One of my first teachers had some of the absolute worst advice for me. She was a Russian woman who pronounced Vincent van Gogh like “Vincent van GOG” (rhymes with cog) and she would rant about how overrated ‘van GOG’ was all the time.
But when she wasn’t shit-talking van GOG or telling me about how her driving instructor in Russia would drink vodka in the passenger’s seat, she was passing along terrible art advice.
The particular advice I’m referring to here is this; buy the cheapest brushes you can and throw them away instead of wash them.
Being 17 and new to painting, I just accepted this as gospel and proceeded to try and watercolor with what were essentially Q-tips. Don’t be 2011 Janie. Buy the right brushes the first time around.
Because here’s the truth that I have since learned: you can learn to watercolor with less than ideal paper and paint, but you are limited by a terrible brush.
And here’s why: watercolor is about controlling water. If you don’t have a brush that holds and distributes water effectively, you will not learn how to watercolor.
So what makes a good brush?
There are lots of types of watercolor brushes, made of lots of different things. What you choose depends on budget and preference.
But bristles can be broken down into three basic categories:
Sable is made from real animal hair (usually the belly and tail hair of a red Russian weasel), synthetic is made from plastic, and synthetic blend is a mix of the two.
Sable is the undisputed best, and the price shows it. If you want a sable brush, be ready to spend upwards of $70. They are fairly priced, but they aren’t necessary.
My brushes are a motley crew that I have collected since I was 14. Here are some of them:
They all have their functions and purposes, and sometimes I’ll go through phases where I love certain ones and forget about others for awhile. Many are high-end sables that were gifted to me, but some of my favorite ones are blends or synthetics. Princeton is the main brand that I personally buy, and I like DaVinci too.
My secret weapon in my style (as I see it) are Chinese calligraphy brushes. I love the marks they leave. I got the ones I have when I was in China. When I tried to use Google Translate to decipher the sticker that came with them, it just said “wolf hairs.” So, possibly made from wolves, but I doubt it (looks and feels like weasel to me).
Whatever brush you decide to go with, a watercolor brush should have this basic anatomy:
The thing that sets watercolor brushes apart from other brushes is that they hold and control large amounts of water compared to other brushes. You should be able to load up a watercolor brush and make that paper your bitch for awhile, instead of having to re-dip your brush every 3 seconds. They also taper down to a point or an edge that you can use to control the flow of water with precision. And ideally, your brush won’t shed all over the place.
There are a couple different shapes that you’ll have to choose from as well. Basically you have round brushes, flat brushes, liners, and fans. They all have their merit (except fan brushes, Bob Ross popularized them and I have no idea why).
I use a combination of everything to get the job done. But they all perform the same basic function; holding lots of water and tapering down to a controllable point or edge. For starting out, I recommend round brushes. They’re just easier to learn with. Liners make it possible to draw very thin lines in long, smooth strokes. Fans are dumb.
So what do I recommend buying when you’re just getting off the ground?
Invest in a single high quality round brush, about the size of the end of your thumb. Don’t go too small. Again, watercolor is about water. Small brushes hold very little water and they are not your friend.
In my opinion, the Princeton 4050 series is a perfect place to start. It’s their synthetic sable series, and I have a ton of them. There are fancier brushes out there, but I think these are the most bang for your buck.
And, all cards on the table; while I have a lot of sable brushes, they aren’t my favorite to buy because there are a lot of ethical issues that have arisen around how the fur for these brushes is gathered. Still, I’m not going to raise a fuss over good brushes; buy what works for you.
Just if you ask me, I’ll tell you to start with a 16 round from the Princeton 4050 series. They cost around 15 bucks and mine has lasted me 6 years with almost daily use, and still going strong.
Whatever you decided to buy, for godssakes take care of the damn thing.
Here are the general rules for watercolor brush care:
Do not leave it sitting in water! I want to die every time I see someone do that. It curls the end of the brush and water-logs the handle (which makes it rot). Don’t do it even for five minutes. I’ll know and I’ll haunt your ass.
Do not store upright when wet! The water will run down into the handle and rot the wood and erode the glue the holds it all together. If you want to store your brushes upright, wait until they dry.
Don’t use any medium that’s not watercolor with your watercolor brush! Other mediums will stick to the hairs of the brush and make it difficult or impossible to use over time. Even if you rinse it out, over time it’ll build up and wreck your brush.
Those are the basic rules to make sure the brush you invest in serves you well for a long time. I still have the first watercolor brush I ever received. It was a gift from my grandmother when I was 14, and it’s still one of my go-to’s.
A good brush is a good friend. Buy good brushes and take care of them.