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Watercolor Brush Shapes Explained



watercolor brushes shapes


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Watercolor brush shapes (and sizes) are sometimes a bit confusing, knowing which brush is the right one to get can be difficult to work out. What’s the difference between a mop and round head, or the difference between a size 00 and a size 2?

This article will also help you work out the types of watercolor brush shapes you need to get first if you haven’t got any watercolor brushes yet.

Anatomy of a Watercolor Brush

I have a more comprehensive article on watercolor brushes here, but for the benefit of this article I need to quickly cover the anatomy of a brush.

There are three parts to the brush: the bristles, or shape; the middle, the ferrule; and the handle. The former two are the most relevant to this article. For more about brush components: bristle/hairs, sizes and makes, again, check out this comprehensive article.

First Watercolor Brush Shapes You Should Buy

The most versatile watercolor brush shapes or the one brush you can do an entire painting with is the round. I have more rounds than any other brush shape because it’s the one brush covers most areas.

Watercolor Round Brushes

Of all types of watercolor brush shapes, round brushes are the most useful, because of their versatility and diverse range of uses. Round brushes are identified by having a circular ferrule to hold the head.

watercolor brush shapes

The round is commonly referred to as a 2-in-1 brush using the sharp point at the tip to make fine strokes, and then when pressed down the belly of the brush expands the stroke of the brush to create thicker strokes or washes.

travel watercolor brushes

Round brushes are great for general detailing in paintings, calligraphy or straight lines. While I can use one round brush for an entire painting and often do, when I have my full complement of brushes I will use the right brush for the job. But I will still use a round for maybe 80% of a painting.

The round is my go to for painting people, trees, building details, clothing details, short lines (I use a rigger for longer lines), writing, and small washes etc.

Other Types of Watercolor Brushes

For your reference the remaining types of brushes below will be listed in order of most important or useful. But to be clear: rounds, mops and flats are the main types of brushes that most artists will own at least one of each; however, for other brushes you may not feel are needed, for instance not everyone will use a rigger or a chiseled edge.

Watercolor Mop Brushes

Mop brushes to me are almost like giant rounds because they have the same composition, just bigger. A fine point at the tip for fine lines and a very big belly that when pressed down creates a big wash of paint.

However the larger head on the brush when put in water is uniquely malleable, creating unique brush shapes that can be used to paint delicate details. This particular trait about mops is why I find them fascinating to use.

watercolor mop brushes

Another great thing about mops are that they hold lots of water which means you don’t have to return to the water pot as often, and also means bigger washes. I usually use a size #2, #6 and a #10 for washes.

Mops are a better option over rounds for larger canvases larger than A4 (8.3″ x 11.7″). I mainly use mops with A2 (16.5″ x 23.4″) and A3 (11.7″ x 16.5″), covering washes and bigger details. For smaller details I used rounds.

The better quality mops are made of squirrel hair supported by a plastic ferrule, tightened with metal wire.

Watercolor Flat Brushes

The third most most important brush in my set are flat head brushes. Flats have a flat ferrule and square/rectangular bristles. Usually short hairs but the larger flats can be long.

watercolor flat brushes

Flats are probably joint second as the most used brush with mops. Well for me they are! Flats are best for washes, lines and edges. Drawing geometrical shapes or anything mechanical is best done with a flat.

A large flat is really good for washes and can cover a canvas quicker than a mop. But that’s the extent of a large flat’s use. I would than swap it out for a #10 mop to carry on.

Watercolor Rigger Brushes

The fourth most important brush in my set is the rigger brush, which was created to paint the rigging on sailing boats in maritime paintings. Riggers have longer hairs and when applied to paper the brush’s length and application absorb any jitters or hand wobbles leaving straight lines.

Riggers are identified by the longer bristles and sometimes, a belly. Larger riggers have very prominent bellies. The reason for the belly is the need for the brush to make longer continuous lines.

watercolor rigger brush

I nearly always needs a rigger for my paintings as I like to use the rigger for long straight lines which can be telephone wires, poles, lamps, fences, grass, reeds etc.

Watercolor Liner Brushes

From watercolor brush discussion on the inter-webs there’s a lot of confusion over the difference between a rigger and a liner (or script liner). Fortunately I can say that, in fact, most brush makers seem to use the terms interchangeably, and will label their liners as riggers and vice versa.

But from my own experience they are almost essentially the same brush. Whether it is called liner or rigger varies with each brush maker. But I would say liners tend to only be thinner whereas riggers, when they get to the bigger ones, have a bigger belly designed to hold more water.

Liners or script liners are aimed mainly at line work for writing/calligraphy for strokes and embellishment. Riggers as explained already are meant for painting boat rigging and wires.

Watercolor Jumbo Round Brushes

Jumbo round are just very large round brushes. However the confusion might be determining the difference between a large round and smaller mops.

Large rounds have more spring and hold their shape unlike mops. Jumbo rounds hold more water while having the same round brush attributes. I like to use my bigger round brushes for bigger details that need more control.

watercolor jumbo round brush

A mop by comparison is more malleable and pliant creating bigger washes and transforming into different shapes when painting.

Watercolor Flat Wash Brushes

Flat wash brushes could be mistaken for a decorator’s brush, but these wash brushes are a lot different and much more expensive.

Flat wash brushes are perfect for making broad wash strokes and covering large areas. If you’re painting a canvas A3 or larger this is the best brush for those initial washes.

A good flat wash brush will have hair from squirrel or a synthetic mix like squirrel taklon from the Alvaro Castagnet brush range. Winsor & Newton flat wash brushes come in synthetic sable.

Watercolor Filbert Brushes

A filbert brush is essentially a flat brush with an oval tip. It’s named after its resemblance to the nut from a filbert tree.

watercolor filbert brush

Filberts are popular versatile brushes that create a variety of soft strokes and edges. Mostly known for blending work in other mediums. On its side the filbert can be used to paint edges and lines.

Watercolor Fan Brushes

Shaped like a traditional hand fan, the fan brush is one of the more distinctive brush shapes. In watercolor fan brushes are good for creating texture. I find them very useful for foliage, trees and bushes etc.

watercolor fan brush

I find fan brushes to be more of a specialised brush, and not an essential one. Fan hair types come in natural hair like sable and synthetic.

Watercolor Angle Brushes

Angle brushes look a bit like a flat brush that has had its bristles cut at an angle. Angle brushes are perfect for creating a tapered stroke.

watercolor round brush

This is another specialised brush for creating a few specific strokes. I think they’re particularly good for leaves or floral/plant shapes.

Watercolor Deerfoot/Stippler Brushes

Like the fan brush the Deerfoot brush is one of the more of a specialised watercolor brush shapes, used for different types of texture. Some types of effects it can create are foliage, bushes fur etc. The effects are also dependent on the hair type.

watercolor Deerfoot brush

The hair types of Deerfoot come in animal hair and synthetic.


If you have any more questions do pop down in the comments below and I can reply back directly.

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