However, the extensive choice of combination brushes (those made from a mixture of natural and synthetic hair) offers a reasonable alternative if you are looking for a less expensive option or brushes that are not made entirely from animal hair.
Obviously, with these brushes you have to accept that they are not quite as durable or expressive as sable.

How do I choose watercolour brushes?

It is better to buy just a few good quality brushes than a large selection of inferior ones. Before you decide to buy a brush, check the following points:
  • Examine the three main parts: the belly (hairs); the ferrule (metal band that joins the hairs to the handle); and the handle. Note how well these have been put together.
  • Avoid any brushes that do not have a seamless ferrule, because a joined or seamed ferrule is likely to rust and allow water to dissolve the glue that binds the hairs to the handle.
  • Hold the brush and see how it feels. Is the size and shape right for you? Perhaps the handle is too fat or too long. Find a brush that inspires confidence!
  • Give new brushes a rinse in lukewarm water to free up the hairs. It is quite usual for new brushes to shed a few hairs to begin with.

How do I look after my watercolour brushes?

  • When painting, check that brushes are not left resting on their bristles in water for any lengthy period of time, as this can damage both the hairs and the handles.
  • After use, always rinse your brushes thoroughly in plenty of clean water. Dry them with some tissue paper and reshape the tip between finger and thumb.
  • Store your brushes flat in a tray or drawer, or place them upright in a jar, handle first.
  • Mediums, such as masking fluid, can be very damaging to brushes, so avoid using your best brushes for this purpose. Choose an old brush for applying masking fluid and first coat it with liquid soap to protect the hairs. Afterwards, rinse the brush in warm water.

How do I hold a watercolour brush?

For applying broad, expressive washes of colour, hold the brush well up the handle. This enables a freer, sweeping action with the brush.

When more control is required, for blocking in shapes or applying more confined colour washes, hold the brush just above the ferrule and use a dragged stroke (left to right, if you are right-handed, or right to left, if you are left-handed).

For really delicate lines and marks, hold the brush quite near the tip, just allowing the point of the hairs to touch the paper.