How To Use A Waterbrush

How To Use A Waterbrush

I'll admit that I really did not enjoy waterbrushes at first.  Actually, I kind of despised them.  After giving them a serious try though, I've become a total convert and something of a waterbrush evangelist.  Their convenience is unbeatable.  And there are even some hidden perks to painting with them. 

If you are coming to waterbrushes for the first time from traditional brushes they will probably take some initial getting used to.  In this post I will cover the basics of how to use waterbrushes, what their best applications are, as well as some other tips and tricks in the hopes of saving you from frustration and the usual trial-and-error approach.


Types of Waterbrushes

You can read about different brands of waterbrushes here.

First off, decide which type of waterbrush to use.  I have a definite favorite, which I will be demonstrating here.  However, if you are curious to have a rundown of a variety of different types on the market, I have already written a post comparing them here.


My Favorite Waterbrushes


This is all 6 of the waterbrushes I use: three rounds (fine, medium, and large), and two flats (1/4" and 1/2" roughly).  We offer these both individually and as a set.  The larger flat has a long handle that can be switched out.  Details below under 'tips'.

My favorite type of waterbrush is manufactured by Kuretake and is sold as both the Zig Brush2O and Yasutomo Niji.   I prefer these brushes because the brush head itself has a nice point and is not overly long.  I also enjoy the different colored handles, which makes it easy to grab the size or shape that I want.  Shorter handles are also more convenient for travel.  Best of all, I find the water easiest to control with these.  All of this is why I only carry the Zig and Yasutomo brands of watercolor brushes in our shop, and of those only the ones I find most useful.


Anatomy of a waterbrush

Anatomy of a Waterbrtush

Waterbrushes have six main components:

  • cap
  • brush head
  • water transfer point
  • attachment point 
  • reservoir plug
  • water reservoir / handle


Arguably the best part of the waterbrush is the cap.  The convenience of not dealing with a water cup is not to be down-played, but the cap is a true game-changer, and allows you to toss your brush - water and all - into a pencil bag with no further concern.  Even better, the cap has a clip which prevents your brush from rolling.

Brush Head

Waterbrush HeadsFrom left to right: A new waterbrush, my waterbrush (notice the deteriorated point), my young daughter's waterbrush (this could be cleaned up with some brush soap, but is a good example of extreme staining and wear and tear).

This is what you use to paint.  When new, the point should be very fine, however with use it will flare and fray to a greater extend and more quickly than a natural hair brush.  White bristles mean you can see how much and what color is loaded on your brush.  Bristles will get stained over time, especially if you use more staining colors.  A bit of brush soap can go a long way though.

Water Transfer Point

This is where the water reservoir and brush head connect - kind of the ferrule of the waterbrush.  It contains a sponge which helps control the flow of water.  Mind the sponge and your waterbrush will be your friend! (More on that below.)

Attachment Point

The reservoir screws onto the rest of the brush with a simple threaded design.  Another popular brand of waterbrushes is reverse-threaded, which tends to drive me crazy.  These are threaded the way you would expect, so unscrewing the reservoir to refill them is straightforward.

Reservoir Plug

This piece functions both as a plug and part of the water flow control.  It only allows water to move through a very small hole.  Keep this piece in mind when you squeeze the reservoir for more water - the water is on its way, but moving through a very tiny opening!

The only sneaky thing about this brush is the black pseudo-plug that you have to tediously remove to re-fill the reservoir.  I use a fingernail to start to pry it loose so that it can be pulled off.  You can also use the Copic Changer Tool.  

Water Reservoir

This is the handle of the waterbrush and is where the water is stored.  It unscrews from the transfer point so that you can fill it from a sink, a syringe, a water bottle, or by submerging it.  Squeeze handle to moisten brush head.  


How To Use A Waterbrush

1. Fill Reservoir With Water

If traveling by air or backpacking, it is best to travel with your waterbrushes empty.  It is easy to fill from a sink and messy to fill from a water bottle.  Some people carry a little syringe for the purpose, but if you just fill it by submerging it in a wide mouth bottle (like a Nalgene) or a stream you can avoid carrying the extra gadget.

2. Pre-Wet Brush / Load With Water

Loaded WaterbrushIt is easy to get a little carried away squeezing your waterbrush and letting water dribble out the end.  The picture above shows a water-laden brush head.  This is just dandy if you are wanting to dilute a color in your mixing palette or work a wash.  However, having too much water on the head of your brush can be very frustrating for more detailed painting.  

Load your waterbrush with water by simply giving the handle a squeeze.  You do not need to drip water out of the tip unless you want to start with a very wet brush.  If you prefer to work with a drier brush or are working on a small painting, start with a light squeeze and then wait.  If you prefer a very juicy brush then squeeze away!

3. Blot Brush Head

Use a towel or pant leg to blot your brush to ensure all of the bristles are wet and not too water laden.  If you store your waterbrush with water in the reservoir you will not need to pre-wet it in this way. 

4. Dip Into Paint

Dip your brush tip into the color of your choice!  (Less is more to start, you can always add more later!)

5. Test On Scrap Paper

Especially when starting out with a waterbrush, I encourage you to use a piece of scrap paper before going into your painting.  Just make a little mark or line.  This will tell you if you have too much water, too much paint, or not enough of one or the other.

6. Paint

Paint as you usually would.  The waterbrush head will likely have a different feel, especially if you are used to natural hair brushes.  When you feel that you have run out of paint, you can simply go back for more and enjoy skipping the water cup since your brush is ever-moist.

7. Rinse/Wipe (then repeat from step 4)

How to rinse a waterbrush?  You don't.  Just wipe it off on your blotter (paper towel, pant leg, handkerchief, etc.)  Wipe your brush back and forth until it seems clean (or clean-ish).  Be aware that more staining colors such as modern synthetic will be more stubborn to wipe off.  Squeeze the handle so that a few drips come out of the tip of the brush and keep wiping to be more thorough.  Of course, you can use a water cup to rinse your brush, but that kind of defeats the purpose of using a waterbrush.  Once your brush head is as clean as you want it, choose your next color and resume painting.




Troubleshooting & Expectations

Control (& The Secret To Unlocking Your Waterbrush)

The biggest issue when using a waterbrush is control, or in other words: managing flow of water.  The key here is to remember the transfer point which contains a sponge, and that pesky reservoir plug with the tiny opening.  This prevents water from simply flowing freely from the handle and onto the page.  However, it also really slows the transfer of water after you squeeze the handle for more water - by creating a delay.  So, when you want a little more moisture on your brush, squeeze the handle gently, and then wait. (Ten, maybe twenty seconds.) Test the brush on your scrap paper and give it a little wiggle so that the fresh water can work its way down through the bristles.  If you still need a little more water, then do another gentle squeeze, wait, then another little wiggle on scrap paper.  

You will quickly get a feel for how hard a squeeze and how long of a wait you need to achieve the amount of moisture you like on your brush.  Be patient.  One or two painting sessions and you'll have it.

If you enjoy working with a drier brush and have given your brush handle too hard of a squeeze, you may have to patiently blot your brush for a while to reduce the amount of water being held both in the brush and the transfer point sponge.  Again, be patient and keep blotting.

Do Not Expect Extremely Fine Details

Having accurate and reasonable expectations for what a waterbrush is and is capable of are essential for enjoying one.  This is a brush designed for portability, convenience, and casual painting - not fine details.  Don't get me wrong, it isn't like using a jumbo crayon or anything like that.  Waterbrushes are capable of a lot.  But not cat's whiskers.  Not hairline strokes.  Waterbrushes are best suited to sketching, such as travel sketches, or looser painting styles.  Again, they are not blunt objects.  I have created some of my favorite paintings with waterbrushes.  It is just important to understand these are not fine sable brushes, and that is just fine.


Hidden Perk Of Waterbrushes

Waterbrushes allow you to skip the step of visiting the water cup while painting.  While this does not sound significant, this little detail has a huge impact on the flow of movement and rhythm of painting.  Instead of cup to paint to painting, it is simply back and forth between paint and painting.  You'll see.  It is fun.


Downside Of Waterbrushes

They are plastic.  All of them.  The bristles are a cheaper synthetic that frays and fuzzes more quickly.  The disposability and short lifespan is disappointing.  However, there are a few things you can do to lengthen their life:

  • Pre-moisten your paint by using a mister.  This saves the tip of your waterbrush.  The agitation of rubbing a brush tip on dry pan colors can really ruin the point.  
  • Use brush soap to wash them after a trip, then repoint the tips and store it with the reservoir empty.  This allows the clean brush tip to dry completely in a nice point.
  • Use a flat waterbrush for larger washes or covering larger areas to save the tips of your rounds.


Waterbrush Tips (No Pun Intended)

Waterbrush Tips
This is a picture of two of the below tips: If you remove the small plastic ferrule of the large flat waterbrush (it doesn't work on the smaller one) you have a larger blunt round brush.  If you swap handles between the large flat and the Yasutomo Niji you can have a shorter handle of a different color on your large flat - and a spare medium tip to boot!


  • You can convert the larger flat waterbrush into a large, blunt round by removing the plastic ferrule!

  • The larger flat waterbrush comes with a long handle.  However, if you prefer a shorter handle, but want to avoid having two brushes with the same color handle, get a Niji Mini and swap handles/reservoirs.  The large flat will end up with a short blue handle, and you'll have a medium tip with either a larger reservoir, or as a backup medium brush tip (these are the ones I use through the fastest).

  • The Zig Brush2O Medium and the Yasutomo Niji Mini are the same brush!  Just different handle and cap colors.  



Waterbrushes do not replace traditional brushes, and they really aren't designed to.  They are an excellent tool to have in your chest, another option to keep at your fingertips.  Really the best thing about them is that they can make watercolor painting a more effortless part of your life.  Grab a waterbrush, travel palette, and sketchbook and you are set with everything you need.  I often have these three items rubber banded together in my purse so that I can do a little painting if the opportunity presents itself - which it more often will if you have your paints (and a waterbrush) with you!


As always, thank you for being here and wishing you happy painting,

Jess Greenleaff



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