Watercolor brush lettering is tricky… trickier than lettering with brush pens.
Learning to control a paintbrush with paint and still create beautiful letters is a skill of its own that takes some time to master!
Yes, you could use watercolor brush pens and still get that watercolor look (here’s an article that shows you how), but in this case I’m talking about using an actual paintbrush.
Watercolor calligraphy is worth the extra effort, and I think you’ll agree when you see the stunning effects that are possible.
In this post, I’m going to share five tips that will make your paintbrush lettering easier.
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1. Practice brush control
When lettering with a paintbrush, brush control makes all the difference.
Brush control is just what it sounds like: how well you’re able to control your brush and the strokes it makes.
Paintbrushes are generally more flexible than brush pens, so if you’re used to writing with pens, paintbrushes will probably feel a bit out of control.
It’s important to practice using a paintbrush so that you’ll be able to control it almost like a brush pen and create beautiful letters with it!
The best way to get better at brush control is to play with the brush.
Paint lines, swirls, leaves, thick strokes, thin strokes. Go fast and slow. Fill a page (or more!) with brush exercises.
I’m positive that once you’ve done that, you’ll feel much more comfortable wielding the brush. This would also be a great way to warm up before working on your lettering.
2. Use less-textured paper
There are so many kinds of watercolor paper available. Watercolor paper always has some texture or “tooth” to it, but some kinds are more textured than others.
Highly-textured paper can make it more difficult to write with a paintbrush if the bristles skip on the rough surface. I’ve found this to be especially true when using a liner brush.
If you’re frustrated with your paintbrush skipping on the paper, try using a smoother watercolor paper.
Cold press watercolor paper is more textured, while hot press is smoother. One option is to try hot press paper and see if you like it better.
Another option is to use a smoother brand of paper. Some watercolor papers just are less-textured than others, even if they say “cold press.”
3. Try different grips
When practicing with your brushes, try changing the way you hold the brush. You may find that a different grip or hand position allows you to paint letters in a whole new way.
Here’s an example:
One time I decided to try a liner brush for watercolor lettering. I had seen people using liner brushes for calligraphy, so I thought it was the way to go.
When I used the brush in my usual way, it didn’t work how I’d hoped. The harder I tried to control that long, flexible tip, the worse the lettering looked.
One evening when playing around with it, I started holding the brush differently.
Instead of tightly gripping it close to the bristles in an attempt to control it, I loosened my grip and held the brush further up the handle. The result was a looser and more expressive style of lettering that I ended up really liking.
To my surprise, I suddenly loved using the brush. By loosening up and changing my grip, I found the best way to use it.
I encourage you to experiment with different grips and ways of using your brushes. You never know what you might discover!
4. Use fluid watercolor
When doing watercolor lettering, it’s important to use fluid mixes of watercolor.
Fluid watercolor mixes make lettering smoother and easier, and the paint will stay wet longer for blending. The exception is if you want a dry brush effect, in which case you’ll want to use less water.
Keep your paint mixes fluid enough so that you can both write and blend colors smoothly. If you’re unsure of how much water to add, try watching this YouTube video on mixing watercolor consistencies.
Thicker, more saturated paint mixes are also great for dropping paint into wet letters. I often like to alternate between a watery and a thicker paint consistency for more contrast.
If you don’t love mixing up puddles of watercolor before every painting, then liquid watercolors are for you!
I love using these liquid watercolors for lettering. The paint is already at the perfect consistency and you can just dip your brush in and start lettering.
You can also add the liquid watercolor to a palette and paint from there if you prefer. Plus the bottles will last you a long time!
5. Experiment with different brushes
You won’t know which brush works best for you until you experiment with them!
If you’re dissatisfied with the brush you’ve been using, try a different one, whether that’s a different type of brush or just a different bristle material.
Synthetic bristles are typically firmer and tend to spring back into shape.
Natural hair bristles are thirstier and hold more water. They’re often more flexible or floppy, depending on the type of hair.
I use both kinds of brushes and like them all for different reasons, but I prefer to use synthetic brushes for lettering, even though they don’t hold as much water.
Firm, synthetic-bristle paintbrushes will be the easiest to use for watercolor calligraphy since they hold their shape and are easier to control.
As an alternative to a paintbrush, you can also use a water brush.
Water brushes are one of the best tools to use for watercolor lettering since the nylon bristles are firm and hold their shape. Water brushes are basically a cross between paintbrushes and brush pens.
The barrel of a water brush pen is a water reservoir, and you can squeeze water out at any time by pressing the barrel. The bristles always stay wet, which is helpful for blending.
For more, read this post: How to Use Water Brushes: Your Complete Guide
Here are my current favorite brushes for watercolor lettering:
- Princeton Select Artiste brushes – This set of five comes in all the perfect small sizes for calligraphy. The pointed tips and firmness of the brushes make these easy to use. A mix of synthetic and natural hair bristles.
- Royal & Langnickel 9300 Series brushes – A good variety pack of synthetic hair brushes (I use the round ones the most). These are on the softer side but have good pointed tips, plus they hold a good amount of water.
- Liner brushes – Liner brushes have long, narrow tips and are great for watercolor calligraphy once you learn how to control them. I have a Master’s Touch Script Liner size 2 from the Hobby Lobby store. This Princeton Select Artiste script liner size 1 should be very similar, or this Princeton Heritage size 4 liner.
- Sakura Koi 9ml Medium Water Brush – My favorite water brush pen. These also come in different brush types and sizes.
I prefer to use round brushes for my style of calligraphy, but you can experiment with using angled and flat brushes to create different styles of letters, too!
Princeton Artist Brush Co. has also created a brush set just for lettering. The set is curated by Jeannie Dickson, an artist who does some impressive watercolor lettering in both block letter and script styles.
If you want a variety of lettering brushes for different styles all in one package, you can get the Princeton lettering brush set here.
A note on paintbrush care
Make sure to take good care of your brushes so the tips stay pointed. This is so important if you want your brushes to last a long time. I learned this by making the mistakes.
If you’re rough on paintbrushes, the bristles will separate and splay outward, making it hard to get clean brush strokes. When the pointed tip gets frayed, it will be harder to paint very thin lines.
Here are a few tips on taking care of your paintbrushes:
- Don’t let your brushes sit in your water jar, as that will not only ruin the pointed tips but also cause the handles to peel and crack.
- Avoid using brushes to scrub paper or paint pans (try to use a designated brush for this) since this will fray the tips, too.
- Once paintbrushes are rinsed clean, carefully re-shape the tips and let them dry while lying flat. Don’t let them dry while standing upright, or water will get down inside the ferrule.
- When they’re completely dry, store them so the tips are not bent in any way. You could also use the plastic sleeves brushes come with to protect the bristles.
Keeping paintbrush tips as pristine as possible is really important, especially for lettering!
Watercolor lettering is the perfect blend of watercolor painting and calligraphy (my favorites!). I hope these tips make writing with a paintbrush easier for you, but there’s one more thing….
Watercolor lettering doesn’t have to look perfect. If there are rough edges, streaks, or uneven lines, that’s okay.
Writing with a paintbrush isn’t easy. It’s okay if you have to start over or go back and touch up lines (who doesn’t?).
So while I hope these tips are helpful, don’t stress over the imperfections that come from creating something by hand.
That’s part of what makes this art form special. Digital art can’t replace the work created with real paint and brushes.
Which of these five tips will you try? Let me know below!