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How to Choose a Brush for Watercolor Painting

April 21, 2012 | Comments: 0 | Views: 168

Big or Small Paintings?

A good question to begin is whether you need a brush for small works or for large paintings. This may come as a surprise to you; it did to me. I've always painted rather small. About 11x15-inches at the largest, hence I have accumulated an outfit consonant with that: small Kolinsky round brushes (number 8 through number 10), 1/2-inch flats, 10x14-inch paper blocks, old, recyclable photo frames from thrift stores, etc. Thus I was quite shocked to see, on those Saturday morning PBS art programs, examples of work nearly as big as a house door done with almost a housepainters' flat brush! Both size regimes are okay, but they require very different brushes. And, very large brushes differ in more than size; generally they are a lot more expensive and often made from lesser materials. Just keep this in mind as we go on; how large do you paint? Only as big as a magazine cover or sofa-size like those quirky yet colorful abstract things adorning your dentist's waiting room? If you paint smaller, I'd recommend a brush in sizes up to # 10 in round or 2/3-inch in flat or smaller. For larger painting, use larger brushes than these.

Inexpensive or Expensive Brushes?

In quality and price, watercolor brushes can range from those in a sealed bargain package of maybe five, hanging on the aisle-end at your national chain hobby store up to those boasting a royal seal of approval like, "By command, to her Majesty, the Queen". (Famously, Queen Victoria ordered from Winsor & Newton what would become her favorite size 7 in the Series 7 line of Kolinsky red sable rounds.) The former choice could serve, for a short time, at cleaning a child's boots in your mudroom. The latter might be framed proudly on your studio wall. In between you'll find a wide choice of more than just serviceable brushes, by recognized fine brands. Some of these brands are: Winsor & Newton Series 7, Isabey, Rafael, Arches, Escoda, Pro Arte and others. Lesser, yet still quite serviceable lines include: Winsor & Newton Series 666, Princeton and Grumbacher. I recommend buying a good brand. Avoid those bargain packages of several; they'll perform so badly in practice and durability that you will be very discouraged. I have some of each brand mentioned and enjoy each brush. And yes, I have purchased cheapo brushes in the past... and had to throw them out.

Indoor (studio) or Outdoor (plein aire) Painting?

Another decision point in selecting a watercolor painting brush is whether the brush will be used primarily indoors or mostly outside. An indoor or studio brush will certainly work outdoors and vice versa, however each crossover use then involves an unnecessary compromise. A studio brush looks just like what you think a brush looks like; a short thin handle of lacquered wood holding a polished metal cylinder at the end, the ferrule. Inserted into the ferrule is a tight bouquet of hairs, the tuft of the brush.

Obviously, this leaves the brush exposed to mechanical damage unless the brush is handled with great care. And, great care can be lacking when one is out and about, moving here and there through brush and trees, looking for a better viewpoint, running from a cow or fleeing a cloud of angry wasps. Or, simply stumbling onto your backside with a clutch of nice brushes jammed into the back pocket of your jeans. I've done just that. For this problem, the pocket or folding brush was invented. The most common pocket brush design resembles the old-fashioned fountain pen. When not in use, the tender parts of the brush, ferrule and tuft, nest safely inside a protective metal tube. When in use, the protective tube is removed and then slipped onto the end of the stubby handle, thus greatly extending it for comfortable use. A caveat is, these pocket brushes are rather small, few exceeding the working size of the average # 8 round studio brush. Another caveat is that I've seen them commonly only in rounds (see section on shapes of tufts), liners, and mops, rarely in flats. And, I've never laid eyes on what a "folding brush" might be, other than an odd name for this pocket design. Perhaps like a folding knife?

As said, a pocket brush bought for outdoor use can be used indoors and vice versa. Still, the need for sufficient outdoor protection remains for studio-style brushes. A brush "roll-up" can supply that safety. The best roll-ups look like those dining table placemats of thin bamboo rods tied flat side-by-side. Studio style brushes up to a fairly large size are simply rolled inside. The open structure provides needed ventilation allowing your brushes to air-dry while still fully protected.

Still, after all is said, if your painting is strictly indoors, don't pay extra, in the same size, for the pocket brush's unneeded extra protection. And, if your brushes always are going to be used outdoors, don't fiddle with roll-ups, buy the pocket designs for convenience.

Shape of the Hairs Tuft

As said, a watercolor brush is composed of three major parts; the handle, the ferrule and the tuft or head of hairs. The shape of the ferrule depends upon the desired shape of the tuft. A round cylindrical metal ferrule holds a round tuft, a cylindrical wad of hair rising in a cone shape to a nice point, a "round". A "liner" and a "rigger" are simply leaner, longer versions of a round, intended to make lines, or in case of extreme lines like a sailing ship's rigging, a rigger brush. A ferrule that, after arising from a cylinder around the handle, then morphs to an oblong, almost line opening, holds the tuft hairs in a broadened plane shape called a flat (or a wash), much like an ordinary housepainter's brush. A mop can arise from either the round type or the flat type of ferrule end. A mop is exactly what your mind's eye conjures up. It's a big floppy mass of hairs, Maybe, round in shape or maybe more fanned out into a flatter shape. But, unlike a rock star's mop of hair, a watercolor mop is neat and well organized to a purpose... like mopping something.

Again, anticipating whether your paintings will be small or large, greatly influences your choice of tuft style. Generally, painting small can be easily done with rounds and pointed, cylindrical mops. Covering the much larger area of a big painting is facilitated by use of very large mops, flats and hakes (A large flat from Japan).

In what should be a consolation; practiced watercolorists seem to be able to accomplish anything they desire with about any design or brush. That is, users of either rounds or flats or even mops seem to be able to accomplish lovely, even washes, sharp little details, whatever, regardless of the brush design they prefer. Buy the design of brush that appeals to you, as long as the size is appropriate.

Natural or Synthetic Tuft Hairs?

Another brush decision, with considerable financial impact, is the kind of hair in the tuft. Considered by most to be the best for rounds and flats are tufts of red sable, especially those of Siberia's Kolinsky valley. (From only the tails, of only the males, only in winter, of only the Kolinsky valley sables.) I'd bet that the best red sable from other regions is about as good. What is sable? It's the mink, that tiny predacious mammal, a kind of weasel. In fact, many of the better, albeit more obscure kinds of tuft fur are from various members of the weasel family. (Badger and polecat for example.) So, Kolinsky red sable is excellent, if you can afford it. Plain "red sable' works great too. Sometimes sable is mixed with a synthetic fiber hair so as to combine the better qualities of each. The natural sable fur provides a thirsty ability to hold a lot of paint. Another great fur from Siberia is blue squirrel. Squirrel fur has an enormous belly (an ability to hold water) but is more lank than sable fur. Thus, use of squirrel is reserved for making the slacker tufts of excellent mops.

In sum, if you can afford it, buy a natural sable or squirrel brush or at least a mixture of a natural hair and a synthetic. Completely avoid brushes with a confused tuft head made of wiry black plastic, looking more like that tired fringe lining a worn-out vacuum cleaner nozzle. That's not a brush!

Workman-like or a Work of Art?

A final choice to make is a summation of the previous alternatives mentioned above: do you select a watercolor painting brush that is completely competent but less than the very best obtainable? For example, I have a mop hand-made in Brittany from Kolinsky sable. The ferrule is a real quill from a "sea bird" feather and tightly wound with gold wire. Sure, I've used it at times, but I leave it at home when I paint outdoors.

About those Snap Tests, a Final Word

Before this closes, a final disclosure about an often-suggested test to differentiate a good watercolor brush from a lemon. Interestingly, a wetted and excellent sable round will recover to a good point if given a vigorous snap from the wrist. Wet the brush, hold it up and snap it sharply as if to shake off an accidental fly sitting atop. A fine sable will indeed recover to a good shape with a sharp point. If not, it's defective. However, a brand new brush comes with the hair tuft glued solid with soluble starch or the like to present a proper shape. Most stores would not allow this wetting and snapping business!

Author Peter McReynolds maintains a website called Speaking of Art ( an online art resource about art, art history and how to watercolor paint, oil paint and paint with pastels. The website weaves together watercolor techniques and storylines of esoteric and obscure facts about art, art supplies (watercolor brushes), art books and artists, music, etc. in order to entertain and educate readers. The author also tweets watercolor tips @speaking_of_art.

Source: EzineArticles
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