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Mop Brushes Are Your Friend

April 22, 2019
Quick watercolor portrait sketch on Fabriano Artistico 300 lb. Hot Press watercolor paper. (Approx. 5.5 x 10 inches—see that an additional piece of paper was butted at the top of the portrait so I could include the hair, since I’d started with too large a scale). Montana marker background. Brush pen and watercolor washes.

I know that sometimes you want that special brush that has the delightful point and gives you all the detail you crave.

Today’s post isn’t about that brush. That brush is great when you need it, but if it’s the only brush you’re using your work is going to look fussy very fast.

So what brush do you use if you need to apply a lot of color over a large surface quickly?

I like to use a mop brush. (And just so you know wash brushes were always considered flat and wide, but soft, while mops were considered round and soft. Currently, with the penchant for flattening the mop at the ferrule and calling it an oval wash/mop—well you get the idea, naming conventions are being blurred by manufacturers.)

The Isabey Squirrel Quill

Mops come in a bunch of different sizes and shapes. The key thing about a mop brush is that it is typically made with very soft (limp) hairs like squirrel, and they have a very absorbent belly so they can carry a lot of wash.

The brush tip is gathered together and held at the top of the brush with a quill wrap (now I think this is always synthetic) and some twisted wire. 

When I was younger my mop of choice was something called the Isabey Squirrel Quill. I had to save up for a long time to be able to afford one of these, but it changed the way I painted. It’s a collection of squirrel hairs that when wet spring to a fine and delicate point.

Meanwhile their bellies carry that ton of wash I’ve already alluded to.

This means you can make broad strokes or fine strokes depending on the pressure you use. 

If you’re accustomed to using sable brushes this brush will seem floppy and uncontrollable at first.

With a little bit of practice, however you’ll discover that streaky large washes are a thing of the past. It’s easy to flood an area of a painting with a wash of the right dilution, and have it dry where you want it, when you want it.

The Other Type of Mop Brush

The truth is that I rarely use my Isabey Squirrel Quills any more. I love them, I even have two pocket versions that I adore.

The reality, however, is that I am often using pans or hardened paint these days and I don’t want to grind those lovely tips into that paint. I’m usually not precious about my brushes (even my sables), just look at my brushes if you don’t believe me. But for some reason I protect these quills.  

Detail of today’s image.

A few years ago I started buying another type of mop brush—the Oval Wash or Mop brush. (Manufacturers all have slitty different names for all of these brushes.)

This brush is still made of that absorbent soft squirrel hair, but the tip of the brush is cinched onto the brush with a metal ferrule that flattens the brush tip into a wide brush with a curved, edge like a crescent moon. It looks not unlike a filbert on steroids (beefed up).

When wet there is no point to this brush. It’s simply oval and soft and easy going—the California Surfer Dude of watercolor brushes (laid back, easy going, but it means business when in use).

Without that fussy tip these brushes are a lot less expensive than the Quill mops. But they are still great for flat, loose washed in large areas. 

They are particularly useful for glazing washes over the facial areas as you see in today’s image. Think of it as “Get on the wave, ride the wave, get off the wave.” In a few broad and non-fussy strokes you can cover the areas you need, and be DONE. That’s the key with anything in transparent watercolor—leave it alone.  

In today’s detail image you can see that I used a really light wash of pink, a medium wash of a more orange peach, and then a darker pink wash to finish off. There is a little bit of complementary color in the beard shadow wash to darken that. 

Each wash as allowed to dry completely, though looking at it now I can see a couple places were I was impatient. Just watch that because you’ll get different types of edges and you might then have a desire to go in and get fussy with them.

The thing I like about the oval wash/mop the most is that because it doesn’t have that precious tip I can scrub it into a pan, pick up some color, and stroke it in place broadly—like the light green under the eyes—and it doesn’t have to be exact, yet it gives the suggestion of being exact.

But Wait There’s More

Last year I bought some pointed oval mops. Some manufactures call these “Cat’s Tongue.” Like the original quill these brushes have a tip, and a big belly to carry loads of wash. But like the oval wash brush they are flattened at the ferrule.

I still haven’t used mine yet. It’s odd that I buy something and don’t run home and use it right away, but last year I was preparing lectures and classes and painting with those pan paints that can be hard on fine brush tips when you’re a scrubber like I am. Sure you can use a brush like this with pan watercolors, even fresh tube paint is going to be stiffer than the brush. To me, however, it just seemed a waste to grind away that tip when I knew I have 5 minutes to sketch and was going to be tough on the brush.

I mention this variant here because they are becoming more and more popular and I see more manufacturers making them. Also, they are much less expensive than the quill brushes, while still supplying all the functionality. So take a look at these before you make a final choice on which mop is right for you.

How To Choose Which Brush—Type and Hair?

I need to say a little bit more about this. Yes if you want a tip, you need a quill or a cat’s tongue type brush. The latter will be less expensive. Both will do great jobs for you in a variety of ways. 

But if you do want to try mops consider which type of hair you want on your brush. I had a lovely goat hair mop in the 1970s made by Grumbacher. It’s no longer available. I wish I had ten more of those in 10 sizes. I’ve never had a goat brush since that I’ve liked.

Squirrel is, well squirrel, soft and limp. It does such a lovely job in this type of brush.

Synthetic squirrel is, well also squirrel, soft and limp.

My point is that I’ve used both real squirrel and synthetic squirrel and both have been responsive. Often the synthetic squirrel is more expensive.

In the 1980s and even into the early years of this century the synthetic watercolor brushes often were much less responsive and workable than real hair watercolor brushes—regardless of the type of brush.

Now you can go online and find descriptors for the push back you get from a variety of synthetic hairs and pretty much have exactly the brush that you want, typically in a price range you can afford.

If you’re just starting out with a mop/wash think about a real squirrel mop from Princeton, or a synthetic squirrel mop from Princeton’s Neptune line. Either are going to be super brushes for you: economical, readily available in the US.

If you really enjoy working with the mop you can start saving your allowance for an Isabey Squirrel Quill. You don’t need one, but everyone who paints in watercolor should at least once experience what it’s like to lay in a large wash with one, and then immediately start to detail elsewhere with the same brush, without reloading.

Other brands to consider—Silver Brush Mops (they have some goat hair); Princeton’s Velvet Touch, which is a Synthetic Blend (I have some and they are lovely); and of course Raphael—they make pure squirrel mop brushes of the quill variety like Isabey, but like Isabey come with a larger price tag.

Avoid any craft kit or student grade mops. Typically these have white synthetic bristles, but golden and other colors abound. Beyond hair color, the craft and student grade synthetic brushes don’t have the engineering behind their synthetic bristles the other brands do (hence their low cost). Like all watercolor brushes you get what you pay for. You want to have the experience of a quality brush.

The last thing you want is to be part way through a wash and look down to see the brush is empty (the craft or student grade mop has no ability to hold a large wash) and it has  left a trail of hairs across your paper. You won’t get the true mop experience without an artist grade brush you can fearlessly and floatingly stroke across your paper.

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