What makes a good watercolour brush?
Watercolour painters often look for a few differing qualities within their brushes, depending on their painting technique and style. In this article I will ponder some of the ways that the watercolourist uses their medium, and what brush shapes and types are best suited for each kind of painting technique.
How to apply watercolour washes
The most popular watercolour painting methods require huge amounts of dilute colour – the brush is loaded with watercolour paint and water and applied to the paper in very thin washes. For very watery watercolour techniques the watercolour painter requires a brush with good liquid holding capacity.
Natural Hair brushes are the best for liquid holding capacity – Squirrel Hairs for washes
Natural hair brushes are superior to synthetic hair brushes for liquid holding capacity. Natural hairs have a central structure known as the Medulla. This is covered by a thick layer known as the cortex, which is in turn encased within the cuticle, which is made up of lots of tiny scale-like fibres. The hollows and indentations found on the surface of the cuticle pick up water and pigment really well, which is why natural hair is considered the best for liquid holding capacity – once the brush is pressed against the paper being painted on, all the liquid and pigment is deposited on to the surface. Soft fine hair is particularly favoured for wash applications as it has less of a ‘snap’, and will create gentle fluid marks with no crisp edges.
Squirrel hair is often used for wash brushes – each individual hair tapers to a fine point and is wider in the middle, this contributes to the liquid holding capacity and is often referred to the ‘belly’ of the brush. The tapering of the squirrel hair to a fine point means that the brush itself will also taper to a fine point, making squirrel mop brushes perfect not only for broad washes of colour, but also for finer detail work (lines and dots). Cheaper Squirrel hair brushes that have a blunt tip that does not taper to a fine point may have been made from squirrel hair that has already been cut in the past, and these are not suitable for detail work. Squirrel mop brushes are bound in a quill ferrule with twisted brass threads to replicate the traditional brush manufacturing processes of the past. As well as round mop brushes that taper to a point in this way, squirrel hair is also used to make oval shaped washes such as the Jackson’s English Oval Wash, and bright/flat brushes, allowing the artist to make broad rectangular marks on their work. Most squirrel hair for brushes comes from Canada or Russia. The Kazan Squirrel hair is brown-black in colour, and is the finest variety of Squirrel or Petit Gris hair. Squirrel hair brushes are incredibly soft, and are so soft they are often also used in make-up brushes. The downside of this characteristic is that there is next to no ‘snap’ or ‘spring’ in the brush hairs, they don’t ‘ping’ back into place in the way that a synthetic brush might, and so it is not as good for dramatic or punchy marks, and is not the kind of hair one would use if one was looking for a brush that enabled you to have full control over your painting. Something like a spotter, where the brush hairs are very short, and therefore have greater spring anyway (irrespective of what hairs are used) allows you to have full control of where you paint goes on to your work, and is ideal for detail work, and I shall discuss these further a little later. All squirrel hair brushes are made from the hair of long haired squirrels, so unfortunately, in the UK, you will not be able to make your own from the pests in your back garden!
Jackson’s sells a wide variety of squirrel hair brushes, which include:
Jackson’s Squirrel Mops
Winsor and Newton Squirrel Mops
Pro Arte Mops
Raphael Aqualine – these brushes do have a shorter hair and therefore do allow you to have greater control with a squirrel hair brush. They also taper to a very fine point, so great for long flowing lines.
Jackson’s Squirrel Swordliner brushes – the swordliner is wide at the ferrule and tapers off to one edge, like a sword! The concept of the swordliner is that it is a brush that allows you to make broader rectangular marks but that with less pressure they are also good for making fine lines. They make sword-blade type marks which can be useful when painting foliage.
Jackson’s Squirrel One Stroke Series 806/ Squirrel Bright Series 824/ Squirrel English Oval Wash Series 888
The one stroke is the same shape as a long flat brush, it is good for holding liquid in the longer hairs to enable flowing rectangular marks that can be made broader with more pressure. The bright is the shape of a short flat, so not as good in terms of liquid holding capacity, but still with a good belly that can make broader rectangular washes. The oval wash is teardrop shaped, and is very good for round shaped broad brush marks as well as finer detail.
Isabey Flat Wash/ Oval Sky Wash
These are comparable to the Jackson’s One Stroke and English Oval Wash, both in terms of their shape and their performance.
Sable Hair brushes
The world of sable hair brushes is a lightly confusing one, but here I will attempt to explain all that you really need to know in terms of watercolour painting brushes. At Jackson’s Art Supplies, we sell 3 types of ‘sable’ hair – 2 of which are not sable at all! But I will explain. First of all, the least expensive will be referred to as Pure or Red Sable. With this hair we sell a number of ranges which include:
Isabey Series 6222 Liner Pure Sable brushes
Jackson’s Red Sable Rounds (Series 910)
Jackson’s Red Sable Fans (Series 912) – fan shaped and ideal for blending as well as broad swathes of colour
Jacksons’s Red Sable Spotters (Series 913) – a very short round that allows for maximum control, suitable for detail work – highlights, spots, dots and very fine short lines
Jackson’s Red Sable One Stroke (Series 916) – a long flat sable hair brush
Jackson’s Red Sable Brights (Series 917) – A short flat sable brush
Jackson’s Sable Reservoir – a truly unique brush designed to achieve longer flowing lines. The sable round has shorter squirrel hairs bound around the base of the sable hair, adding to the belly of the brush and increasing its liquid holding capacity. This allows you to achieve longer lines without having to dip your brush in more paint as frequently.
Pro Arte Pure Sable Series 3 Rounds and the Pro Arte Renaissance Sable Flats, Riggers and Rounds
Pro Arte Renaissance is the superior sable hair brush range from Pro Arte and is a little more expensive than their regular pure sable. However both possess all the qualities of good sable hair, and are made to the standard that is expected from Pro Arte. The Renaissance is a particularly well finished brush with a lovely brass coloured ferrule and deep green handle.
Winsor and Newton’s Pointed Round/ Winsor and Newton Sable Rigger/ Winsor and Newton Sable Round
These being natural hair brushes, have a good liquid holding capacity, and a better spring than squirrel hair brushes, but the hairs are not as fine as the other sable hair brushes, and this is reflected in their lower price. Still an absolute joy to work with, they have a good lifespan provided they are looked after well. However it has to be said that for a significantly higher quality of sable brush we recommend you investigate the Kolinsky Sable brushes.
What is a Kolinsky Sable Brush?
A Kolinsky is a different animal to a sable. It is a weasel from the mink family native to Asia, whose tail hairs are used in the manufacture of superior watercolour and make up brushes. Male Kolinsky hair is used for the very best Kolinsky brushes because of its superior strength, slenderness (which contributes to liquid holding capacity), and resilience (which contributes to brush lifespan). The majority of Kolinsky brushes available on the market will use some female kolinsky hair in the mix, at a ratio of around 60 (male):40 (female). Although Kolinsky hair brushes are of a higher quality, those brushes who mention ‘Tajmyr’ or ‘Tobolsky’ before ‘Kolinsky’ in their description are referring to where those particular Kolinskys are from. Kolinskys from the River Tobol (Kazakhstan) and from Tajmyr in Siberia are known to possess hairs with stunning elasticity with extraordinary fine tips – which make them incredibly well suited to delicate and detailed watercolour painting. They hold sharp points and achieve crisp edges as well as maintaining excellent colour holding capacity.
Jackson’s Art Supplies Sells the following Kolinsky hair watercolour brushes:
Da Vinci Artissimo (Tobolsky Kolinsky)
Da Vinci Maestro Series 10 Round
Da Vinci Maestro Series 1203K Liner
Da Vinci Maestro 1301 Flat
Da Vinci Maestro Series 35 Round
Da Vinci Maestro Series 910 Retractable Round – perfect for travelling with, as well as painting en plein air
Daler Rowney Diana Kolinsky Sable Brushes
Isabey Series 6228 Kolinsky Sable Rounds
Jackson’s Kolinsky Sable Liner/Sable Rounds
Pro Arte Kolinsky Sable Rounds
Raphael Series 8404 Rounds
Winsor and Newton Series 7 Rounds – So called as they were originally made to order by Queen Victoria, who’s favourite size brush to paint with was said to be a size 7.
Other Natural hair Watercolour Brushes available at Jackson’s Art Supplies
Goat hair is an inexpensive natural hair that is also suitable for wash brushes. Their low cost is thanks to the wide availability of the hair. Goat hair brushes are most likely to vary hugely in terms of the quality available as many manufacturers will make and sell goat hair brushes made from the second cut, i.e., the hair will not taper to a fine point and the result is that the brush head will spray and have a rounded end. Many of the very cheapest watercolour brush sets for schools will contain a goat hair brush that looks like this. On the other hand, a goat hair brush made from the first cut and from good quality hair will taper beautifully, and will be considered a very close substitute to the finest squirrel hair brushes. Goat hair is soft yet resilient. The majority of goat hair used is white, but Winsor and Newton and Daler Rowney also offer dark goat hair brushes. The painter Ron Ranson, famous for his use of the goat hair hake brush in his work, once found that many Chinese hake brushes available on the market were fluffy when new, and required a lot of wearing in before the hairs of the brush possessed the sleekness the sought in his hake brushes. His own hake brush as made by Pro Arte claims to not need any wearing in, and is suitable for painting in bold, impressionistic techniques.
Jackson’s Art Supplies sells a number of Goat Hair brushes, including:
Daler Rowney Black Goat Round Mop
Daler Rowney White Goat Oval Wash
Pro Arte Ron Ranson Hake
Unbranded Goat brushes for Chinese Painting
Jackson’s Hake Brushes
Winsor and Newton’s Dark Goat and White Goat Brushes
Badger Hair Brushes
Badger hair used in the manufacturing of watercolour brushes is mostly sourced from China. A high quality badger hair brush, i.e., one that tapers to a very fine point, can be as good in quality as a squirrel or Kolinsky sable brush. The finer the point that each hair tapers to, the more elastic the spring, and the softer the hair. Jackson’s Art Supplies only sells badger hair brushes of good quality. You can see this in the way that the brushes look – a good badger hair brush will have hairs that go from pale to dark in colour along each individual hair, whereas a lesser quality badger hair brush will appear a more uniform grey along the length of the hair. They will also not taper to as fine a point.
Badger Hair brushes by Jackson’s:
Jackson’s Series 602 Badger Fan
Jackson’s Speciality Brushes – these brushes are specially designed to cater for a range of specialised marks favoured by many watercolour painters. Shapes include a sky stippler, soft hair stippler, stippler fan, comb foliage, foliage and dagger brushes.
We also sell a few varieties of Pony hair brushes which do not taper to a point, so are not as good for detail work, but are soft enough to lend themselves well to wash applications.
Winsor and Newton Pony and Goat Hair Brushes
Daler Rowney Graduate Pony Brushes
Synthetic Brushes for Precision, Spring, Detail and Expressive Marks
Synthetic hair will not have the scale-like cuticle layer that natural hair possesses, although some of the recent developments in synthetic hair manufacture have attempted to replicate this. The outcome of this is that synthetic hair brushes simply do not hold as much liquid as natural hair brushes. However synthetic hair brushes do have their place in water colour painting. They possess a greater spring, they are more resilient and if looked after, have a much greater lifespan. Their characteristics make them suitable for watercolour painting techniques that demand greater control, and crisper, bolder marks. Toray hair is a very fine nylon hair which is favoured by many artists for detail and crisp marks. Pro Arte’s Prolene hair is another very popular type of synthetic hair – it is a brown glossy nylon hair, which is soft and fine, and has impressive spring and resilience. Similarly, the Jackson’s Studio Synthetic brushes possesses these qualities, and after trying them out for the first time, a lot of artists see the advantages of using both natural and synthetic hair brushes in their painting practice.
Synthetic brushes for watercolour available at Jackson’s Art Supplies include:
Jackson’s Artica Synthetic Brushes – made with white Toray hair and available as rounds. Particularly suited to detail work thanks to soft, springy, resilient hair
Daler Rowney Dalon Brushes – Available in rounds, flats and liners, the Dalon hair is one of the oldest synthetic hairs available. It was originally designed to replicate the qualities of sable hair, and each filament is tapered to a point. It is golden in colour and silky, and possesses good spring. Many artists have remained loyal to the Dalon brush for many years. It also lasts and lasts!
Daler Rowney Graduate Brushes – A few of the brushes in the Graduate range, including riggers, filberts and angle shaders, are made will a good quality synthetic hair with an attractive dark tip, perfect for students, beginners and hobbyists.
Escoda Perla Series 1430 – Keeps an excellent point and like the Jackson’s Artica Synthetic Brushes, uses the soft Toray hair that offers fantastic control and resilience.
Jackson’s Silverline – A whole range of red Toray synthetic haired brushes that are suitable for all levels of ability. Available in a range of unique shapes that aid in creating vibrant marks, including angled shaders, swords, combs, daggers, half liners (slightly longer than a round but not as long as a rigger), deerfoots, rounds, cats tongues, brights and fans.
Jackson’s Studio Synthetic – An excellent value range of brushes perfect for students, but good enough for professionals too. These brushes offer spring, a soft and silky hair, with good liquid holding capacity. Available as riggers, rounds and flats.
Winsor and Newton Cotman Brushes – A range of brushes to complement the Winsor and Newton Cotman range of watercolour pans and tubes. These are suited to the beginner or hobbyist and are well priced. Available in long rounds, rounds, one stroke flats, angled flats, riggers, mops, wide washes and fans.
Pro Arte Prolene brushes by Pro Arte were the original brush range developed by Pro Arte designed to replicate the qualities of sable hair. Static is removed from the synthetic hairs in order to optimise performance. Prolene is very popular among students. More recently, Pro Arte developed the Prolene Plus range of brushes, developed to improve upon the standard of the original Prolene hair. The Prolene Plus brush range offers rounds, one strokes, and filberts, whereas the Prolene brushes offer rounds, riggers, flats and swordliners. Pro Arte also manufacture the very unusual looking, ergonomic Miniature synthetic brushes. These are available in flats and rounds and offer maximum control and precision for fine detailed work.
Mix Hair Brushes
Mix hair synthetic-natural brushes are more affordable than 100% natural hair brushes, but they also offer a greater snap to the brush, and are more likely to have a longer lifespan. There are also some mix brushes that use different natural hairs, either for cost reasons or to take advtanges of the varying qualities that each hair possesses. The variety of mix hair brushes is vast so here is a run-down of our favourites.
Jackson’s Icon Sable Synthetic Hair
Jackson’s Icon brushes make use of the latest in brush technology, replicating the scales of a natural hair by carving indentations into the surface of each individual synthetic hair. These are then treated to remove any static electricity. This means that the hairs do not stick together and allow a flowing movement. They are then added to genuine sable hair to create a beautiful brush at a fraction of the price of the finest sable brushes. Icon brushes are available as rounds and flats.
Pro Arte Connoisseur Red Sable/Prolene
The Connoisseur brush range is available in rounds and flats, and is designed with precision in mind. However though using the famous prolene hair, which was specifically designed to replicate sable, it does also have good liquid holding capacity and resilience.
Winsor and Newton Sceptre Gold II
Also suitable for use with oil or acrylic, the Sceptre Gold is another brush primarily manufactured to offer an affordable brush with many of the qualities of pure sable. Available in fan shape for blending, pocket brush for travelling, rounds, long rounds, long lettering, and one strokes.
Da Vinci Petit Gris Mix
Da Vinci’s excellent Blue Russian Squirrel brushes are surprisingly made from a mixture of pure squirrel hair and imitation synthetic squirrel hair, although most painters cannot tell the difference. These brushes are as soft and have the same movement as a regular pure squirrel hair, but will last longer. They are best suited to watercolour and silk painting techniques.
Retractable Brushes for Travelling
Retractable brushes are ideal for storing in a watercolour travel set and taking out of doors to paint. It may be that you have bought a travel watercolour set and the brush in the set needs replacing, and at Jackson’s Art Supplies we sell a number of professional and superior grade retractable watercolour brushes. You don’t need to compromise on quality when painting out of doors! The retractable brushes that we sell include:
Jackson's – Red Sable, pure sable, nylon, travel Artica Round
Da Vinci – Kolinsky Sable
Pro Arte – Prolene Plus Synthetic Retractable Brushes