Sadie Saves the Day!


Posts in watercolor 101
How to Test Watercolor Paper

I have had a stack of watercolor paper building up for a few months now. It seemed too intimidating to do the testing that I wanted to do because I wasn't sure how to go about doing it. There are not a lot of examples of watercolor paper tests, so I was kind of in the dark.

Finally, I created this template, and I'm going to slowly start going through each of the papers.

I thought it might be helpful to someone else trying to figure out how to test what a color paper, so I’m going to share with you how I do it.

Watercolor Paper Test Template

Filled Out Watercolor Paper Test

How to Test Watercolor Paper

I have had a stack of watercolor paper building up for a few months now. It seemed too intimidating to do the testing that I wanted to do because I wasn't sure how to go about doing it. There are not a lot of examples of watercolor paper tests, so I was kind of in the dark.

Finally, I created this template, and I'm going to slowly start going through each of the papers.

I thought it might be helpful to someone else trying to figure out how to test what a color paper, so I’m going to share with you how I do it.

Watercolor Paper Test Template

Filled Out Watercolor Paper Test


  1. Pencil and Erasing
    • Write at least four lines with whatever grade of graphite that you usually use on watercolor paper.
    • Erase part of the lines until you can no longer see them.
  2. Masking Fluid
    • Use masking fluid to create two parallel lines.
  3. Masking Tape
    • Apply masking tape to the paper and smooth it down so that the paint will not seep under.
  4. Backruns
    • Use a very juicy wash of a pigment that is prone to back runs and make a 3 strokes of this across the paper. I use PR122 (Quinacridone magenta), but you could also use Prussian blue (PB 27) or dioxane violet (PV 23).
  5. Lifting Test
    • Paint one horizontal stroke of a strongly staining pigment. I use a pthalo green, PG 7.
    • Below that paint one horizontal stroke of a non-staining pigment. I used green earth, PG 28.
  6. Granulation
    • Using a heavily granulating pigment, fill in a square. The wash should be fairly watery so that the pigment can granulate properly. I used Lunar Black (PBK 11).
  7. Mixing Color
    • Put down a circle of blue pigment. Here I used the same pigment that I will use later to create a wash. This is a watery mixture of Ultramarine Blue (PB 29) and Zirconium Cerulean (PB 71).
    • Next to it, put down a yellow color in the circle. I used PY 151, Azo Yellow.
    • Finally use your brush to allow the colors to merge together. Do not fuss with the colors too much. Allow them to blend naturally.
  8. Detail Strokes
    • Do several small thin detailed strokes. Try varying thickness and the direction as well as quickness of your strokes. I used the same pigment that I used for backruns, PR 122.
  9. Softening
    • Put down some shapes of color (leaf shape, circle, square), and then using a damp, but not wet grass, soften the edge of the shape.
  10. Wait Until The Masking Fluid Is Dry
  11. Wash
    • Mix a very watery mixture of ultramarine blue (PB 29) and Zirconium Cerulean (PP 71), cerulean blue (PB 35), or cobalt Violet (PV 14). Mixing these granulating paints together will allow you to easily see the defects in the paper when creating a wash.
    • Attempt to create as even of a flat wash as possible on the entirety of the right hand side, covering the pencil, masking fluid, and masking tape tests.
  12. Wait for the Wash to Dry
  13. Remove Masking Fluid and Masking Tape
    • When both of these are removed, painted a vertical stripe of PR 122 over both areas.
  14. Erasing on top of watercolor
    • Erase another part of the pencil lines that you drew.
  15. Glazing
    • Paint the same yellow as used in the color mixing in a light glaze over the bottom of the wash. I used PY 151.
  16. Lifting
    • Using a stiff brush, attempt to lift both the staining and non-staining pigment that was painted in the lifting section. Blot with paper to remove the pigment.

All done!

How to Interpret the Results

Pencil & Erasing

This part tests how well the paper takes pencil. It also test how much damage the paper takes with regular erasing both before and after a wash.

If the area where you erased is darker and mottled after the washer strike, that means that you racing damages the paper. Is it up to you to determine how much damage is acceptable.

Also, the paper might be further damaged by the racing after a wash is applied, and pigment might come up. So know whether you see more damage and if the blue of the wash has been lightened by the eraser.

This test is especially important for people who like to view the outline of their drawing in pencil and perhaps erase afterwards.

Masking Fluid and Masking Tape

This section tests how well the paper takes both masking fluid and masking tape. some papers can be damaged by using either of these masking method, so it's better to know ahead of time.

If the paper is damaged by either one of these, you will see that the paper has become rough. Also there will be a change in the stripe of pink pigment that you have placed over them. Ideally, the paper that has been under the masking fluid or tape should be the same as the paper that was not masked.


Making a large wash allows you to test both how easy it is to make a flat wash on the paper as well as to see whether the sizing on the paper has been applied correctly. On some papers, the sizing is not even and that can create blotches that you can't see until you have painted on them. This way, you can know ahead of time if the paper has even sizing.

What you're looking for is to see if the wash is fairly even and there are no strange mottled spots or speckles. There should be no specific area where a ton of pigment is gathering.


The glazing section will show you how well the paper allows you to make glazes.

You can do this section over and over again if you want to see how well it takes subsequent glazes. But even with a single glaze, you can see whether this paper is prone to lifting up the first layers when a second layer is applied.

Ideally, the first layer of the wash should stay put, and a transparent glaze should be able to go on top without getting muddy.


Backgrounds are when the water applied to the surface of the paper is not being absorbed quickly enough and so a blooming or cauliflower pattern can be seen in the paint. This is pleasant when it's done intentionally, but using the wrong paper can cause this to happen more often when you don't want it to.

The backrun test is really a test of absorbency.

Papers that are not very absorbing and to create more background, and papers that are very absorbent should have little to no backruns. It's most likely that a hot press paper, because of the slick surface, will have more backruns than a cold pressed paper.

Ideally the stroke here should appear very even, without cauliflowers or backruns.

Lifting Tests

In this part of the test I use a staining and a non-staining pigment. Normally a staining pigment is very difficult to get out of the paper, while it is very easy to get a non-staining pigment back to white on a paper. Testing both of these allows you to see very easily whether it is difficult or easy to lift pigment from the paper.

If the staining section only lifts a little, and the non-staining section basically becomes white, then the paper has normal lifting ability.

If the staining section lifts a lot, and the non-staining section becomes white, then the paper has higher than normal lifting ability.

If the staining section does not list, and even the non-staining section has difficulty lifting, then the paper has very low lifting ability.


Depending on how you paint, you might want more or less granulation. This test allows you to see what a very granulating pigment looks like on this paper.

If the pigment granulates a lot, then the paper encourages granulation.

If the pigment is not granulate, then the paper discourages it.

Mixing Color

By allowing these pigments to the mix on the paper, we can see how the paper encourages paint to mix.

As with anything, it depends on your painting style, but generally you want to see a pleasing texture where the blue and yellow needs. The pigment should turn into green, and the two colors should flow into one another.

If the colors do not mix together well, make an unpleasant texture, or remain separate, there may be some problem with the paper.

Detail Strokes

These thin strokes are meant to show you how well the paper takes detail.

Look at the strokes very carefully.

Are the lines solid or broken? Is the color even, or is there a darker outline on the outside? Are you able to make very thin lines as well as very thick lines?

Generally, you’ll be able to get more detail on a hot press paper than a cold press paper.


The final section tell you how easily you can soft and the edges of the stroke that you have already put down. This is a technique that's often used by botanical illustrators, and one of my favorite techniques, so it's very important to me for a paper to be able to take softening very well.

Does the paper make a hard edge, or a soft gradient?

Ideally, the edge should be very soft and bleed into the lightness of the paper.

What Do You Want Out Of a Watercolor Paper?

In looking at all of these results, it's really important to remember that there is no "perfect paper.” Everything really depends on your painting style.

Some people want more detail, some people don't want any. Some people don't care whether a paper glazes well or not. Some people want paper that allows for easy lifting so that they can correct mistakes. Other people want paper with no lifting abilities so that their pigment stays where they put it.

So think about what you want!

Personally, I want both my cold and hot press paper to be able to take a good flat wash. I there could be little to no backgrounds, and normal lifting ability. I want my coldpressed paper to granulate and house off the mixing abilities. It's really important for me that my hot press paper takes very sharp detail and can be used to make very gentle softening gradations.

It's a good idea to keep track of all of the watercolor papers that you have tested so that you can refer back to them later.

So now, I have a question for you. What’s your favorite watercolor paper?

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Learn How to Mix Watercolors
Mix Vibrant Watercolors : How to Mix Color Easily

Mix Vibrant Watercolors : How to Mix Color Easily

I'm really excited to announce that I have created my first Skillshare class on  watercolor mixing!

Have you ever wanted to learn how to mix different colors with watercolors? Are you confused about how to mix watercolor on paper or on the pallet?

These things can be very confusing for beginners and more experience painters alike.

In my class, I show you step-by-step how to understand how colors work in watercolor. Not only is there a video demonstration, but I also have several watercolor mixing chart pdfs available for download to help with the learning process.

If you've been wanting to learn more about colors, swatching , the color wheel, or color charts, check out my course!

Mix Vibrant Watercolors : How to Mix Color Easily

This course is designed for anyone who wants to learn how to mix the perfect shade in watercolor quickly and easily every time. Whether you are just starting to use watercolor, or you can already paint flat washes like a PRO, you'll learn tips and tricks that will show you how simple it is to put the color you imagine right onto the page.

We will start at the very beginning and move on to all of the techniques that can help you create beautiful paintings. Whether you like painting flowers, animals, buildings, or portraits, by the end of this course, you will have new skills that will help you to choose just the right colors for your subjects!


Watercolors are such a joy to work with, but there is one big problem that many people run into. Just how do you mix all of these beautiful pans and tubes of color to make the image that you have in your mind? I will show you how to get to know your watercolors, explore them, and figure out color mixtures that you would never have attempted before.

  • Assemble A Simple And Versatile Watercolor Palette
  • Learn The Specific Qualities Of Your Watercolor Paints
  • Create Your Own Color Wheel
  • Make Resources That Will Continually Make Your Mixing Process Easier
  • Combine Colors To Make Them As Vibrant As Possible Using Simple Color Theory
  • Isolate Colors In An Image Or In Real Life In Order To Accurately Identify Them
  • Put All Of This Information Together To Create A Beautiful Painting!

This course is meant to give you all of the knowledge you will need to start making new colors from the paints that you already have . Not only will you be able to mix the colors shown in this course, but you will be able to make any color that you can dream of on your own with these techniques!

Enroll Here!

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What is Gansai? | Watercolor 101

What is Gansai?

You have probably heard of the big brands like Kuretake Gansai Tambi, or Kisshou Gansai, but what is gansai really?

Gansai (顔彩) is traditional Japanese watercolor. In English, we tend to refer to both types of paints as simply watercolor. However there are two words for these types of paints in Japanese. Gansai is written 顔彩 and the type of water colors that are more traditional in the West (also called transparent watercolors) are written 水彩.
While Western watercolor is traditionally bound with gum arabic, gansai is bound with a combination that could include glue, starch, gum arabic ,beeswax, sugar syrup, sugar, or glycerin [1][2][3][4]. The glue is made from concentrated collagen and gelatin that has been extracted from animal and fish skins through boiling [5] [6] . When the pigment and binder is mixed together, they are dried in pans. Those in large square pans are called gansai 顔彩, and those in round dishes are called teppatsu 鉄鉢 [7]. They can also be formed into a sort of watercolor pastel/crayon that is called bouenogu 棒絵具 [8]

What is it used for?

More Convenient Version of Iwaenogu 岩絵具 or Suiengou 水干絵具

Iwaenogu 岩絵具 is a type of traditional Japanese paint which is generally made from semi precious stone and other pigments (such as Cinnabar, malachite, azurite, lapis lazuli, etc.) that have been crushed and mixed with the same type of glue that is used in gansai by hand right before it is used[9]. They are very expensive and available in a range of particle sizes.
Gansai is not made with the same type of very expensive pigments used in iwaenogu. Generally, gansai uses the same pigments as suiengou 水干絵具 [10]. Suiengou is made from fine pigments or dyes combined with chalk made from shellfish [11] or purified clay [12]. The pigments are also a bit cheaper than iwaenogu even though they are still of high quality and very lightfast. Just like iwaenogu, suienogu is sold in pigment form and must have glue added to it just before painting.
Since gansai has already been mixed at the proper ratio and is already dried in a pan or dish, it is much more convenient to use than iwaenogu. It’s like the difference between using Western pre-made pan paints versus making your paint by yourself each time you are going to paint a picture.

Underpainting for Iwaenogu 岩絵具

Both suiengou and gansai are often used as the underpainting for iwaenogu because they are much cheaper than the expensive pigments used in that type of paint. By painting with one of these two, the artist can cover up the white of the paper or cloth and provide a ground for the Iwaengou to stick to [13].

Sketching and Etegami [14]

Because it is not as expensive or difficult to use as iwaenogu or suienogu, gansai is often recommended for sketching. Iwaenogu and suienogu are not as convenient as gansai, since they come in pigment form and must be combined with a binder right before painting. On the other hand, gansai is already premixed and in a container, so they are ready to go whenever the feeling to paint strikes you. That makes them a perfect sketching medium.
These are also the reasons that make them great for etegami or Japanese picture postcards. Etegami are meant to be fast, casual, and imperfect. They are full of simple, bright colors and drawings that are meant to express emotion more than accuracy. So this quick medium is also suited to these types of drawings.


Vibrancy and Opacity

When gansai is watered down it retains its vibrancy more than Western watercolors do. Also,gansai’s binder can give it a shiny finish.
Gansai tend to be more opaque than transparent watercolors. Remember that these paints were formulated to work on Japanese paper. Transparent watercolors do not show up very well on Japanese paper, and the additional opacity of gansai help them to appear on the paper with little bleeding.


The binder adhesion in gansai is weak compared to other Japanese paints. As a result, they tend to lift much easier than most transparent watercolors, even when dry.
There are a few things that could contribute to this. When gansai is used on Japanese washi paper, it doesn’t lift as easily as it does on Western watercolor paper, especially when used with ultrasoft Japanese goat-hair brushes. Traditional Japanese paintings are and also not as dependent on layering as Western watercolor paintings, so there is less opportunity for the paint to lift when new layers are added.


The colors of traditional Japanese gansai sets are often different from those in transparent watercolors. These paints were created for Japanese picture painting, which comes from a different tradition than European painting. Japanese colors are also based on colors that can actually be seen in nature, which would probably explain the abundance of blues and greens in many gansai palettes.
The colors can give a calm and peaceful feeling to the viewer because they are not overly saturated.


Why are gansai pans so big? Japanese brushes can be much bigger than Western-style brushes, so they need a bigger pan to ensure the brush hairs are not damaged.


Gansai were not made to be mixed in the same way that transparent watercolors are. This is part of the reason that many gansai sets do not come with a mixing palette.
I have read many reviews that say that gansai paints get muddy when mixed, this makes sense considering the traditional background of the paints, however I have never experienced this. The colors I have been able to mix from gansai have been very clear and bright.


Many reviews disparage the quality of gansai because they don’t act in the same way that Western watercolors do. I think that this is unfair. They are not the same type of paint, so they can’t be expected to behave in the same way.
Of course, just like there are high-grade and low-grade watercolors, or high-grade and low-grade oil paints, there are high-grade and low-grade gansai paints.

Western Paints (eg: Winsor and Newton, Schmincke) versus Gansai

Western Paints Gansai
Come in half and full pans Generally come in one size pan
Gum Arabic binder Binder may be a combination of glue, starch, gum arabic ,beeswax, sugar syrup, sugar, and glycerin
Tend to be more transparent Can be more opaque
High quality versions mix well Can be more difficult to mix 3 or more colors
Varying staining levels Mostly lifts very easily
Dries Matte Dries Glossy
Available in Tubes Not available in tubes


About Gansai

About Traditional Japanese Painting in General

About Japanese Colors

Blue and Green

Other Colors

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Watercolor 101: How to Take Care of Your Brushes

So you finally picked your brushes, bought them, and brought them home. Now what do you do?

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
  4. Watercolor 101: How to Choose Good Brushes — Sadie Saves the Day!

What to Do When You First Get a Brush

This section mostly refers to natural hair brushes. Synthetic brushes are generally ready to go as soon as you get them.

So when you get your brush, it's probably got this little cap on it. Take that off and get rid of it. It might be tempting to put it back on to protect the brush, but this will most likely just damage the bristles and encourage mold. Do you want a moldy brush? No, I didn't think so.

OK, now the Is off. You've probably noticed that your brush is kind of hard. Don't worry, that's not a problem. That is just some gum arabic that the manufacturer has put on the brush to protect it. All you have to do is wash it out.

Don’t smash the bristles between your fingers. Get some warm water and run it into a cup or your hand and gently press the bristles until they are completely free from the gum arabic.

There, now you're ready to paint!

Brush Maintenance

So you've been painting with your brushes and having a lot of fun. What do you do now?

It's recommended that you clean your brushes after every painting session to make sure that they will last a long time. You can do this with pure water or with a brush cleaner.

Some people don't recommend cleaning natural hair brushes with soap very frequently, but I find that I have the best results from washing and conditioning my sables after each painting session.

How to Clean Your Brush

  1. Take all of your dirty brushes over to a sink with running water.

  2. Set the faucet to run either cool or warm water. Never use hot water because that can damage both natural and synthetic bristles.

  3. If you are using only water, gently stroke the brush in your hands the same way you would while painting. Do this until you don't see pigment coming out anymore.

  4. If you are using soap, take out your soap. You can either use regular hand soap, shampoo, or specialized brush soap. Hand soap is fine for synthetic brushes, but you should be careful what type of shampoo you use for natural hair brushes. Many shampoos have additives that are dangerous for the fibers. I would recommend using a specialized brush soap like this one: The Masters Brush Cleaner and Preserver - BLICK art materials

  5. Add the water to your brush and to the soap cake. Stroke the soap cake with your brush as if you are painting. Do it gently.

  6. When you have built up a foam, rinse it off in the water. Keep doing this until the foam no longer has pigment in it.

  7. If you are washing a natural hairbrush, I also coat the bristles in The Masters Brush Cleaner, which acts as a conditioning agent and keep my brushes pointed. You don't have to do this, but I find that it helps. Some people say it also helps synthetic brushes.

  8. Allow your brushes to dry either horizontally on a towel or hanging with their tips down in a special brush holder. It's best to have the brushes hanging upside down because this allows the water to drip away from the ferrule.

  9. That’s it!

Things You Shouldn't Do

  • Don't ever leave your brush standing in your water cup. That gets water and pigment into the ferrule, splayed out your bristles, and ruins the lacquer on your brush. Don't do it!

  • Don’t allow your brushes to dry with the tips pointing upwards. Remember, we're trying not to get water and pigment in the ferrule.

  • Don’t use your finely pointed brushes for scrubbing paint or rubbing pigment. That's a great way to destroy them. Use a cheap brush to mix paint and lift pigment.

  • Don't use your brushes for anything except water color paint. Some people might disagree with this one, and I certainly don't always follow this rule. But remember that other pigments can damage your brushes.

  • Please, please, please don't lick your brush. It's bad for you and your brush. Many artists work with heavy-metal pigments such as cadmium and cobalt. When you are licking your brush, you're ingesting these pigments. Also, your transferring bacteria onto your bristles that can then cause mold both on your brush and in your paints. Who wants that?


For everyday storage, I just keep my brushes in some old jars. You can get fancy brush holders, but I'd rather spend that money on the brushes themselves.

For short-term storage, brushes should be rolled in a bamboo roll, which allows them to remain dry and have air circulation.

Longer-term storage is a bit different. Brushes should be sealed up in some kind of plastic container in order to prevent insects or animals eating the fibers. (Yes, it does happen!)

When Has a Brush Outlived Its Life Span?

How do you know when it's time for a brush to go?

  • The bristles are splayed

  • It no longer comes to a point

  • It's clogged with paint and you can't get it out no matter what you do.

It seems sad to get rid of the breast, doesn't it? Well, you don't have to! You can keep these old brushes away and use them for special effects like grass, fur, and tree limbs. Old brushes are also great for applying masking fluid and for scrubbing to lift off paint.

There, now I have taught you everything that I know about brushes! But what's the point of brushes without paint? That's what we'll cover in the next section of Watercolor 101!

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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!

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Watercolor 101: All About Synthetic Fiber Brushes

OK, today we're going to learn about synthetic brushes!

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

Synthetic Fiber Brushes

In the last post in this series, we learned about natural hair brushes. Synthetic brushes are basically the opposite of those. Instead of being a maid from the hair of animals, synthetic brushes are made from nylon or polyester (often called Taklon).

While less expensive natural hairbrushes are generally of lower quality, there doesn't seem to be a huge difference between the majority of synthetic fiber brushes, regardless of price. The big exemption here are faux brushes, which have been modified to act like natural fiber brushes and tend to be a bit more expensive.

However, since synthetic fiber brushes are cheaper overall, they may be a good option for the beginner because they are not as intimidating as far more expensive brushes.

Advantages of Synthetic Brushes

  • Most often, synthetic brushes are much cheaper than their natural hair counterparts.

  • Synthetic brushes are not the byproduct of fur or food industries, so there should be no animal cruelty concerns.

  • Can be used with other mediums without damage to the brush.

  • Synthetic fibers are less likely to be damaged by solvent, bugs or mold, or acrylic paint.

  • Many artists find synthetic brushes easier to clean than natural brushes. (I personally find Kolinsky brushes the easiest kind of brushes to clean.)

  • Less likely to be damaged by rough surfaces.

  • Keeps a point better than cheaper quality natural hair brushes.

  • Can be great for the artist who doesn't always take the best care of their tools.

Disadvantages of Synthetic Brushes

  • Do not last as long as natural hairbrushes, even with proper care.

  • The tip of round synthetic brushes tends to curl up after some use and needs to be replaced.

  • Synthetic brushes do not carry water as well as natural hair brushes.

  • Synthetic brushes generally do not distribute pigment as evenly as natural hairbrushes.

  • Synthetic brushes generally tend not to be as soft as natural hair brushes.


  • DaVinci Cosmotop Spin: These lists are probably starting to look like an advertisement for DaVinci, but it's not my fault that they make awesome brushes! these are probably my favorite out of all of the synthetic brushes that I have tried. They hold a lot of water and pigment for a synthetic and keep a sharp point.Da Vinci Cosmotop Spin Brushes - BLICK art materials

  • Escoda Baracco and Perla: These are supposed to be very soft and great brushes for a watercolor painting. They are also very popular amongst many artists. However, personally I have not been impressed by them and find them too stiff for glazing or layering. Actually, they're kind of scratchy. I’m including these on the list because I know they seem very popular, so they might be the perfect brush for someone even though they aren't the brush for me. Escoda Perla Toray White Synthetic Short Handle - BLICK art materials | Escoda Artist Brushes - Products - Synthetic brushes-Perla

  • Simply Simmons: I picked up one of these so many years ago, and it's still going strong. I use it for mixing and painting with glass. The bristles are not soft, but the not scratchy either. And after all this time, they have not splayed at all even though I have abused it quite a bit. These are really great brush for a low price! Simply Simmons Synthetic Brushes - BLICK art materials

Faux Brushes

This is where synthetic fiber brushes shine. Recently there have been advances in technology that allow manufacturers to modify the polyester bristles that make up synthetic brushes. The bristles are cut, abraded, or treated with acid to create the same kind of cuticles as natural hair brushes.

While it doesn't seem that these faux brushes have completely caught up to natural hairbrushes yet, they are a fraction of the price and some of the better ones can be nearly as good.

Who could argue with that?


Mixed Brushes

Some manufacturers are also creating brushes that mix synthetic and natural hair. This creates a cheaper brush that purports to have all the best properties of both synthetic and natural hairbrushes.

The idea is great, but in practice many of these brushes don't live up to the hype. Definitely try these brushes out before buying a whole range of them.


  • Silver Black Velvet: This brush is a mixture of squirrel and synthetic fibers that many watercolor artists have been raving about. The combination is supposed to provide the absorbency of squirrel with the spring and point that is possible from synthetic fiber. Besides, the black just looks cool! Silver Brush Black Velvet Brushes - BLICK art materials | Silver Brush - Black Velvet

  • Da Vinci Cosmotop Mix B and F: The Da Vinci Mix F is a mixture of Kolinsky, ox tail, and Russian Fitch hairs with synthetic fibers. This is meant to make the brass has a sharp point, high water carrying capacity and superior stiffness. The Mix B is a mixture of Kolinsky, Russian blue squirrel, and the Russian Fitch hair with synthetic fiber. This is supposed to combine the pointing of Kolinsky's, though water capacity of squirrel, and the stiffness of Fitch and synthetic. To be honest, I was not impressed by these brushes and hardly ever use them now. They do not have very good points, and they also don't have the same kind of water carrying capability as my smaller squirrel quill. So painting with them is a bit frustrating. I got these brushes because they were an economical alternative to Kolinskys at high sizes, but I'll probably be replacing them eventually. Da Vinci Cosmotop Sable Mix B Brushes - BLICK art materials| Da Vinci Cosmotop Sable Mix F Brushes - BLICK art materials

Woo! That was a lot of information about synthetic brushes! I hope that helps you to understand the range of brushes available.

Next time, we’ll be looking at how to choose your brushes and take care of them. See you then!

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Watercolor 101: All About Natural Hair Brushes

Hey everyone, welcome back to my Watercolor 101 series!

This is my second post in the series, so if you haven't read the first one, go check it out here:Watercolor 101: Everything You Need to Know about Brushes

So, in the last post I covered the difference between watercolor brushes and other brushes, gave you a rundown of brush anatomy, and gave a snapshot of different types of brush shapes. That probably sounds like a lot, but there's still more to learn, so let's get to it!

Brush Materials

Once you get past all the different shapes of brushes, brush materials are probably the biggest thing that can be bewildering when choosing a brush in an art shop. What do you get? A pack of cheap synthetics? That huge natural fiber brush that's sitting in a glass case?

Well, probably neither of those, but let's see what makes one different from the other.

Natural Hair Brushes

Natural hair brushes are just what they sound like. They are brushes that have natural hair for their bristles. Sounds simple enough, right?

These brushes are generally more expensive than synthetic brushes. On the highest end, we're talking hundreds of dollars, but there are also affordable natural brushes.

The big advantage of most natural brushes is that they hold more water than synthetic brushes. Just like the hair on your head, these brushes have little hooks in them (the cuticle) that allows them to hold water. That's kind of a big deal when you're working with a water-based medium.

Not only do natural brushes hold more water, they also release that water more evenly than synthetic brushes do. They also release pigment more evenly, so it's easier to get an even wash.

One thing to keep in mind with natural hair brushes is that the majority of them are probably byproducts of the meat and fur industries. So if you are against that, or do not use animal products in your life, then natural brushes are not for you. But don't despair! There are lots of other alternatives in synthetic brushes that are pretty cool.

Sable Brushes

If you look up watercolor brushes, you're probably going to hear a lot of people talking about sables. So what are they?

Sable brushes are not actually made from Sables. They are made from the hair of the Siberian weasel, which is native to much of the Asian continent. I guess it was easier to get people to spend a lot of money on something they considered a luxury item (Sable furs) than an animal that's often considered a pest (weasel).

Kolinsky Sable

So this is the top of the top. Kolinsky is most luxury watercolor brush you can buy, and also the most expensive.

So what's the big deal about these?

They hold water amazingly well. They retain their shape and are very flexible, and so are easy to control. Also, these brushes will give you the finest point out of anything available. If maintained well, Kolinsky brushes will last for a very long time.

When I tried these brushes for the first time, I felt like all was right with the world. I was very frustrated with the synthetic brushes I had, and was having a really difficult time building layers and glazing. As soon as I got some Kolinsky brushes, those problems melted away. It was like magic.

Another thing that I really liked about Kolinsky brushes that cannot necessarily be said for all natural brushes is that pigment releases from them super easily. All I have to do is push it in water to get my brush totally clean. So I feel like I'm wasting less pigment in the water and more of it is ending up on my paper.

This is also great at the end of a painting session, because I don't have to grind the hairs in soap in order to get the pigment off. Most of the pigment is normally already gone when I rinsed them in my painting water.

So, a big pro for lazy painters!

  • Holds water well
  • Soft
  • Fine point
  • Retains shape
  • Easy to clean
  • Expensive!! No, but like seriously. Over $50 for a brush? What is that? Do I look like I'm made out of money?
Best For
  • Artists who use many layers and glazing techniques in their paintings.

  • Artists who can afford it, or will save for these expensive brushes.

  • As I said before, too much!
  • Anywhere from $4 to several hundred dollars for a single brush.

  • I have heard that you get what you pay for, so it may not be worth it to get cheaper priced Kolinsky Sables.


Red Sable

But what if you don't want to have to eat Ramen for a month after buying your set of watercolor brushes? Well, you’re in luck!

Red Sables, or simply Sable brushes are made from any weasel with red hair. High quality sable brushes are a pretty good alternative to Kolinsky brushes at a much cheaper price. They have many of the same qualities as Kolinsky brushes and the biggest difference you're probably going to see is the fineness of the point.


So, these are not actually sable brushes but I'm going to include them here because it can be confusing. Sabeline brushes are actually brushes made from Oxford hair dyed to resemble Red Sable. So they don't have any of the same qualities as other sable brushes.


Now for something very different.

If I have my art supply history correct, squirrel hair brushes were originally used by porcelain painters in France for glazing. They were adopted for watercolor painting when an artist needed to buy some extra brushes and just used the ones that were available locally.

Recently, these brushes have become more popular for very loose and expressive watercolor painting styles.

The most sought after type of squirrel is the Gray Squirrel (Petit Gris, Taalayaoutky). These are small gray or black squirrels that are native to Russia, and the brushes made from their hair is very expensive. After that is the Brown Squirrel (Kazan), which is very similar, but has less snap to it.

Squirrel hair overall is very thin and fine. It holds a ton of water, probably more than any other type of brush. So squirrel hair mops are the best for quickly getting your paper full of water. Also, since they are so absorbent, you can use them to lift up water and pigment very easily.

The difference between squirrel and Kolinsky brushes is that Kolinsky brushes come to a point and retain their shape. Many people who use squirrel brushes for the first time don't like them because they are very soft and squishy.

They are definitely not for detailed work. I like using them for wetting down my paper, putting in initial washes, and for making quick sketches.


  • Absorbs a ton of water and pigment
  • Very soft
  • Good for looser painting styles


  • It can be difficult to get pigment to release from this brush

  • Not for detailed painting

Best for

  • People who paint with large washes of color and water

  • Artists looking to loosen up their painting style


  • Midrange to crazy expensive. The most coveted squirrel brushes are made by Isabel, who claim to have invented the squirrel quill style. Their brushes are still handmade and insanely expensive.

  • I have heard, but not cannot verify, that there is not a huge gap in quality between cheaper and more expensive squirrel brushes.



These brushes are not actually made from camel hair. They are just camel colored. Generally, Camel brushes are some kind of mixture of squirrel, goat, ox, or pony hair. You may come across these in children's art sets that have natural hair brushes.


The highest grade of ox fiber comes from behind the ears of auction. It has a strong body and silken texture. The fibers are very resilient, and have a good snap, but no pointy tip. This makes them pretty good for being either large wash brushes or flat brushes.


This is probably one of the cheapest natural hair and is mostly used for student grade brushes. Not a great material.


Sometimes manufacturers create brushes with a mixture of hairs in order to reduce price or optimize certain features. For example, one common mixture is squirrel hair and Kolinsky hair. This sort of brush would hold a lot of water, but still have more body and hold its shape better than a pure squirrel hair brush. However, it would not have the same sort of point as a pure Kolinsky brush.

OK, that's all for natural hair brushes! Check back next time for an overview of synthetic hair brushes.

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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.

Why’s that?

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.

Brush Shapes

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?

Cat Tongue

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.

Specialty Brushes

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!

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