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Beginner’s Guide to Watercolor – Part 2 The Brushes

Installment 2 of the Beginner’s Guide to Watercolor series is all about brushes. Today we are talking about the good, the bad, and the super ugly!

If you missed a part, or want to review something else, here is the article list.

Straight away I will tell you what I consider to be a “good” brush.

  1. It must not shed. I do not want to be picking stray hairs out of my paint. I already have to battle the cat and dog hair at home.
  2. It must not have paint on the handle flaking off onto my hands and onto my painting. Again, gross.
  3. It must do what it was designed to do! If it’s a mop brush, it should hold lots of paint and water and let go of that paint and water when applied to the paper.
  4. Round brushes must have a nice point and hold that shape. This is going to be personal as to how firm you like your brushes to be, and how much “snap back,” or elasticity you like.
  5. The ferrule can’t be coming off the handle.
  6. I prefer it to be labeled for size.  This just helps me when I’m painting so I know what one I want to reach for again to get the same stroke. Sizes vary between brands, but knowing which size and brand you used helps to recreate the strokes you want.

What’s the difference?

There are definitely classifications just like paint. Artist, student, scholastic. In fact you might want to add one more to that classification list, craft brushes. The reason I mention this in the brush category and not the paint category is you don’t really see craft watercolor paints. That doesn’t mean there aren’t products in the craft classification that can’t be used for watercolor painting, but it’s not a common classification for watercolor paint.

I would almost argue that if I had to put a little extra money somewhere when you start it would be in brushes. As much as I love my paints and some beautiful paper I absolutely find bad brushes super frustrating. When I say put a little more money into brushes I’m not talking about buying a $300 brush. I mean, buy a $5 Simply Simmons or Zen brush, or even splurge a little into the $10-20 range and get a Princeton Neptune.

Starter Brushes

This is the basic brushes I recommend for you to begin with:

  • 1 large round – 12-16 size range for most brands
  • 1 medium round – 6-10 size range for most brands

Here are a few supplemental brushes that are handy:

  • 1 large flat wash or medium mop if you plan to do large washes
  • 1 small detailer or very small round brush

A side note about brush sizes. Brush sizes vary by manufacturer. You may find 2 brushes with the same size number are similar in size, and you may find them to be completely different. Bear that in mind when shopping online if you don’t have reference for size from a manufacturer.

Scholastic/Children’s

If you shop at a hobby and arts store you will find scholastic brushes in the kids section. Usually these have poorly shaped bristles on a plastic handle that may or may not shed. You may find something that works for you here, and you might not. I’d honestly skip it, but if you have them already, feel free to experiment. I always keep cheap brushes on hand for various things I’ll discuss more about in a moment.

Craft

In the craft section, usually where you find the craft acrylic paints, you will usually find large multi packs of brushes. Some of these will be suitable to be used with watercolor, and some will not. Usually a brush with softer bristles are going to be used for watercolor because of their ability to soak up water and paint. The stiff wiry brushes, and the brushes with long handles, are generally meant for oil and acrylic. That doesn’t mean you can’t use them! One of my favorite brushes for spattering stars for my galaxies is a stiff acrylic brush that is cheap and nasty, but it works great for this! I also keep cheap brushes around for mixing paint or spreading masking fluid. That stuff will RUIN your brushes so do not use something that you want to keep and use for watercolor paint with it.

Hodge podge brushes definitely have their place in your kit. Do you see that toothbrush in there?

One of the brush sets I love was found in the craft section. Loew-Cornell makes a set called Soft Comfort. They aren’t my favorite, but they were really great for the price and I still use them regularly.

These Loew-Cornell Comfort brushes are a great start!

Fine Art (Student and Professional)

In the fine art section, where you find the better quality watercolor paints, you will usually find brushes. Sometimes there are open stock brushes and sometimes there are sets. Prices are going to vary by brand and sometimes by size too.

Daler-Rowney Simply Simmons

One thing that’s nice about Daler-Rowney Simply Simmons is they are all the same price.  My Daler-Rowney size 12 round brush is probably one of my favorite brushes. These are available in watercolor as well as acrylic brushes. The acrylic brushes can be used for watercolor too, but are not considered ideal. I actually really like the acrylic brushes for watercolor when I want a dryer brush with a little more control.

I use this bad boy all the time and his bigger brother the #14 round brush!

Grace Art

Next up are some watercolor brushes from Grace Art. I found this brand on Amazon and had heard a lot of good things. They have definitely been utilized them since purchasing and find them to be a great starter set. I haven’t had any shedding at all and the tips hold great shape. After using them for awhile I have noticed a cracking or splitting in the wood of one of the brushes. I’m pretty good about not leaving my brushes in water for very long, so I’m not sure what caused this. The price point is low though, and I still find the brush usable. I would expect these to be considered student grade as is my Simply Simmons brush.

This is a great set for the right price on Amazon!

Royal & Langnickel Zen

These are also student quality and very affordable. Pictured below are a large round mop brush, a size 10 filbert, a 5/0 spotter, and a size 1 and 10/0 script liner.  The large round mop brush is awesome for large washes and huge florals. It does hold it’s shape fairly well for a mop brush, but it’s main job is to soak up paint and water for large sections of paper.

I kind of love the shiny chrome handles

That brings me to a point about bristles. You will find bristles to be either synthetic or natural hair. I haven’t had any complaints about synthetic brushes, but I haven’t had a good experience with natural hair yet to compare. There are several reviews on the internet of many brushes.

Water Brushes

Finally we have water brushes. These brushes have a bladder built into the handle to hold water. You can dip the brush, but typically you just squeeze a little and water flows out. These are great for travel since your water is contained and ready to go. They are also great for lettering as you can fill them with liquid watercolor or ink or just keep your bristles wet for smooth strokes. There are some not so good ones out there as well as awesome ones. I have the aqua brushes listed below. Of these brushes I use the Pentel Arts Aquash and the Niji Water Brush the most. I’ll be writing a full review of each brand I own soon.

Left to right Royal AquaFlo in Small-Large, Jane Davenport in Fine & Broad, Niji Small, Pentel Aquash Medium

So what brushes should you get? Definitely get what you can afford and think how you will use your brushes. You can’t go wrong with the Grace Art set or the Loew-Cornel Soft Comfort set to start with. If you want to be really portable grab a water brush too! If I were to pick up 2 brushes today to start with I’d grab a size 14 round and a size 8 round from Daler-Rowney Simply Simmons watercolor line.

Good luck and share with me what brushes you have and what you love!