top of page

Brush Techniques

We are going to investigate some exercises and Brush Techniques to help train your brushes to do exactly what you want them to do. Paint brushes are a little like the family pet – they require lots of training if they are to do all the things you would like them to.

Straight Line Rigger Brush Techniques

It’s a scary feeling when you finally get to the end of that big full sheet marine painting and you have to face up to putting in the masts and rigging. All that good work can be ruined with a few wobbly lines.

Painting a straightline with arigger brush


Use your little finger as a guide for straight, confident lines.

This is where a well trained rigger brush can make all the difference. Clean, fine, confident lines can mean the difference between success and failure. So practice this exercise to train your rigger brush to make nice straight confident lines.

  • Hold your brush perpendicular to the paper

  • Stand so you make the stroke across in front of you. From left to right if you are right handed (right to left if left handed)

  • Decide where the line will start and finish. Put the tip of your brush down on the starting point, move quickly and smoothly to the finish point, stop, then lift your brush off.

  • Make the brush stroke with a big sweeping movement from the shoulder

  • Don’t move your wrist and don’t flick your brush off at the end of the stroke – you will teach it bad habits!

You can keep your little finger on the paper as a guide while you make the line. This stops the up and down movement of the bristles and keeps the line even.
Use the back of an old painting or a sheet of cartridge paper – as long as it’s flat with no creases or bumps, the paper quality doesn’t matter.


Dragging Straight Brush Lines

Another trick you can teach a rigger brush is to make a nice straight line by dragging. The secret to this brush technique is to let the brush do the work. Load it with paint, lay the bristles on the paper at the start of the line and drag it steadily towards you. You may have to turn your painting around to do this. Don’t put any downward pressure on the brush. Resting the end of the handle on your finger is the best method. If the brush tends to slip off a small piece of blue tak or masking tape around the end of the brush will stop it.

Brush dragging technique to paint straight lines


Let the brush rest lightly on your finger then drag it towards you without any downward pressure.


Brush Techniques For Flat Even Washes

In this exercise we are going to teach our Hake Brush to take some of the responsibility for a nice even wash. We will put down a wash in the usual way then, with a dry Hake Brush go over the wash and even it out.

Using a Hake brush to smoothout a watercolor wash


Move the brush quickly and lightly in all directions.

The best way to practice this is on the back of, or over the top of an old painting. Mix up a wash and put it over an area of the painting, then, before it starts to dry use your Hake brush to lightly feather over the surface. Keep the brush dry by rubbing it on an old dry towel after every few strokes. The idea is to even out the distribution of pigment and water. Use quick short strokes, back and forth in all directions

Drying a Hake Brush on an old towel


A piece of old towel is handy for keeping your Hake dry

This brush technique works well on graded washes too, smoothing out the gradation from pigment to damp paper.


Controlled Release With One Inch One Stroke Brush

Now its time to work on our larger flat brushes. This is an excellent brush technique for over painting texture. The idea is to drag the brush and gradually lower the handle until the brush stops releasing paint. This is usually the point where the handle is almost parallel to the paper.

1" Flat brush controlled release


With the handle almost parallel to the paper the brush starts to make interesting, fractured marks.


Once you find this spot subtly lifting and lowering the brush controls how much paint is released. You will find you can leave a trail of broken, fractured paint that is just perfect for the texture of weathered timber, stippled tree trunks or the shimmery effect of light bouncing off water. Your flat brushes will have no trouble learning this trick.



Brush Techniques for Accurate Splashes

To get loose, random marks into a painting it is hard to beat splashing the paint on with a brush. It sounds like a simple operation but can become very messy with an untrained brush. The secret is in the action. Bring the brush down and stop it abruptly without flicking. Any back flip will cause uncontrolled splashes to go everywhere. Avoid banging it on another brush or your hand, down and stop is the best method. Once you have made the splash, rinse and dry off the brush then adjust the intensity of the spots by carefully blotting some of them up.

Watercolor splashing technique


Quickly down and stop.

The best way to train your brush to do this successfully is to draw some 100mm circles on a sheet of newspaper and practice until your brush can direct the splashes accurately into a 100mm area

Rough bristle watercolor brush


No matter how hard you try, there are some brushes you just can’t tame, but like those little shaggy dogs that always seem to find trouble, they seem to be the ones you love the most.


This painting shows a number of different brush techniques. Dragging lines and sweeping lines are used in the vertical trees. The foreground is punctuated with controlled splashes and a hake brush was used to smooth out overwashes on either side. 

Painting demonstrating different brush techniques  © John Lovett
Watercolor painting demonstrating brush dragging technique


The detail in these old weather boards shows controlled release using a 1″ flat brush and Ultramarine Blue. The broken texture created by this type of stroke is ideal for these interesting old surfaces.


Brush Techniques For Applying a Watercolor Wash

The technique used to cover an area of paper with watercolor is called a wash. It can be flat and even or graded in tone.  The best brush to use is a 1″ flat brush. It is easier to get an even wash on stretched paper, but gentle use of a dry hake brush, immediately after the wash is applied, will even out the pigment and moisture, giving a smooth finish on un-stretched paper.

applying a watercolor wash with a 1" flat brush


Each successive stroke picks up the bead of the stroke above.

To apply a wash first mix some paint and water to the required strength. Before applying the mixture completely wet the paper with clean water. On a gently sloping board, start at the top with a strip of your mixed color from one side of the paper to the other. While this band of paint is still wet, reload your brush with more of your mixture and run another band across, just connecting with the bead formed at the bottom of the previous band. Make sure the paper is completely covered. Repeat this process until the required area is covered. Don’t be tempted to go back and fiddle with what you have done, but keep an eye on any pooling of moisture along the bottom edge of the wash and soak it up with the tip of a damp brush.

If your wash looks a little uneven, don’t worry, and don’t be tempted to go back and fiddle once it starts to dry. As a wash dries it settles and evens out.


Graded Wash

A graded wash is done in a similar way to a flat wash, only the mixture is gradually diluted as you progress down the wash. A graded wash can also be applied vertically on each side of a painting, leaving a band of light to concentrate attention at the center of interest.

To apply a graded wash to either side of a dry painting it is best to turn the painting around and work from the bottom up, diluting the wash as you progress. Don’t be too vigorous, the underlying paint is easily disturbed, so gently does it. These washes can be done carefully with a bristle brush or, for a safer option a mop brush or a large one stroke or flat taklon.

graded side washes in watercolor


Graded side washes are best applied from the bottom up with the painting rotated to make it easy



After this painting was thoroughly dry a graded side wash of cool grey was applied to either side, leaving a band of light through the focal point.


Variegated Washes

As well as flat and graded washes we can also use varied, uneven washes in our paintings. These are best applied to wet paper and varied tones and colors of mixed pigments are dropped on to produce the wash. The best brush for these is a mop brush loaded with paint. The paint can be brushed on or squeezed out of the brush for a more random effect.

Varigated watercolor wash


This wash was applied to wet paper with varied mixes of pigment. No attempt was made to smooth it out – the natural running and bleeding are what give it character.

Note Book Brush Exercises

After a couple of weeks practice with these exercises, you will find your control and confidence will increase noticeably. The important thing is not to revert to your old cautious approach, but to carry what you have developed into your painting – nice crisp, confident lines put down quickly and deliberately.


It might seem frightening at first, but once you get the hang of it you wont look back. These brush techniques will become part of the way you paint.

These exercises don’t take long – ten to fifteen minutes every couple of days for a couple of weeks will see a big improvement. You can use any sort of paper, but for the fine lines you will need the paper to be flat. It is also a good opportunity to get rid of those old tubes of foul colored paint that fill the forgotten corners of your paint box.

drawing straight lines with a rigger or liner brush


The first exercise is to gain confidence and control with a rigger brush (or any fine brush for that matter). The secret is to:

  • Hold your brush perpendicular to the paper

  • Use your little finger as a guide, sweeping it along the paper

  • If you are right handed start from the left and sweep across to the right (vice versa if left handed)

  • Move your arm from the shoulder

  • Keep your wrist and fingers fixed

  • Move the brush in a single sweep, keeping it perpendicular

  • Stop at the end of the line then lift the brush off (don’t sweep it off in a flicking motion)

Drawing straight lines with a bristle brush


The same exercise can be done with a larger bristle brush without using your little finger as a guide. Big confident strokes, kept under control from start to finish.

technique to practice drawing straight lines with a watercolor brush


If you have a hard laminated work table, mixing a little soap with your paint will enable you to paint straight onto the table. This allows you to make big sweeping marks, wipe them off with a damp cloth then start over again.

Big arm movements to control straight lines with watercolor brush


To make these big sweeping lines your shoulder and elbow do all the moving – wrist and fingers stay fixed.

Brush exercises for line control  © John Lovett


Another good exercise for straight line control is to use your rigger brush and draw lots of square spirals. Concentrate on making quick, tight parallel lines by moving your shoulder and elbow, not fingers and wrist. Watch what you are doing and correct the line direction each time you spiral around the square. Do some in a clockwise direction and some in an anti clockwise direction and remember to keep the brush perpendicular to the paper.

Circle exercises for brush control  © John Lovett


The next exercise involves freehand circles with your rigger brush. Again, keep the brush perpendicular to the paper and make big arm movements, not small wrist and finger movements. The circles are built up in four or five revolutions – each one further correcting the shape of the circle. Do some in a clockwise direction and some in an anticlockwise direction.

The same exercise can be done on a larger scale with your bristle brush.

Doing exercises like this might seem unimportant and a bit of a waste of time when all you really want to do is paint, but it is a definite shortcut to the confidence twenty years of painting will produce.

watercolor tractor  © John Lovett


This old tractor was painted mainly with a rough 1/2 inch bristle brush using definite, direct marks towards the end crisp rigger lines and fine ink marks were added to sharpen up the detail.



Many of the marks in this painting were applied with a 1 inch and a 1/4 inch one stroke brush. The same direct, perpendicular brush technique was used to make the strokes crisp and confident. Fine lines were then applied with a rigger brush. The subtle layering effect was made by gluing Japanese rice paper to areas of the painting then building up subdued detail over this.

Watercolor painting demonstrating variousbrush techniques


A 1/2 inch bristle brush was used to apply the initial washes in this painting. These washes were then worked over with simple direct marks made with a variety of flat brushes. Japanese rice paper and gesso were then used to knock back large areas of the painting. More flat brush marks reinstated parts of the lost areas then fine rigger lines pulled everything together. The tricky part was keeping a balance between the understated areas and the sharp region of detail. Threading fine crisp rigger lines through the painting help tie the two areas together.


See also: 

Watercolor Brushes

Painting Fine Lines

Contrasting Brush Marks

Mixing Colors and Applying Paint

Author: John Lovett

bottom of page