handprint : watercolor brushes

how watercolor brushes are made

Some folks write with a stubby, chewed up wood pencil, and others write with a gold plated Swiss fountain pen. These don't have much effect on the writer's handwriting, but they do lend familiarity to the writing experience and a distinctive visual style to the script.

In many respects, an artist's preferences in brushes are of the same kind. As a practical matter, many artists find that inexpensive brushes do the job just as well as expensive ones: the style and appearance of their paintings are much the same.

An awareness of the brushes that are available, and the major differences among them, will help you find the tools that make you feel comfortably at your best, and lend those subtle touches of brushstroke and texture that make your work unique.

I have not been able to find a reliable account of the invention and history of the brush as we use it today. The essential tool concept was probably adapted from twigs that were frayed by chewing at one end, so that they could hold ink or paint, as used in early painting or calligraphy. It seems that the modern brush — animal hair or bristle, or vegetable fiber, bound to the end of a wood handle — was independently devised in Egypt, perhaps as early as 4000 BCE, and in China, perhaps as early as 200 CE. The Chinese brush probably incorporated a quill ferrule around animal hair, making it the earliest tool similar to brushes used today. The first description of European artist's brushes and brush manufacture is probably that in Cennino Cennini's Il Libro dell' Arte (c.1390).

A brief but excellent contemporary reference is Jacques Turner's Brushes: A Handbook for Artists and Artisans (Design Books, 1992), which includes many photographs of brush types and brushmaking techniques.

types of brushes
Watercolor brushes come in a confusingly wide range of sizes, types and materials. But nearly all the painting you'll ever have to do requires only a few different sizes from the two essential, general purpose types of watercolor brushes. These are the round and the flat. There are many other brushes designed for specific applications, and these are more useful to some painting tasks or painting styles than others.

types of brushes

brush manufacture

brush hair & bristle

Round. The classic watercolor brush, with hairs that shape to a rounded point when wet (see Figures 1 and 2, right). A high quality round renders a wide range of shapes and effects, holds a good charge of water, wicks up excess paint, and rinses out quickly. The extraordinary flexibility of this brush means it is the instrument of choice for "gestural" painters who want a lot of expressiveness in the brush marks. Rounds come in three subtle variations: the standard round, where the length out is slightly more than 4 times the belly diameter when wet, with a slight flaring in width at the belly; a full bellied round in which the length out is about 4 times the belly diameter when wet, with an exaggerated belly widening in the tuft; and the pointed round in which the length out is usually 5 or more times the belly diameter when wet, without any belly widening in the tuft. The cupping of the brush determines these brush proportions, and some brands tend to one or the other extreme in their "standard" rounds (compare the tuft shapes in Figure 2). These variations affect the carrying capacity and flexibility but not the pointing of the tuft. The middle or optimal size in most brush ranges is usually around a #10 or #12. The smallest sizes run to #00 or #000 (for extremely fine detail, and depending on the sizing system used), but these brushes hold very little paint; the largest usually run as high as #20 or #24 (some manufacturers go even higher), but these largest rounds are very expensive and cumbersome to use.  

Flat. These are chisel shaped brushes with a straight edge that first became popular among Impressionist painters of the late 19th century (see Figure 3). These are specialized as two types. The bright has an approximately square tuft profile (the length out is the same as the tuft width), usually with stiffer hairs; they hold less paint than regular flats, produce sharply angular stroke edges, and can be used more assertively in lifting, splattering, scumbling, and similar texturing techniques. The one stroke has a distinctly 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. Flats are ideal for laying down large areas of even color or pure water, for shaping precise color edges, building graded washes, and creating a variety of shapes less convenient to render with a round. Nearly all the strokes made with a flat leave an angular or straight edge in the brushstroke, so they are often used wet in wet (which disguises or softens these characteristic brush marks) or boldly in "angular" painting styles. Sizes are usually measured in inches along the flat edge, and typically include 1/8", 1/4", 3/8", 1/2", 5/8", 3/4" and 1", or equivalent widths numbered as sizes from about 6 to 24.  

Specialty Brushes. Most paintings will require two or more of these basic round and flat brushes. In addition, there are a number of specialty brushes that are less frequently needed because they are designed to serve limited purposes, usually some kind of specific texturing effect which the basic brushes handle less effectively.  

Mop. Rounds made with very fine, soft hairs (usually squirrel hair) that 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. Good mops come to a precise point and can be used for very controlled applications of water from thin lines to sky wide washes (see Figure 4). 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. Sizes run from #0 to #14.  

Wash. Looking like miniature housepainting brushes, wash brushes extend the range of flats to much larger widths, hold much more water or paint, and release it over a wider area (see Figure 5). Like mops, wash brushes are best for wetting large areas of paper or charging already wet wash areas with water or paint; their large size and blunt edge makes them unweildy for paint applications, especially when the painted area is bounded by complex edges. Sizes typically include 1", 1-1/2", 2", 3" and sometimes 4", depending on manufacturer and type of hair used.  

Acrylic. Flats with synthetic fiber bristles and a clear plastic handle that ends in a beveled edge (see Figure 3). The tuft produces very even chiseled edges but runs out of paint across longer strokes; I find them very useful for the limited wetting and scrubbing of areas of paint I want to lift (blot away) with a paper towel. The handle tip is useful for burnishing, rubbing or scraping the watercolor paper. Sized as flats.  

Filbert or Cat's Tongue. Oval flats that come to a point when wet, usually made with soft bristles such as sable, mongoose or squirrel hair (see Figure 4). Used for blending or shaping washes, for washes where the width of the wash strokes must be varied, for example where a large wash area must be laced through smaller passages that require detailed maneuvering with more of a tuft point. Sized as rounds.  

Rigger. Brushes with very long, thin hairs that come to a precise point, originally used to paint the rigging lines in nautical paintings, but great for any rendering of very fine, long lines (see Figure 6). The long tip of a good rigger will hold a fair amount of paint and will disguise minor wobbling in the hand through the flexibility of the tuft. Sized as rounds.

Liner (also script). Basically a rigger wrapped in a round. The hairs often do not come to a needle point (as in a rigger), so that the line rendered has a consistent thickness, which is scaled to the size of the tuft. The length of the liner tuft allows the line to keep a more consistent width than the line possible with a round, while the belly holds a larger charge of paint than a rigger, which allows you paint a rather long line for its width. (see Figure 6). Sized as rounds.  

Detail. A stubby round that tapers quickly to a precise point, used for painting the artist's signature, short lines (especially lines that vary in width), small areas of texturing (stippling, hatching), rendering single leaves in trees or plants, portrait eyes, and similar detail areas (see Figure 6). Sized as rounds.  

Fan. As the name indicates, a brush with a fan shape used for drawing grasslike or twiglike clusters of parallel lines, for irregular line hatching or texturing, and for softly blending the edges of or gradations within wash areas (see figure 6). 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. Sized as rounds.  

Travel brush. Collapsible round or mop brushes that enclose the tuft in the handle for protection during travel (see figure 6). Only useful for quick sketching with a pocket pan set and a small block of watercolor paper. The largest sizes can be used for washes, and travel mops are also available from Isabey (see Figure 6). Sized as rounds.  

Japanese sumi brushes (see Figure 7). These come in many styles and sizes. The gyokuran or koraku are basically calligraphic tools: they deliver elegant flowing strokes that characteristically change texture as the fluid in the brush is exhausted, from the wet beginning of the stroke to the dry finish. This tends to happen quickly, because the brushes have a poor carrying capacity and release liquid fairly quickly, and because the goat hair tufts are coarse and soft. For the traditional Japanese calligraphy, which develops a skill in handling the old kanji ideograms as artistic icons, this variation in texture has a lovely expressive effect. In most other painting situations, it can be a nuisance. I don't use these brushes unless I want a calligraphic "Japanese brush mark" in the painting. Sized in inches.

The flat hake brushes are used dry (without any water or paint in them) to gently stroke and coax the distribution of paint or water in wash areas after the wash solution has been applied with another (wash) brush. Some are designed as individual tufts set in a row of bamboo stalks (pictured at right); others are made as a single row of hairs set in a thin, flat wooden handle. They are quite limp when wet, and shed hairs as relentlessly as a sick dog, which makes them nearly worthless as direct painting tools. When the hairs are wet they also straggle across a wash, leaving unsightly marks. I dislike these brushes and only use them to sweep lint and erasure crumbs from a paper surface. Sized in inches.

All these brushes tend to be used much less frequently than the four basic types, unless you specialize in a genre of painting (botanicals, ship paintings, calligraphy) where their texturing effects have a specific application.

brush manufacture
Brushmaking is a very old art that in central European traditions was combined with the making of brooms. England, France and Germany have the longest traditions in brushmaking and continue to provide some of the finest brushes, though the guide to watercolor brushes points to some fine makers in Spain and the Middle East. Several brands sold in the USA obtain their brushes from manufacturers in India or Japan, and China is making rapid inroads into the world market.

The manufacturer assembles the brush raw materials — tuft hair or fiber, metal ferrules and wood handles — from other suppliers. How much of this basic manufacturing the brush company jobs out or does itself affects the amount of quality control they can assert over their product.

The modern brush consists of only three parts. The tuft (T at left) is the bundle of hair, bristle or fiber that holds and releases the painting liquid. The visible portion of the tuft, about half its total length, is the length out, which consists of the belly or widest middle part and the tapering point or tip (in a round) or edge (in a flat). The ferrule (F) is the metal collar that connects the tuft to the handle, supports the tuft during painting, protects the end of the wood handle from moisture, and determines the size and shape of the brush. Finally, the handle (H) is made of a dense hardwood selected for straightness. Plastic handles have been tried but have usually been found wanting because they don't save the brush manufacturer money, yet customers associate plastic with low quality and lack of durability.  

The Tuft. The pelts or ears of the harvested animals are first shampooed and then hung to dry. Sable and squirrel pelts are sometimes oven cured at low temperatures to increase the hair elasticity or "spring."

Brush hairdressers scissor the prepared hairs or bristles from the pelt, hold large tufts between thumb and fingers and use a fine comb to separate the hairs and remove hair fragments, fine hairs and stubborn debris. Hairs are meticulously sorted, separated by length and cleaned of any broken pieces. Hairs of the same length are bundled for sale to brushmakers, and because there are fewer of the longest hairs on an animal, these are more expensive. According to Jacques Turner, hairs from the tail of kolinsky sables range in length from about 28mm (sold for about $1,000 a kilogram in 1992) to 70mm (which went for $10,000 a kilogram). Prices have increased since then. Brushmakers who do not do the hairdressing themselves carefully unbundle and inspect a shipment when it is received.

To make a tuft by hand, the brushmaker pinches out or counts the exact number of hairs required for the brush size, then places these hairs (pointed end down) inside the brushmaker's mold — a hollow brass cylinder with thick sides and base, somewhat resembling an oversized thimble, whose inner contour defines the shape of the finished brush (rounded at the bottom for rounds, and flat for flats). The cup is tapped repeatedly on a stone slab, which drives the tip of every hair to the bottom of the cup.

(A different procedure, called stacking, is used for liners or other tapering brushes that do not have a pronounced belly. As many as five lengths of hair are used, carefully arranged with the longest hairs at the center of the tuft and inserted into the cup butt end down, with the points exposed.)

Once the hairs have been cupped to the appropriate shape, the exposed ends are wrapped tightly at the base with string and the tuft is removed from the cup. If the brush is a round, the string is tied off with a knot and trimmed. The brushmaker then manipulates the tuft with her fingers to perfect the shape of the belly and point. The inner end of the tuft is then sheared off flat to the desired length, and the tuft is inserted into the metal ferrule from the wide (handle) end, pulled through to expose the desired length out, then secured with a penetrating, waterproof adhesive and hung, tuft down, to dry.

Synthetic tufts are made of extruded fine filaments of plastic cut into desired lengths and sorted by machine.

Tufts are sometimes purchased cupped and tied for assembly by brushmakers, but they more often use a set that consists of the tuft already glued into the metal ferrule.  

The Ferrule. Metal ferrules were first commercially used in brushmaking around 1890, and the highest quality ferrules are seamless — not made of a flat piece of metal rolled into a cylinder. Fine quality watercolor brushes are mounted into ferrules made of a hard but malleable, corrosion resistant metal such as brass or copper; these are typically plated with nickel, silver or (rarely) gold. (Ferrules on cheaper brushes are made of softer aluminum or tin, which bends too easily.) They represent almost a third of the total cost to manufacture a brush.

In nearly all fine commercial brushes the ferrule is double or triple crimped at the handle end (as in the drawing at left) to fasten the handle securely and keep water from seeping inside. Ferrules for flat brushes may be cylindrical in their original shape and flattened to achieve a particular brush style. Natural quills from the feathers of ducks, geese, and other fowl are still used for brush ferrules by watercolorists, though most often on squirrel mop brushes. Japanese brushes do not have ferrules: the tuft is secured directly to the handle.  

The Handle. The wood is chemically sealed, then finished by dipping in lacquer or polyurethane. The end inside the ferrule is flat and the butt end of the tuft is glued directly to it. This is the weakest part of the brush, because the end is not lacquered or varnished so that the adhesive can bond tightly with the wood. Prolonged soaking will expand the wood and loosen the adhesive holding the tuft in place. Acrylic handles are also used, particularly for synthetic brushes. Handles vary widely in diameter and length, but generally are shorter for watercolor brushes than for oil/acrylic brushes.  

Brush Sizes. Round brushes are sized using a standard numbering system that ranges from #00000 or #000 for the smallest brushes, then typically runs #00, #0, #1 to #12 in single number intervals, then #14 to #20 in even number intervals, and sometimes #24 or higher for the largest brushes.

I have not found an explanation for how these numbers are defined or assigned to a brush size. The best analogy is that they are like shoe sizes, fairly standard but somewhat different across manufacturers and styles. The numbers usually identify the relative sizes of brushes within the same type of brush by the same manufacturer. But across manufacturers, brushes of the same numerical size and type will typically not be exactly the same actual size or shape. (Compare the Winsor & Newton #10, the Daniel Smith #12 red sable, and the Yarka #8 in Figure 1: these are all round brushes of approximately the same size.)

Because English brushes are typically made with wider bellies, there are effectively two numbering systems, English and continental (or European). The English numbers refer to a larger brush: an English size 8 brush is equivalent to a German size 9, an English 12 to a German 14, and so on. Flats, thankfully, are usually sized by the measured width of the edge of the ferrule, although some companies size their flats with a numbering system similar to rounds.

Brushes are handmade from raw materials that vary widely in quality and availability. For that reason, brushes are always subtly different from each other, even when they come from the same manufacturer, in the same size and in the same series number. Even synthetic brushes show this variation — a pleasant reminder that these are among the oldest tools made for the human hand.

There's an endearing set of pictures of the Escoda brush manufactory and staff at the Escoda brush web site.

brush hair & bristle
Nearly all the magic in a brush is in the selection of the tuft materials and how they are shaped and secured to the handle. This determines the resiliency or "spring" in the brush, how much water it can hold, the variety of effects it can render, and how long it stands up to use.

Brush Labeling. In the brushmaker's world, the label "kolinsky" refers to the guard hairs from the tail of the winter pelt of a male animal; these hairs are a distinctive orangish brown with a dark tip. The animals must live in very cold climates for the hair to achieve the desired thickness and length. As kolinskies do not breed in captivity (or so the story goes), the reclusive animals must be caught in the wild by vodka fortified trappers.

In fact, the animals are in the genus Mustela, which includes minks, ermines, ferrets, polecats and weasels, many of which are bred commercially. Many feral animals in Russia and China (including Mustela sibirica or the Siberian weasel) are classified as endangered by international treaty, which prohibits or heavily restricts trapping wild populations.

Some "kolinsky" brushes are made from the pelts of very different Mustela species, often cultivated in warmer (commercially more convenient) climates, which affects the hair quality. Less desirable grades of hair also called "kolinsky" come from other parts of the pelt, from the pelts of female animals, or from summer coats; this hair is sometimes very different from the winter male tail. Some manufacturers use "kolinsky" hair harvested from species of marten or red sable, which are in the Martes group of animals. (Often as not, the "scientific" species names used in art materials marketing literature to refer to harvested animals are either fictitious or garbled.)

Conclusion: as applied to currently available watercolor brushes, the label "kolinsky" does not consistently refer to any species of harvested animal, type of hair or hair attribute. The right attitude is always to replace the word "kolinsky" with the word "varmint," and proceed to evaluate the brush from there.

Most sable brushes are more expensive than synthetic bristle brushes, sometimes exorbitantly so (see the price information under brush brands). There is heavy marketing emphasis on "kolinsky" hair brushes, which is ironic since many experienced artists feel that the quality of "kolinsky" or sable hair has declined significantly over the past few decades. As often happens, volume manufacture eventually degrades the quality of the final product.

There are many business variables between harvesting the hair and tying off the tuft of a brush: wholesalers sell hair in a range of qualities, hairs purchased by the brush manufacturer must be further inspected and sorted, and some manufacturers are more rigorous than others about discarding broken, short or substandard hairs from their stock. The supplies available to wholesalers vary because of many business and environmental factors; some wholesalers are better than others about informing their clients of these variations.

In short, without manufacturer or import regulations, and given the fundamental variation in the seasonal pelts of these sexually dimorphic mammals, the label "kolinsky" tells you nothing about the quality of the brush you are buying, and as often or not is misleading as to one or more qualities of the hair actually used. If you can visit a well stocked art retail store, compare the brushes from different manufacturers and see for yourself!

Natural Hair & Bristle. Natural hair is in many respects the superior material to use in a brush.

1. Round brushes
(left to right): Winsor & Newton #10 Series 7, Da Vinci #12 Maestro kolinsky, Daniel Smith #12 red sable, Daniel Smith #12 oxhair, Yarka #8 Kolinsky sable


2. Round brushes
same brushes as above, but wet


3. Flat brushes
(left to right): Daniel Smith acrylic synthetic 1", Daniel Smith Kolinsky sable 1", Isabey red sable 1", Isabey mongoose 1"


4. Mop brushes
(left to right): Isabey squirrel mop (dry) #8, Isabey squirrel mop (wet) #6, Isabey filbert


5. Wash brushes
(left to right): Isabey 2" squirrel wash, Daniel Smith 2" cactus wash, Winsor & Newton 2" Taklon wash


6. Specialty brushes
(top to bottom): Winsor & Newton #6 fan brush, Daniel Smith #9 liner brush, Isabey #8 and #4 detail brush, Daniel Smith #6 and #0 rigger brush, Isabey #2 travel squirrel mop, Daniel Smith #2 travel sable round


7. Japanese brushes
(left to right): yoju hake, bamboo hake, gyokuran sumi brush, sansui koraku sumi brush


Kolinsky Sable. The most exalted hair for use in watercolor brushes is kolinsky sable, which is said to come from the winter pelts of the Siberian kolinsky, Mustela sibirica, a variety of weasel or mink (shown at right, wondering why you are so interested in his tail). These are considered the ideal hair for watercolor brushes because the hair gently tapers at both ends, with a very sharp point at the tip and a widening of the shaft (the belly) about two thirds of the hair's length from the tip to the root. The taper of the hair from the belly to the tip is what gives natural hair brushes their capacity and their ability to point so well. At its best, kolinsky sable is durable and has a spring and resilience unmatched in any other brush material.

Red sable. This is usually from the pelt of various subspecies of marten (Martes martes) or sable (Martes zibellina). The hair is slightly thinner and stiffer than kolinsky but comparably resilient and thirsty. Red sable is usually a somewhat darker and duller brown than kolinsky, and the tips are a little blunter because the hair has a more abrupt taper. Because red sable hair is not as long as kolinsky, there usually is less hair visible outside the ferrule in a red sable brush (the ferrule must pinch the hair just below the belly to get the tapering effect). Sable can make excellent brushes when the hairs are high quality and are arranged properly by the brushmaker. In most brush brands, "red sable" hair is indistinguishable from or substituted for "kolinsky" hair.

Squirrel hair. A dark, soft, dense hair that is normally used in brushes that must hold a lot of water or that do not need spring in the tip (for example mops, flats, filberts, wash brushes). Squirrel is an exceptionally soft, absorbent hair. All varieties produce a brush that is very absorbent, not springy, but that comes to an excellent point. Kazan squirrel hair is brown, thin and quite soft, sometimes with a salt-and-pepper speckling of white. Canadian squirrel is a slightly thicker, less resilient, considerably shorter hair with more belly; it is usually a variegated yellow and black.

Ox hair. Usually a brown or reddish hair, long yet stiff, taken from the ears of cattle. It will not come to a point because the hair is roughly cylindrical throughout its length. It is inexpensive, strong and springy, which makes it great for rougher brush techniques. It is also often mixed with other less resilient materials (such as inexpensive sable or synthetic fibers) to give the ox hair tuft a better pointing capability. Sabeline is very fine ox hair, dyed red to match the color of red sable, and either used by itself or with sable (or nylon fibers) in blends.

Boar bristle. A pale or white bristle, very stiff, taken from the ears of hogs. "Bristle" means that the shaft does not come to a single point but frays or splits near the tip into "flags" or small protrusions. These tend to reduce the capillary action, making bristles more suitable for oil or acrylic brushes. Watercolorists sometimes choose them in brights or fans for textural effects, or in brushes used for scumbling or scrubbing away (lifting) paint layers or painting mistakes.

Mongoose hair. Another hair more commonly used in acrylic or oil brushes. Has a very distinctive and delightful coloring: brown tipped, white banded, then dappled white and black along the shaft. Holds a lot of liquid, and is stiff but with velvety tips. Some watercolorists use these brushes for textured washes and a variety of scumbling effects.

Goat hair. A long, coarse, wavy and limp hair that is most often found in Japanese wash and calligraphic brushes. Because the shaft is very soft, wavy and cylindrical (does not taper to a point), it is not suitable in traditional rounds that require a needle point.

Camel. The most appropriate translation for this label is "an inexpensive brush not made from a camel." The hair is not from a camel, is too inexpensive to label accurately, and may be many other types of hair besides sable (typically the hair is black squirrel, or a blend of two natural hairs such as squirrel and ox).

Synthetics. The variety of synthetic fibers on the market is large and growing. The best synthetics are as resilient as sable and as thirsty as squirrel, though they soften and wear quickly in use. Tapered synthetic fibers retain their shape better than "level filament" (untapered) fibers. They are used in the same shapes as other brushes: flats, brights, filberts, and rounds. Synthetic fibers are made of nylon, polyester, or other filaments. Color is not a factor in judging their quality.

The best synthetic fibers are extruded and treated in different configurations to resemble natural hair. Increasingly sophisticated extrusions are making it possible to produce much less expensive brushes with many of the same qualities as natural hair. Synthetic brushes also combine filaments of different diameters to achieve various qualities. Brush fibers are mostly of Japanese manufacture, though they are also made in the USA and Europe.

Synthetics generally don't point very well when used alone in rounds, so they are often mixed with natural hair. Many lines of brushes available today mix bristle types, for example natural sable with synthetic fibers, or ox hair with red sable (these are called blends). These mixed bristle brushes are often bargains and produce perfectly satisfactory results. Many artists purchase synthetics by the dozens because they are so inexpensive, and throw them away as soon as the brush begin to wear or fatigue.

Do not be misled by kolinsky snobbery into thinking that kolinsky is the only kind of brush you should buy. You are only falling prey to a marketing gimmick.


Last revised 08.17.2007 • © 2007 Bruce MacEvoy

a male kolinsky