Have you ever heard the saying “good brushes can last you a lifetime”?
While it mostly depends on the way we take care of our watercolour paintbrushes, that saying is most definitely true! Choosing quality materials for our art-making is an essential part of the process. In order to do this, we must first learn how to spot the good ones.
Long before we came to know the modern brushes we see in art stores, watercolour paint brushes saw a long and meaningful history of evolution. In this article, we will provide you with a complete guide of its history, functions, and answer this question lingering in our minds — Which types of brushes do we really need to acquire in order to achieve our best works of art?
A Brief History
Before the discovery of watercolour paintbrushes, our ancestors used materials such as dried reed and quill for their daily writing instruments. Although very little is known about its history, it is believed that the first paintbrushes were originally made with animal hair that was plucked out and tied to the ends of wooden sticks. The brushes varied in the type of fur used and were made according to the user’s desired degree of softness or stiffness. In recent years, most traditional watercolour brushes are still made of the same material, but top quality synthetic brushes are also emerging (although not fully comparable with natural hair brushes).
Ink brush with golden dragon design used by the Wanli Emperor. China, 1563-1620
General Meng Tian and the Hu Brush story
At around 300 BC, a general in the Qin Dynasty of China named Meng Tian initially discovered the use of paintbrushes for calligraphy. Under his reign, the art and culture of China flourished to great heights. He is regarded today for his ingenuity in his inventions and war techniques.
One day, the general hunted and caught rabbits in the wild. On the way back, he noticed trails on the ground made by the blood-stained rabbit tails, and had the brilliant idea that maybe animal tail hair indeed works better for writing.
Meng Tian immediately cut some hair from a rabbit’s tail, stuck it on a piece of bamboo stick, and tested it. The freshly cut rabbit hair proved to be too oily and made unreadable marks. Disappointed, he threw out the rabbit tail into a pit in the rocks. A few days after, Meng Tian continuously thought about a better solution when he chanced upon the rabbit tails. Washed by alkaline water from the limestone rocks, he saw that the tail differed in texture; it is now properly washed and is holding water. The general immediately tested it again and dipped the brush in ink.
This is how the first Hu brushes were discovered and used for the art of calligraphy writing in China.
Development of the Paint Brush
With the advent of calligraphy in China, the paintbrush truly gained popularity.
Chinese painting in ink with calligraphic inscriptions on the side
The first models were essentially designed for writing with ink, but later on, special ones were made to decorate pieces of pottery and ceramics. Up until the 20th century, watercolour paintbrushes were handmade with utmost precision and high regulation; with brush makers having to undergo rigorous training that takes up to 8 years! The production technique changed very little until recent times.
In the eighteenth century, manufacturing of brushes got more advanced as machines took over most of the process. Metal ferrules were also introduced as a way of holding the hairs together — marking a big change in the production process. When Impressionism became more popular and more artists wanted to explore with their technique, different shapes of brushes like flats and squares were introduced to accommodate the newer techniques in painting. Some people still preferred natural hair, while others loved the convenience and new techniques that synthetic brushes brought to their art practice.
Modern Brushes: Features, Types, Function
As watercolour paint brushes went through many stages of development throughout the years, a lot are now manufactured using machines. However, the top quality ones are still handmade, as brushmaking is considered a high form of craft. The careful process of making brushes is duly revered, especially in East Asia.
With all this, the core idea of using hair or fur mounted on wooden sticks still remain. Let us study the features of the modern watercolour paintbrush, and understand the individual purposes these features serve.
The most important element of your brush. The tuft of hair in the paintbrush is the marking instrument that lays the paint onto the surface, and is the key to creating our desired strokes and expressing our personal style. Therefore, the hair and bristles of your watercolour paintbrush must be selected with great care and precision. With the improvement of technology, we now have two types of brush hair to choose from — the natural, and the synthetic.
The natural hair, as the name suggests, is obtained from select animal fur that is manually cut and prepared by merchants. The preparation of natural hair for watercolour paintbrushes are extremely important, because the quality of its performance depends on the preparation. The hair bristles have to be shampooed gently, dried, and treated using the proper techniques and materials. They must remain undamaged and all the hair must be in a perfect state; otherwise, the brushes will not perform accordingly.
The most common types of animal hair used to make watercolour paintbrushes are obtained from the tails of Kolinsky sable, weasel, squirrel, ox, pony, and goat. Obtaining animal hair ethically can be really costly; thus, natural hair brushes are often on the more expensive side.
Kolinsky Sable – Considered the finest brush for watercolours for it properties to hold much water and pigment in its bristles, and its durability. It has great flexibility and strength, and has exceptional spring and snap properties that allow the artist control over the paint. The hair gently tapers at both ends, with a very sharp point at the tip. The highest-quality brushes are made from the tail hair of male species of Mustela siberica (which is a Siberian variety of weasel than a real sable), but it’s difficult to know if it’s not been mixed with female species hair. Originally they’ve been hunted during the winter from Siberian animals naturally adapted to the harsh climate, and it is known that they are difficult to be raised in captivity. Kolinsky sables are also the most expensive types of watercolour brushes due to this fact. Since 2013 they cannot be shipped and sold in the US due to the inclusion of Kolinsky into international CITES agreement that protects endangered plants and animals.
Red sable/Weasel – Another variety of weasel, that’s much more affordable than Kolinsky sable brush, but can’t be compared in quality. They are darker duller brown with the hair slightly thinner than kolinsky. They can be distinguished by their reddish-golden brown colour, since they are taken from animals living in warmer climates.
Squirrel – Very popular among professional artists. The best ones are from Russia called Kazan squirrel, which is brown-black in colour and has natural highlights. They are conic-shaped since they have thick bellies and very fine points – perfect for both loading your paper with water and detailing your work.
Ox – Ox hair is taken from the ears of cattle, and used in long kinds of calligraphy brushes. Usually a brown or reddish hair, watercolour paintbrushes made out of this type of hair are long yet stiff – perfect to manipulate with thin yet harsh lines. It is inexpensive, strong and springy, which makes it great for rougher brush techniques. It is also widely used in Chinese and Japanese calligraphy.
Goat – Although goat hair lacks the spring that we can get from other types of hair, it forms a very good point, so they are also used in calligraphy and Chinese Brush painting. They are cylindrical and wavy, and not very good to be used wet.
Pony – Pony hair is often used for cheaper watercolour paintbrushes, and for children. It has coarse hair that doesn’t form a very good point, but they are often mixed with squirrel hair to reduce cost. Generally, mixed pony hair is also a good alternative if you want to lessen the cost of your watercolour paintbrushes.
To make watercolour paint brushes more affordable for artists, manufacturers discovered substitutes for natural hair — the modern synthetic brushes. The highest quality synthetic brushes can be on par with the natural ones. Moreover, they have the advantage of being more sustainable and cheaper than natural hair! They offer a win-win situation for everyone.
Usually made from nylon or polyester, synthetic fibres are designed to mimic the structure and performance of natural hairs, and the cost varies according to the performance, but in general – they are a great alternative to natural hair fibres. A common disadvantage of synthetic brushes is that they don’t last as long as natural hair (which also varies according to the quality). Many types of synthetic also don’t hold as much paint or distribute it as evenly as natural hair because their bristles are too smooth. However, they’ll hold a point better than most other natural hairs, and it mostly depends on the brand of brush that you will choose. In general, good synthetic brushes are rugged, maintain their shape well, and can be easily cleaned.
ZenART’s Black Tulip Collection watercolour paint brushes – Faux Squirrel
A fine example of great quality synthetic hair is ZenART’s Black Tulip Collection! They are made of faux squirrel hair that mimics the performance of a squirrel and Kolinsky sable hair, has consistent flow control, while holding water and pigment very well. This is something that most of our artist friends rave about! We discuss this further in the Brush Sets section below.
Natural and Synthetic Blends
With the rise of the synthetic bristles, manufacturers found a way to give us a genius solution: the best of both worlds. What is better than investing in one of each kind, but to have a combination of both hairs in one watercolour paintbrush?
A modern brush often incorporates a blend of natural and synthetic fibres, therefore combining the best qualities of both. This makes the watercolour paintbrush more durable and cost-effective for a lot of people! Since natural hairs tend to absorb more moisture and carry more colour, and a synthetic hair is known to hold its shape — a combination type will give you the best brush performance and great value for your money. At ZenART, we use natural squirrel hair (70%) mixed with faux squirrel hair (30%) in our Turner Collection, another artist favourite.
ZenART’s Turner Collection watercolour paint brushes – Squirrel Blend
When it comes to choosing the right watercolour paintbrush shapes, it is important to select the ones that give you the most function, and perform the widest range of jobs. This is a more personal aspect, as it relies on your personal preference as an artist. There are all sorts of shapes and sizes available for watercolour paintbrushes, and we will discuss the most popular shape types you will encounter in shops in this section.
The round brush is the most common type of watercolour brush shape. It comes in different types, so expect to see round brushes with and without pointy tips, ones with extremely pointy tips and bellies, and some small ones used for detailing. The round watercolour paintbrushes with wide bellies are used to hold water, and the pointed tips are from where the pigment is released. This is the original shape of the brushes used for calligraphy in ancient China.
Round brushes in use from the new ZenART’s Fine Line Miniature Brush Set – Demonstration I painted myself
Also called a “liner” or “script” brush, rigger brushes create very fine details for your work. Its tuft is longer than usual, so it can hold more water and paint at once, as compared to your regular detailing brush. It is also the key to create long and bold fine lines, whether they are straight, jagged, or curved.
Mop brushes are popular for serving as wash brushes. They are round, chunky, wide-bellied, and load a lot of water. The standard, cheaper mops are slightly rounded at the tip but otherwise unshaped whilst the shaped mops will give finer marks as well as even washes.
With flat brushes, the hairs and bristles are laid out evenly in a flat formation. They are lined up in a straight-edged line, and this shape allows the artist to paint flat edges and wide backgrounds.
They create sharp edges, and are great for creating long straight lines and for shading purposes. The angled brush can be manipulated to create curved strokes that give shade and value in your compositions.
While the rounds are great for calligraphy (they’re still being used for this purpose) and creating shades in the compositions, flat brushes are easier to play with because their flat side has a lot of practical use; and yet can be manipulated in a number of ways.
These watercolour paintbrushes are a mix of round and flat, creating strokes with soft rounded edges. Perfect for rendering leaves and petals!
Flat and filbert brushes in use from the new ZenART’s Fine Line Miniature Brush Set – Demonstration I painted myself
A “pre-filbert” innovation, some consider Cat’s Tongue a mop and detail brush in one. Since they are wide and hold a lot of water, they are perfect for washes. The pointy tip also allows the artist to use it for small details.
With widely spread bristles, fan brushes can do a lot of interesting things to your composition. Not only are great for rendering grass and textured surfaces, but they can also be used to blend and soften edges.
Several brushes in use from the ZenART’s Black Tulip collection – Demonstration I painted myself
In general, brush size is important when you’re dealing with extremely large or small scale works. Otherwise, you can always manipulate the pigment based on the pressure you put into using the brush. Large brushes are good for washes and backgrounds, while smaller ones are used for detailing.
During the discovery of brushes, the handles used to be made of bamboo sticks. Since then, not much has changed but manufacturers improved the longevity and ergonomics of the watercolour paintbrush handles. Today, lightweight wood is used to create the handles because they are much easier for the artists to hold and manipulate.
When painting, it is important for the artist to feel that he has total control over the brush; hence, a heavy handle will not do the trick. These wooden handles are usually covered with layers of lacquer to prevent the wood and paint from chipping off. They vary widely in diameter and length, but generally, the handles for watercolour paintbrushes are shorter as compared to others. This is to ensure that the artist can work up-close while still controlling the full handle of the brush.
Usually made of aluminium or nickel-plated tin, ferrules are the metal rings that hold the hair tuft together, and connect the bristles to the brush handle. More often than not, ferrules are overlooked and not given much importance. But do not let the simplicity of their function fool you! The metal used for your watercolour paintbrush ferrule should be given much attention, because if it does not hold properly then you have the danger of your paintbrush collapsing. To cater to both round and flat brushes, manufacturers produced ferrules that can accommodate both shapes. Every now and then, it is useful to examine if the ferrules of your watercolour paint brushes are still properly sealed.
Which Watercolour Paint Brushes Do You Really Need?
Now, this question is something that a lot of people wonder about. With so many types of brushes widely available to us, which ones do we really need to create our desired work? There is really no one ultimate rule to follow here. At the end of the day, we should choose the brush that works for us and our artistic practice. But for starters, we must list down a few tips to remember when beginning to choose which watercolour paint brushes to acquire.
In this video, the ZenART’s ambassador Natalia Dokukina shows you how to trace basic lines and brush strokes in watercolour paints. This is the perfect tutorial for a beginner, as well as an exercise for professional artists to warm up their hands. Watch it now!
TIP #1: There are no universal brushes!
Good quality brushes are made with a purpose, and they are made specifically for the artist’s chosen medium. If you see universal brushes marketed in art shops, do not believe them. These brushes will not work well for any of your chosen media. Rather, invest in quality brushes in separate sets for each of your preferred media.
TIP #2: Choose according to your style
What is your personal style? Do you like working with very refined lines? Then small, detail and rigger brushes are useful for you. Is your style more impressionistic, and you like using big strokes? Then the big rounds and flats (or a combination of both!) like the cat’s tongue and filbert brushes are for you. It is also up to you to choose whether you want to use natural hair, synthetic hair, or a combination of both. We advise that you try out all types for yourself, and decide from there.
Showing how to use a rigger brush from the ZenART’s Fine Line Miniature brush set in my sketchbook
TIP #3: Save time and money with brush sets
Brush sets are a great way of getting the essential brushes without having to go through the hassle! Aside from saving time and money (as acquiring individual brushes can get pretty pricey), you will get a lot of the most useful brushes, and may even be surprised with the ones you did not previously know.
TIP #4: Collect brushes gradually
Acquiring individual brushes takes a lot of resources, in-depth research and attention, so don’t be pressured into buying all sorts of brushes that you see in art shops. We advise that you try out the brushes for yourself, especially if there are testers, and invest in high-quality ones gradually. Remember: You don’t need a lot, but you need essential and useful ones!
ZenART’s Watercolour Paint Brush Sets
Most beginners have a hard time finding out which brushes they really need, and a lot of times, they just go for whatever the art supplies shops advise them to get. This results in wrong purchases and waste of money, that’s why ZenART’s I made it my mission to create the ultimate watercolour paintbrush sets that anyone will find most useful in creating their work. Aside from saving a lot of money, improving the quality of your art, enjoying the creative process, and discovering a lot of brushes you did not previously know (See Tip #4 above), ZenART’s brush sets also give you a free protective case which you can use to store your brushes and carry them everywhere.
Black Tulip Collection
Specifically designed for watercolour, inks, gouache and fluid acrylics, the Black Tulip collection is composed of six of the most essential watercolour paintbrushes that you will ever need. Every brush included in this set has a pointy tip – even the flat ones, so they are very good for detailing purposes! The brushes are made of synthetic Japanese faux squirrel that works almost like the real squirrel and Kolinsky sable hairs combined in one, so they are bouncy, springy, and return to its pointy shape after cleansing.
ZenART’s Black Tulip Collection watercolour paint brushes
Our favourite thing about the Black Tulip Collection is the brushes’ consistent flow control. The bristles are extremely absorbent, and holds much pigment and water in the belly, so you don’t have to constantly dip your brushes in water and pigment while working. Since the bristles are synthetic, these brushes are easy to manage and super easy to clean. It is also suitable for travelling and really won’t take much space in your bag.
In this video, I illustrate the main features of the Faux Squirrel Hair used to realise the brushes from the Black Tulip Collection, compared with Kolinsky Sable and Natural Squirrel Hair. Watch it now!
Some people want a full collection of watercolour paintbrushes that include mops, flats, rounds, and detailing brushes. While the Black Tulip Collection is a compact and flexible set that has many uses, our special Turner Collection is much more complete and versatile. It is also designed for watercolour, inks, gouache and fluid acrylics.
ZenART’s Turner Collection watercolour paint brushes with its protective case and palette knife
The Turner Collection is composed of 14 pieces of professional watercolour paintbrushes made of natural and synthetic blends! We have five Japanese synthetic brushes, and eight faux and real squirrel hair blends, plus a palette knife included. Its natural and synthetic hair blends hold the right amount of water and paint, and deliver a more precise flow across the painting ground. The handles are kept short to ensure that the artist can do comfortable detailing, and they are made of lacquered birchwood that is perfectly balanced for a great ergonomic experience for its user. Moreover, they come with a practical roll-up case that is great for travelling and en plein-air painting. You can literally take this whole brush set and bring it with you everywhere!
Fine Line Miniature Brushes
Being the newest collection of ZenART Supplies, the Fine Line Miniature brush set is quickly gaining popularity. This collection is composed of 12 pieces of mini brushes specifically made for fine detailing and precision painting — perfect for painting figurines, portraits, small calligraphy writing, and detailing. You can choose to use it for any medium (oils, acrylics, gouache), but once used, do not interchange them as different chemicals from the paints can ruin these delicate brushes.
ZenART’s Fine Line Miniature Brushes collection with its protective canvas case
As compared to other brands, the bristles in our Fine Line Miniature brushes have a bit of body that can take on more water and pigment for easier use. This is to prevent you from dipping your brush into your pigment over and over again. Still, the tips of these brushes are extremely fine and micro-thin. The birchwood handles are made in a special triangular ergonomic shape to avoid hand fatigue, since it can be tiring for our hands to do a lot of detail work! This shape will also prevent your brushes from rolling away. Like our other collections, the brushes in this set are perfectly balanced and easy to handle.
Moreover, I also designed a special canvas pouch for this collection, that you can personalise and paint on whatever way you like! This is to ensure that your brushes are well-protected and easy to carry when travelling around. It also has a little pocket in the case where you can insert small papers, rubber and pencils for practice.
How Do I Clean and Treat My Watercolour Paint Brushes?
I’ve said it before and I will say it again: a few good brushes can indeed last you a lifetime. Take great care of it and it will be a useful and loyal friend. Treasure it and you can even pass it on to the next generation!
While ensuring that we invest in good quality watercolour paintbrushes, we must also do our best to ensure their longevity. Knowing the right way to do brush care will prevent you from wasting your hard-earned money on unnecessary art materials over and over again.
Round watercolour paintbrush from ZenART’s Turner Collection
Here are a few things to remember when it comes to brush care:
- Use your watercolour brushes only for watercolour. Do not use them for oils and acrylics.
- When using a newly-bought watercolour paintbrush, remove the protective gum layer first before painting. To do this, simply wash it off under running water.
- Avoid submerging your brush’s ferrule in water. Once you have your brush cleaned, do not let it stay inside a tub of water, as too much exposure to wetness will weaken the glue of your ferrule and chip off the lacquer from its wooden handle.
- Do not leave your brushes facing down in a tub, as it can destroy the formation of your bristles.
- The best way to clean watercolour paint brushes is to allow running water to flow through, until all the pigment has been removed from the brush.
- When drying your brushes, place it in a flat formation.
- After washing your brushes, get a clean rag and make sure to dry it. Do not forget to wipe the parts of the ferrule that may have been dipped in paint or water. Treat your ferrules the same way you would treat your bristles.
- Your inexpensive brushes should have the same amount of care as your most expensive ones.
- Use gentle soaps like baby soap or natural vegetable oil-based soap to remove the excess paint from your brushes.
- When storing your brushes, keep them in an upright position — just like how you bought them. Keep them in a place where they could literally ‘breathe’, to avoid moulds from growing in them.
Travelling With and Storing Your Paint Brushes
As artists, we want to be able to have handy brushes that we can travel with when painting en plein-air or when we want to go on a quick art trip somewhere. So, which ones of our watercolour paintbrushes should we bring when travelling?
For our travel kit, I’d advise you to keep it as simple as possible.
For starters, you can bring one flat and one round to paint the big areas, and one small brush for refinement. You can even use the flat side and pointy tip of your brushes in the detailing! Three different watercolour paintbrushes should be enough to play around with. This is a good thing because you will be able to explore the different potentials of your brushes and realise that you don’t need much to be able to create.
When transporting your brushes, always keep them in the protective tubes that came with when you bought them. This will keep your bristles from getting damaged. To ensure the utmost safety, put them all inside a case that’s travel-friendly and especially made for them, like the packaging of ZenART’s Turner and Fine Line Miniature Brushes Collections.
ZenART’s Turner Collection watercolour paint brushes with palette knife and protective case
About ZenART’s Brushes
We all want the best brushes that we can acquire — ones that will work great, last us a lifetime, and ones that we can constantly use as we work towards achieving the best works of art that we are truly capable of. Our watercolour paintbrushes are the tools which we use to transpose what is inside ourselves into the world outside.
Being an artist myself, I carefully designed and hand-picked each one of our brushes before making them into sets. This is to provide you with only the best and most essential supplies that you will need. These watercolour paint brushes go through a rigorous selection process, based on the knowledge and lifetime practice of the best artists in the fine art field with the highest attention to detail. Our supplies are not merely products; rather they are knowledge, shaped and weaved in the form of art material.
Me while testing out some watercolour paint brushes
Moreover, we at ZenART Supplies strongly negotiate with all our suppliers on your behalf to bring you the best watercolour paint brushes at a price you can definitely enjoy. Professional artists love it, amateur artists love it, and we are more than certain that you will love it, too!
I hope that through this article, you have gained more understanding of the history of watercolour paint brushes, how they are made, and how we can use them in a practical way as artists. Happy painting, everyone! Should you have any more questions or concerns regarding this topic, please do not hesitate to leave a comment and I will be more than happy to answer all of your queries. ‘Til the next time!
- Turner, Jacques, Brushes: A Handbook for Artists and Artisans, Design Press, 1992
MEET THE AUTHOR
Ardak Kassenova is mother, artist and ZenART Supplies co-founder. “My heart and soul were always with Art, and since my childhood as long as I remember myself, I was dreaming to be an artist. I was painting after work, when I had time, and teaching myself through the books, videos, visiting art galleries and museums. I’ve been very curious about different techniques and styles, and therefore accumulated knowledge and experience on a variety of mediums”.
After 20 years of a successful corporate career and with becoming a mother to two wonderful girls, she decided that it’s time to make drastic changes and link her life with Art. She started to paint again and decided to create her own art supplies brand that would help artists to fulfil their creative dreams and achieve their best results since the beginning using high-quality art materials without wasting their precious time and money. Say hello to @ardak_zenart on Instagram!