One of the most common watercolor questions I get: “what brush is that?” Granted, that’s my red flag that I’m talking with someone who hasn’t binge-watched my watercolor videos! But I don’t mind – I just repeat again that for crafters, I recommend Silver Black Velvet brushes. And yet…that’s not what this is about today!
Today’s video is part of the free Preclass lesson in Landscape Foundations: Trees I class: my first in “fine art” watercolor techniques!
I’ve never really talked about the differences between natural and synthetic brushes, why you might want both, what you’d use them for….and I’m hoping that this little head-to-head video will show you some of the things each can do. Not all brands do exactly the same things, so you’ll need to learn your own brushes’ behaviors. But for those who use the hybrid Black Velvets (part synthetic part natural), these differences might help you know what to expect from those, too.
Supplies for this project are linked at the end of this post. Compensated affiliate links may be used at no cost to you.
One more thing before we start: I have not tried out every brand, every brush, nor do I plan to, though I finally have some Escodas on order because of all I hear about them. Many thanks to those who purchased paintings in my first week of the launch of my Fine Art site, you bought brushes!
Please don’t ask me to review your favorite brush – if it’s your favorite and it works, rock on with it! I am NOT a supply-review-nerd like some folks are. I bought a range of brushes so I could get a good sense of what synthetics and naturals DO, and could give you my impressions of their upsides and downsides.
Let’s get going!
Natural Hair Watercolor Brushes
Some use the term “bristle” – but I find natural brushes to be so soft and luscious that I can’t seem to bring myself to say they’re bristles.
Yes, they’re expensive. As I’ve said many times before, you get what you pay for whether it’s a bra, a car, or art supplies. You don’t need a full collection of them, either. No one is saying you need a bunch to be an artist – frankly a lot of artists do just fine without any at all! But since I’m that dork who buys things so you know if you need them or would want them, I’m here talking about them.
Yes, made from animal hairs. (That’s what makes them “natural.” Before those who love animals – as do I – jump on me, PLEASE know that natural paintbrushes are NOT the source of any die-off of animals; artists are a tiny portion of the world, and watercolorists a tiny part of that, and artists who buy natural hair brushes are a tiny part of that. My natural hair brushes are going to last my LIFETIME. It’s not like a consumer product that gets replaced over and over.
Yes, they are better brushes. While I don’t have a huge broad swath of experience with a ton of brands (I’m not independently wealthy – I’ve collected my natural brushes over YEARS), the really good brushes that I own are generally my first ones to grab. Part of it is the experience – natural brushes float across the paper in a different way than synthetics do…..once I used natural hair brushes, I found my synthetics have a “drag” to them. NOTE there are times when I *want* that drag, or that specific thing a synthetic does!
Yes, they deliver paint and water differently. As seen in the video above, natural hair brushes release pigment and water at a different rate than the synthetics I have tried. It’s more consistent and steady, without an instant slooge of moisture when it hits the paper. These also tend (again a generalization) to provide better edges–because of the control you can get.
Yes, they come in more than “round.” I do have some flats, and of course my “needle nose” (my pet name for it) brush. I was just trying to keep this assessment to similar brushes.
Yes, they last longer. Part of what keeps a brush intact is how you take care of it. NEVER dry it pointing upward and letting all that water drain into the metal of the brush; your bristles will fall out! But even taking good care of them, I’ve replaced many of my synthetics over the last few years…they get a bit dog-eared and lose their snap or point, and I haven’t noted any change to my Winsor & Newton 10 that was my first one about 5 years ago.
My favorite brushes, of course, had to be the ones you need to sell a kidney to get – Winsor & Newton. I tried one at the art store a few years ago and was just gaga over it right away! da Vinci’s Maestro are my second favorites – but they are less expensive and more ubiquitous. (It’s been harder over the last 2 years to find the WN brushes online, no idea why as of yet.)
Synthetic Blend Watercolor Brushes
Synthetics are manmade replicas of those natural hair brushes and blends have a mix – and there are some quite nice ones that work pretty well! They often but not always have decent “snap” – and for many artists and many techniques, that’s more important than the benefits of natural brushes, which I find have less “snap” to them. (Maybe that’s why natural brushes glide better – they aren’t trying to bounce back into shape?)
Yes they’re less expensive. I’ve recommended the Silver Brush Black Velvet brushes for crafters especially – they are more affordable for a crafty dabbler which is important in leaving budget for everything else! There’s a wide range of cost – I always recommend going for juuuuussssst up to the edge of uncomfortable. You usually won’t regret it, and it will help you last longer before you feel like you need a new brush to get you further in your art.
Yes, they’re of varying quality. I can’t speak to every brand…some have all synthetics, some are a blend of synthetic plus natural. And sometimes it’s hard to even determine that information! But as someone with cups full of brushes I never touch – I can tell you a decent brush is worth whatever it costs. I don’t toss my icky brushes because I’ll get them out to use with acrylics or other products that I don’t want to damage my good brushes.
Yes you can go your whole life using only synthetics. This post is not trying to get you to buy any new brushes. Just to explain to you what I’ve been learning about the brushes I own. You can run your own tests of your brushes – find the sweet spot for each, so when you’re looking for a specific kind of stroke or effect, you’ll know which brush is most likely to give it to you.
In the test I ran on that little set of “Sable Rotmarder” brushes – which were so cheap they cast doubt on themselves before they even arrived – it has caused me no end of confusion. I always thought “Sable” and “Kolinksy” were critter names – but began to notice a lot of brushes use those words but aren’t natural brushes. It’s possible they’re mixes with a little of those natural hairs in them, or maybe I am just understanding the name of brushes wrong – HOWEVER it’s not as important to know what kind of brush it is than how it performs. If you have brushes that work but aren’t sure what kind of hair they’re made of – don’t sweat it! If they give you good results, keep painting!
EDITED TO ADD: according to YT comments there’s apparently a critter that’s weasel-like that this brush is made from. So they’re natural hair? By *performance* this critter doesn’t do what my other natural brushes do.
The Rotmarders’ performance was more akin to a synthetic in its dispensation of pigment and water, for sure. But they don’t have the snap that a full synthetic often does. And are missing the $$$ of natural brushes. I’ve used them a bit since producing this video, and I’m revising my bet on them – they could be a mix of synthetic + natural, or a student grade brush? More painting with them will help me categorize them better for myself – so far, for the money you could do worse for sure. da Vinci is such a good brand, I’m going to guess these could end up sticking with me for particular uses.
If painting trees is your jam – or your wannabe jam – check out the Watercolor Trees I class! Also, remember that all of the watercolor classes are on sale during World Watercolor Month, so there might be a different one that appeals to you!
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- Synthetic brushes:
- Natural Hair brushes: