I love all kinds of artistic mediums, but the one I find most exciting and expressive is watercolor. Watercolor gets a bad rap as being hard to control—it’s often considered the hardest medium to work with. But, while it does have more variables than other mediums, that’s what makes it so unique and exciting!
One thing’s for sure, whether you’re just starting out in watercolors, or you’ve been doing it for years, having the right tools can make your job a LOT easier. So, over the next few weeks I’m going to talk about the tools you will need to paint with watercolor, beginning today with brushes.
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Are brushes really that important?
Yes! Good watercolor brushes are critical to the success of your paintings. I cannot tell you how often I have a new student who attempts to paint in watercolor using a paintbrush meant for oil or acrylic—always with poor results!
Watercolor paints require the use of water; that’s how the paint color moves around. So a good watercolor brush is made with materials that hold and release WATER! (In other words, a bristle brush will not work.) When you go to buy your brush, ask or look specifically for watercolor brushes. This may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s the first key to successfully painting with watercolor.
OK, so now that you’re looking at watercolor brushes only, you’ve narrowed your choices some, but there are still many brushes to choose from. Lets narrow these even further by type, materials and cost.
Types of watercolor brushes
There are several types of watercolor brushes, but rounds and flats are the most common. In my experience a few good rounds and flats will serve you well for 90% of most paintings. Ignore the rest!
Think about the size of brushes you need. One common problem I see new watercolor painters making is using a brush too small for the job. Equip yourself with a variety of brush sizes so you have the right tools for the job. The barest basics would be to start with a #10 round and a #6 round, along with one 3/4 inch flat wash brush.
My normal starting recommendation, however, is to pick up three rounds: a #14, #10, and #6. Also pick up two flats (or wash brushes) in 1 inch and 1/2 inch. Specialty brushes are sometimes handy but not at all necessary, so don’t spend money on them when you’re just starting out. As you progress, you’ll probably want to invest in a few riggers, but that’s probably all you’ll need.
What are watercolor brushes made of?
These days the variety of brush materials is great. When I was in school I was told the best brushes were sable because they give you the best results. (They were very expensive, though!) Today the best brushes are still sable and are still expensive, but there are also synthetic brushes and synthetic blends that give equally good results with less expense.
The material you end up with is really personal preference. I know several people who love and use squirrel hair mop brushes. (Personally, I find these hold way too much water for me and for most beginners.) Many other fine watercolorists use only sable hair brushes. I prefer a synthetic brush’s ability to spring back and hold a point. All this comes from painting experience with a variety of different brushes which is why I advise new students to simply choose a good low cost option to begin with.
How much do watercolor brushes cost?
For good mid-range synthetic watercolor brushes, you’ll be paying between $20 to $35, before tax or shipping. And remember, you really need three to six brushes, so it adds up quick!
The good news is, a well-made brush from a good company will last a long time, and spending a little more on brushes will always pay off. I still own a brush that I bought in school 30+ years ago! I got my money’s worth even though back then my only thought was, “How many other things could I have bought with what I paid for this one brush!?”
So my advice is to buy the best brushes your budget can afford. You don’t need to buy them all at once and as you progress you might prefer, as I do, synthetic blends over the very expensive sable brushes.
Of course, always keep in mind that a good brush makes a huge difference, but even the most expensive brush won’t paint the paintings for us or hold the magical key to painting success. Trust me on this, while your choice of brush is important, it’s only part of the equation! There is no magic brush!
So again, my advice is buy a few good brushes (three to six of them, with at least a couple sizes of rounds and flats) and add better brushes to your set as you improve and find your preferences.
Where to buy good watercolor brushes online
For good mid-range brushes I’d recommend the store brand watercolor series from Blick Art Materials or Utrecht (also owned by Blick now). Both stores have a large variety and since they’re online prices are usually lower, but you’ll pay shipping unless you reach the minimum amount to get your shipping free. Cheap Joe’s, Jerry’s Art supply and Art Supply Warehouse are good sources for brushes too.
A better brush (and my brush of choice these days) is Loew-Cornell Golden Taklon synthetic brushes. They are inexpensive and I like their “snap” and quality. These brushes are available online at many of the retailers I just listed above.
Better yet, Winsor & Newton makes a nice set of brushes with a natural sable/synthetic blend called the Sceptre Gold ll series which are excellent for the beginner and reasonably priced. I started with these and still have and use them. They should be available online or in stores as well.
Stay tuned for my next Watercolor 101 article on the different types of paper and why paper matters. Until then, go get those brushes ready!