Why Your Best Watercolor Brushes Are Flats and Rounds

Why Your Best Watercolor Brushes Are Flats and Rounds

Artist Birgit O’Connor demonstrates five ways to use these two best watercolor brushes for maximum versatility.

By Birgit O’Connor

You can achieve organic lines and a soft feel by using only round brushes, as I did in Orchids (watercolor on paper, 15×22)

Do you wonder what the best watercolor brushes are, or wonder how an artist made that one magic brushstroke? You may think the stroke is only about the shape of the brush — for instance, a flat versus round. But it also depends on how the stroke is applied and the type of hair or synthetic fiber in the brush. These characteristics affect the stroke by the amount of water they hold.

Whole-Body Painting

I used round brushes in a variety of sizes to paint Before the Storm (watercolor on paper, 22×30).

While having the best watercolor brushes helps, keeping your body loose while painting helps too. Where does your brushstroke originate? Does it come from your fingers, wrist, arm, shoulder or your whole body? Imagine that you’re listening to music in the studio. You might find yourself moving to the beat of the sound and dancing around. That freedom easily can be interpreted through your stroke and into your painting. If you’re standing in one place, your brushstrokes will tend to be larger. You may find yourself using more of your shoulder and arm. If you’re sitting, you still can be using your shoulder. But when you sit to paint, you tend to produce smaller strokes and focus on more details, using your arm, wrist and fingers.

The Best Watercolor Brushes for Every Subject

Birgit O'Connor, best watercolor brushes
In Small Spaces (watercolor on paper, 22×30), I used a round and a liner brush, which has longer and fewer hairs — ideal for making thin lines.

You can use many different kinds of brushes with unusual shapes to create myriad results. But you don’t need to invest in every kind of brush — any artists do most of their watercolor work with flat and round brushes. A flat brush is more angular and the stroke appears more straight, while a round brush comes to a fine point and its stroke is more organic. Additionally, a flat brush creates very straight lines. These are great for architectural and more angular-looking paintings. Round brushes afford a softer application. Both shapes can be used for just about any type of painting — landscapes, florals, still lifes — the preference is up to the artist.

In the end, a brushstroke is nothing without the artist who’s creating it. A single stroke holds the entire story of the artist’s ability and confidence in painting.

Different Effects With Flats and Rounds

The best watercolor brushes can be used to create many different kinds of strokes, from wide to thin, long to short, broken to wavy. In the photo above, the flat brushstrokes appear on the left and the round strokes on the right. Loaded with lots of water, brushes create smooth lines. Used dry, they grab the texture of the paper surface. The appearance of these brushstrokes depends on how you hold the brush and the amount of pressure you apply. Here are a few ways to use rounds and flats to full effect.

A. Stippling Technique

Flat and round brushes will give you very different results when used to apply a stippling technique. A flat brush produces a more defined, deliberate effect, while the round yields a softer, more relaxed look.

B. Drybrushing

Using less water and a drier brush, you can catch the tooth of the paper, resulting in a rough, textural effect known as drybrushing.

C. Painting Flowers

The possibilities for creating the look and feel of different flowers are endless when using various types of brushes.

D. Painting Foliage

The flat brush on the left makes a straighter, more deliberate stroke, while the marks in the middle made with the round brush flow more smoothly. The round brush produces an entirely different effect for foliage when used to stipple (on the right).

E. Softening Edges With Natural Brushes

To soften an edge, natural brushes work well, because they’re soft enough to draw the water out. If you’re using a mop with a round head (like the one in the bottom right in the photo above), use caution: Too much water can be released and flush back into your stroke.

If you’re just getting started and want to learn more about the best watercolor brushes, how they’re made, and how to take care of them, don’t miss my in-depth tutorial on What to Look for In a Watercolor Brush.

See BIRGIT O’CONNOR‘s work and learn more about her at birgitoconnor.com. Birgit’s instructional videos are available for purchase at the Artists Network shop.

A version of this article first appeared in Watercolor Artist magazine.

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