There’s nothing wrong with handling a paintbrush like a pencil or a pen, but have you ever wanted to fully explore how to get the most out of one? If you have, Etchr’s resident artist Jill Gustavis unveils some of the secrets of the paintbrush, which we’ll take a look at in this blog post!

Step 1: Tapered Strokes

First thing is to gather your tools. Since this is more like a warm-up exercise, you won’t need too many things: a cold press watercolour sketchbook, a size 12 and size 6 round synthetic brush, a squirrel-hair mop brush, a container of water, a watercolour palette, watercolour paints, and paper towels or tissues.

Tip: You could use hot press paper instead, but cold press will give a better texture for dry brush techniques, which we’ll look at later.

The first brushstroke is the basic tapered brushstroke using the size 12 round brush. To do this, load your paintbrush with water and paint (Jill uses Indanthrene blue), and starting from the tip of the brush, slowly drag it across the paper while gradually adding more pressure towards the middle before gradually lifting it off the page again.

This creates a “leaf-shaped” stroke, which is a very versatile brushstroke that’s not possible to do with a pencil or pen!

You can experiment by angling your brush differently on paper; usually, you would paint at a 45º angle from the page, but you can try a perpendicular angle or an almost parallel angle.

Step 2: Wet vs. Dry

The next stroke is also tapered, but using a dry brush technique instead, where you wipe off some of the paint on a paper towel before running it across the page in the same way as before.

Because the brush is drier than before, and due to the paper’s extra texture, you get this “broken” effect in your brushstroke that is the perfect texture for fur, rocks, or anything that has a rough-looking surface.

You can also get the same effect if you paint quickly, but you’ll have less control with this method.

On the other side of the spectrum, you have the wet-on-wet technique, where you wet the surface of the paper before dropping paint in. Also, depending on how saturated the paint is, the paint will spread differently within the wetted area. In the image above, you can see that the top stroke was done with more diluted paint, while the bottom stroke was done with very saturated paint.

The saturated paint doesn’t spread as much, but both still produce softer-looking lines.

Note: You can also get the same strokes with a smaller round brush, but because it’s smaller, you may have to do 2-3 brushstrokes to equal one large brushstroke. So try not to shy away from bigger brushes, especially if you plan on painting bigger paintings.

Step 3: Mop Brush

Speaking of size, it’s also possible to get a tapered brushstroke with a larger brush like a mop brush. It requires a little more fine-tuning though, especially if your brush is made with natural hair, like squirrel hair.

Natural hair tends to feel softer and has less spring than a synthetic brush, so you may have to practice more with a natural brush since it doesn’t “snap” back into shape like a synthetic brush.

The important thing is that it still comes to a sharp point, otherwise you won’t be able to get the same tapering as with the synthetic brush!

Step 4: Fluidity

Next, Jill does a quick demonstration of how these brushstrokes can be combined to paint something fluidly, like an apple.

With a curved stroke in yellow and one in red, the paint merges and mixes when they meet in the middle. Paint can be “pulled” up and out to form a stem and leaf, and blue and yellow paint can be mixed to drop in some green for the leaf.

For the shadows, more blue can be quickly brushed under the apple, and be allowed to bleed into the bottom of the apple for a sense of continuity.

Step 5: Do the Twist

If your tapered brushstrokes aren’t as tapered as you would like, try twisting your paintbrush as you slowly lift it off the page. You can also get some nice curved strokes with this method, so try doing a few!

Step 6: Stroke Quality

The last few brushstrokes are similar but still pretty important, especially if you don’t want to paint too “rigidly”. They’re more random in terms of thickness, so work well when painting nature!

To do this “random” brushstroke, draw two horizontal lines in pencil about 3cm apart. If you don’t need a guide, then you can skip this part.

Next, follow the pencil line with the tip of your size 12 round brush, holding it diagonally to the paper. Paint two tapered brushstrokes along this line, but instead of making the brushstroke symmetrical, try to vary the amount of pressure you’re putting on your brush a little more than before.

For a different brushstroke quality, you can do the same by following the line underneath, only holding your brush straight instead of diagonally, and pressing down to create a bumpier effect.

These types of brushstrokes fall in the middle of “rigid” and “chaotic”, which make them just right for painting things like ocean waves, rocky textures, mountains, or clouds.

Tip: The more varied the amount of pressure you put on your brush, the more random your brushstroke becomes, like this one I’ve added between the top and bottom brushstroke. You can even “pull” out the paint to create an even more jagged line quality if you want!

Step 7: Leaves and Waves

You can apply the same brushstroke in a variety of ways, such as painting a leaf. Jill draws two connecting arches in pencil, and then on one side of the line, she follows it with the previous brushstroke – the one that’s a little jagged. Then, she paints on the other side of the line by turning her whole hand, before connecting both sides at the bottom for a stem.

You can also get some awesome waves and water using a more jagged line quality, as the white areas serve as the waves, while the painted parts serve as the water.

Step 8: Experiment

After that, it’s just a matter of experimentation and practice! You can combine the jagged line with the dry brush technique, or paint some jagged lines on a wet surface for some clouds. And while you experiment, take note of which brushstrokes will be best suited for which subject.

The key is to create strokes that look effortless, and/or to be able to paint faster as you’re familiar with how to use your paintbrush to your painting’s advantage. 

You could try different variables – with different paper, under different weather conditions, different brushes…the possibilities are endless! So paint away, and hopefully, you’ll find all the techniques that are just right for you.

For the video version, you can follow along with Jill herself! If you’re looking to step up your brushstroke game, check our her 90-minute art class too!

For more tips, tricks, and general advice about creating art, feel free to subscribe to our email newsletter. You’ll be kept up to date with our latest workshop schedule, too!

Nicola Tsoi is a practising graphic designer and illustrator based in Hong Kong. During her downtime, she likes to watch birds do funny things, search for stories, and bake up a storm. She keeps a pet sourdough starter named Doughy. 


  • Keith Gilbert said:

    This is a good set of tips for a beginner, and an equally good review for experienced practitioners.

    July 31, 2022

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