Watercolor Brushes

Brushes can be quite an investment, so making sure you take good care of them can save you a lot of money in the long run. That being said, brush prices differ dramatically based on the manufacturer, hair type, size, and handle quality. I’ve purchased brushes anywhere from $1 up to $50 and they get more expensive than that. That being said, you don’t need to spend a ton of money on brushes.  I actually prefer the synthetic brushes because the natural brushes sometimes hold too much water and they are harder to manage. In fact, I will sometimes use my fingers, a piece of cardboard, or a spray bottle instead of a brush. Buy one or two good brushes, a few cheaper ones and then spend the money on the paint and paper.

sable brush

This size 20 Kolinsky Sable flat watercolor brush from Daniel Smith is $178!


Up until the late 1600’s, artists made their own brushes. It was at this point that craftsmen started making them for the artists, so artists had more free time to actually paint (yay!). Now they are available for purchase in any art supply store and some craft stores, or you may want to buy online.

Just like any craftsman knows his tools, so do artists need to learn about their tools. There are an overwhelming number of brushes to choose from, so it’s important to know about brushes so you can easily assess what you need for your particular style of painting.

Here’s what we’ll be discussing:

Anatomy Of A Paintbrush

Brush Shapes

Brush Texture

Brush Size

How To Hold Your Paintbrush

Brush Use, Care And Storage

Exercise 1: Try Out Your Brushes

Bonus Exercise: Make Your Own Paintbrush Holder


Anatomy Of A Paintbrush

First, let’s break down the parts of a paintbrush.

brush anatomy 3

Image source: http://www.surrencystudios.com/bush%201.htm

Anatomy of a Paintbrush

Tip: Paint brushes can be made out of a variety of materials including synthetic (plastic imitation) hair and natural (animal) hair. The hairs are bundled together and tied before they are attached to the handle with adhesive. This joining is then covered by the ferrule. The tip is the most delicate and sensitive part of the brush—it is responsible for drawing up and releasing paint and if not treated well, frays quickly, making precision painting more difficult.

Belly: This is the middle part of the hairs on the brush. It is essentially a reservoir where paint is held. Imagine a fountain pen. The belly of the brush works much the same way as a fountain pen that’s been dipped in ink. The tip contains all the pigment load that’s being used at the moment, but there’s a back-up supply in the belly so you can keep painting and not have to reload your brush every two seconds. Brushes made for very liquidy paints (such as watercolor) have fuller bellies and hold more paint.

Ferrule: This piece is typically made with metal and the better quality the brush, the better quality the metal. A very expensive brush may have a chrome, brass, or even gold ferrule. This piece provides structural support for the hairs of the brush. A good quality ferrule is made out of a single piece of metal and should not have a seam.

Crimp: The ferrule is crimped on to the brush handle to keep it in place.

Handle: Most handles are made out of wood and are usually painted to protect the handle from paints and liquids. The only part of the handle that is not finished is the part under the ferrule where the hairs are attached with adhesive. This is done to provide a strong bond between the hairs and the wood handle.

From Steven Saitzyk’s book, The Definitive Guide to Artists’ Materials:

The ability of a paintbrush to hold and transfer paint is a result of the capillary action created by the bundle of bristles/hair/fiber and the surface area of the fibers.  When the brush is applied to a low viscosity* liquid paint, such as watercolor, the paint is drawn up into the belly of the brush by capillary action.  When tip of the brush is applied to the paper surface the absorptivity of the paper and force of gravity pull the paint out of the brush. As the viscosity of the ink increases and it becomes more paste-like, the paint no longer flows up into the belly on its own.  It must be “loaded”.  That is, the paint is drawn up into the belly of the brush by pulling the paint up into the brush by physical action/pressure. How much paint can be held in the belly, the control with which the brush releases the paint, and the ability of the brush to maintain its tip is a reflection of the number of, size, and shape of scales on each hair, which varies between species of animals and their environment.

*Viscosity: the state or quality of being viscous.

Viscous: of a glutinous nature or consistency; sticky; thick; adhesive.


Watercolor brushes typically have long, absorbent hairs, fat bellies, and short handles. This is so the belly can hold the liquid needed for working with watercolor and, because you usually sit to do watercolors (the paint tends to run off the page if it’s completely upright on an easel) the handles are short so you don’t poke your eye out!


High-end watercolor brushes, such as Kolinsky sable pointed rounds, are prized for their ability to keep a fine point, useful for detail work. Desired qualities include resiliency and snap. The cost and scarcity of high-quality natural fibers has fostered the development of good synthetic alternatives.


Brush Shapes

Why do I need different brushes? What does each one do?








Round: Its hairs form a round tip; these brushes are the most common and most useful because they can make lines as well as broad strokes. They’re graded by size, with the smallest being 00000 to a very large 24.


flat brush2








Flat: The tip has a straight edge that produces an angular stroke. These are ideal for laying down large areas of even color and defining precise edges. Sizes are measured in inches along the flat edge; a good selection includes ½-inch, ¾-inch and 1-inch brushes.













Wash: These large, flat brushes can hold a lot of paint, allowing the artist to lay large washes. A 1½-inch and a 3-inch are the most useful.

 liner brush










Liner: A small round brush with a pointed tip is good for making fine, thin lines and for signing a finished painting.








Mop: A large, round brush made with soft hairs can hold a lot of water when wet or soak up a lot of water when thirsty. A mop is useful for wetting large areas of paper or blotting or blending paint that is already applied, although I typically use my large flat instead of the mop.


rigger or liner brush











Rigger: This brush has very long, thin hairs that come to a precise point; it renders very fine, long lines. Helpful if you want to paint landscapes.











Fan: This brush is good for reed and palm trees. Also good for landscape painters.













Hake: This wide, flat brush has a flat handle and is useful for laying down large washes.


Scrubber: These are sold in stores, but you can make your own scrubber brush with an old paintbrush. Just cut the ends of the bristles off, leaving about 1/8” of bristle. It’s used for softening hard edges, especially after using masking fluid


Brush Texture

Brushes used for watercolor painting have to contend with the low viscosity of the paint, so the requirement for stiffness in an oil painting brush is replaced with the need to hold a large amount of water and control the release of fluid paint. The oil in oil paint helps to create and maintain a sharp point. Since that isn’t present in watercolor, the brush must maintain its shape on its own. As a result, the quality or lack of quality is noticed more with watercolor brushes.


            Kolinsky/Red Sable

As with oil, the most sought after hair for watercolor brushes is the Kolinsky sable followed by the red sable. The main difference between brushes made for oil and watercolor is the shorter length of the handle and the fuller belly of the watercolor brush. The Kolinsky and red sable brushes have superior storage capacity, control, and spring than the other available hairs and fibers.  They also have a superior price tag.  Luckily, if they are properly cared for they can last for decades.  One warning: never use watercolor Kolinsky brushes for oil.  These brushes have fuller bellies, which not only make them more expensive, but more susceptible to damage by oils. Additionally, the types of oils used in oil painting often stick to the surface of the hair and change their ability to retain water.  You’ll ruin your watercolor brush if you use it for any other medium.



Squirrel has superior storage capacity and comes to a sharp point, but lacks the spring of the red sables. It’s good for washes. Kazan squirrel from the former Soviet Union is considered to be the finest squirrel hair having better spring.  Blue squirrel is also praised for its spring, second only to Kazan, but with a lower price tag.


            Synthetic Fiber Brushes

Synthetic fibers have found success in use with watercolor brushes. They sometimes have excessive spring and lack control, but recently have improved so that they are comparable to some of the lower end red sables.  What they may lack in control and longevity (approximately 2 years), they more than make up with their low price tag.  Synthetic fiber brushes are marketed under several different names including those easily confused with natural hair such as “white sable,” “golden fleece,” and “golden sable.”


Brush Size

The size of a brush is based on the length, diameter, and width of the bristles. The length is measured from the base of the ferrule to the tip (of the bristles) at the longest point—usually the center of the brush. The diameter is measured by the girth of the hairs at the base of the ferrule, and the width is measured by the distance across the hair at the opening of the ferrule. The bigger the number, the bigger the brush. Some flat brushes may be measured in inches, so instead of saying 24, they might say 31/32”. One of the biggest mistakes beginners make is to use brushes that are too small. This causes them to get too bogged down into details and you can’t do big washes effectively.   You are better off using one good brush that keeps its point well.  In fact, I use the Pro Arte Prolene 16 round (you can get it at Jerry’s ArtArama) and a 1.5″ flat wash brush to do the first 75% of my painting.  I only move to the smaller brushes towards the end.  Of course, if you are working small, you’ll want smaller brushes, but I still believe you should use brushes that are larger than you think you need. This will result in much more even washes (every time you have to re-dip your brush, you risk having a different water to pigment ratio which will absorb into the paper differently and not look “clean”).

Here’s a good chart and explanation of brush hairs and sizes from Dick Blick:



















To download these charts, click here: Hair Types/MeasuringBrush Sizing


How To Hold Your Paintbrush

You will basically hold your brush like you would a pencil or pen, grasping it at thickest part of the handle (most rounds have tapered handles, flats do not).  Do not hold it on the ferrule, but back further.  It should feel comfortable.  There are other ways to hold it depending on what kind of strokes you use, but do not grip too tightly.  Particularly when using the rigger brush, you should pinch the brush between your fingers and thumb almost at the very end.  This allows you much more of a flicking motion—great for those fine tree branches and grasses.  When I’m just wetting my paper all over, I’ll hold the flat wash brush back towards the end and make big sweeping motions with my arm, going in two different directions.


Brush Use, Care And Storage


The real trick with watercolor is knowing how much water to use, so one of the most important tricks is to blot the body of the brush (not the tip) on your rag to absorb some excess paint before putting brush to paper. You usually have two containers of water: one to clean the brush and one for clean water.  Step one is to swish your brush in the cleaning water to get rid of the old color.  Step two is to dip it in clean water, which you then use to make a little puddle of clean water on your palette.  Now your brush is wet but not fully loaded, so step three is to dip your brush in your paint to absorb the concentrated pigment and then add it to your water puddle on the palette.  You may have to do this two or three times to get your puddle to the correct pigment to water ratio.  Early in the painting process you use more watery mixtures, and later you make thicker paint mixtures.  Once your puddle is the proper consistency, you then absorb some of the mixture into your brush and before putting paint to paper, you blot gently the body of the brush onto your rag.  You are doing it right if after you are finished painting, your rag is pretty wet.

Change the water in your container frequently so it stays clean.

You will need to constantly be rinsing your brush out in your water container throughout the course of your painting session. Every time you change paint colors, set down your brush, or change brushes, you’ll need to rinse your brush out. I tend to wash my brush out probably every 30 seconds to one-minute during a typical painting session. You do this to keep the brush clean, make sure the paint flows smoothly, and to keep the paint away from the ferrule.

Do not let paint go under the ferrule.

Don’t use the same brushes for water-based and oil-based paints.

Be mindful of which brushes you use for different techniques. Don’t use your expensive brushes (like sable) for scumbling*! Better to use a stiffer, less expensive brush for that technique.

*Scumbling is a technique like scrubbing, in which a very dry brush is used to scrub a thin layer of paint over another. This can be hard on your brush bristles, so it’s best to do this technique with a brush you don’t mind ruining a bit.



Always wash in water.

Don’t let paint dry on your brush.

Always wash your brush when you’re not using it. At the end of your painting session, wipe all the paint that’s on your brush onto a rag then rinse it in your water. Wipe it on the rag again to see if all the paint is out. If you want, you can now run the paintbrush under lukewarm water and give it a final cleaning with soap (Dawn dish soap works well). When you wash your brush with soap and water, don’t swirl your brush in the soap—this can cause paint to go up under the ferrule and it will never come out again. Instead, pounce it on the palm of your hand with a little soap, rinsing and repeating until the soap comes out clear (i.e. has no more paint in it).

Don’t let your brush sit in water. Leaving it in water will rot the handle and dissolve the glue under the ferrule, causing all the hairs to fall out. Brushes also get bent out of shape when left sitting on their bristles in water.

Don’t wash with hot water, this can break the adhesive bond between the bristles and the handle.



If you’re using sable brushes, know that moths are very fond of sable! Keep them stored in a drawer or box where moths can’t get to them.

You can store your brushes upright in a container only once they’re completely dry. If you do this before they’re dry, leftover water will run under the ferrule and eventually break down the adhesive bond. Wash your brushes out, dry them with a paper towel, then lay them flat to dry. After that, you can store them upright in a jar or other container.

Don’t leave your brush bristles down in water.

Do store your brushes lying on a flat surface (make sure the bristles aren’t in contact with any surface that will bend them out of shape) or hanging upside down (not stuck upside down in a bin!) with the bristles aiming towards the floor.

To reshape your brushes if they get bent out of shape, wash them thoroughly then leave a tiny bit of clean soap and water in the brush and wrap the bristles with a piece of paper towel or toilet paper. When you go to use your brush again, just take the paper off and rinse the brush off in your water.


This is a good brush holder that can be purchased from just about any art store. It holds your brushes in an upright position so you can find them easily while you’re painting and folds up so they can be stored flat when you’re not using them. You can purchase these from just about any art store for $15-20.

brush holder-2

Exercise One: Try Out Your Brushes

Once you’ve purchased your brushes, try them out! What kinds of lines and textures does each one make? Which type of stroke does each different brush shape excel at?

Bonus Exercise: Make Your Own Paintbrush Holder

If you have some canvas (leftover from one of your oil or acrylic friends?) you can make one yourself. You can always buy a remnant of canvas or other heavy duty fabric, too. The length and width of the fabric will be determined by the number of brushes you own and their lengths. For example, with a 7” brush you’d want the fabric to be at least 14” so you have room to lay the brush down, cover it ¾ of the way with the folded fabric and still have a little room at the top to fold over the hair of the brush.

brush holder directions

I just did this and it’s awesome—it holds all my brushes. All you need to do is fold the canvas so the bottom part comes about ¾ of the way to the top. Using a sewing machine, stitch the edges closed. Then about every 1”, stitch from the bottom up to the top of your folded piece. Put your brushes in these slots and roll the canvas up. If you want, add a ribbon on one edge (see picture above) so you can tie your roll closed.

Key Lesson Learning: You’ve learned about the different types of paint brushes and their likely uses. Also you’ve learned about the recommended method of holding your paintbrush. The importance and methods of caring for your painting supplies has also been discussed.

Next lesson: Watercolor Techniques


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