Selecting the right watercolor brush can be both challenging and confusing. Natural hair, synthetics and combinations of the two offer seemingly endless choices. For example, sable hair is often recommended for watercolor painting. However, there are many different grades of sable. Even within the finest grade of sable, Kolinsky, there are variations in hair quality.
Hopefully the information that follows will help you choose the best brushes for you.
Western-style brushes are generally assembled from three parts: handle, tuft of hair, and a ferrule which attaches the hair to the handle.
Handles are generally made of hardwoods sealed with lacquer. Plastic handles are also used in some craft and student-grade brushes. Handle lengths and shapes vary. Some have ends chiseled flat to provide a surface for burnishing, and with an edge for scratching or scraping through damp paint. Some handle shapes are designed with indentations to allow a comfortable grasp, and some are shaped to prevent rolling.
The tuft of hair in watercolor brushes is made from three categories of fiber: natural, synthetic, or a blend of natural and synthetic fibers. Each type of fiber produces a brush with a unique feel and handling characteristics, such as its ability to snap or spring back to its original shape and its ability to absorb and release liquid.
The factors setting natural brushes apart from synthetic brushes are their overall durability, their ability to hold a lot of liquid, and their ability to release that liquid slowly and evenly. The outer casing (cuticle) of natural hair is covered in scales which help the hair hold moisture. Natural animal hair also has a hollow tube (medulla) within each filament that allows the hair to absorb a great deal of moisture. These scales and hollows within the center structure hold and trap the liquid, releasing it gradually as pressure is applied to the brush.
Non-absorbent synthetic filaments, on the other hand, accumulate liquids at the tip and tend to release the paint quickly and uncontrollably as soon as the brush touches the paper. While great progress in moisture retention has been made in the world of synthetics, natural hair will always hold the most color.
The ferrule is a tube designed for the basic shape and size of the brush. It connects the brush hair with the handle. Ferrules can be metal, plastic, or natural quills from the feathers of ducks, geese and other fowl. Metal ferrules are either copper, brass or aluminum, with brass being the strongest. In most cases, they are nickel-plated for corrosion resistance. Good brushes have seamless ferrules. Traditional Oriental brushes are most often made without a ferrule. Instead, the tuft is secured into a prepared hollow in the handle.
Watercolor brushes come in two basic shapes: flat and round. Beyond these two general categories there are a variety of special purpose brushes.
Sizes of flat brushes are usually measured in inches along the width of the flat ferrule. The size of round brushes is indicated by a number on the handle. The smaller the number, the smaller the brush. Unfortunately numerical sizes are not uniform among the various manufacturers. A number 10 brush from one manufacturer will not necessarily be the same size as a number 10 from another.
|Bright (Bright Shader)
||The flats with the shortest length of hair are called brights or chisel blenders. The bright has a square tuft. The length of the hair is the same as the width of the tuft. The stiffer hairs hold less paint than regular flats, and they work well for lifting, splattering, scumbling, and similar texturing techniques. The shorter hair in brights allows for greater control.
||Traditional flats have a rectangular shape. They are generally considered those brushes with longer hairs than the Brights and shorter hairs than the one–strokes. Flats are ideal for laying down large areas of even color or clean water, for shaping precise color edges, building graded washes, and creating a variety of straight–edged shapes less convenient to render with a round. Sizes are usually measured in inches along the width of the flat ferrule, and typically include 1/8", 1/4", 3/8", 1/2", 5/8", 3/4" and 1", 1 1/2", and 2".
A variation of the classic flat is the aquarelle brush. The distinguishing characteristic of this flat brush is the clear acrylic handle that is bevelled on the end for scratching or scraping through damp paint. The end can also be used for burnishing.
||The one–stroke has a distinctly long rectangular tuft shape with flexible, soft hairs. The tuft can smoothly release a longer stroke of paint and produces a more calligraphic range of brushmarks. It is useful for painting block letters in a single stroke.
||The wash brush is the largest of the flat brushes. They come in a variety of hair types and sizes. Many look like a house painters' brush, while others have round handles. Wash brushes are great for applying large amounts of color, for wetting a surface or for absorbing excess paint or water.
|Angle Flat (Angular Shader)
||The slant-shader is a flat brush with a slanted end instead of a straight–across end like the bright, classic flat or one-stroke. The angle flat is used for cutting into those tight spaces or blending smooth swaths of color together seamlessly. It provides a better view of the stroke in-process, and can be used creatively to make variable-width strokes. It is very popular with flower painters and decorative painters.
|Dagger (Dagger Shader)
||The Dagger Striper is a flat in the shape of a knife or dagger. It was originally used by sign painters and auto detailers because of the amount of control they got when making delicate lines. Its large carrying capacity makes it ideal for long lines with varying thicknesses. If you vary the pressure, you can paint thick–to–thin ribbon effects. It is useful for creating foliage, grasses, and single stroke petals and leaves. Other creative effects can be made by pulling the brush around in different directions. A longer version of the dagger is the sword liner.
||Shaped like a flat or a bright but with corners rounded to a slightly pointed oval shape. Useful for creating thick to thin strokes without hard edges. The soft edges allow for subtle blending and the creation of great organic flowing shapes. The filbert is considered the brush for advanced artists. It can be used in place of flats for broad coverage and in place of rounds for detail work by turning the filbert on its side. This reduces the requirement for the artist having to stop and switch brushes to achieve different effects. The extra long filberts allow for the greatest variation in stroke width, while carrying a large volume of color. These brushes are the most flexible of the artists brushes, but are the most difficult to master.
A Cat's Tongue is similar to a filbert but comes to a finer, flat point. It is great for creating a variety of shapes within one brush stroke.
||A detailer is a stubby, pointed round with very short hair. It is used for painting the artist's signature, short lines, stippling, hatching, and similar small detail areas.
||Standard watercolor rounds are the workhorses for traditional watercolor techniques. The traditional watercolor brush has a tuft that comes to a round point when wet. Useful for detail, wash, fills, and thin to thick lines. A pointed round has an even finer point and is used for detail. Round brushes are labeled with a number on the handle. The smaller the number, the smaller the brush. Unfortunately numerical sizes are not uniform among the various manufacturers. A number 10 brush from one manufacturer will not necessarily be the same size as a number 10 from another.
||The rigger brush has long, slender hairs, making it the tallest member of the round family. Its precise point and its ability to hold a fair amount of paint makes it ideal to paint long continuous strokes. It was originally used to paint the long, fine lines of the rigging of sailing ships. It is great for cat's whiskers, branches of trees, blades of grass, telephone wires, or for signing your signature.
|Script (Long Liner)
||A script liner is basically a short–handled rigger wrapped in a round. The generous belly holds a larger amount of paint than a rigger, which allows you paint long, continuous lines without recharging the brush. Its name is derived from its use in painting scripts and calligraphy. Its elongated shape offers optimal control for lettering or geometric line work. When using the script brush, load color all the way to the ferrule with paint of ink–like consistency. When painting, stay up on the tip. Keep the handle of the brush as close to 90 degrees to your surface as posssible. Applying too much pressure will cause hairs to flare out incorrectly. Go slow enough to allow the paint to flow down to the tip. One primary use for this type of brush is for the artist's signature, as the long length allows a large flow of paint to run in a continuous stream for the entire name to be painted.
This type of brush is sometimes called a Reservoir Liner. The oversized belly or reservoir is sometimes made from squirrel, while the protruding point is made from Kolinsky sable. This combination takes advantage of the main attributes of both types of hair: sable comes to a sharp point and snaps back into shape, while squirrel has tremendous water carrying capacity.
|| A full–bodied round made of soft, absorbent natural hair, usually squirrel. The tuft is secured to the wood handle by a goose quill (or plastic) ferrule wrapped in four places with brass wire. It can hold a large quantity of water when wet or can wick up a large quantity of water when thirsty. Because they take long to dry and take more effort to rinse completely, mops are not the best brush for paint application, but they are exceptionally good for wetting large areas of paper or for blotting or blending paint that is already applied. The soft hairs severely limit the range of brush marks in comparison to a round, but this coarser, "out of focus" effect makes them ideal for softening edges, for lifting vague lights in backgrounds, and applying large color masses.
||Ovals look like squashed, round brushes. In appearance and performance, Ovals are halfway between round and flat brushes. They are made primarily of squirrel hair. The best ones are made of kazan squirrel hair. This style of brush was designed for creating washes with soft edges. When you apply color with a traditional flat brush, the straight edge of the brush begins the application of color abruptly, leaving a hard edge. With an oval brush, the application of color starts more gradually with the narrow point and then expands for wider coverage.
||The fan brush uses a special flat ferrule that spreads the hairs into a thin layer to form a fan shape. Soft, natural hair fan brushes are best for softening edges and blending colors in a graded or variegated wash. Stiff hog bristle or synthetic fans leave separate parallel strokes on the paper. This works well for textural effects and for simulating grass, fur, wood grain. Different parts of the arcing fan edge should be used from one stroke to the next, to produce the greatest variation in the irregular line spacings. Branches and twigs can be created by holding the brush horizontally to the painting surface and gently patting the edge of the brush to the paper only once. Additional effects can be achieved by applying liquid frisket with a synthetic fan brush. A more irregular pattern can be achieved by cutting the bristles to different lengths.
||A hake brush is a wide and flat oriental-style wash brush. It is usually made of sheep or goat hair and has a long, flat handle. It is useful for laying in large areas of water or color, for wetting the surface, and for absorbing excess media.
||This is a very stiff brush usually made from ox ear hair. It is used to dab thick paint on the paper to simulate flowers, pods, grass, hair and various other textures.
||The hair for this brush is usually short hog bristle with the ends cut flat eliminating the flags. This gives it a very stiff blunt tip. It is used, as the name suggests, for dry brush stenciling.
||A brush whose bristles are permanently splayed by gluing their base in that position with epoxy.
||Oriental brushes utilize many types of animal hair. Even a single brush can contain several different kinds of hair. Mixed-hair brushes often have a core made of stiff horse or deer hairs which define the brush length and give the brush resiliency. The core is wrapped with softer sheep or goat hairs which hold large amounts of water or paint. Most Oriental brushes do not have ferrules. The hairs are cemented directly into their wooden handles, which makes them more fragile than Western brushes.
|Natural Bristle or Hair Brushes
|Kolinsky Red Sable
||The very finest hair available for watercolor brushes is Kolinsky Red Sable. The quality of the hair is determined by the species and sex of the animal, the location of the hair on the pelt, the season in which the hair is collected, and harshness of the climate in which the animal lives. The highest quality Kolinsky Red Sable comes from the winter tails of the male Kolinsky—a weasel-like animal that lives in the cold river valleys of Siberia.
Genuine Kolinsky hair is characterized by its yellowish–red color and by its strength, spring, ability to retain its shape ("snap"), and its ability to hold a very fine point or edge. Like other natural hairs, Kolinsky has the ability to hold a lot of liquid and to release it slowly and evenly. High quality Kolinsky hair is finely pointed, has a long taper to its thicker midsection, then tapers slightly back to its base. When many of these hairs are set together in a bundle to make a brush, the thicker midsections combine to form a distinctive "belly." An artist's extremely fine control of color is attributed to this belly.
The following table shows that the Kolinsky is a specific species in a family of a wide variety of weasel–like animals. The family Mustelidae includes the genus Martes and the genus Mustela. The genus Martes includes martens, and sables. The genus Mustela includes several distinct species: minks, ermines, weasels, ferrets, and the Kolinsky.
FAMILY: Mustelidae (Latin for weasel)
SPECIES: martes (martens)
SPECIES: zibellina (sables)
SPECIES: lutreola (minks)
SPECIES: erminea (ermines)
SPECIES: navilas (weasels)
SPECIES: furo (ferrets)
SPECIES: sibirica (Siberian weasels, Kolinskys)
The scientific name for the Kolinsky is a combination of its genus and species: Mustela sibirica.
Although scientists place the Kolinsky in a specific place in the formal hierarchy of the Animal Kingdom, brush manufacturers and marketers use the terms "kolinsky" and "sable" quite loosely. This leads to considerable confusion for the artist trying to buy the best watercolor brushes.
The Kolinsky is often confused with its cousins by incorrectly referring to it as a "Siberian Mink," or a "Siberian Weasel." Even the most commonly accepted term "Kolinksy Red Sable" is not accurate since the Kolinsky is not a sable. Some manufacturers confuse the issue even further with marketing phrases like "the highest quality European Kolinsky" and "the finest red marten Kolinsky."
The particular species (Mustela sibirica) that produces these fine hairs is now considered an endangered species. Because of Russian export restrictions, very few brush manufacturers are currently using the Siberian Kolinsky. Winsor & Newton Series 7 uses Kolinsky. DaVinci claims that its finest watercolor brushes are made with 100 percent Siberian male, winter coat, Kolinsky. Grumbacher claims that it is using old reserves of Siberian Kolinsky that it had stockpiled before the restrictions.
However, other manufacturers attach the term "kolinsky" to a wide variety of inferior quality hair obtained from related species, females, other parts of the pelt, summer pelts, or from animals cultivated commercially in warmer climates. These less desirable grades of hair are generally marketed by reputable firms as red sable without the label "Kolinsky" attached.
To make matters even more confusing, White Sable and Golden Sable brushes are not even made of hair; they are merely trade names for synthetic filaments used as substitutes for animal hair. In addition, Sabeline brushes may be ox hair, a mixture of inexpensive sable and ox, or they may be 100% synthetic, dyed red to make it appear like a red sable.
Consequently, the labels "Kolinsky" and "sable" do not guarantee you are buying the highest quality brush. Read the fine print. Ask specific questions. Listen carefully to the answers. Deal with reputable manufacturers and distributors. Be skeptical of low-priced, bargain "Kolinsky sables."
|Red Sable or Pure Sable
||A good-quality pure Red Sable is a good medium– to low–priced alternative to the more expensive Kolinsky, while maintaining similar performance and durability. Red sable brushes of lesser quality may be made of hair taken from other body areas of the male Kolinsky, from female Kolinskys and from other members of the family Mustelidae, such as European or Chinese weasels.
Like Kolinsky sables, red sable hair has a natural thickness at the belly which provides superior spring, snap, and the ability to release liquid in a controlled manner.
The hair can be distinguished by its reddish brown color where as Kolinsky is golden brown. The hair is shorter, thinner, stiffer, darker and duller brown than Kolinsky sables. They are not as springy as Kolinskys, but they have comparable color carrying capacity and resilience.
Because red sable brushes come from so many different animals, they vary greatly in quality and characteristics. High-quality red sable brushes are considered to be second only to Kolinskys. At the lower end, weasel hair is blended with ox hair. Although this mixture results in a more economical brush, the fine point is sacrificed.
||Squirrel hair is exceptionally soft and highly absorbent. It is a thin hair with a pointed tip and fairly uniform body.
Squirrel hair brushes are similar to Kolinsky brushes in that they point well and have thick bodies that absorb large amounts of water and release it gradually. However, squirrel brushes lack the snap or springiness of brushes made with Kolinsky hair. These characteristics make squirrel brushes ideal for mops, flats and wash brushes.
Like the Kolinsky, the best varieties of squirrel hair are from the coldest climes. Most squirrel hair for brushes come from Canada and Russia. Kazan squirrel, named for its home province in Russia, is considered the best of the squirrel hairs. Canadian or Golden Squirrel hair is shorter and thicker than Kazan. Canadian squirrel is the only squirrel hair that possesses a "belly." This belly resembles sable hair not only in appearance but also in handling. Although it is too short for round brushes and possesses little spring, it does make a fine-quality watercolor flat.
Soft hair brushes like these need to be thoroughly wet before painting. Soak them in water for at least five minutes to remove trapped air and reduce the natural surface tension of the hairs. Using a squirrel brush in the upright position, or perpendicular to the painting surface, will give a better result than holding it like a pencil at forty-five degrees to the surface.
||Long, stiff, brown or reddish hair, taken from the ears of cattle or oxen. Ox hair is very coarse, strong and springy, making it ideal for rougher brush techniques. The hair lacks the fine tapered tip of sable, so ox hair brushes will not come to a fine point. Because it is inexpensive, it is often used in moderately–priced brushes. Deerfoot Stipplers are often made of Ox hair in short lengths.
||A very fine ox hair, or a blend of ox hair and either inexpensive sable or synthetic fibers. Sabeline is generally dyed red to make it appear like a red sable.
||Camel hair is an all-encompassing trade name that refers to a whole range of hairs that vary greatly in softness and performance. It could be squirrel, goat, pony, bear, sheep, monkey or a blend of these. The only hair which is not included is camel hair. Actual camel hair is too woolly for brushes. These brushes should be avoided.
||Badger hair is makes an excellent blending brush. It is not commonly used to make other types of artists' brushes. The hair is longer and has a thicker belly than sable. It is most often used in combination with other hairs to lend resiliency and to act as a filler.
||Goat hair is common in oriental wash brushes called hakes. They are very soft and hold a lot of liquid but lack the snap and control of a China (Hog) bristle. Because the cylindrical shaft does not taper, a goat hair brush will not come to a fine point.
|China (Hog or Boar) Bristle
||A very stiff, pale or white bristle, taken from the back and shoulders of hogs and wild boars. The best quality bristles come from a strip running across the backs of wild hogs in Chungking Province, China.
Hairs and bristles are similar in their structure. They consist of a central medulla around which scales are grouped like a shell. Bristle is stiffer, coarser, less flexible but more durable than natural hair.
The stiff bristles make them useful in a variety of techniques such as scumbling, lifting, or creating textures for grass, bark, wood, and foliage.
The hog bristle is different from other natural fibers in that it does not come to a single point but frays or splits near the tip into "flags" or small branches. Wild hogs have more split ends than the domesticated animal. These miniature branches allow the relatively stiff bristle to carry a considerable amount of liquid.
Bristles have a relatively uniform body with a natural curve. The curve is either removed or reduced during the boiling and preparation of the bristles. Interlocked brushes are made from hairs that have been boiled for only two hours so that some curve remains. An interlocked brush takes advantage of this natural curve. In making an interlocked brush, the bristles are assembled so that the curved bristles oppose one another. Interlocked brushes offer the most spring, shape retention and control.
Lower quality hog bristles are yellow and mottled. These are bleached to give a uniform white bristle, but this makes the bristle brittle and susceptible to breakage. Top quality Chunking bristles from Chongqing, China are naturally whiter and require little bleaching. As a result, they retain their natural oils and do not become brittle.
By using the side of the brush, you can produce wonderfully loose, irregular marks that other brushes cannot imitate.
There is a tremendous range in the quality and price of hog hair brushes.
Good hog bristle brushes are often difficult to find. Art stores do not usually put them with watercolor brushes. They may be found with gesso, mural, tempera, or acrylic brushes. They can also be found in craft, hardware, building supply and cookware stores as disposable paint and varnish brushes or basting brushes. (Beware of the cheap disposable types with inferior construction and poorly assembled bristles that look like a witch's broom when wet.)
The one-inch "cutter" brush used by Susie Short is a hog bristle brush. It was originally designed for the sign painting industry to "cut in" sharp edges when lettering. They can be purchased from Daniel Smith or directly from Susie at http://www.susieshort.net/cutter-brush.html
Synthetic brushes are made of either nylon (polyamide) or polyester filaments. They are available in three general categories: Artist, Student, and Scholastic.
When compared to natural hair, synthetic brushes have two major drawbacks. They are unable to hold a large charge of paint, and they release their load all at once. Synthetics tend to dump too much moisture at first, leave about the right amount halfway, and run out before getting to the end of a large area. Manufacturers have tried a variety of methods to overcome these deficiencies.
The individual filaments may come tipped, tapered, flagged, abraded, ridged, or etched to increase the brush's ability to carry color and then release it gradually as the brush moves across the paper. In addition, synthetic filaments may be dyed and baked to make them soft and more absorbent.
Some brushes contain only one length of filament, while others mix two, three, or five different lengths to enhance their performance. Some brushes are made of only one diameter of filament, while others wrap narrower filaments inside others with larger diameters.
Nylon fibers come in many varieties with well-differentiated characteristics. Nylon fibers range in thickness, taper, length and color. The nylon fibers used for watercolor brushes include Tame, Teijin, and Toray. Unfortunately, it is impossible to delineate the specific characteristics of each type of fiber, because the Japanese manufacturers will not reveal any technical details to preserve their professional secrets.
||"No synthetic brush holds more water." 5 diameters of extra smooth synthetic hair; thicker hair placed on outside, thinner in middle;
||3 diameters of synthetic hair; small ridges on filaments slows down flow of water and color off the brush
all are nylon (polyamide monofilaments)
|Tame Synthetic Sable
||"Escoda's finest synthetic for watercolor." All fibers same length. Two diameters: 0.06 (67%), 0.10 (33%)
|Toray Gold, Short Handle
||"The finest quality synthetic fiber available for artists working with watercolor." Slightly stiffer than Toray White
|Toray White (Series 1580, 1532, 1430 smaller sizes)
||Toray White, Solid
||"One of the finest quality synthetic fibers available for artists working with watercolor." All fibers are the same length.
|Toray White (Series 1430, larger sizes)
||Toray White, Tapered
||Fibers have three lengths: 30mm (33%), 40mm (33%), 51mm (33%). Fibers have two diameters: 0.06 (33%, 0.10 (67%).
|Winsor & Newton
||"The Cotman brush is vastly superior to any other brush in its class. By blending thicknesses of hair, W&N has achieved the three most important gualities sought after by the artist. The thicker fibers contribute strength and spring while the thinner fibers improve color holding capacity. Together they retain a perfect point for rounds and a perfect edge for flats." The fibers are not smooth extruded, thereby giving greater color carrying capacity and slower color release. A special crimped fiber is also included to further increase color carrying capacity.
||"Unique blend of synthetic filaments." The original synthetic watercolor brush (1970).
||triple filament, dyed
||For all media (acrylic, oil, watercolor)
|American Painter 4000
||Double filament, dyed synthetic. For all media (acrylic, oil, watercolor). Best for decorative painting, ceramic, fabric, and crafts.
|American Painter 2000
||For all media (acrylic, oil, watercolor). Best for crafts and ceramic.
||Synthetic Sable (Series 6250, 4050, 3050)
||"Performs at higher level than other synthetics." Different diameters of filaments.
||For all media. Best for crafts and decorative painting.
||For students and beginners.
|Blend of Synthetic and Natural Fibers
Some watercolor brushes are a mixture of natural hair and synthetic fibers: Grumbacher's Sable Essence (discontinued), Cheap Joes Dreamcatcher, Robert Simmons Sapphire, and Winsor & Newton Sceptre Gold II. Daniel Smith Autograph Series 60 (Da Vinci) combines Kolinsky Red Sable, Russian Blue Squirrel, Russian Black Sable (Fitch), and small amounts of synthetic hair.
Breaking in a New Brush
Brand new watercolor brushes often come with their hair sized with a coating of starch or gum arabic on the tuft to protect individual hairs and to display the pointing of the tuft.
To remove the manufacturer's starch coating, often all that is necessary is to dip it in a water container and swirl it around until the siing softens up and washes away. After thoroughly rinsing, daub off excess water on a paper towel and reshape the hairs. Store on a flat towel until dry.
If this method does not remove the starch, try a more aggressive approach. First wash your hands, then wet the brush for a minute or two under a stream of lukewarm water. Then apply gentle pressure to the tuft by pinching with your thumb and index finger, working around all sides of the tuft. When all the starch is gone, continue rinsing for another minute or so. (Often dissolved starch will remain in large rounds even after they seem thoroughly cleaned, so you have to let them dry and then rinse a second time.)
Some Sumi brushes, such as those of horse tail and other stiff hairs, are often left partially starched to make them more controllable. Usually, 1/2 to 2/3 of the brush length is softened, leaving the half near the handle stiff. Only the loosened half of the brush is dipped into the ink or watercolor paint. The stiff portion near the handle must remain dry to be effective.
To remove the starch from half of the Sumi brush, hold the tip under cool tap water. As the brush softens, continue to hold it under cool water and massage the hair between two fingers, beginning with the tip and moving toward the handle. Continue the process until most of the starch is washed out of the first half of the brush. Then swish the tip half of the brush in a large container of cool water, keeping the upper half dry.
Use Each Brush for One Medium Only
Use watercolor brushes only for watercolor. Do not use them to apply ink, masking fluid, bleach, alcohol, oil paints, acrylics, gesso or even gouache. Select one brush for use with whites, especially chinese White, as this color is difficult to remove from brush hairs.
Avoid Conditions that will result in Misshapen Bristles
When working, set brushes in a brush holder or lay them flat on the table. Do not set them on their heads in a jar of water.
Don't soak your brushes overnight resting on their ends. This bends the hairs or bristles permanently out of shape and can cause wooden handles to swell and loosen the ferrule.
Avoid Unnecessary Abrasion
When you need a brush to scrub out an area of a painting , use an old brush, an inexpensive brush, a stiff synthetic, or a bristle brush that can withstand the scrubbing.
Do not use a Kolinsky sable to rejuvenate dry watercolors on your palette. A stiff natural or synthetic bristle brush is better suited for this task and can withstand the scrubbing.
If you use pan watercolors, do not "drill into" the cake with the tip of the brush, splay the hairs by pushing directly into the cake, or drag the brush across dry paints. Wet the cake and pick up fresh pigment with the same movement you use to brush the paint onto the paper.
Avoid forcing the brush into the paper so that the hairs are bent back against the ferrule.
Protect the Ferrule
When spattering, don't strike the brush against a hard object; it may loosen the ferrule.
Avoid water under the ferrule.
Water under the ferrule will warp the wood, loosen the adhesive, rust the ferrule, loosen the hairs and cause the handle to swell and crack. Water can seep under the ferrule from either end. Do not dry brushes with the hairs up; dry them horizontally instead. Avoid submerging the brush in water beyond the top of the ferrule, whenever possible. To prevent water from seeping in behind the ferrule, some artists wrap tape around the junction between the ferrule and the handle.
Avoid paint under the ferrule.
To prevent pigment from becoming trapped between the hairs in the ferrule, some painters recommend wrapping the tuft end of the ferrule with one or two layers of masking tape, so that the edge of the tape extends about 1/8" over the tuft. This inhibits the capillary action that carries paint into the ferrule. the tape can be peeled away when the brush is washed.
Once a brush is charged with paint, begin painting with it immediately; this helps to pull the paint away from the ferrule.
Do not hold a charged brush with the tip point upwards.
Avoid submerging the tuft in paint for long periods. This encourages the capillary action that causes paint to migrate up the hairs into the ferrule, where it is difficult to get out.
Clean Brushes after Each Use
Cleaning Natural Hair Brushes (Rinse, shake, shape.)
Do not let the paint dry in your brushes. Gently rinse your brush after use by swishing it around in a jar of cool water. If the brush is rinsed under cool running water from a faucet, keep the bristles pointing down so that water does not run up under the ferrule. Do not use warm or hot water. Minimize your use of soaps or cleansers with brushes, especially natural hair brushes. Never use detergent. Use a mild bar soap or baby shampoo instead. All soaps are fundamentally damaging to a natural hair brush, as they remove the oils in the hairs. Use soap only as needed to remove staining pigments such as phthalo blue or pyrrole red, or clinging pigments such as yellow ochre. (A brush soap like Masters Brush Cleaner can be used once or twice a year to recondition brush hairs and replenish their natural oils.) If you use soap when the brush is thoroughly rinsed, stroke the brush against the cake of soap until lather appears, or place a drop of shampoo on the tuft. Work the lather into the hairs by rubbing them against the wet palm of your hand, or by kneading the tuft with your fingertips. Use your thumbnail to press gently on the bristles all the way around the edge of the ferrule. This will work the lather closer to the ferrule and dislodge paint that has migrated up the tuft. Do this until all discoloration or staining is removed from the visible hairs. Once you have rinsed a brush, shake out the excess water rather than rubbing or squeezing it out with a cloth or paper towel. Never pinch and pull on the tuft with a towel, as this will break off or pull out the hairs. If necessary, shape ("dress") the brush by wiping it gently against a paper towel or against the side of your finger so that it regains its original shape.
For longer life, natural hair should be periodically treated with lanolin or similar hair conditioner before storage to keep the hair from becoming brittle.
Cleaning Natural Bristle Brushes
More will be added here later.
Cleaning Synthetic Brushes
More will be added here later.
Dry Brushes Properly
Avoid leaving your brushes wet for long periods of time. Never store a damp brush in an airtight container. The dampness will cause mildew, and this destroys the brush hairs.
Air dry most brushes by laying them flat. Non-resilient or especially long tufted brushes, such as squirrel mops or Japanese hakes, will dry more quickly if hung from the handle, tuft down, to encourage moisture to flow away from the handle toward the ends of the hairs. Oriental brushes often have built-in loops at the end of the handle to facilitate drying.
If brushes are left to dry in an upright position with the hair ends up, excess moisture can run down into the ferrule causing swelling of the wooden handle and chipping of its enamel finish.
To keep moisture away from the ferrule during a painting session, keep the head lower than the handle. This drains moisture away from the ferrule and keeps the tips moist for as long as possible. One way to accomplish this is to rest the ferrule on the cutout of an old ashtray.
Tip: Use a plastic mesh scouring pad to hang your brushes upside down. Attach a mesh scouring pad to your easel. After cleaning your brushes, push the handles up through the bottom of the pad. The mesh holds the brushes securely upside down, allowing the water to drain naturally from the bristles. (Thanks to Constance Kuhn of Simpsonville, KY for this tip.)
Protect Your Brushes When Traveling
A cloth liner should be used inside a fudemaki (slatted bamboo mat) when transporting brushes, as brush hairs can be caught between the bamboo slats and easily damaged. If possible, let the brushes dry thoroughly before packing them.
Store Your Brushes Safely
The wooly quality of many hairs used in Oriental brushes are very appealing to moths and other insects. As a result, brushes which are not used regularly should be stored in moth balls or cedar chips.
Store upright in jars only when dry.
Restore Damaged Brushes
Paint residue in the ferrule. If the ferrule is seriously impacted with residue paint, use a sewing needle to probe and dislodge the paint from the core of the wetted and cleaned tuft. Do this carefully, without pushing up into the ferrule (this will just wedge paint further up the tuft). A small brush called "The Amazing Brush Comb" is available from most art retailers. This has a small plastic comb at one end and a conical nylon fiber brush at the other. It is designed for cleaning paint residue from the ferrule of a brush.
Hairs that look frizzled or dried out due to the loss of natural oils. The brush will not point as promptly when wet, and stray hairs begin to appear. Wet and wash the brush in warm water, apply a small amount of hair conditioner to the wet clean hairs, work it in thoroughly with your fingertips, shape the brush to a point or flat edge, and let it sit for an hour or so. Thoroughly rinse out the conditioner and shape the brush to dry. Repeat if necessary. If the bristles are still unruly, dip the brush in gum arabic (or common laundry starch without conditioners and fragrances), shape with fingers, and set it down where it can rest undisturbed for as long as practical. (A week is better than a few days, a month is better than a week). Rinse off the coating when you're ready to work.
Stray hairs. Leave them alone as long as the brush shapes to a good point and the strays do not interfere with your brushwork. If you need to remove a nuisance hair, grip the hair carefully with tweezers near the visible base (not the tip) of the hair shaft, pull it down and to the side against the edge of the ferrule, and snap it off at the edge, using the ferrule edge to cut it. Do not cut stray hairs with scissors or a blade. You will not be able to trim it close to the ferrule without damaging the tuft.
Misshapen synthetic brushes. Hold them in hot water from the faucet (not boiling) for one or two minutes. Shape with gum arabic or starch, and let sit for a day or two. Rinse and repeat if necessary.
Misshapen natural hair brushes. Make sure the brush is clean. There should be no paint impacted in the ferrule. Dipping the brush head half way up to the ferrule into boiling hot water will help dissolve impacted paint in the ferrule. Dip natural hair in boiling water and reshape. Then dip the brush hair in a solution of sugar water for a quick sizing of the brush head.
Once a brush is useless for one purpose, find something else for it to do. If it no longer points, use it for washes. If it won't work for washes, use it to apply masking fluid.
Brushes: A Handbook for Artists and Artisans by Jacques Turner, Design Books 1992 (available to read at Dakota Art)
The Artist's Handbook of Materials and Techniques by Ralph Mayer
The Artists Handbook by Ray Smith
The Definitive Guide to Artists' Materials by Stephen Saitzyk