If there’s anything in this world more confusing than the brush display at an art store, I would like to know what it is. . . or maybe I wouldn’t!
I have spent so many hours standing there in a state of overwhelm: This shape or that? This bristle or that? Long handle, short handle? Which type of brush for watercolor? Acrylics? Oils?
In my teaching, I have discovered that most students suffer from this same confusion and have no idea what they should be using or why, or for what.
In paint brushes as in wine, quality matters, and you want to have the best, but it’s just as important to know what you’re choosing, because the “right” brush depends on what you need to do with it, not just the price.
Around here, the emphasis is on watercolor and art journaling. There is a certain type of brush that is best for that, and it is a “Pointed Round”.
The bristles of a Pointed Round brush have a generous, oval shape and carry a lot of pigment. They also taper to a point so that they can be used to make thin line strokes if you don’t push down on them, and broad strokes if you do.
The bristles are held in a round ferrule (the metal part of the brush), and are made of “soft hair” – either natural or synthetic.
Long handle brushes are for painting on canvas, designed so you can stand back from your painting a bit, but are quite awkward for watercolor or art journals or sketchbooks, where up-close-and-personal is the name of the game. Short handle is the choice for journaling.
Brushes are one place where you cannot get away with being thrifty. A bad quality paintbrush is more crippling to your artistic process than having your hands tied behind your back.
Cheaply constructed ferrules will allow hairs to fall out onto your painting, and it is very difficult to remove them from wet watercolor without making a mark. If you wait until the watercolor is dry, the hair has already made a mark that you can’t get out.
And the other big deal is the bristles themselves – whether they will hold water (pigment) and whether they will keep their point.
Here’s a failsafe test for brush quality . . .
Dip the bristle part of the brush in clean water and tap the handle of the brush sharply on the side of your hand. The head of the brush should form into a perfect teardrop shape and come to a fine point – with no help from you touching it.
You should also do this after cleaning your brush, and then store it upright with the handle down in a container until next time. If you have a brush carrier, you can store them in there as long as the bristles are not touching anything.
The very best pointed round brushes for watercolor are made with Kolinsky Red Sable.
Red Sable brushes are expensive, but worth the money, because they carry a lot of paint and handle like a dream. They can last for many years if taken care of properly.
But, we currently have a Red Sable disaster going on in the US.
Because of some snafu about customs forms, which it seems like nobody really understands, Red Sable Brushes cannot currently be imported to the United States. You can’t have your friend in another country send you one either – it’s illegal.
This has been a full-on debacle for watercolor artists in this country and for brush manufacturers and resellers around the world (we are a BIG market).
There are synthetic Sable brushes and they are much less expensive. Some of them are pretty good, but to anyone used to the flawless performance of real sable, none of them measure up.
HOWEVER, all is not lost.
One of the best brush manufacturers in Europe, Escoda (THE best in my opinion), has not taken this whole red sable fiasco lying down.
They got to work to create the closest possible synthetic there could be to their own excellent line of real sable brushes, and they have done a great job.
These brushes are called “Versatil” and they have been sent back and forth to watercolor artists all over the world for testing and feedback, and have gotten glowing reviews.
Personally, I like them so much that, as an animal rights advocate, I may not go back to real red sable hair when it does come back again.
Versatil Brushes are not as inexpensive as other synthetics, but they are worth it because you can’t get closer to the real thing.
Here is where you can find them at Dick Blick. This link goes to the # 4 Short Handle, which is the best all purpose size if you just get one. Click the “Back to Escoda Brushes” button to find more sizes. A #2 is great for fine detail, and a #6 or #8 is good for background washes. You don’t need any bigger than that for journal work.
Care and Feeding:
NEVER leave a good paintbrush standing “on its head” in water – even for a couple of minutes. The hairs will lose their shape and water will loosen the glue holding the ferrule firmly to the wood handle – then your brush will wiggle and the whole ferrule can fall off..
When working, rinse by stirring in a glass of clean water between colors. Don’t touch the bottom of the container with the bristles. Blot on paper towel.
When finished working, run a stream of warm water over the bristles until most of the pigment is rinsed away. Then, put a drop of dish detergent (we like Dawn for cleaning brushes) in the palm of your hand and gently “paint” your palm – making suds. The suds will be the color of the paint you thought was all rinsed out. Repeat this procedure until the suds is white, then rinse thoroughly under running water and shake to form a point, and store.