Good Tips: Natural Bristle Care


WATCH THIS VIDEO to see the difference between the "HOLD" of a Synthetic Brush VS a Kolinsky Sable

What to look for ...

Ultimately, when choosing the best bristles for your watercolour paintings, you want a brush that springs back easily to it's original shape AND holds a lot of water.  The best brushes for watercolour also tend to be the most expensive.   For budget purposes, most beginners start with synthetic or nylon brushes and gradually finding that a hybrid of both nylon and Kolinsky bristles suits their needs, and finally, upgrading to natural hair brushes. However, not all "natural hair" brushes are created equal. A Kolinksy Sable brush has both appealing characteristics of SPRING and HOLD and are a seasoned watercolourists preferred choice . The hair is obtained from the tail of the Kolinsky (Mustela Sibirica), a species of weasel rather than an actual sable. There is a range of quality and price for every budget; the finest brushes are made from the male hair only, but most brushes have a mix of about 60/40 male-to-female hair. Kolinsky bristles tend to be pale brick red in colour with darker tips.  Make no mistake, adding even one Kolinsky "go-to" brush like an 8 or a 10 makes a world of difference to your strokeLet's review the characteristics and the reasons why...

SPRING: While you are painting, you should never feel as though you need to coax or manipulate your brush back into it's original point or edge. Check for yourself: After a stroke, hold your brush up... if it's flopped over or moulded improperly, it can affect the shape of your next stroke not to mention be incredibly frustrating.  

Many natural hair brushes are notorious for being floppy and unresponsive, not exactly appealing characteristics...  Cheaper natural bristles like Camel Hair, Squirrel, Pony and Goat all have a decent "hold" but lack in "spring".  Synthetic bristles like Nylon, Taklon, Golden Taklon have a good spring, but not great hold. Many synthetic brushes imitate the look of a natural hair brush - even dyed to have a gradated and blended appearance. You can usually tell them apart by how shiny they are. I use the bend test to show students the difference in shine. A natural hair brush like a Kolinksy has a duller appearance, while a synthetic is sparkly and bright. When DRY, a round Kolinsky - even if you paid top dollar, may look less impressive or not as pointed as it's synthetic counterpart as it tends to have a "fluffier" unrefined look. Natural bristles, especially Kolinksy, have a "memory" which helps them to spring back into shape even if improperly stored. While synthetic are harder to recover if they've dried bent in a container etc... 

                         Dry Kolinsky Sable (left)                                             Wet  Kolinsky Sable (right)

                         Dry Kolinsky Sable (left)                                             Wet Kolinsky Sable (right)

HOLD: Refers to the amount of paint or water retained in the brush. Why is  "hold" so important? Watercolour dries quickly, and especially in smaller sized brushes, fighting against the clock and constantly having to re-load your brush impedes your speed and getting steady, even flow and consistent line is almost impossible. While most natural hair brushes (even the cheap ones) hold more than Nylon or Synthetic, they can "dump" a lot of paint all at once. Depending on the style of your painting, this can be a hindrance and unpredictable. A beautiful, high end Kolinksy round for instance, holds it's water in the belly of the brush and has a slow release of paint / water through the carefully sculpted (hand moulded) tip - giving you massive amounts of CONTROL. In fact, if you're used to nylon bristles, just how much water and paint it holds may take some getting used to!  



·       Do not let the paint dry in your brushes.

·       Keep your brushes clean and dry between painting sessions.

·       Store upright in jars only when dry.

·       Use your watercolor brushes only for watercolor and or gouache paintings.

·       Use a synthetic brush or frisket tool to apply masking fluid.



Cleaning Watercolour Brushes

Pure Bristle Watercolour brushes are delicate!

While painting you may use room temperature water, never use HOT water (while painting or cleaning). Hot water may cause any remaining paint to clot. Strong soap may damage the bristles by removing natural oils. If you MUST use soap, try a gentle fragrance free glycerin soap like pears or a brush cleaner like Masters Brush Cleaner which helps prevent hardening and paint build-up in the ferrule. It also conditions the brush to hold more colour and helps lay down a smoother more even flow.  The Masters Brush Cleaner was formulated in 1979, in conjunction with a cosmetic laboratory to help condition and preserve your brushes with the same care and thought as products that you use on your hair! When pigment particles build up at the base of the brush, it pushes hairs apart and stops the point from forming. To avoid this, wipe your watercolour brush clean with a lint-free rag and rinse it under running water. Then, using mild soap and cool water, swirl the soapy brush in the palm of your hand and rinse. Repeat the washing and rinsing process until the soap and water runs clear. 


1.      Wipe brush to remove excess paint.

2.      Wet brush and soap with water

3.      Swirl brush in the soap and then in the palm of your hand to create a lather

4.      Rinse with clean water.

5.      Repeat if necessary until brush is clean (lather will be white /clear).



*NEVER put them away wet or damp in an airtight container as mildew can build up and humidity can eat away at the glue / camped metal ferrule. If you notice a stain in your bristles, don’t worry, as this has no effect on the performance or life of the bristles. Only storing them when they are completely dry. If you are taking a class, a zippered case is a good solution as it is not air tight nor will the brushes slide around or end up with the bristled tips bent against the end of a container like a plastic tube or box / bin.
If your brush has lost it's shape or has been compromised due to improper storage...

1.      Clean brushes as above

2.      Leave clear lather on bristles, shape and allow to dry.

3.      Shake powder off bristles when ready to use again.

With watercolour and acrylic brushes, it is important to:

1.       Remove excess water,

2.       Dry ferrules and handles,

3.       Reshape brush heads (if necessary)  and rest them with the bristles facing upwards to dry off or “hanging”.