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Watercolor 101: How to Choose Good Brushes

Now you know all there is to know about synthetic and natural hair brushes, but I know that you have one more question for me. OK, what brushes do I get?

Well, let's figure that out.

This is a post in my Watercolor 101 series. If you haven't read the other posts in the series, check them out here:

  1. Watercolor 101: Everything You Need to Know about Brushes
  2. Watercolor 101: All About Natural Hair Brushes
  3. Watercolor 101: All About Synthetic Fiber Brushes

How Do I Decide What Brushes to Get?

Good question. That depends on a number of factors:

  • Cost: What is your budget for brushes? Remember that you still have to buy paper and paint. Is your budget unlimited? Then go all out on the top class brushes. Is your budget a bit smaller? Then look into higher quality synthetic brushes that should perform well without breaking the bank.

  • Your Style of Painting: Do you paint in many thin layers, building your painting up slowly? Then you will need very soft, precise, pointed brushes. Or do you paint in big loose strokes? Then a point is not so important to you, and you need something hold up under the pressure of your brush strokes. If you are simply planning on doing one or a few layers in a basic style, then nearly any type of brush will work for you.

  • Your Position on Animal Cruelty: This will determine whether you get natural hair brushes or synthetic fiber brushes. Do you feel uncomfortable about how the fur or hair in natural brushes is obtained ? Then they are probably not for you.

What about Sizes?

Well, this is about as fun as entering the women's fashion department. Brush sizes are not standardized. They can vary widely between brands, so you should not assume that just because two brushes bear the same number that they are the same size.

Round Brush Sizing

Round brushes used a kind of peculiar system. Smaller brushes are indicated by a number of zeros. You might see something like “00000” or “0/5,” which means that's a superduper tiny brush! “0000” or ”0/4” would be the next size larger, and then 000,00,0 until you finally reach normal numbers again.

Just for reference sizes 1 through 4 are pretty small size brushes. Sizes 6 to 10 are medium sized brushes and anything above that is going to be pretty large. A size 24 is probably going to be as large as your fist!

Flat Brush Sizing

Now this is a bit easier. It's super simple. They are just measured in inches. No surprises here.

So What Brushes and Sizes Should I Get?

As I wrote before, this is all dependent on what your painting style is, so it's very personal. However, I can make some recommendations based on the brushes that I find useful peer keep in mind that I paint on a fairly small size, normally no larger than A4, or 8.27 by 11.69 inches.

My Recommendation

  • A large brush (either a squirrel mop or a 1 inch flat) for washes.
  • One or two medium round brushes (size 6 or 8)
  • One or two small round brushes (size 4 or 2)
  • A super tiny, pointy brush or a liner/rigger

That's it! Just 4 to 6 brushes. That's not a lot of brushes, is it? But that's all the brushes you really need, and most of the time those are all of the brushes that I ever use.

What to Look for in a Watercolor Brush?

So now you're all ready to go buy a brush. But how do you know which is a good one? Well, look for all of these features.

Signs of a Good Watercolor Brush

  • All of the parts of the brush fit together properly and snugly. No parts are loose or unstable.

  • The hair or fibers are soft and springy.

  • The brush is able to hold the amount of water that you want it to. If possible, get a store assistant to let you test this out with water.

  • If it is a natural hairbrush, the hair should be stiffened with gum arabic and covered with a plastic In order to protect it from damage before purchase.

  • The fibers of the brush should not be misshapen, frayed, split, or crooked. You can't fix that later.

  • Round brushes should come to a point.

  • The lacquer on the handle should not be chipped or peeling.

One more thing

Just another tip. I wouldn't buy a whole bunch of one type of brush at once. What if you don't like that brand? What if filberts are just not the shape for you?

When I got my first batch of "grown up" brushes, I picked one or two from different brands so that I could see which I liked best without spending a whole bunch of money on big sets of brushes.

Also, I like to look at the brushes in the store but order online. Lots of people like to bend and play with the brush fibers in the store, which ends up damaging them before they are ever purchased. I don't want to spend money on that!

So instead, I order the brushes online, and I normally get pristine ones from the warehouse that have never been tested by prying fingers. Win!

OK, so were almost at the end of this part of the series. All that's left is for you to learn how to take care of your brushes, which we'll talk about next time! See you then!