Have you ever heard the saying "good brushes can last you a lifetime"?At some point in your art-making, you will find yourself before rows and rows of watercolor paint brushes in absolute amazement at the plethora of choices, and you end feeling lost and overwhelmed because of this complexity. Before spending your hard-earned money and going into a bit of panic trying to decide which hair, shape, size, and type to get, having a more in depth knowledge of the history and functions of different paint brushes will give you the confidence that you're choosing and investing in the best watercolor brushes for beginners and experts alike.
A Brief History
Using tools similar to our modern paint brushes appeared as far back as prehistoric times. They were made from a variety of materials such as macerated reed fibers, feathers, human hair, goat, dear, fox, and wolf hair, split palm leaves, sticks, bones, and even wood shavings. We can't pinpoint exactly when the first one resembling the modern brush was created, but we know that it was originally made with animal hair. However, present-day brushes are made with animal-free materials yet render better results and a more durable lifetime.
Ink brush with golden dragon design used by the Wanli Emperor. China, 1563-1620.
Development of the Paint Brush
Meng Tian, a famous Chinese general of the Qin Dynasty has been credited as having invented the traditional Chinese 'Hu Brush' made from rabbits' tails, having observed on the way back from hunting them that the bloody tails would leave interesting marks along the path. It was then widely used in calligraphy.
Chinese painting in ink with calligraphic inscriptions on the side.
With the advent of the industrial age, the manufacturing process of the paint brush evolved. Brush makers started experimenting and began using metal ferrules to hold the hair, greatly shortening the production time. Up until the 18th century, hair was glued to the handles by hand, and as you can imagine took quite some time. They also discovered that the round ferrules could also be flattened, thus creating the square and flat brushes greatly favored by the Impressionists.
Modern Brushes: Features, Types, Function
Through centuries, mechanically manufactured watercolor paint brushes continued to advance. Even so, this didn't stop the distinguished craft of handmade brush making, as many still consider these brushes to be of top tier quality. To better understand the importance of choosing the best watercolor brushes, knowing the function of each anatomy of the brush is a great start.
The anatomy of a paintbrush - Featuring ZenART Supplies watercolour paintbrushes from the Turner and Black Tulip Collection
Brush HairThe brush hair, also referred to as the tuft or the bristles, is the most important segment as it is responsible for holding the paint and spreading it onto the surface as desired. The two most important characteristics of the brush is its degree of absorbency and its type of spring or stiffness. At present, we have two types of hair to choose from - natural hair and synthetic hair. Natural Hair Natural hair is sourced from different kinds of animal fur. The most common animal hair used in the making of watercolor paint brushes are from the tails of weasels, squirrels, oxen, pony, goat, and of course the Kolinsky sable. Ethically sourced animal hair is sustainably hunted which limits its number, thus giving natural hair brushes a steeper price tag than synthetic ones. Kolinsky Sable - Considered to be the cr`eme de la cr`eme for watercolour use. Taken from the tails of Siberian weasels (Mustela sibirica) found across Siberia and Manchuria, the harsh conditions they live in give their hair tremendous resilience and suppleness, giving it its distinct spring and snap quality. Brushes made from Kolinsky sable have the ability to hold more water or paint in its belly with hair tapering to very fine points at both ends. Red sable/Weasel - This is the cheaper alternative to the Kolinsky sable brush, it's a step down but still considered a high quality watercolor paint brush. Squirrel - A squirrel hair brush is conically shaped, has a thick belly, and ends in fine points. It's not very springy, but is very absorbent and is well suited for washes. While its sharp tips are equally good for detail work, making it a popular choice among professional artists. The best variety is from the Kazan squirrel from Russia. Ox - Ox hair is stiff, strong, and springy, commonly used for long calligraphy brushes. It is also great for creating rough brushwork techniques due to its texture and blunt ends. Goat - Goat hair is not as springy as other hair types but has a uniform body and maintains a point well enough. It's also used in calligraphy and Chinese Brush painting. It's ideal for creating washes and for soft blending. Pony - Pony hair is coarse and inexpensive, it is primarily manufactured as school brushes for the use of children. It is also used as a filler in squirrel hair brushes. Synthetic Hair Synthetic watercolor paint brushes offer artists a more affordable choice and are also more sustainable, durable and renders better results than the natural hair ones.
They are made of nylon or polyester, or a mix of both. They are designed to copy the structure and performance of the natural hair. Although they are springy, they don't hold much water or paint because of their smoother bristles, which also makes the distribution not as even as you would like it to be. The more expensive ones will still be better than most of the mid-range natural hair though.
ZenART's Black Tulip Collection watercolour paint brushes - Faux Squirrel
ZenART's Black Tulip Collection is a superb example of great quality synthetic hair. Made from faux squirrel hair, it is designed to mimic the qualities of the squirrel and Kolinsky sable hair with its ability to hold water and pigment quite well and its good flow control. Artist friends marvel at it!
Natural and Synthetic Blends
The evolution of watercolor paint brushes is far from over. Manufacturers thought of the perfect solution for those who can't decide between the two - a blend of natural and synthetic hair. It merges the great water and pigment absorption of the natural hair with the good shape keeping of the synthetic hair. Modern brushes integrate these two, giving us the best of both worlds. With ZenART's Turner Collection, we use a mixture of natural squirrel hair (70%) and faux squirrel hair (30%). Another favorite with artists.
ZenART's Turner Collection watercolour paint brushes - Squirrel Blend
Brush ShapesChoosing the right watercolor paint brush is still a matter of preference, but it's equally important to know how each shape functions and its range of usability. This way, you can pick and form a personal collection that suits your painting style best.
The round is the most common type of brush shape and is also the most versatile, having a full belly that you can use for broader strokes and a fine tip for detail work. It comes in a variety of shapes and sizes - pointed, not pointed, extremely pointed, thick bellies, and long tapered bellies to name some.
Also known as the "script" or "liner" brush, the rigger is long, thin, and has a very fine point. It is great for painting long lines, long scroll work, and fine details.
Mop brushes are mainly used as wash brushes. They are round, chunky, and thick-bellied, allowing much water and pigment to be absorbed. They don't necessarily need to have pointed ends, but most expensive ones do.
Flat brushes have flat heads that are laid out in even flat arrangements and are straight-edged. This makes it ideal for painting backgrounds, landscapes, and broad strokes.
Angled brushes are flat brushes with angled hair at the end. They are useful for creating curved strokes, shading, filling in small corners and areas with the tip, and can cover a lot of space similar to the flat brush.
Filbert brushes are watercolor paint brushes that are flat with an oval-shaped end. They are suitable for rendering soft rounded edges such as flower petals and leaves.
Cat's Tongue brushes are two brushes in one - flat brushes with fine tips. The wide body can hold a lot of water that's great for washes, while the tip can be used for finer details.
Fan brushes are flat with widely spread hair. They are great for rendering textural effects, feathering, smoothing and blending out edges.
Brush sizes will depend on the scale of your work. Large brushes are good for washes and big, bold strokes, and small brushes for detail work. Brush sizes vary across different manufacturers, so it's best to choose according to what you need. Read a more in-depth coverage on it in our watercolor brush sizes guide.
Most watercolor paint brushes have handles made from wood that is well balanced for the comfort and proper manipulation in the artist's hand. They vary in diameter and length but are commonly shorter than the brushes used for oil and acrylic. They are covered and sealed with layers of lacquer, giving them a high-gloss and waterproof finish that will protect the wood from chipping and swelling.
Ferrules connect the brush heads to the handles, and are usually made of aluminum or nickel-plated brass, copper, or tin. Well-made ferrules will have double or triple crimps to ensure that the brush heads stay attached to the handles even after prolonged usage.
Which Watercolor Paint Brushes Do You Really Need?
With so many kinds to choose from, it can be overwhelming. Below are some tips to help you pick the best watercolor brushes.#1: There are no universal brushes. Really! #2: The brushes you need are the ones well suited to your artistic style. Evaluate if you need smaller brushes for detailing, bigger brushes for washes, or mid-sized ones for general versatility. #3: Brush sets can save you time and money. Most brush sets already contain a well-rounded collection for your basic needs.
#4: Collect brushes gradually. Don't feel pressured to get them all. It's good to start with a few essential ones and just add to them slowly as needed.
Showing how to use a rigger brush from the ZenART's Fine Line Miniature brush set in my sketchbook
Armed with all this knowledge, I hope this helps and that choosing the right watercolor paint brushes will be an enjoyable experience for you! Don't hesitate to leave a comment, we'll gladly answer any queries you have. Now that you're ready to start your own collection, it's just as important to learn how to properly care for your watercolor paint brushes. Check out How Do I Clean and Treat My Watercolour Paint Brushes? for our essential tips and reminders and to learn more about ZenART's Watercolour Paint Brush Sets.
- MEET THE AUTHOR -
Ardak Kassenova is a London based contemporary artist, co-founder and creative director of ZenART Supplies. Her visual style-contemporary impressionism-share similar aesthetic qualities with those by the French Impressionists. After 20 years of a successful corporate career, becoming a mother to two wonderful girls, and with the continuous development of her practice by taking private lessons from the best artists she could find; Ardak decided it's time to align her life with her true passion, Art. Driven by this passion and her corporate leadership background, she co-founded ZenART.
"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."
Turner, Jacques, Brushes: A Handbook for Artists and Artisans, Design Press, 1992