More about watercolor brushes

This is a follow-up to my post on the new Rosemary round watercolor brushes. I pulled out a number of other round brushes and compared them to the Rosemary brushes.

The primary conclusion I came to was this: no one brand of round watercolor brush is “the best.” There are different things one does with round brushes, and some brands tend to be better at one thing, and other brands are good at other things.

Some specifics will show what I mean. The brands I compared were Rosemary series 22 and 33, and Da Vinci Maestro Kolinsky sables. Sizes compared were 2 and 6. (I had a few others that I tested as well, but only one of each and so I can’t comment on trends across sizes on those.)

What does a round watercolor brush do when you use it? There are phases to the act of painting a stroke:

* Initial contact. Can you make contact very gently, and get a nice small mark if you do? This might range from a simple dot to a thin stroke to a stroke that is initially very thin but broadens. The brush should be made in a way that brings the hairs to nice point, so that the start of your stroke is precise. In addition, the brush shouldn’t dump all of its load for small, short strokes. The Da Vinci brushes consistently had the best and tightest points. The Rosemary brushes were not quite as sharp, but were easier to control in therms of the width of initial contact. The Da Vinci brushes were the best at small details because the Rosemary brushes were more prone to put down too much paint. (It was critical to remove paint by touching a rag with the Rosemary brushes. The tight tip of the Da Vinci brushes prevented heavy paint flows at contact, especially brief contact for small strokes.)

* Broadening the stroke. Does the brush open easily, or does it require some pressure to widen the stroke? Can you control the broadening, or is it irregular or unpredictable? Does it broaden quickly, or can you widen the stroke very slowly? How does the brush deliver ink when widening the stroke – is ink delivery even? Can the brush deliver enough ink to rapidly broaden the stroke, or does it leave dry patches? The Da Vinci brushes were happy to release the paint, but they ultimately carried about the same amount of paint as the Rosemary brushes. So I had to broaden more slowly with the Rosemary brushes. (This seems to run counter to the flow at initial contact, but it’s still true!) In tests on cold press paper, making a simple sumi-e bamboo leaf, the Da Vinci brushes were better at the initial broadening. But read on; there’s more to this simple act that widening!

* Continuing the stroke. Paint should continue to flow evenly, not erratically or at a reduced rate as the paint load gets smaller during the stroke. The brushes were about even here. The Da Vinci had better initial flow during the stroke, and thus was slightly darker, but then they began to taper during the second half of the load. This was consistent for all of the small brushes; the Da Vinci 14 I have is quite different and very even throughout. Maybe simple because it can carry a lot of paint. The Da Vinci brushes do a better job of holding paint in the interior of the brush, which can be very good at times if you can adjust your stroke speed to account for the additional time it takes for paint to flow from the interior (and some of that interior paint simply isn’t ever coming out during a brush stroke, which evens out the total amount of paint delivered between Da Vinci and Rosemary). So there is plenty of paint, but its up to the operator to adjust to make it even. The Rosemary brushes did not have such a deep well of paint inside the brush, but there was still plenty there and it tended to flow more evenly. When dipping in water, this difference is very obvious: the Da Vinci brushes will release that interior paint only with a few finger squeezes; the Rosemary brushes clean up quickly and easily. The bottom line is that the Da Vinci brushes deliver a good full-width stroke with good coverage initially, but then pretty much fail to continue because they hold some of the paint deep inside. The Rosemary brushes don’t deliver enough paint for a good full-width line (a given brush size will cover a smaller width than for Da Vinci, in other words; this is nothing like a fatal flaw), but what they do deliver is consistent over a longer stroke length (nearly double).

* Finishing the stroke. The ‘snap’ of a brush is critical during the recovery phase of a brush stroke. Some brush lines are firmer, and the hairs bounce back and give you a lot of control. (Generally, a firmer brush is harder to control on the initial part of the stroke because it resists you; a software brush is harder to control on the finish because it doesn’t spring back off the paper.) The Da Vinci brushes are very soft, and will work extremely well if your painting style is to do your brush work as you hit the paper and then lift. If you are also controlling on the lift (e.g., that sumi-e bamboo leaf), however, the Rosemary shines and is much more appropriate. I would classify the Da Vinci brushes are truly soft, and they provide a lot of control as you dig into the stroke. But they are very hard to control on the finish; I find myself just lifting and trying to come in again, which usually is awful. The Rosemary provides very good but not excellent control as you move in (slightly less point; the resistance makes it hard to make very fine adjustments in pressure that translate into subtle brush moves). However! As you finish, the slight snap of the Rosemary brushes gives you superb control. What one would prefer depends on whether you jam in and then use your control, or whether you come in lightly and then lift quickly. This may sound subtle, but it’s a big difference in actual use. I paint both ways; I really like having both styles of brush to choose from.

These differences in feel and paint flow are a big part of learning to work with brushes for me. Until I did this comparison, I was vaguely that there were differences, but I couldn’t articulate them or quantify them until I made these comparisons. I also have a few Da Vinci Cosmo Spin brushes, which have much more snap than either of the brushes described here. I rarely use them (the round ones; the firmness in the flats I actually find very useful). They are too hard to control in the initial stroke, and they bounce back so hard they are also hard to control on the finish! I think someone with different requirements than mine, however, would love them; they just don’t suit me personally.

One could compare this brush quality to a maritime phenomenon. Kayaks (and some other types of boats) come in two different hull styles. One has low initial stability, but high stability as you tip further. So it feels very loose all the time, but stiffens up considerably when you lean far. This is the Da Vinci brush – very subtle levels of control initially, good for fine detail, but if you go to far, it hits a wall and doesn’t have any more to give. The other type has high initial stability, but as you push more, you have a high degree of subtle control. That’s the Rosemary brush – basic level of control initially, but as you push it, it becomes a much more subtle brush. It is fun to use in the heat of the moment.

Although the two Rosemary series shared the above qualities for the most part, there were some minor differences. The Series 22 (Designer) is more pointed, but carries a bit less paint than the Series 33 and thus has slightly less flow at full stroke width. In the photo below, I painted on cold press watercolor paper. The top strokes are make with a Da Vinci (note that the first sumi-e leaf is mostly solid, indicating good early ink release, while the second stroke without refreshing the load skips a bit, but still has decent flow; also note the width is greater than the Rosemary below). The middle strokes with a Rosemary series 33 (initial stroke fairly full, but a bit rougher than the Da Vinci; next stroke without a reload very sketchy; second par of strokes similar).  At bottom, the series 22 strokes are both a bit dry-brush looking, but the second stroke is very similar to the first. This was consistent across the series 22 in different sizes; it has the most even flow during use of all three lines.

I need to try these tests on hot press paper as well, but that is for another day.

Note: ignore the background paint; the test strokes are the green perylene ones. 

brush comparison DV 33 22

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