My Painting Equipment – Part IV

Brush Selection

The final installment of my four-part series of articles discussing the different components I use to create my artwork will focus specifically upon the brushes that I have come to rely upon. My brush selection has developed over time and is the result of extensive experimentation with several different offerings from select manufacturers.

As an extension of an artist’s hands, brushes can be a very important variable in the creative equation. While some artists prefer synthetic brush hairs, others may prefer natural hair or a blend of natural hair and synthetic filaments. Regardless of material preferences, however, brushes can be a fairly expensive investment. Professional artists often amass a large selection over the course of their careers before eventually settling upon specific requirements or preferences. As can be observed from the image at the top of this post, I have also collected a large number of brushes even though I have only been painting with the watercolor medium since 2004.

Robert Simmons Sapphire BrushesIt is fairly obvious my experience has been no different from most artists. I began my watercolor painting journey using the absolutely cheapest brushes I could find. While these performed adequately, they also didn’t maintain a crisp point and could often be awkward to control. Out of sheer curiosity, I began to experiment with some other products on the market. Some of my early favorites were from the Robert Simmons Sapphire Series which is exclusive to North America and is a blend of natural Kolinsky Sable hair and synthetic filaments. They formed very nice points, held a nice amount of paint, and were very easy with which to work. There was a certain stiffness the brushes possessed due to their synthetic components that gave them a unique feel. They were nice for applying and lifting watercolor paint but still left me wondering why many professionals prefer a fully natural Kolinsky hair brush.

For those who are unaware, the Kolinsky natural brush hair is obtained from the tail of the Kolinsky (Mustela sibirica) which is a species of weasel rather than an actual sable. Although most brushes have a mix of 60% male to 40% female hair, the finest brushes are made from the male hair only. Brushes made from the Kolinsky sable are prized for their ability to hold paint and come to a very sharp point while maintaining a pleasing feel under the hand. The hair is noted for its strength and resilience but because of its limited availability due to the animal’s geographical location, brushes constructed from this hair tend to be expensive.

Dick Blick Master Series BrushesOne year, as a gift, my very generous and supportive parents gave me a set of Dick Blick Master Series brushes which are made with only Siberian Kolinsky Sable hairs. The rounds were very nice but required me to adjust my technique in order to adapt to their performance characteristics. They held a different amount of paint in the body of the brush which caused them to react a bit differently to my painting style. I had absolutely no luck with the flat style brushes in the series, however. I found them very difficult to keep properly pointed as the natural hairs continually wanted to spread apart regardless of how delicately pressure was applied. This led me to the conclusion that round brushes were more appropriate for my style of watercolor painting and the Kolinsky Sable varieties seemed to possess a desirable snappy feel under the hand while maintaining a sharp point.

In addition to the all natural Kolinsky Sable brushes, I have enjoyed experimenting with various squirrel mop brush varieties and have really fallen in love with the Raphaël brand. They form great points and have a huge belly that holds a lot of water or paint. They are great for large wash areas and even detail work. I have occasionally gotten a stray hair that has worked its way out of the ferrule and caused issues but overall the brushes are amazing. In fact, I have often completed an entire painting using only a single squirrel mop brush. Every once in a while I have experienced some molding occurring around the ferrule of this brush style if I don’t let them completely dry before putting them in a tight holder. I accept complete responsibility for this, however, as I should know better than to leave damp brushes in an airtight environment.

Current BrushesCurrently, I am using a Raphaël #6 8404 series Kolinsky Sable brush that was given to me by the Sennelier company for participating in their paint reformulation blind study. Based upon their performance and construction, in my opinion the Raphaël brand of brushes could be considered some of the best in the world.

I have also been utilizing a Dick Blick #14 Master Series Kolinsky round for nearly every painting I create. I have been no longer attempting to utilize a massive arsenal of brushes and have found that 2 rounds are appropriate for almost everything I paint.

The #14 Blick round is adequate for most washes or large painting areas and the Raphaël #6 Round is great for detail work due to its exceptional pointing ability. Occasionally, however, I like to supplement these two brushes with a Raphaël #6 803 series squirrel mop and a Raphaël #24 916 series flat if I am working on a larger piece or need to perform a larger watercolor wash.

As can be seen from my series of watercolor painting equipment articles, it is often necessary to try many artistic tools in order to find the ones that best suit a particular artist’s painting style and technique. What works well for one might not achieve the same goals for another. It should be noted, however, that without experimenting with various products, one might never find that magic piece of the puzzle that opens new creative pathways.

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Comments (2)
  • Dai Wynn October 17, 2012

    Thanks again, Ken. Your attention to detail leaves me gasping.

    I have recently been receiving email newsletters from watercolourist Tim Wilmot of the UK (you can tell by the spelling of “colour”) who is reporting on his painting course with Joseph Zbukvic in northern Spain. Joseph is one of Australia’s foremost watercolourists and lives in my home town of Melbourne, when he is not travelling the world painting «en plein air» or giving classes in exotic locations.

    You may have to Google Tim Wilmot since his website seems to be owned by Virgin Media.

    I would like to have a discussion about the finer points of painting in watercolours en plein air, but perhaps a ‘blog might be a better vehicle. I must admit to being a raw amateur in this area of painting, so my opinions will be my very own.

    • Ken Powers October 17, 2012

      Thanks Dai! I appreciate the kind words!

      I will have to look up Tim Wilmot as I would definitely like to hear how his course with Joseph Zbukvic is going. Believe it or not, Joseph has been one of my all time favorite watercolor artists for quite some time. I had seen his work in the “Watercolor Artist” magazine and instantly became intrigued with his style. In fact, when I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do for a painting easel, I actually looked at trying to copy Joseph Zbukvic’s design that I had seen in an excerpt from one of his painting videos. I noticed it was for sale in Australia but the shipping cost was extraordinary! I ultimately decided to go a different route and arrived at the easel setup you have seen in these blog posts.

      Another master watercolorist I find interesting is Dick Cole. There are a few pieces of Dick’s that remind me of Joseph Zbukvic’s style.

      Thanks again for stopping by and reading my latest article!

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