Watercolor 101: Everything You Need to Know about Brushes
Hi! Welcome to the very first post in my watercolor 101 series.
In this series, I’m planning to explain a lot of things that could be confusing for people wanting to enter the awesome world of watercolor painting.
I know a lot of these topics were really confusing for me at first, so I hope that they can be helpful to you in your journey!
So, today we’re going to start with brushes!
What Are Watercolor Brushes?
You would think that a brush is a brush, but that's not quite true. There are a ton of different types of brushes, and it can be really confusing staring at walls of them in an art store.
So first of all, let’s make sure that you’re looking at the correct type of brushes to begin with.
Watercolor brushes are different from oil and acrylic brushes because they are shorter.
It’s because oil and acrylic painters tend to work standing up on an easel, fairly far away from their canvas. So they need a long handle to paint easily.
On the other hand, watercolor painters tend to work fairly close to their paper, and often work horizontally. So a short handle is much more convenient for them.
Of course, you can technically use oil and acrylic brushes for watercolor painting, but it's probably not the best idea.
I’ll be talking more about materials at another time, but here's the important difference between the materials used for watercolor brushes and other types of brushes.
Watercolor brushes are generally made with softer materials. That's because painting with many layers requires a very gentle touch.
You will generally see watercolor brushes made out of things like soft synthetic materials (often called Toray) and natural sable or squirrel hair.
Oil paint brushes are made with things like hog hair and stiff synthetic materials. That's because the paint is really thick and just won't make it onto the canvas otherwise.
Don't use these! They'll just eat up your paper!
Parts of the Brush
Okay, now you're looking at watercolor brushes instead of oil or acrylic brushes. Let's take a closer look at how brushes are actually put together.
We'll start at the bottom because that's the easiest part.
This is the part that you'll hold in your hand. Most watercolor brushes have handles that are either made out of wood or plastic.
Nicer brushes tend to be lacquered and have ergonomic curves that bulge out where your fingers would hold them so that you don't need to grip tightly. They are also well balanced so that they are easy to hold in your hand. Cheaper ones tend to be straight, and have lacquer that easily chips or no lacquer at all.
The handle is also where you’ll probably find information like the size of the brush, the brand, the material, where it was made, and the model of the brush.
Well, there's a funny word.
The ferrule is in many ways the most important part of the brush. The bristles are obviously pretty important too, but everything falls apart (literally) without the ferrule.
So this is what connects the bristles to the handle. It's almost always a long piece of metal. In some special cases, this part might be made out of plastic or natural bird quills, but that's pretty uncommon.
A quick tip about the ferrule: make sure not to get any paint in there. That's a surefire way to ruin your brushes. The paint dries in the feral and then makes the bristles spread out, ruining the brush shape. Don't do it!
This is where the bristles of the brush enter into the ferrule.
On the bottom of the ferrule, is the crimp. This is the little indentation that you see on the metal, and it serves to secure the metal onto the wood of the brush.
When you’re buying a paintbrush, make sure that the crimp is well done. If it is not, Then your ferrule might just pop off of your paintbrush!
Now this is the exciting part, the head of your brush!
Regardless of what material it is made out of, or what shape it is, this part of the brush is called the head.
It has two important parts: the belly and the tip.
The belly of the brush is the widest part of its bristles. This is what will determine how much water and how much pigment it can carry.
A brush with a bigger belly will carry more water and more pigment than a brush with a smaller one. So, even though liner brushes are great for doing detail, because they are so thin they cannot carry very much water or pigment.
Some might consider this the most important part of the head of your brush. It is also the area where cheap brushes and higher quality brushes differ the most.
What you want here are for the bristles to taper to a very fine edge. In the case of round brushes, you want a super sharp tip that can make very tiny lines.
Poor quality brushes have tips that don't taper into a fine line, and make it difficult for you to control the shapes exactly the way that you want them to.
Now you know your way around the brush. You can tell your ferrule from your toe, and you won't get fooled by flimsy crimps. But you've probably noticed that even if all of the other parts of brushes are the same, there is a huge amount of variability in the brush head.
Let’s explore the different types of brushes.
I'm starting here because this is the most basic and important brush for watercolor painting. You can have a collection of just rounds, and you'll be able to paint anything. Seriously. Anything.
Rounds are called rounds because their ferrules are, well, round.
They are generally narrower at the heel and the tip, and fuller at the belly. A very good quality round will have such a sharp tip that you can make fairly thick and thin lines with the same brush. That's great because then you don't have to switch between brushes in the middle of a painting.
You can use rounds for making all kinds of lines and shapes. Some (including me) would consider them to be the most versatile of all the brushes.
I love my rounds.
This is probably the other most common type of brush.
They are called flats because their ferrules and bristles are flat.
Flats are really great for making straight lines, like when you are painting buildings or other architectural details. Large flats are also good for putting down big washes of water or color.
I’ll be honest and say that I don’t really use these, since I mostly paint pretty organic subjects.
A bright is basically like a flat, except wider and shorter.
Why would you want a wider and shorter flat, you ask? It's because it gives you a bit more control and is generally a bit stiffer than a regular flat.
This is not a very common brush for watercolor painting, but it makes a great stiff scrubber to erase mistakes by lifting the pigment.
A filbert is kind of like the love child of a round brush and a flat brush. The ferrule is squished flat, just like a flat brush, but the tip is rounded, just like a round brush.
This is also a very versatile brush. It can be used to paint round objects as well as angular objects with ease. It just depends on how you hold the brush to make the stroke.
Pretty cool, right?
These are pretty uncommon, but I thought I'd mention them because they look pretty cool!
Cat tongues are basically filberts where the end comes to a sharp tip instead of a rounded arc. This means you can fill in large spaces, just like with a regular filbert, but you can also make tiny thin lines, like with a high quality round brush. Some people paint with only this brush.
These brushes are for when you want something a little extra.
Specialty brushes are not really basic brushes, and are not really necessary. However, they can sometimes be really useful for a very specific effect. Also, they sometimes do their job much better than a regular brush would.
So if round brushes are called rounds because they are round, and flats are called flats because they are flat, an angled brush is called an angled brush because… it's angled!
These types of brushes are also good for architectural details. Angled brushes give you a bit more control in making lines, so it might be easier to make a straight line with one instead of a flat or a liner brush.
Swords and Daggers
These are my favorite types of angled brushes, but also fairly uncommon. They look kind of weird, just like a sword or dagger.
What’s the point of them?
You can use them to make straight lines with more control. They also hold more water and pigment than a liner brush, since they have a fuller belly. You can also use them to make more expressive, calligraphy lines because they are not as wide and thick as a flat brush.
The tiny tips can also be used to make fine lines like grass or even eyelashes very easily. Swords and daggers also make painting tree branches a breeze.
Can you tell that I like them just a little bit?
Another specialty brush that I love is the mop.
You might be looking at this and wondering what is the difference between a mop and a round? Not a ton. Mops just generally tend to have a bigger belly and don't have to have a sharp tip.
The point of the mop is to get a ton of water on your page quickly and efficiently, just like a mop.
A beginner probably doesn't need one, although it makes life a lot easier. You can just use a large brush for the same purpose. However, if you're like me and you hate dipping into your water glass over and over again just to went down a piece of paper, you will love a mop.
Quill Mops / Petit Gris
These are just mops that don't have regular metal ferrules, but instead have a quill connecting them to their handles.
This style of mop has become very popular for painting expressively, and I use them for very loose painting and sketches.
Plus, they are also just cool to look at.
Riggers, also called liners, are thin brushes with extremely long bristles.
These are definitely not for regular painting. They are used to make expressive lines, like when you're painting grass or trees.
Decorative painters often use them for super long, uniform, steady lines.
Be warned, because they’re so long, liners can be difficult to control at first. However, they are a useful tool if you often paint foliage, or other things requiring long thin lines.
You probably get the theme of why brushes have their names by now. So yeah, this brush is shaped like a fan.
This is the brush that confused me the most In the beginning. What in the world could that be for?
Fans could be considered "special effects" brushes. You don't really use them to put paint on the paper, but instead to move paint around once it's already been put down.
You can use them for painting a ton of grass at once. They can also be used to paint fur. Depending on how the brushes angled, the fan brush could even be used to paint certain types of trees.
Now You Know All about Brushes!
I hope that was helpful in understanding the basics about paintbrushes, particularly watercolor brushes.
Next time I will talk a bit more about the materials that brushes are made out of and what properties they have.
Do you have any other questions about watercolors or paintbrushes? Is there anything that you want explained in my watercolor 101 series? Let me know below!
Need a cheatsheet? I've got one for you below!