the brush and brushstrokes

The brush is the physical spirit of the painter in the act of painting.

The range and quality of brushstrokes conveys the experience, feeling and conviction of the painter, in the same way physical movement of the body expresses the culture, emotion and energy of the human being.

which gives the brushstroke a vivid physical and spirital dimension. It expresses the painter's movements, as well as his thoughts and observations.

The various skills of working with paints — pigment choices, color mixing, and accurate dilution — are by comparison something the viewer cannot see as clearly. Although these choices contribute powerfully to the visible effect of the finished painting, they are not visible in the way brushstrokes are.

The narrative elements of the work — the color harmonies, historical subject, imitation of the light of dawn — these are all kinds of stories or arguments that the painter uses on us to affect us in a rhetorical way.

In the act of painting the brush is the body of the painter, the actual telling, the actual voice that is telling.

Many of these attributes are related to the nature of water and discussed in more detail in that page. The techniques covered under wet in wet involve the fusing effects of water in ways that partly eradicate the brushstroke or significantly vary its color texture.

brushstroke attributes

At the outset we should try to identify the unique attributes of the watercolor brushstroke, or the attributes in which it excels compared to other media, and use these attributes to guide the ways in which we study and develop our watercolor technique.

The essence of any brushstroke is that it is a distinct visual area and physical gesture unified by color and texture. That is, a brushstroke imparts texture and color (a specific hue, chroma and value) to a section of canvas or paper, and the edge contrast between this texture and color and the textures and colors around it defines the brushstroke as a distinct movement or unified group of movements with the arm.

Compared to other media, the watercolor brushstroke has little texture apart from color. In oils we can paint a surface with white paint, and the physical texture of the brush bristles remains in the paint even though the brushstrokes are completely blended together as a single color and value. In watercolors (including gouache), the gum medium is very fluid, spreading out on the paper; when used at high concentrations or thick applications, watercolor paints often bronze, crack, bleed or dry incompletely. (Various texturing media are available to add volume or surface texture to watercolor paints. The fact that these additives are necessary only proves the point.)

Granted this limitation in physical texture, the watercolor brushstroke still has a wide texturing range through the use of color alone. On the one hand, it is very powerful at unifying large areas because of the fusing effect of water on the paint texture. The only way to achieve comparable effects in other media is with many brushstrokes of a closely averaged texture, which often imparts to these color areas a perceptible density or heaviness that is entirely lacking in a watercolor wash.

On the other hand, the staining or absorptive properties of water also permit wide variations in hue, chroma or value within a single brushstroke. In other media the brushstroke carries a premixed color whose opacity ensures consistent color along the length of the stroke; the paint medium is dense, so the color cannot be easily diluted or altered once it is applied. In watercolors, a new brushstroke can fuse with other still wet strokes or wash areas, take on additional charges of paint or clear water, be blotted, or pool into uneven color areas (through cockling of wet paper or tilting the paper surface).

A traditional distinction between "finished" oil paintings and watercolor "sketches" was that in watercolors the brushstrokes were visible as distinct marks. This is no longer a point on which the media are contrasted; but in watercolors distinct brushstrokes are easier to achieve and harder to disguise. Great skill is required to produce a watercolor wash with no hint of brush irregularities. Paint transparency permits foundation brushstrokes to show through paint laid over them, and this is enhanced when previous paint layers are left to dry completely before new paint is added.

This fact makes the watercolor brushstroke more analytical or calligraphic than brushstrokes in other media. In the paintings of John Cotman, landscapes are analyzed into discrete but overlapping wash areas; in the paintings of Paul Signac they are dissolved into discrete marks of pure color. The point is not that other media cannot achieve similar visual effects, but that in watercolors these effects are more difficult to avoid or efface, and so must be managed from the very beginning as part of the overall painting style. Cotman had to analyze landscape into overlapping planes of color before starting a painting; Signac had to carefully accumulate brushstrokes of the right size and color to achieve a balanced final effect.

Because of the relative thinness or transparency of the transparent watercolor medium, the watercolor brushstroke accumulates dullness or darkness or both with successive layers of paint. In oils the opacity of the medium hides brushstrokes underneath; light or dark values can be applied at any point, and one can replace the other in a process of editing. In watercolors the light areas must be those that receive no or very little paint, and so must be "reserved" from the start; dark areas are those that receive thick or dark paint. In this respect, watercolors and pencil drawings are very similar.

Finally, the unusual fluidity of the watercolor medium and the corresponding delicacy of the brush tufts lets watercolor brushstrokes produce much longer and gradually changing lines than the strokes in other media. An oil brushstroke is quickly exhausted, because the capillary release of the dense oil paint is much slower, so the stroke changes from fat color to scratchy thin texture over a relatively short distance. Watercolors have the capacity to make very long, continuous, contouring and flexibly weighted lines — again comparable to the effects possible with pencil or charcoal.

how a brush works

Apart from quality of manufacture and durability in use, there are four major attributes of a watercolor brush: (1) the capacity of the brush hairs or filaments to hold pure water or paint, (2) the resilience or spring of the hairs when displaced by water expansion or pressure of the brush on paper, (3) the release of liquid from the brush when the tuft is applied to paper, and (4) the amount of residual liquid that remains in the brush after the liquid has been transferred to paper.

Brush Structure. The brush tuft consists of many parallel hairs or fibers gathered tightly at one end. In natural sable or weasel hair, the diameter of the hair shaft is greatest about one third the length from the root to the tip, and tapers to a fine point at the tip. This widest point is called the belly of the hair (a in the diagram). Other natural hairs, such as squirrel, have a less pronounced belly, if any; synthetic bristles have no belly at all.

schematics of brush structure and water capacity

When the individual hairs are gathered into a tuft, the root ends of the hair are cut off, and the hair below the belly is tied together, tightly pinching the hairs. The hairs have to widen as the shaft diameter increases to the belly of the hairs, which is positioned outside the ferrule. As a result the hairs fan outward, creating wide gaps between the hair tips (b in the diagram). Because other natural hairs or synthetic fibers have smaller bellies or none at all, the hairs of the dry tuft are more closely parallel. (In synthetic brushes, the tuft does not fan out at all.)


brushstroke attributes

how a brush works

brush wetness & capacity

brushstroke evolution

brush technique

the confident brush

When the tuft is wetted, water penetrates between the hairs or fibers and clings electrostatically to their surfaces. As the brush is pulled from water much of this water is pulled away by gravity, and this movement of water out of the brush pulls the free ends of the tuft hairs closer together, reducing the space along their parallel sides.

This sets up a tension between three competing forces: (1) the pull of gravity downward, which draws the water out of tuft; (2) the pull of the hairs or bristles outward, which returns them to their "dry" shape; and (3) the electrostatic "cling" of the water molecules inward, which wants to keep the water together. At the balance point of these downward, outward and inward forces, the tuft retains a stable shape, and water is held inside it.

This balance is easier to understand by comparison with two common alternatives: a household broom and a lank of human hair.

If we plunge a broom in a bucket of water, then lift it out, most of the water is drawn away by gravity (1), because the stiffness of the straw (2) is far stronger than the pull of water inward (3). The discharge of water is relatively rapid and reduces quickly to a drip. We can dislodge more water by striking the broom vertically against the floor, but this is because the impact displaces water held in the narrow crannies between the straws at the point where they are tied together.

If a woman with long hair dives in a pool, then steps out again, the water drains from her hair in a gradually slowing flow, because there is no outward pull of her hair (2) into separate strands. As a result, the spaces between the hairs can close until the hairs are nearly touching, which occurs because of the downward pull on the hair and water by gravity (1). These narrowing spaces and the direct pull of gravity force the water downward, until it drips away from the hair ends, which leaves only the water directly in contact with the hair shafts along their length (3). However, the excess water must flow "single file" down the hair shafts and off the ends, which produces a relatively slow and continuous water discharge.

Thus, the key in a watercolor brush is the outward "spring" of the individual hairs (2). This is produced by the amount of spread or fanning in the dry tuft, the length of the hairs, and the resilience or resistance to bending of the hairs. The hair shafts never close together completely (as in wet human hair), which creates many parallel gaps inside the tuft (c in the diagram above). These gaps are never so far apart that water cannot cling between them (as in the broom). This balance between outward spring and inward cling, multiplied across the number and length of hairs in the tuft, determines the brush capacity.

If the hairs could be made invisible, so that we could see the water directly (d in the diagram above), it would appear as a conical bead of water, densest at its tip and tapering into dozens of thin water columns at its base, as the tuft is pinched into the ferrule. Because the hairs around the outside of the tuft must be pulled farther inward to create the tip of the wetted tuft, the spaces between these hairs are made larger by the greater outward pull of the individual hairs (2). These wider spaces make the water bead densest around the outside of the tuft and least dense at its center.

the changing shape of a brush

left to right: completely dry brush, completely saturated brush, thirsty or moist brush (white outline in other images); blue line indicates the hair bellies, which are the limit of usable brush capacity

These photographs of a #12 kolinsky round watercolor brush show these characteristic changes in the tuft shape. The hairs in a well cupped dry tuft (left) fan outward because of the wedging effect of the pinched hair bellies, indicated by the blue line above the ferrule. When wetted and fully charged with water, the tuft hairs are pulled together to a sharp point, changing the shape of the tuft above the blue line. If the tuft is blotted dry with a paper towel, most of the water is squeezed out and the hairs are touching all the way from the ferrule to the tip. This "thirsty" shape is shown as a white outline over the saturated and dried tufts. The wider shape of the saturated tuft is caused by the volume of water inside it; the even wider shape of the dried tuft is caused by the cupping and pinching of the hairs.

Synthetic brush filaments are sometimes cylindrical and sometimes tapered, depending on the sythetic material used and the method of extruding the filament in manufacture; some synthetic brushes are made with identical filaments, others with different sized filaments at the center and outside of the tuft. In general, synthetic brushes have a lower water capacity because the spaces between the wetted filaments are smaller, and the hairs are aligned parallel to begin with. "Blends" or mixed natural hair and synthetic filament brush tufts can approximate the behavior of a natural hair tuft, depending on how the tuft was cupped.

Liquid Uptake and Release. This delicate balance between downward, outward and inward pulls determines the behavior of the brush during painting.

When the tuft is immersed in liquid, the "cling" of the water between the hairs is balanced by the tension of water around the outside of the tuft, and the pull of gravity downwards is eliminated. (This is why the woman's hair, if she crouches without movement under the water, floats as a cloud around her head.) The spaces between the tufts widen, and water flows into the tuft.

When the tuft is pulled out of the liquid, some water immediately flows out of the tuft, pulled downward by gravity. This slows to a drip as the cling of water within the tuft balances the downward pull. The dripping stops sooner if the brush is held horizontally, because the width of the tuft is smaller so there is less water to press downward. If the brush is held vertically, the water at the tip is pressed on by water along the entire length of the tuft, which pushes more water out through the tip.

When the tuft is applied to dry paper, brushstroke pressure on the tuft causes the hairs to spread apart. This increases the gaps between the hairs, reducing the cling of the water molecules, and allows water to flow onto the paper. Usually the sizing on fresh dried paper is slightly hydrophobic — water sprayed on dry paper will form separate beads — so only gravity pulls water from the tuft. If the paper has been wetted and dried, or is already moist, then the hydrophilic pull of paper or water draws more water or paint from the brush.

Paint or water is never completely pulled from the tuft by a brushstroke: some liquid always remains in the tuft up near the ferrule. This is because the hairs are pinched closer together, creating smaller crannies that water or paint can cling to with greater strength. As a result, if the brush is dipped into a different color of paint, the brushstroke will begin with the second color, but gradually fade back into the previous color (e in the diagram above). (If water is substituted for one of the paints, the stroke will show a gradual lightening or darkening of the color.)

This is also why you should always wet a brush before picking up paint. The first charge of water reaches all the way up to the base of the tuft, where it acts as a barrier to paint. If a dry tuft is used to pick up paint, the paint penetrates all the way to the ferrule line or beyond, where it can cake permanently, splaying the tuft hairs. This reduces the brush capacity and causes the hairs at the tip to separate.

More liquid can be discharged from the tuft if greater pressure is applied to it; this forces apart the hairs closer to the tuft. However, the pressure also flattens the tuft, which closes the gaps between the hairs in the center and prevents liquid on the opposite side from flowing downward. As a result, after firm pressure, you can turn the brush over (rotate it half a complete turn), and there will be more paint available to brush out.

A minor but annoying complication is that pure water has greater "cling" than moderately diluted paint. (This is why paint mixed with water creates a flatter bead on a metal or plastic palatte than pure water.) The hairs are pulled more tightly together, and it is harder to pull water out of the tuft. This is why a brush charged with pure water and stroked across dry paper seems to run out of liquid faster than the same brush charged with an equal amount of paint. As a result, a brush charged with water seems to require more trips to the water container to completely wet an area of paper that can be covered easily with fewer charges of paint.

Tuft Cupping and Brush Behavior. Finally, we can use our understanding of brush behavior to clarify what is required in a well cupped brush. Much of this comes down to the brush's pointing.

First, if the hairs in the tuft are too stiff, the water "cling" will not be strong enough to pull the hairs completely together, and the tuft will not come to a needle point when the brush is snapped. Usually the point splits into two points, or forms a small "chisel" shape that seems to be a point when viewed from one side but turns out to be a blunt or flat tip when the brush is given a quarter turn. The tuft is also more likely to show "strays" or hairs sticking individually out the sides of the tuft.

If the hairs in the tuft are too pliable, then the tuft will come to a point but the capacity of the brush will be reduced, as the hairs can be pulled more closely together. The tuft will also bend more easily under pressure, which makes it difficult to work paint into the depressions of papers with a pronounced tooth. To compensate, the tufts may be made slightly larger than the equivalent size in other brush brands.

To avoid these extremes, a well cupped watercolor brush places longer, more resilient hairs at the center and shorter, less resilient hairs around the outside. These outer hairs have to bend farther inward to form a tip, but can do so because they have less spring. They do not affect the quality of the tip formed by the stiffer central hairs, because they are shorter and do not reach all the way to the point of the tuft. In a really fine brush, you can feel this difference in resilience between the central and outer hairs of a dry tuft as a perceptible difference in stiffness as you lightly stroke the ends of the different hairs against the back of your hand.

All this depends on the specific design of the brush. Some rounds are made with a larger belly, or a stronger taper to the point, or a longer tuft — design differences that produce brushes with different capacities and pointing or shaping capabilities — and you have to judge the quality of the tuft terms of those design requirements. (Also, keep in mind that brushes sized in the English system will be larger than the same size in the European system.)

In use, the brush is essentially a bead of liquid, in size anywhere from a dewdrop to a large hailstone, suspended on the end of a stick. You release this bead of water by gently pressing the tuft against the surface of the paper. This pressure causes some of the hairs in the tuft to spread apart slightly — first the longest hairs at the tip of the tuft, then the shorter hairs along the sides, and then all hairs higher up the hair shafts — and this progressive widening gradually weakens the capillary hold on the water, releasing liquid onto the paper.

brush wetness & capacity

Every brush has two important attributes: the maximum amount of water or paint it can hold (its capacity), and the quantity of water it will release in contact with a surface (its wetness). Both are important, and it's useful to be able to assess brushes on these attributes.

Brush Capacity and Release. Brushmakers understand that there is a delicate balance that must be struck in the spread of the tuft and the elastic stiffness of the hairs. Limp and fine hairs will make a fluffy, pliant tuft, but the hairs will pack so closely together when wet that the tuft will hold less water, and release this water grudgingly and only under pressure. Stiffer or thicker hairs can potentially hold more water because the spaces between the hairs are larger, but the water release tends to be harder to control, especially at the beginning of the stroke, because pressure against the paper flexes the stiffer shaft farther up its length.

typical variations in brush capacity and release

The best brushes strike the right balance between tufts with enough spring to create many large water holding cavities alongside the hairs, but enough flexibility so that the capillary tension of the water can pull the bristles to a clean point. Understanding the mechanics of a well made watercolor brush helps you both to choose and to use brushes more skillfully.

The best way to come to a concrete understanding of the wetness in a brush is to measure it. This is easy to do, although the amount of water a brush seems to hold changes depending on how it is measured.

To measure the brush, first thoroughly wet the brush in clear water, then shake out the excess by snapping the brush once or twice from your wrist. Gently shape the tuft if necessary. Then the measurements are:

• Wetted Capacity. Shake out the brush and blot with a paper towel to a thirsty wetness. Then use an eyedropper to add drops to the tuft, one at a time; wait until one drop is completely absorbed before adding another. Stop when the first drop falls from the tip of the brush held at a 45° angle. This is the total amount of water the brush can hold, or its capacity.

• Patted Capacity. Now charge the brush again with water, let the brush drain until drops are infrequent, then transfer the water to your palette by patting or poking the brush onto the palette. To measure what's there, suck the water off the palette with an eyedropper; squeeze the water out and count the drops.

• Wicked Capacity. Next, charge the brush with water, and transfer the water to your palette by wicking the brush against the top edge of a paint well or palette rim. Suck up and count as before.

• Stroke Length. Prepare a very dilute solution of a very strongly tinting paint (such as phthalocyanine green or dioxazine violet); the solution should be faintly tinted water. Saturate the premoistened brush in the solution, lift it and wait until dripping stops when the brush is held vertically. Then bring the brush to paper and draw a single stroke with it, stopping when the stroke begins to show pinholing or gaps within the stroke (rather than along its edge). Do this twice. Measure the length of the strokes and take the average (add them and divide by 2).

• Stroke Backrun. All brushes release more paint at the beginning of a stroke, and when this excess dries it creates a backrun. After both strokes have dried, measure the limit of the backrun from the start of both strokes, and take the average.

This table shows a representative range in the values that result from each method, for small and large brushes, and for rounds and flats.

illustrative brush capacities




capacity (drops)

stroke (inches)






Daniel Smithkolinsky round#61234.55.5
ABS Brusheskolinsky round#62354.516.5
Raphaelkolinsky round#62363.59.5
Cheap Joe'sLegend#62336.59
ABS Brusheskolinsky flat1/2"4613319
Daniel Smithkolinsky flat1/2"4613413.5
Cheap Joe'sMagic Dragon1/2"59145.519

As you see, there are wide differences among brushes in the amount of water they can hold, and that they can release under mechanical pressure (patting or wicking).

The flats hold much more water, increase more quickly in water capacity as the brush size increases, and give up proportionately less water under mechanical pressure. These are ideal for applying large amounts of paint to a large surface area.

The rounds hold proportionately less water, give it up more readily under mechanical pressure,

The release of a brush concerns two factors: the ability of the brush to let go of the water it holds so that paint can flow onto the paper, and to release the water in a consistent flow so that the paint mark is smooth and even.

Clearly, the preferable brush is one that releases the least water when it is patted or wicked, but has the most capacity when wetted. This is because the mechanical release happens just by touching the brush to the paper. This release is very difficult to control. On the other hand, any brush can be thoroughly dried out by wiping it across enough paper. So its wetted capacity can be completely released onto the paper.

Brush Wetness. The easiest to evaluate and the most important to painting effects is the brush wetness. This attribute does not change with the size of the brush (as capacity does), but is really a measure of how much water the brush will release when stroked across paper.

The table presents a simple series of labels that you can use to make yourself more aware of brush wetness.

six degrees of brush wetness
  0  dry• tuft is completely dry
• has not been prewetted and dried with a paper towel
• (a dry brush should not be used to wick water or pick up paint)
1damp• tuft barely damp
• brush prewetted, then nearly all water or paint drawn off by repeatedly blotting the tuft on a dry paper towel, or by covering the tuft with a dry paper towel and firmly squeezing with thumb and fingers
• releases only traces of paint or water when rubbed on paper
2thirstytuft firmly snapped (shaken out)
• has been firmly wicked (pressed until tuft bends and then pulled against the edge of the water container or paint well), or exhausted by painting on dry paper
• little water or paint is released by the brush
• brushstroke shows streaking and/or pinholing
3wicked• tuft is gently wicked (touched lightly against the edge of the water container or paint well) or used to paint about half its flow capacity
• contains sufficient water or paint to release in an even flow without any pinholes or streaking
• starts stroke with controlled paint flow, but may leave a small bead of water when brush is lifted from paper
4saturated• tuft is fully charged with liquid
• lifted from the paint or water with one gentle wicking, or held at a downward angle until dripping stops
• holds all liquid if held with the tuft pointing downward
• releases an uncontrolled, large bead of liquid when touched to paper, leaves a bead of liquid when brush is lifted from paper
5dripping• tuft is overfull
• drips liquid if the tuft is held at a downward angle, but may not drip if the tuft is held horizontally

The white outline shows the shape of the "thirsty" tuft (right) — that is, a tuft that has been thoroughly wetted, then shaken out vigorously to shed as much water as possible. The hairs are packed very closely together, and the capillary potential of the hair interstices is very high. The brush will suck up water or paint as efficiently as a small sponge or piece of paper towel.

The saturated brush (middle) has expanded to contain the additional water, and this expansion has obviously occurred primarily in the tip rather than close to the ferrule. In fact, you can eyeball the approximate quantity of water in a brush by looking specifically at the tip. A "thirsty" tuft will come to a needle point; a saturated tuft will come to a blunt or splayed tip, sometimes with paint beading at the tip. Similar changes occur in a watercolor flat, along the painting edge: the "thirsty" brush comes to a razor edge, while the saturated brush shows a fat, irregular edge.

The maximum quantity of water that can be held in equilibrium (without dripping) by the capillary action of the tuft is the capacity of the brush. The capillary mechanics of a watercolor brush cause the capacity of a tuft to increase significantly if it is held horizontally rather than vertically.

Held vertically, water flows down the hair shafts; this increased water volume pushes apart the ends of the hairs, which reduces the capillary pull at the tip of the brush. This in turn accelerates further flow of water to the tip and further spreading of the hairs, until the mass of water exceeds the weakened capillary pull of the tuft and escapes as a drop.

Held horizontally, the water flows to the side of the tuft. Here the hair is flexed closer to the ferrule, and so resists bending more easily, and water is actually drawn away from the tip of the tuft, increasing capillary pull at the free end. Both forces minimize the displacement of the hairs caused by the increased water volume. This is why carrying the brush horizontally from mixing area to paper reduces the likelihood of paint drips along the way, and why a saturated brush carried horizontally will sometimes shed a drop when it is turned vertically.

There are two different approaches to drying or reducing moisture in a brush — shaking or blotting. Shaking out a brush has the merit of pulling water downwards equally from all sides of the brush, and reducing mechanical shear or pulling on the brush hairs. Blotting pulls water primarily from the point of contact with the towel or sponge, and can be used to shape the tuft for particular purposes.

Blotting with pressure (wrapping the tuft in a towel and pinching it between the fingers) is the most effective way to eliminate moisture, but this should not be done unless the tuft has been thoroughly rinsed with pure water. If the tuft is charged with paint, blotting with pressure will extract the water but pinch the smallest paint particles between the brush hairs, forcing them upwards into the core of the tuft. This residue paint can build up near the ferrule and damage the tuft or stain the next paint mixture taken up by the brush.

brushstroke evolution

If you charge a brush with paint, apply the brush to paper, and make a single long stroke until the brush completely runs out of paint, the brushstroke will change its appearance from beginning to end. At the start of the stroke, the paint will be dark and thick, and at the end the paint will be faint, uneven and scratchy.

These changes are the evolution of the brushstroke. Each brushstroke has a definite beginning, middle and end; each part of the brushstroke contributes a unique quality to the finished appearance of the paint. Brushes and paints differ in the kinds of stroke variations they can produce, but some illustrations will show the most common features.

Producing a single, long stroke is usually awkward to do on a normal sheet of watercolor paper, so these examples show repeated strokes of the same length, made one after another down the page.

1/2" flat brushstrokes

natural hair brush (left) and synthetic fiber brush (right); numbers indicate the sequence of the strokes in each series

The first example shows ultramarine blue paint at a liquid concentration, applied with a 1/2" flat natural hair ("kolinsky") and synthetic bristle brush.

As is usual, the natural hair brush holds more paint (the number of paint rows is greater) than the same sized synthetic brush, because the synthetic filaments have a slightly larger diameter, and the hairs are stiffer, so there are fewer more restricted crannies between the filaments. The natural hair brush also releases the paint more evenly, because the synthetic filaments are stiffer when wet: this transfers slight irregularities in the spacing of the filaments or the density of pigment as light or dark bands parallel to the stroke (synthetic strokes 3 and 5). This stiffness is also why the synthetic filaments show less of the paper texture toward the end of the stroke (compare strokes 8 and 11). In short, the natural hair brush produces a longer, smoother and more widely textured brushstroke than the equivalent synthetic brush.

On the other hand, the natural hair brush leaves a small excess puddle of paint at the end of each stroke, where the brush is lifted from the paper, which results in a small blossom or backrun. These are much smaller or completely absent with the synthetic brush. This is a common nuisance with natural hair brushes, and occurs because the natural hairs close together with less force at the end of the stroke than the stiffer synthetic filaments. It can be minimized by charging the brush with less paint — dipping the tuft only halfway into paint, and wicking excess from the tuft before painting — and by reducing the vertical angle of the brush before lifting it from the paper. (If the brush is a flat, the edge should also be "rotated" off the paper so that one corner is lifted before the other.)

#8 round brushstrokes

natural hair brush on left, synthetic fiber brush on right; numbers indicate sequence of strokes

A similar progression appears in the round brushes, with two differences. Both the natural and synthetic round brushes release their paint over a longer stroke than flats, because the hairs or filaments are longer (they have more capacity) and distribute the paint in a narrower stroke. Second, the number of strokes that the natural and synthetic brushes can produce is roughly the same; the capacity of natural and synthetic rounds are nearly equal. This occurs because the typical synthetic round has essentially a cylindrical shape from the ferrule nearly to the tip, while the natural hair tuft tapers as a cone from the belly to the tip. A cylinder has a larger volume than a cone of equal length, and this compensates for the general tendency of the synthetic filaments to have a smaller capacity.

The brushstroke evolution of the synthetic round shows more clearly that liquid is first drawn off from the tip and outside of the tuft, and last from the core: in the later strokes only the center of the tuft produces a dark streak of paint.

There is also less difference in the length of the core and outside filaments in the synthetic round, and no difference in their resiliency, so the synthetic round can "pinch up" more liquid at the end of the stroke. In a natural hair round, the core hairs are much longer and stiffer than the hairs around the outside. The blossoms or backruns at the end of the natural round brushstrokes are therefore more pronounced, especially in the first strokes when the liquid flows from the outside and tip of the water bead (compare strokes 1, 5 and 9).

Effects of Water/Paint. The visual quality of the brushstroke also depends on the qualities of water or paint solution.

The key factors are: how much liquid is in the brush, the amount of water or paint already on the paper surface, the viscosity (dilution) of the paint, the amount of paint diffusion wet in wet, the pigment particle size, and the pigment specific gravity.

Wet brush releases more.

Wet paper diffuses marks, with an energy equal to the amount of moisture in the brush — the dilution of the paint.

Activity of paint augments the effect of paper moisture.

Fine pigments show blossoms or backruns readily, and resist retouching.

The interior of the stroke adopts a color texture depending on the mixture of the paint. Types of brushstrokes depend on consistency of paint, how it is mixed, and how it is applied.

Dragging dry pigment.

Effects of Tuft Construction. Brush capacity is the first attribute of a brush, and valuable: we pay more for larger brushes, in other words brushes that hold more water.

But we also pay more for brushes that produce distinctive marks, and these marks tend either toward a flexible shape, or a flexible line, depending on how wide they are and how the tuft is shaped.

The wettest (most capacious) brushes are the sky and wash brushes, used to apply paint to large surfaces of paper. Some of these are 3 inches or more wide, and can be used on large sheets from full sheet to archival. They produce large, flexible shapes, but cannot be used to paint lines.

Rounds are the brush adapted to produce flexible shapes across a broad range of wetness — that is, from the huge #24 to the tiny #0000. Regardless of size, the round tends to produce teardrop or oval shaped marks, which can be stretched out to make lines of varying thicknesses. But these lines will always show the subtle waverings of the hand, even those caused by breathing, and become subtly wider or thinner as the pressure, direction or speed of the brushstroke changes.

Flats are the brush adapted to paint crisp edges, corners, and thick brushstrokes whose edges are perfectly parallel, even when they waver.

brush technique

This is how to use a brush.

The Swiss Army Brush. Skillfully used, a watercolor brush can be many different types of tools. These differences largely arise from the amount of moisture in the brush, but also from using nonstandard parts of the brush to make marks.

the swiss army watercolor brush


How to Hold a Brush. The source of the brushstroke gesture is the arm. It's important to understand the arm as a way to vary and control your brushstroke.

the four pivots of the arm (and brushstroke)

The arm as a limb gets its strength from the upper arm and shoulder, and its dexterity from the fingers; the joints in between — wrist and elbow — act to adjust the balance between force and skill. (Most wrist injuries involve repeated precision movements; most elbow injuries involve repeated energetic movements, as in tennis or baseball.)

The arm alternates the joint types: fingers and elbow produce lever or hinge movements, called flexion and extension; wrist and shoulder produce universal or rotating movements, called supperation and rotation. This flexibility can be restricted by the muscles to move in a plane, like the hinge movements of the elbow or arm.

Two kinds of muscle actions are used in a brushstroke: strength contractions that actually move the brush, and tensor contractions that limit joint movement (either fix the joint in a specific position, or limit its range of motion). How much the arm must tense up to produce a limited, skilled range of movement in the brush depends on the energy and size of the brushstroke.

The fingers and thumb move in a fairly limited, lever fashion. The fingers normally flex in the direction of the forearm, while the thumb flexes across the palm. These movements can be precisely varied by muscles attached to either side of the thumb and fingers, which can pull them sideways.

Most of the movements we make with our hands and arms are habitual, and therefore unnoticed. To bring the variety of your gestures to mind, stand in the center of the room and imaginatively recreate a typical day, from the time your forearm pushes away the blankets to the time you turn out the light at night. Actually move your fingers, hand and arm to recreate each gesture physically. You may be surprised at the variety of ways that you grip, twist, and finger your world.

Too often, our brushstrokes are habitual in the same way. We choose habits because painting is difficult, and habits are a kind of simplification. So it is necessary to have a method to awake repeatedly and expand the awareness of what it is possible to do with a brush.

How to Hold a Brush. Various ways to adjust the brush wetness.

Draining. Holding the brush and allowing the contents to drip.

Wicking. Touching or scraping the tuft against the side of a paint well, mixing cup or palette. Produces quicker and more consistent results. More reliable to wick by gentle touching and repeat, then by wide changes in pressure. Typically used to adjust brush wetness in the middle to top half of its capacity range.

wicking a watercolor brush

Snapping. This is perhaps the most reliable method for reducing brush wetness in the middle to bottom half of its capacity range. Get a ballistic sense for the force required that can be very accurate and consistent — like throwing a tennis ball to the floor knowing how high it will bounce.

snapping a watercolor brush

Brush expression. Calligraphic approach to brushes. The brush mark is a sign or symbol of the thing represented or the state of the painter.

There are several ways to interpret, or approach in a subjective way, the impressions created by different brushstrokes.

A common theme is that the brush movement signals the energy or speed of movement in the subject depicted. California painter Wayne Thiebaud: Many things can be suggested by the way paint is applied. Slow, reflective time is depicted by the sluggish drag of the paint, while a swift darting thrust of a brushed surface indicates a hurried moment. Lyrical staccato brush marks can appear as microseconds. These various tempos keep the painting ticking along.

I like to think of the brushstroke (or the paint trace) as representing a quality of attention, the painter's involvement in the act of painting.

In the careful drawing of a line, or leaf detail, or texture stippling, all the attention is focused on the precise movement of the tip of the brush, like an intense circle of light. When we look at these marks, we seem to feel the intensity of mind of the painter, and this gives the image a saturation of awareness. Fine, precise movements are a kind of intensity unrelated to force or energy, lacking the instability of time or second thoughts, like an insight into truth.

Freer, less controlled brushstrokes open up an enormous range of expressive possibilities. In the moment, the artist's focus is divided between the weight and momentum of the arm, the rapidly changing quality of paint in the brush, and the accumulating quality of the marks on the paper surface. The viewer can see that the brushstroke has a beginning and an ending, even if these are obscured in the tangle and thatch of color, and each stroke stands somewhat apart from the others. Process emerges in the sequence of overlaps, the layers and density of color. A sense of "this is important, this is less important" emerges in the range of marks.

In wash areas, the brushstroke itself is entirely obliterated, even at the edges. The surface quality is strongly shaped by the flowing action of water, which is not aparently manipulated by the painter. In fact the painter does manipulate the surface through experience with the behavior of water and anticipation of the movements necessary to guide water in a particular direction.

Basic differences between round and flat.

Effects of brushes with greater pointing.

Effects of brushes with higher capacity and release.

Brush Marks. Contrasting views: the brush as an implement to make a mark; or to fill an area. Calligraphy versus wash. Should know entire range, and use in combination.

Holding the brush in the hand. Painting for line.

Movement with the brush.

Fingers, wrist, arm, shoulder, body, legs. Grace, weight of mark.

Steadying the hand.

Drybrush and Pinholing. On other pages I describe how to mix paints on the palette, or on the page. The third mixing method, which I have never seen described before, is mixing with the brush.

Blending Color with a Brush. On other pages I describe how to mix paints on the palette, or on the page. The third mixing method, which I have never seen described before, is mixing with the brush.

The basic idea is that the brush is unevenly charged with two or more different paints, which produce different mixtures as the brush is drawn across the page. These mixtures blend on the paper, as if the paints were mixed on the page using wet in wet mixing, but the mixtures follow the brushstroke movement.

There are three ways to do this. The first is simply to charge the brush with the first color, paint with it, then when most of the first color is depleted from the tip, charge the brush with a second color. This places a new color at the tip of the tuft but leaves the first color at the core; the first color emerges as the second color is drawn from the tip. Or the first color can be partly rinsed from the tuft, then recharged, so that the color fades slightly into a tint of itself. Yet another variation is to rinse the brush thoroughly with water, leave water in the tuft, and charge the tip with paint; the clear water will dilute the color more quickly as color is drawn from the tip.

The second method is to

The third method is to dip one side of the brush in one color, then the other side in a different color. For rounds, opposite sides of the tuft can be dipped; for flats, opposite corners of the tuft edge.

Brush Stumbles. Although it is a marvelously designed tool, there are specific ways in which a brush can trip you up.

Most common is the drip or dribble, which is simply the result of trying to carry too much paint or water in your brush at the same time, or moving the brush in an incorrect way.

The three main failings are (1) overcharging the brush, (2) moving the brush too quickly, or (3) carrying the brush with the tuft pointing downwards. Overcharging is usually a signal that you should shift to a larger brush, or prewet the surface you are painting so that you have more time to cover it with paint.

A quirky and annoying stumble is the brush speck, those tiny droplets of color thrown off by the tip of your brush when you lift it from the page.

the confident brush

Your brushstrokes are a series of movements in time, so it is essential to learn the ways that your own behavior creates the pulse of time you must work within.

What Is the Confident Brush? The confident brush has a delightful personality: it understands what it needs to do, gets it done as promptly as decorum allows, does only what is required, doesn't hesitate or wander, and never stops to argue with water or paint.

Confidence In Time. Time is affected by a few important circumstances. The first is the ambient air temperature and humidity, which affects how quickly water evaporates. Second is the relationship of your brushstroke to this drying — specifically, how critical is the timing of your brushstroke in relation to the wetness of the paper to achieve the effect you want. And last of all are your external working movements, which includes mixing paints, charging the brush, rinsing the brush, sponging color, swatting bugs, answering the phone, blotting drips, and all other events that require you to take your eyes and hands away from act of painting itself.

You run out of time or lose time when your skill cannot keep up with the combined challenge of these circumstances. You have time or gain time when you arrange things so that these circumstances all occur at a pace and moment that does not interrupt your concentration or sense of control. This is what it means to create time when you paint watercolors.

I feel that almost all the errors that have occurred in my paintings happened because I ran out of time. I misjudged how quickly paint would dry, or tried to rush a passage that was still wet. I moved a brush or set down my hand too quickly, because I was trying to prevent a hard edge in a wash or catch a bleeding edge. I failed to see what the drying paint was doing, because I was too busy mixing colors or unpacking a sponge. The major difficulty in watercolors is that, unlike oils, they will not wait. They show us the unpredictability and irreversibility of time with a naked, sometimes brutal face.

The curse of lost time affects a painter's style in hidden ways. Many painters who rely on photographic references do so because this simplifies (adds time) to the tasks of drawing, or mixing color, or planning a wash. Painters who sit patiently at an art desk, carefully swabbing their small brushes on paper towels, work at a snail's pace to stay in total control of their gestures. Painters who build their paintings through the patient layering of tints, or mosaiclike daubs of tiny color, conquer time by dividing it into a thousand small pieces. And their is always the hairdryer many artists use to force a painting to come to a complete stop.

Our struggle in riding a bike is not with the bike, but with our own balance on the bike: for painters this balance must be achieved on the machine of time.

Preparation — in concept, set up and materials — is a key to creating time. Whatever our level of skill, it is increased by the assurance of having everything where it should be and ready to go when needed. The watercolorist's universal plight of running out of a wash mixture before a wash is finished is only one of hundreds of ways that watercolorists stumble over themselves.

The Mud Challenge. Many watercolor painters adhere to a bizarre superstition about color mixing, called "mud." According to Jim Kosvanec, mud is what results when incorrect colors are mixed together. Other artists claim that mud occurs when you lay colors on too thickly.

Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, any mixture of colors, and any number of paint layers, will look fresh and appealing, provided only that you respect the spirit of water when you apply them.

Here is my mud challenge. Set out your full palette of colors — six or sixty, transparent or opaque, staining or nonstaining, student or artists' quality, I absolutely don't care. Set out a clean mixing palette and a large sheet of watercolor paper. Pour a half teaspoon clear water on the palette and add with your brush some fresh, pure color. Paint a swatch of it on the page. Now, mix any second color with the first, and paint that. Now add a third, and paint that. Now add a fourth, and paint that. Yes, that's right: keep it up until you've gone through your whole palette. But don't stop there. Keep going until you fill up the watercolor sheet, moving the color mixture around — toward red, or blue, or green, or yellow, or lighter, or darker — by adding more color. Add water as needed if the mixture starts acting oily or creamy, instead of watery. Stir the mixture up every time you dip into it, to get a full load of pigment.

By now you must have a puddle with an indescribable mixture of pigments in it! Surely by now you must be painting mud! The chorus of watercolor experts all raise their hands and shout, aye, it's all gone to mud, it's all nothing but mud!

Nonsense. Paint each color at moderate dilution with a single stroke of a fully charged brush, and you will find that it is impossible to paint mud. Look at the page, and see for yourself.

The colors you've come up with may be pretty unusual — mysterious browns and strange greens and celestial blue violets and sepulchural maroons, sunburnt yellows and mouldy reds and misty turquoises — but they will be beautiful colors in themselves. Pristine, subtly granulating, beautifully pigmented, full of life and character. They will not be dull, drab, boring, ugly, dirty looking colors — they will not be mud.

How is this miracle possible? Because you respected the nature of water by applying it to the page "without stirring." It's the fussy, chafing, obsessive, indecisive, overworked and smeary brushwork, not the mixtures of paints themselves, that create mud on the page.

The brush is like a loving parent, the water and paint its children. The brush must guide, but also know when to let go. It must gently direct, but not force, demand or nag. It must assist and support without making a display of its influence. In the end, it lets the paint and water take all the credit.

Use your brush to guide the pure water flow onto your page, and let it settle its sediment in the calming and fertilizing spirit that water has, and your colors will always be beautifully natural.