How to tell the difference between watercolor and acrylic brushes: Easy Guide

To identify a watercolor brush, look for soft, flexible bristles made of natural or synthetic fibers, and a shorter, lighter handle designed for precision and control.

The brush’s shape, ferrule, and materials should be tailored for smooth paint application and water resistance.

Over the years I’ve learned that using the right type of brush can make all the difference in your artwork’s outcome.

Surprisingly, many people don’t realize that there are brushes specifically designed for each medium.

So, let’s uncover the secrets of brush selection and set you on the path to making some amazing masterpieces, no matter which medium you choose.

In this post I’ll explain how to tell the difference between watercolor and acrylic brushes so that you can choose the right brush for your next artwork.

I think it is important when painting to understand the difference between watercolor and acrylic paint

As you may have guessed, watercolor paint is made with a water-soluble binder, which means that it can be easily diluted with water. 

This makes it perfect for creating transparent washes of color. 

Acrylic paint is made with a synthetic resin binder, which means that it dries quickly and is water-resistant when dry.

This makes it perfect for creating opaque layers of color.

Because of these differences, watercolor and acrylic brushes are designed differently to achieve the desired effect.

But acrylic is also diluted with water so what gives?

If you’ve asked this question then you’re right. Both watercolor and acrylic paints can be diluted with water, but there are some differences in the properties of the paints and the techniques used that result in the need for different brushes. 

Here’s why watercolor brushes are different from acrylic brushes:

Paint consistency

Watercolor paints are generally more fluid and transparent compared to acrylics, which tend to be thicker and more opaque. Watercolor brushes are designed to hold more water to create the desired consistency and color intensity.

Acrylic brushes, on the other hand, need to be more resilient to handle the heavier paint while still providing the ability to manipulate the paint.

Painting techniques

Watercolor painting often relies on the interaction of water and pigments on the paper to create various effects, such as blending, layering, and glazing. Watercolor brushes have softer bristles that facilitate these techniques by allowing for smooth, even paint application.

Acrylic painting techniques can involve a wider range of brushwork, including impasto, dry brushing, and scumbling, which require stiffer bristles to manipulate the thicker paint.

Drying time

Acrylic paints dry much faster than watercolors. Acrylic brushes need to be more resistant to the paint’s quick-drying nature, which can lead to the paint drying within the bristles and damaging the brush if not cleaned promptly.

Watercolor brushes, being softer and more absorbent, are easier to clean and maintain.

Surface

Watercolor paintings are typically created on paper, which is a more delicate and absorbent surface than the canvas or panels used for acrylic painting. Softer brushes are more suitable for watercolor, as they won’t damage the paper or disturb the layers of paint.

Understanding Watercolor and Acrylic Brushes

If you’re going to get serious with watercolor or acrylic painting then I think it is necessary to understand the differences between watercolor and acrylic brushes. In this section, I will explain what watercolor and acrylic brushes are, their differences, and what to look for when choosing a brush.

Are watercolor or acrylic brushes specifically labeled?

Brushes are sometimes labelled by manufacturers to indicate their intended use, including watercolor or acrylic brushes.

The labelling might be found on the brush handle or the packaging. Yet, not all brushes are explicitly labelled, and some brushes may be marketed as multipurpose or suitable for various mediums.

When you come across brushes like this, you should then rely on the characteristics of the brush, such as bristle material, softness, and handle design, to determine their suitability for watercolor or acrylic painting.

Watercolor Brushes

Watercolor brushes are specifically designed for watercolor painting. They are usually made with natural hair, such as squirrel, sable, or kolinsky, which are absorbent and hold more water.

Watercolor brushes come in a variety of shapes and sizes, including round brushes, mop brushes, and wash brushes. They are ideal for fine details and delicate washes.

watercolor brush types by various brands

How to identify a watercolor brush

To identify a watercolor brush, look for soft, flexible bristles made of natural or synthetic fibers, and a shorter, lighter handle designed for precision and control.

The brush’s shape, ferrule, and materials should be tailored for smooth paint application and water resistance.

How to identify a watercolor brush

Pay close attention to the following characteristics:

Bristle material

Watercolor brushes are typically made of natural hair, such as sable, squirrel, or goat, or synthetic fibers designed to mimic these natural hairs.

Natural hair bristles are known for their ability to hold a significant amount of water and paint, allowing for smooth and even color application.

Synthetic brushes can also perform well in watercolor painting and are often more affordable.

Bristle softness

Watercolor brushes have soft, flexible bristles that easily absorb water and release paint smoothly onto the paper.

The softness of the bristles allows for a wide range of painting effects, from delicate washes to fine details.

Bristle shape

Watercolor brushes come in various shapes, including round, flat, filbert, mop, and more. Each shape is designed to serve a specific purpose in watercolor painting.

Round brushes are versatile and commonly used for both detailed work and washes, while flat brushes are ideal for broader strokes, sharp edges, and color blending.

Ferrule

The ferrule is the metal part that connects the bristles to the handle. Watercolor brush ferrules are usually made of seamless, rust-resistant materials like nickel or brass, to prevent water damage and maintain the brush’s longevity.

Handle

Watercolor brush handles are typically shorter and lighter than those of acrylic or oil brushes. This design allows for better control and precision during painting.

The handles are usually made of lacquered wood or plastic and may have a lacquered or varnished finish to protect them from water damage.

Acrylic Brushes

Acrylic brushes are designed for use with acrylic paint. Acrylic paint brushes can be made with synthetic or natural hair, such as hog bristle or synthetic bristles.

Like watercolor paintbrushes, acrylic paint brushes come in a variety of shapes and sizes. These include flat brushes, fan brushes, and round brushes.

They are ideal for impasto painting and hold up well against the viscosity and fluidity of acrylic paint.

Differences Between Watercolor and Acrylic Brushes

The main difference between watercolor and acrylic brushes is the type of paint they are designed to be used with.

Watercolor brushes are designed to hold more water and are less absorbent than acrylic brushes, which are designed to hold more paint.

Watercolor brushes are typically softer and have more elasticity, while acrylic brushes are stiffer and have more snap.

That’s why when choosing a paintbrush, you should think about the type of paint you’ll be using, as well as the effect you want to achieve. You just cannot grab any old brush off the shelf and expect to get the best results.

Watercolor brushes are ideal for delicate washes and fine details, while acrylic brushes are ideal for impasto painting and larger areas.

Understanding the differences between watercolor and acrylic brushes is key to achieving the desired effect in your artwork.

Choosing the Right Brush for Your Painting Project

As an artist, I know that choosing the right brush for your painting project is key to achieving the desired result.

In this section, I will share some factors to consider when choosing a brush, as well as the different types of watercolor and acrylic brushes available.

Factors to Consider When Choosing a Brush

When selecting a brush, it is necessary to consider the size, shape, and handle of the brush. The size of the paintbrush should be appropriate for the size of your canvas or paper, and the shape of the brush should match the strokes you want to create.

The handle should be comfortable to hold, allowing you to have better control over the brush.

Another factor to consider when choosing a brush is the quality of the brush. While it’s tempting to choose a cheaper brush, investing in a high-quality brush will produce better results and last longer. Just be careful not to overspend on a brush that is beyond your budget.

I am reminded daily of a $50 brush I accidentally bought when I didn’t have the money to waste on a single brush, no matter how nice it looked.

Watercolor Brush Types

Watercolor brushes come in a variety of sizes and shapes, including round, flat, and filbert. Round brushes are pretty versatile and can be used for both detail work and broad strokes.

Flat brushes are ideal for washes and large areas of color, while filbert brushes are great for blending and creating soft edges.

Watercolor brushes are typically made of natural hair, such as squirrel hair or kolinsky sable brush, or synthetic materials. Natural hair brushes are more expensive but provide better water retention and a softer touch, while synthetic brushes are more affordable and easier to clean.

Acrylic Brush Types

Acrylic brushes are generally made of synthetic materials, as acrylic paint is heavier and more abrasive than watercolor paint. Acrylic brushes come in a variety of shapes, including flat, bright, and round.

Flat brushes are ideal for covering large areas, while bright brushes are perfect for creating sharp edges and details. Round brushes are versatile and can be used for both detail work and broad strokes.

Just choose one that is labeled for use with heavy body acrylics if possible. This is not so easy as most brushes are not labelled these days.

Heavy body brushes have stiffer bristles that can handle the thicker consistency of heavy body acrylics. If in doubt, get brushes that are made for oil paints.

Choosing the right brush for your painting project is vital to achieving the desired result. Consider the size, shape, and handle of the brush, as well as the quality and type of brush material.

By taking these factors into account, you can select the perfect brush for your artistic needs.

Caring for Your Brushes

We all know how important it is to take care of your brushes. Proper care not only ensures that your brushes last longer but it also helps you achieve better results in your artwork.

In this section, let me share some simple tips on how to care for your watercolor and acrylic brushes.

Cleaning Your Brushes

Cleaning your brushes is necessary after every use to stop paint from drying in the bristles. For watercolor brushes, you can clean them with water alone, but for acrylic brushes, you will need to use soap or a specialized brush cleaner.

When cleaning your brushes, be careful not to damage the bristles. Use a gentle motion and avoid scrubbing the bristles too hard. Rinse the brush thoroughly with water or cleaner until the water runs clear.

Storing Your Brushes

Storing your brushes properly is key to keeping them in good condition. After cleaning, gently reshape the bristles and allow them to dry completely before storing them.

For long-term storage, it’s best to keep your brushes in a brush holder or roll. Avoid storing your brushes in a closed container, as this can cause the bristles to become misshapen or moldy.

Preventing Damage to Your Brushes

Preventing damage to your brushes is vital to their longevity. Here are some tips to keep in mind:

  • Don’t let paint dry in the bristles
  • Avoid getting paint on the ferrule (the metal part that connects the bristles to the handle)
  • Don’t let your brushes soak in water or cleaner for extended periods of time
  • Be careful when transporting your brushes, especially if they have long handles
  • Don’t use your brushes for purposes other than painting

By following these guidelines, you can ensure that your brushes stay in good condition and help you create your best work.

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