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Learning the Language of the Brush

From time to time we all need to go back to the basics. This is especially true of watercolor. Aside from paper and pigments the brushes we use are of utmost importance. Even more importantly is the manner in which we use our brushes. All brushes speak their own language. You and I just need to learn to observe and/or listen.  The best way to do this is via practice.  I have photographed a series of brush exercises that I often use with beginning watercolor students. These exercises help me to explain and they help students to see the result.

Basically I will be working with two brushes one is the flat brush.  In my photos the brush I used is a 1″ (one inch) flat brush. The round is a size 8 Mary Whyte red sable watercolor brush.  Two distinct shapes.  MANY different  results.

In my paint gear I have a number of rounds of differing size as well as a number of square edged or flat brushes from 1/2″ up to 3 1/2″ wide. Regardless of size the marks or tracks they make are similar.

RULE 1: Often a novice will attempt to make a brush perform a task for which it is ill suited. That is very counter productive and can prove to be most frustrating.  Start out playing with your brushes.  What kind of marks will each kind of brush make?

RULE 2: Thoughtful play will reveal a number of brush secrets.

Here are some  examples:


Sheet 1 shows a few examples of just getting acquainted with the brush.

Now let’s get specific. Look at your flat edged brush.  Do you know its potential?  It can make  large passages of wash as well as fine lines.  Very versatile. Look at the palm tree for an example.

1. The stem of the palm leaf is defined with the thin edge of the brush.  demoflatbrush4_85 24.5x 14DSC_0790

2. The palm fronds are developed with a quick movement with the flat or broad edge of the brush. Very simple, yet effective.  

demoflatbrush3_84 24.5x 14DSC_0791

3. Broad leaf trees can be developed by using the side of the brush.  This gets a little more tricky but with a little practice it will become easy. The secret is to  reduce the moisture in the brush and allow the ferrule of the brush to rest or tap onto the paper.  The idea is to create a not so perfect shape of the tree you want to emulate.  With practice you will be able to create very delicate trees or robust ones. demoflatbrush2_83 24.5x 14DSC_07924.  You can use the sweep of the brush to create sparkling effects like sunlight on water or to create larger passages of wash.

demobrushspeed_81 24.5x 14DSC_0794demoflatbrush_82 24.5x 14DSC_0793

…or try creating grass and other textures via dry brush.  (Dry brush is a bit of a misnomer, in fact the brush is damp.  However, the ratio of water to pigment is different. The brush has more pigment than moisture.)

brushstroke2_58 24.5x 14DSC_0692

Round Sable Brushes:

This is probably the best known of all watercolor brushes. It is probably the most abused.  I often see students fearfully using a small round brush in an attempt to paint large expanses of wash on paper. That is sort of like trying to dig a ditch with a teaspoon! Not entirely impossible but very nearly so.  In the following examples I am going to attempt to break down a typical use of a round brush. Do keep in mind that rounds can be used for dry brushing as well.

FIRST: The finished exercise and then the segments.  To many  of you the results will be self explanatory. 

demoleaf_73 24.5x 14DSC_0801

A simple approach to a simple, yet lovely, subject. The green’s are a mixture of Hooker’s Green and Holbein Leaf Green.  Some of the color variation is due to reloading the brush with fresh wash.  Remember the round brush is extremely sensitive yet very versatile. This often makes it more frustrating in the beginning. 

Let’s Look at the Sequence:

1. First Stroke. Better stated the end of the first stroke. Take a look at the next step to get a better understanding of the sequence.

demoleafstep1_74 24.5x 14DSC_0795

2. In the beginning the loaded brush is pressed down to begin the broader portion of the leaf. As the brush progresses the pressure on the brush is relaxed and the point of the leaf begins to appear.  With very long leaves or grasses and fine limbs it is often a good idea to SLOWLY twirl the handle of the brush between the thumb and the forefinger to get a very fine line. Practice! Practice!

demoleafstep2_75 24.5x 14DSC_07963. Merely continue the progression “painting it as it grows”. In reality it is quite simple yet the results are very profound.

demoleafstep4_79 24.5x 14DSC_0800

4. Study nature and try to emulate the basic shapes.  The examples I have used are very basic with little detail. However, the effects are profound. Oriental Masters have understood the power of the simple brushstroke for centuries.  If this concept is new to you pick up a book on Oriental calligraphy. Take note of numbered exercises  or brush sequences used in making basic Chinese and Japanese characters. Sumi-e technique will also help open doors for you that will empower your method of expression.

Take time to master these simple techniques.  It will be a small investment of your time that will pay huge rewards in your painting results. 

Want to know more about watercolor painting techniques?  For more examples check out Mastering Glazing Techniques in Watercolor, Volume I at

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