On Brushes

Back, once upon a time in college, we were taught how to choose and buy a watercolor brush. It had to be sable. If I remember correctly, it had to be red sable. I think Winsor Newton was a preferred brand. Series 7 “Kolinsky”. A #6 was a good starter brush.

It had to come to a perfect point. To determine this, we were to go to the art supply store, chose a brush, then request a glass of water. One was to dip the brush in the water then – flick! It should come to a perfect point.

I was shy. I thought going to a store and requesting a glass of water was probably a fate worse than, or at least close to, death. Do people really have to do this, I pondered.

Nevertheless, at some point, I did head off to the nearest art supply store – Flax, in San Francisco. Watercolor brushes were dispensed at a special counter where you had to ask for one <horror!> I walked up and… yes… there was a glass of water on the counter. People really did this.

I think the #6 was $30. This was at a time when my rent was around $190 a month. Sometimes you gotta do what ya gotta due even if it meant Kraft macaroni & cheese for a week.

We were told the brush would last forever. The teacher said it helped to use a good hair conditioner on it from time to time. And always bring it to a point before storing carefully in something like a leather brush-holder. Never just stick upright in jar like uncouth heathens are said to do.

I think that brush did last 20 years but for me, at least, those days of treasuring brushes are long gone. A decent cheapo synthetic brush lasts years. Yes, it will lose its point. But it will last for years.

Yikes! Just for curiosity, I Googled the current price of a Winsor Newton #6.

Winsor Newton Series 7 Kolinsky Brush

This is not an Amazon Affiliate link. I could not/would not buy this now!

I don’t think this was my first W & N Kolinsky sable. That one, I remember, eventually had the ferrule – the metal thingy around the bristles – crack and split and open, making the brush go sideways. Maybe I stuck it upright in a jar.

I think this was my second brush. It was a #6 W & N Kolinsky sable but the paint peeled off the handle and the ferrule got loose and would not stay on, hence the masking tape and I guess I did not use enough hair conditioner. No idea why I still have it.

Winsor Newton #6 red sable brush
Winsor Newton #6 red sable brush

This may have been my 3rd W & N #6 Kolinsky. It is now one of my most used brushes as the little nub that is left is so handy for blending and smoothing harsh lines. Again, maybe I did not use enough conditioner.

Winsor Newton #6 red sable brush

Here’s a more recent #6 Kolinsky…

Winsor Newton #6 red sable brush

For a little less money, you can buy a Grumbacher red sable. Here’s a #6.

Grumbacher Red sable

Now for contrast, here is a very well used Utrecht 6150-R synthetic #6 brush. I see it online for $7.53. One of these will last me a few years before it starts to lose its point. This one is about to go after maybe 5 years of being stored upright in a jar.

Utrecht Watercolor brush

Yes, quality materials are important in watercolor. They are your tools. Good paper makes a huge difference. Expensive brushes? Not so much. Decent paint is important but it does not have to be the most expensive. I have been very disappointed by some of the expensive watercolor paints out there.

If you want to go buy a set of perfect Kolinskis, go for it. My point is more that you do not need anyone guilting you into spending the equivalent of your weekly food budget just to start your first student painting.

Any maybe there are people out there who do have perfect 40 year old Kolinsky brushes. I am not one of them. I know you should not store your brushes upright with the bristles up. I didn’t use to do that. But sometimes it seems that life is too long and painting too fun to get all precious about the care and maintenance of a perfect brush when the $5 one will suit for years of daily use. And you won’t feel guilty if you don’t buy it the special hair conditioner.

Here’s a cheap brush that you might be tempted to buy in the art supply store – they used to be about a buck. They do work wonderfully for washes but the problem is that they lose bristles at an alarming rate. One bristle left in the wash will make it uneven and just weird.

Wash brush

I brought one of these for like a whole $10 and it has given me years of good washes.

Mop brush

A few big brushes, a few small ones, and I am good to go. And every few years I head over to the art supply store to spend $20 on a few new ones. It works for me.


And it doesn’t hurt to use what tools you already have. Frequently, I use an oil painting brush as it gives a good straight line for painting reeds or tree limbs.

And I sometimes even use a steel ink nib for a very fine line. Use what you have – the famously crazy painter Richard Dadd was said to have used his own hair at times as a paint brush.

One area where I never compromise on is being archival. If I do sell a painting, I want it to last. Acid free tape and masking fluids are essential. Some of my art school watercolors are marred as the masking turned orange or the paper turned yellow.

Treat your paintings as the precious things that they are but don’t fall into the trap thinking you have to spend a fortune to even start.

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