23 Best Watercolor Brushes in 2021 (MUST READ!)


my shelf best watercolor brushes verycreate.com

Painting watercolors while using a crappy brush is a prescription for frustration and ego-blasting disappointment. That being said, however, there are instances when using a budget brush is not that much of a problem!  I’ve spent $2.oo on a brush, and all the way up to $150 on a brush.

I can confidently say that you will never regret spending money on a quality best watercolor brush, but you may regret the wasted months ( or years ) spend trying to wrangle a lousy brush into serving your attempts to create quality art.  It is more true than any other art medium: quality in materials makes a huge difference!

I hope to help you make sense of the options out there so you can purchase the ideal brushes for your watercolor art!  Please read the in-depth information at the last part of this article for great insider considerations to help you find your perfect brush.

Jump Ahead To:

If you are short of time, here is my quick-look list of best watercolor brushes:

  1. Princeton Aqua Elite NextGen Artist Brush, Series 4850 Synthetic Kolinsky Sable   <<My Number One Recommendation
  2. Princeton Aqua Elite <<Best Synthetic Brushes
  3. Raphaél Kolinsky Red Sable Brushes   <<Best Kolinksy Sable Brushes
  4. Escoda : Ultimo  Tendo Synthetic Series 1530 
  5. Winsor & Newton Series 7 Kolinsky Sable Watercolor Brushes 
  6. Princeton Neptune Series
  7. Isabey Cat’s Tongue Pointed Oval Wash
  8. da Vinci Watercolor Series 498 Casaneo
  9. Jack Richeson 9000 Series Synthetic  
  10. Isabey Pure Kolinsky Sable Watercolor Brushes
  11. Royal and Langnickel Zen Watercolor Brushes
  12. Blick Masterstroke Golden Taklon Brushes
  13. da Vinci Watercolor Series 5580
  14. Silver Brush WC-3000S Black Velvet Watercolor Short Handle Brush Set
  15. Silver Brush Atelier Hake Brush
  16. Princeton Artist Brush Aqua Elite Synthetic Kolinsky 4850 Liner 1 <<Best Liner Brush
  17. Dick Blick Masterstroke Finest Red Sable
  18. Connoisseur Risslon Brush Cat’s Tongue
  19. Da Vinci Watercolor Series 1203k Maestro Paint Brush
  20. Grumbacher Goldenedge Golden Toray Stroke Watercolor Brush
  21. Arches Kolinksy Round
  22. Benicci Paint Brush Set of 16  <<Best Set For Beginners
  23. Simply Simmons Synthetic Mix Watercolor Brushes 
  24. Dynamic Distraction Watercolor Brushes

 

 

Best Watercolor Brushes Recommendations

I know how important quality materials are to an artist!  Given that,  in this article, I only review the best brushes for the money I can find. You won’t find any brushes here that fall apart or shed hairs.  It is impossible to purchase and rate every single manufactured brush on the market, especially since so many are coming from China lately.  I gave it a good go though, and bought up a ton to test!  I will only recommend brushes that I know are quality and have excellent performance!

fist full brushes best watercolor brushes verycreate.com
You can never have too many brushes for art!

ProTip:

You might find some individual brushes come with a protective plastic sleeve over the bristles. That is ONLY to protect the brush until it is sold.  Immediately discard those when you get home.  Trying to rethread them onto your brush after you are done for the day will most likely ruin your brush.

ProTip:

Please be aware that manufacturers finish their brushes with a stiffening sizing to protect them until purchase.  After you get your new brushes home, you’ll need to thoroughly rinse them in clean water to remove the coating.  It is not unexpected for a brush, even an expensive one, to lose a hair or two as you remove the sizing.  But some cheap brushes will shed hairs every time you use them, and are not worth spending a dime on.  The hairs will land on your painting without you noticing, then the pigments will adhere the hair to the surface of your paper and attract pigment.

ProTip:

I always rinse my brushes in plain water, shape them into a point or a chisel edge flat and let them dry upside down with the bristles pointing down.  Then I store them away in a vented plastic Artbin Case to keep their tips pristine.

Old brushes that need a little nudge to get back to their original shape, require a few strokes of  Master’s Touch Brush Preserver to help the shape dry in a tight manner (similar to starching a shirt!).

 

1. Princeton Aqua Elite NextGen Artist Brush, Series 4850 Synthetic Kolinsky Sable for Watercolor, Oval Wash, Size 3/4  – My number one recommendation

The synthetic fibers used in the Aqua Elite line mimic real sable hair wonderfully. For the price point and performance, if I were to limit myself to just ONE watercolor brush, and I was committed to using no animal hair, this brush would be the one.  It is very versatile and responsive with a just firm enough spring back, and to top it all off, it is at a great price point.

  • Synthetic hair
  • Tapered hairs and shape for precise details
  • Great versatility
  • Crafted to last for decades

Our Rating: 99%

 

>Check Price On Amazon<<

 

 

2. Princeton Aqua Elite <<Best Synthetic Brushes

Nearly indistinguishable from Kolinsky fur! Superfine points with tapered edges, these excellent brushes will last for lifetime if well cared for.  I’m super happy I own these.

  • Durable
  • Holds water very well
  • Excellent spring back
  • Affordable
  • Very versatile set
  • Available in sets, individually and in travel size with metal capped tips
  • Very highly rated by owners

Our rating: 98%

 

Princeton Aqua Elite Series 4850 Synthetic Brushes

>>Check Price at Dick Blick<<

>>Check Price on Amazon<<

Here’s my short demo video:

https://youtu.be/pq6Eq3NMWLE

 

 

 

3. Raphaél Kolinsky Red Sable Brushes   <<Best Kolinsky Sable Brushes

The strong, dense hair of the Siberian Sable, commonly called Kolinsky Sable is the platinum hair for watercolor because of its fantastic snap and color holding capability.  Lifetime brushes if well cared for, and a worthy investment.  Load a ton of paint and it goes and goes.

  • Available in round and pointed round
  • Full-bodied
  • Fine points
  • High price point

Our rating: 98%

 

Raphaél Kolinsky Red Sable Brushes

>>Check Price at Dick Blick<<

 

 

4. Escoda  Ultimo  Tendo Synthetic : Series 1530 

Escoda Ultimo is an excellent brush with soft ‘hairs’ that mimic sable.

  • Snap back gently into shape
  • Holds a lot of water
  • Holds a fine point
  • Owner report that this brush feels and performs nearly identical to sable

Our rating: 98%

>Check Price On Amazon<<

Here’s my video demonstrating this brush:

https://youtu.be/5G-04P5SKV0

 

 

5.  Winsor & Newton Series 7 Kolinsky Sable Watercolor Brushes  – Best set for fine details

Pure Kolinsky Sable fur, this set won’t break the bank.  Made by the famous Winsor and Newton company of England, they are manufacturers of artist supplies since the 18oo’s. This set has relatively tiny brush heads, so small details and small-sized artwork will be where these brushes shine.

  • Maximum color-holding capability
  • Comes with a sturdy gift giving box
  • Nickel-plated ferrules

Our rating: 96%

 

>>Check Price on Amazon<<

 

6.  Princeton Neptune Series  – Best for soupy application of wet watercolor

The Princeton company set out to create a synthetic version of squirrel fur and they have outdone themselves with the Neptune series.  Created with multiple-diameter filaments to replicate natural Squirrel.  Great brushes for super wet soupy application of watercolor paint.

  • Great snap
  •  Strong
  • Large variety of shapes and sizes including hand-tied Mottlers and Quills, cat’s tongue (called Oval Wash), daggers plus all the usual shapes
  • Available individually and in sets

Our rating: 96%

 

 

Princeton Neptune Series 4750 Synthetic Squirrel Brushes and Sets

Check Price at Dick Blick<<

>>Check Price on Amazon<<

7.  Isabey Cat’s Tongue Pointed Oval Wash

Squirrel hair for heavy water holding capabilities and a fine point, this versatile brush can be used in three ways: draw with the point, use the side for medium strokes and the flat of the brush for large areas.

  • Nickel-plated ferrule
  • Great price at Dick Blick
  • Available in four sizes
  • Highly rated by owners

Our Rating: 96%

 

Isabey Cat's Tongue Pointed Oval Wash

>>Check Price at Dick Blick<<

 

 

 

8.  da Vinci Watercolor Series 498 Casaneo round size 8

Da Vinci brand has created a new fiber with a  ‘wavy’ shape that paints with a soft, flowing feel while delivering a sharp point.  The artist’s group Urban Sketchers claims this as their favorite brush for outdoor sketching. Fine synthetic fiber hairs.

  • Proprietary ‘crimped’ fiber hairs for superior performance in a synthetic
  • Holds a ton of water
  • Distpurses paint smoothly
  • Easy to control
  • Versatile for different strokes

Our rating: 95%

 

 

 

>Check Price On Amazon<<

 

9. Jack Richeson 9000 Series Synthetic   Short Handle Watercolor Round Brush

Created in the 1980’s to take the place of sable, this industry-leading brush will snap back into shape, carry a heavy wet load of paint and water and absorbs water well.

  • Good fine lines
  • Versatile from fine lines to big swaths of wet color
  • Seamless ferrule
  • Short handles

Our rating: 92%

 

 

>Check Price On Amazon<<

10. Isabey Pure Kolinsky Sable Watercolor Brushes

Isabey Kolkinsy Sable brushes are at the top of the quality meter and are handmade by master brushmakers.  The hair is Siberian Sable sourced during the winter months when the animal hair is longest and most dense.  The hairs are set quite deep into the ferrule which maximized spring back and snap.  This company has an excellent reputation.

  • Available in round and tapered round
  • Great investment for a lifetime brush
  • High price point

Our Rating: 92%

 

Isabey Pure Kolinsky Sable Watercolor Brushes

>>Check Price at Dick Blick<<

 

11.  Royal and Langnickel Zen Watercolor Brushes

A blend of natural and synthetic hair, these well made brushes are made to last.  I would classify these as a step above entry-level in quality and usefulness.  The chiseled handles are useful for dragging into the paper to emboss lines or scrape away paint.

Our Rating: 88%

 

 

>>Check Price On Amazon<<

Here’s my video of one of the brushes:

https://youtu.be/rf0LhTxdgkA

12.  Blick Masterstroke Golden Taklon Brushes

Private label for Dick Blick, these synthetic brushes are great workhorses.  They are a staple in my studio for all media.  Tapered filaments to mimic animal hair, these have a nice spring, retain their shape and clean up well.  At a price point that won’t break the bank, you can buy several of these for the price of one animal hair brush.

  • Available as round, tapered, liner, flat, filbert, fan, angle shader and chisel blender
  • Great price point
  • Highly rated by owners

Our rating: 90%

 

Blick Masterstroke Golden Taklon Brushes

>Check Price at Dick Blick<<

 

 

13.  da Vinci Watercolor Series 5580 – CosmoTop Spin Synthetics

Extra smooth fibers for great water absorption.  Thicker fibers on the outer edge and thinner fibers in the interior for good pigment load and spring back.  An all-around useful brush.

  • Fine points
  • Stable shape
  • Nickel plated brass ferrules
  • Handmade in Germany
  • Highly rated by owners

Our Rating: 92%

>>Check Price On Amazon<<

 

 

14. Silver Brush WC-3000S Black Velvet Watercolor Short Handle Brush Set 

New watercolor artists may consider this set a wise investment.  Not only is it a remarkable price point, but the huge step-up in quality from the cheapest watercolor brushes to this one will make users lifetime fans.  Not as soft and soupy as sable, yet not as stiff and pointy as synthetics, this is the perfect blend of both worlds. A blend of squirrel and synthetic hair.

  • Short handle
  • Consistent water release
  • Black synthetic filament and squirrel hair
  • Holds a lot of water
  • Good price point
  • Good spring back
  • Highly rated by owners
  • Some owners report the tips do not hold their shape well enough for fine detail work

Our rating: 90%

 

>Check Price On Amazon<<

 

 

15.  Silver Brush Atelier Hake Brush

Hand made from dressed goat hair, these Japanese calligraphy brushes are ideal for laying wide washes for seamless blending.  I was amazed at how very soft the hairs are!  The three inch is on my wish list for the future!

  • Threaded copper wire in the ferrule to secure the brush from swelling
  • Soft, naturally absorbent hair

Our rating: 88%

Here’s my demo video:

https://youtu.be/l-7rnl0ewV0

 

Silver Brush Atelier Hake Brush

>Check Price at Dick Blick<<

>>Check Price on Amazon<<

 

 

 

 

16.  Princeton Artist Brush Aqua Elite Synthetic Kolinsky 4850 Liner 1  <Best Liner Brush

Another fine synthetic brush from Princeton is this liner.  The Aqua Elite line is known for being nearly indistinguishable from animal sable in performance and in durability.  I own this one and it is such a superb performer that I’m going to keep several in my paintbrush supplies.  It will work for acrylic as well as watercolor.

  • NexGen synthetic fibers
  • Sturdy construction
  • Delivers a consistent stream of color

Our Rating: 92%  I’m rating it lower, merely because it’s not versatile, it is designed for long thin lines only.

 

 

>>Check Price On Amazon<<

17. Dick Blick Masterstroke Finest Red Sable

Hand made by skilled artisans, Dick Blick uses the finest Red Sable available with nickel-plated brass ferrules.

  • Wonderful spring and snap
  • Capable of heavy loads of water/pigment
  • Keeps its shape
  • Highly rated by owners
  • Good price point for sable quality

Our rating: 94%

 

Blick Masterstroke Finest Red Sable Brushes

>>Check Price at Dick Blick<<

 

18. Connoisseur Risslon Brush Cat’s Tongue

Squirrel tail hair mixed with Risslon, a synthetic filament.

  • Handy scraper edge on the handle tip
  • Highly rated by owners
  • Available in four sizes
  • Nice price point

Our Rating: 94%

>>Check Price On Amazon<<

19. Da Vinci Watercolor Series 1203k Maestro Paint Brush, Long Needle Liner/Rigger Kolinsky Red Sable

Liner brushes are indispensable for achieving flawless long thin lines.  This one by da Vinci is extra-long and will load with lots of watery pigment to deliver a graceful line without frequent reloading.

  • highest quality winter male kolinsky red sable hair
  • Available in short or long handle
  • Excellent flow and shape retention
  • Also available in the Series 1200k for medium length

Our Rating: 91%  scoring it lower merely because it is not versatile, designed for long lines only.

 

>>Check Price On Amazon<<

 

 

 

20.  Grumbacher Goldenedge Golden Toray Stroke Watercolor Brush

I have a mug full of Goldenedge brushes.  I use them to apply varnish and lay in washes of color.  They don’t leave a striated stroke and are super soft to the touch. I personally do not enjoy the extra-long flat hairs, I find them TOO bendy.  But if you are looking for a flat that is uber-supple, this is a great brush.

This long flat by the famous art materials manufacturer Grumbacher has a tapered edge for great long-stroked wash control.  The synthetic bristles are soft with a good spring. Priced slightly above a budget-price point, this is a great little watercolor wash brush that if cared for will last for many years.

  • Available in four sizes
  • Short round handle for comfort
  • Great value for a budget price
  • Highly rated by owners
  • Available in multiple sizes and shapes

Our Rating: 89%

 

 

>>Check Price on Amazon<<

 

 

24.  Dynamic Distraction Watercolor Brushes

Here is a synthetic budget version of the Isabey pure Kolinksy brushes.   Keep in mind that budget brushes are not designed to last for decades of use, the ferrules feel a little cheap.  However, these brushes are surprisingly good quality and for the price point, you really get a lot of usable brushes.   They come heavily starched so that they will arrive with crisp points, so you’ll need to spend some time rinsing all that off of every brush before you use them. Make sure you don’t leave them sitting in water up to the ferrule, this style of handle will loosen if soaked with water. I wish there was a greater variety of brush shapes in this set, like a flat and a liner, but hey, for the price, you can’t have it all!

  • Highly rated by owners
  • Great value at a budget price
  • All the round sizes you’ll ever need

Our Rating: 85%

 

 

 

>Check Price On Amazon<<

https://youtu.be/2S18yGnlh9E

 

 

21. Arches Kolinksy Round

A brush for the artist who will only settle for the most expensive brush, this superb Arches Kolinksy brush is made of the best sable money can buy.  While it is wonderfully made, I’m docking it points merely because of the super high cost.  For my money, it doesn’t perform much different than other Kolinsky brushes or even synthetics for much, much cheaper.  Nevertheless, it’s a great brush with an outstanding reputation.

  • Exceptional spring and elasticity
  • Superbly made
  • Descrete crimping on the ferrule for elegant design and functionality

Our Rating: 88%  – wow, the cost!

 

https://youtu.be/aG5U6UhWNzE

>>Check Price On Amazon<<

22. Benicci Paint Brush Set of 16  -Best Set For Beginners

Benicci set of 16 is made from nylon bristles, which typically means less quality of construction and not super good for watercolor. This brand however double crimps their ferrules for minimal fall-out and packs them with dense fibers.  They won’t react the same as Kolinksy or synthetic Kolinksy, but that doesn’t make them unsuitable for watercolor.  It means they won’t release paint  in an absolutely consistent rate, or hold a vast amount of water at one time.  That’s ok for many, many applications of watercolor!  This is a great beginner set at an affordable price.

It comes with a tin and a fabric case that zips closed.  The most surprising thing is the nearly 100% owner ratings.  No other brush set comes so highly rated by users in this price range!  I really like this set because I can use these brushes for oil and acrylic as well as watercolor.  Of course, at this price point, if they start to wear from acrylic use, then just buy another set- they are THAT affordable.

Unfortunately what is missing from this set is a long liner and a medium-sized round.

  • Huge variety of 16 different shapes
  • Palette knife included (which is most helpful with oil or acrylic paint)
  • Dabbing sponge included for texture effcts
  • Super highly rated by owners
  • Durably constructed
  • 1 year replacement warranty

Our Rating: 89%

 

>Check Price On Amazon<<

https://youtu.be/KQpJTwOkkHo

 

 

 

23. Simply Simmons Synthetic Mix Watercolor Brushes  << Best Budget Brushes

Believe it or not, these budget brushes are actually quite wonderful!  I have a quiver full of these in all sizes and shapes. Because the price point is so very low, I never feel any remorse in overusing them!  The flat is soft, yet supple enough for wet washes. The long liners perform exceptionally well. I use them for varnishing finished paintings and laying in washes of watercolor or wetting the paper.   Sometimes available at big box craft stores, I will wait for a sale and grab these by the handfuls.

  • Great value for the money
  • Good spring back
  • Holds a point well
  • Available in riggers, liners, rounds, flats, oval washes

Our Rating: 87%

Simply Simmons Synthetic Bristle Brushes

>Check Price at Dick Blick<<

>>Check Price on Amazon<<

24.  Dynamic Distraction Watercolor Brushes

Here is a synthetic budget version of the Isabey pure Kolinksy brushes.   Keep in mind that budget brushes are not designed to last for decades of use, the ferrules feel a little cheap.  However, these brushes are surprisingly good quality and for the price point, you really get a lot of usable brushes.   They come heavily starched so that they will arrive with crisp points, so you’ll need to spend some time rinsing all that off of every brush before you use them. Make sure you don’t leave them sitting in water up to the ferrule, this style of handle will loosen if soaked with water. I wish there was a greater variety of brush shapes in this set, like a flat and a liner, but hey, for the price, you can’t have it all!

  • Highly rated by owners
  • Great value at a budget price
  • All the round sizes you’ll ever need

Our Rating: 85%

 

 

 

>>Check Price On Amazon<<

 

Travel Sets

When traveling or packing your supplies to paint outdoors, it’s nice to have a set that will fold into a compact and small package.  These travel sets fit the bill while still delivering on great quality and versatility!

Jack Richeson 713995 Watermedia Pocket Plein Air Brush Set

Great quality synthetic watercolor brushes from a reliable manufacturer.  These shorter than standard handles make for compact traveling.  You may find that handles this short cramp your hand, though.  Not arthritis-friendly, unless you add some comfort grip holders on to the handles.  This is the only travel set I could find that included any flats.

  • Flat 1/4, 1/2, 3/4
  • Round 2, 4, 6, 8
  • Storage case will slip in a pocket easily
  • Low profile, this is not overly bulky
  • Great variety of shapes for lots of versatility

>Check Price On Amazon<<

Golden Maple Artist Paint Brush for Acrylic Watercolor Oil Painting. (Travel Paint Brush)

This travel set has a removable cap for each paintbrush that snaps onto the handle to create a longer brush handle for comfortable use.  The handles are fairly well made and don’t wobble when attached to the paintbrush.  The hairs are nylon, which is not as ideal as animal hair, but I like the variety of sizes in this set, along with the longer handle design, however, I wish it came with a flat for larger washes.

  • Good spring back
  • Nice handle lengths
  • Sturdy case for transport
  • Small profile for easy packing
  • Good price point
  • Sizes 4, 8, 12 rounds

>>Check Price On Amazon<<

 

 Escoda Versatil Series Artist Watercolor and Acrylic Paint Brush, Short Handle, Travel, Size 8

A superior synthetic blend of fibers for this brush set it apart.  A triple crimp ferrule makes this durable brush a lifetime of usefulness.

  • Excellent materials and quality of construction
  • Very highly rated by owners
  • Handmade in Spain
  • Two-piece handle/cap for ideal length and comfort

>>Check Price On Amazon<<

Raphaël Le Voyageur Travel Brush Wallet Set

The Raphael Aqua line is a synthetic fiber manufactured with wavy hairs for great water retention and release. The Quill is stiff enough for fine details and the round is soft enough for broad washes in the field.

  • Soft Aqua Round 6, a Soft Aqua Quill  3/0, and a Precision Round Size 0
  • Faux leather wallet
  • Good snapback
  • Great ratings from owners
  • Air circulation portal in cap
  • Wallet includes a clip on the back and attach to a sketchbook or belt

Our Rating: 92%

 

Raphaël Le Voyageur Travel Brush Wallet Set

>>Check Price at Dick Blick<<

 

 

da Vinci Brushes 3 Maestro Kolinsky Travel Watercolor Brushes 

Made of the best Kolinksy sable, these travel brushes are not for the budget-minded.  Coming in at a high price point, these are manufactured to exacting standards with screw-in handles.

  • Vented cap lids for perfect air drying while in storage
  • The handle extensions are larger in diameter than other travel sets, and very comfortable to use
  • Leather case for safe transport
  • Size 3, 5 and 7 long pointed rounds
  • High price point!

>>Check Price on Amazon<<

 

Indispensable Extras

Storage

I’ve ruined enough brushes for any of my mediums ( oil, acrylic, watercolor) that I now only store my brushes inART BIN containers.  Here I explain why:

https://youtu.be/GYNUAnkxlWc

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If that’s not enough to convince you how important storage is, here’s one of my old brushes that escaped my storage containers.  The only thing this brush is good for now is for a humorous or terribly sad visualization of what NOT to do:

split brush ends best watercolor brushes verycreate.com
Improperly stored brushes result in a throw-away brush

 

Palettes

A good palette has multiple wells to hold paint and plenty of segregated mixing areas. However, I’ve often used plastic-coated paper plates when I travel or teach workshops because I can devote three or four to different color families for each student and myself and it makes for easy cleanup after class.

Plastic is an affordable option, but many artists love ceramic or kitchen trays.  I have a huge plastic palette that I got 40 years ago in college and honestly, it’s great for laying out all my paints, but it is problematic for storage. It takes up an entire drawer. How it has lasted these many years without cracking, I’ll never know.

I’ve changed over the years to smaller, portable palettes that can store away at the end of each painting session.

This one by Davi Atelier has 18 wells and folds up flat for transport and storage.

 

>>Check Price On Amazon<<

 

And this one by Meeden has 38 wells for permanently squeezing out your tube of paints plus four mixing areas of varying sizes. This one is on my Christmas wish list.

>Check Price On Amazon<<

 

Tom Lynch Porcelain Palette

If you don’t tend to drop things easily, this deluxe palette by the famous Tom Lynch even holds your brushes in corner holes. It weighs 1.4 lbs, so it’s not going to slide off your table at the slightest nudge.

>>Check Price On Amazon<<

Please see my thorough review article of the best watercolor palettes here!

Getting to know brushes

Brush types for watercolor

Brushes are divided into several categories:

  • Shape
  • Size
  • Bristle/Hair content
  • Length of handle
  • Travel size – which often comes apart with a separate metal cap to protect the brush tip

 

Hair types

Hair, bristles and fibers that make up watercolor brushes are where you really need to spend your money.  Natural hair or fur has traditionally been the platinum goal of watercolor artists because of the unique features of animal hair.  These features are:

  1. Ability to soak up lots of water
  2. Smooth and consistent release of watercolor as you paint
  3. Spring of hairs to bounce back into like-new shape
  4. Good point at the tip
  5. Durability- handcrafted and won’t shed hairs

HOWEVER, the biggest downside of using natural hair is that most of the animals (whether caught in the wild or bred on a farm) are killed to harvest the hair.  It’s not like giving your cherished pet a grooming:  PETA  informs the public that the animal must die to create the brush.  Kolinsky sable, mink, ferret, weasel and squirrel are the worst culprits.  Something labeled ‘camel hair’ can in reality be from squirrels, goats or a blend of several animals.

Often to avoid penalties, ‘natural hair’ brushes are not labeled with the content of the hair.  Nowadays goat, ox and pony hair are also used.  Some countries, including the U.S.A, have issued bans on importing sable brushes, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  Politically, things periodically change though.  Finding sable or weasel brushes for sale in the U.S.A, for example, is again possible.

Along with a very high price point, and animal rights considerations,  some people may opt to use modern synthetic watercolor brushes.  Modern synthetic brushes can rival ‘natural’ fur in performance and quality.  Some artists report that they are indistinguishable from each other.

flat royal langnickel best watercolor brushes verycreate.com

However, not all synthetic brushes are alike! Some synthetics soak up more pigment than natural hair/fur and therefore lay down vibrant color.

Synthetics hold their shape really well and maintain a point. They are also much cheaper than natural hair/fur.

Lastly, it is also common to find a hybrid of some synthetic and some animal hair.

 

Shape

Round brushes are used for blending of colors, blobbing on paint in a soupy fashion and laying in a broad stroke of paint.  If you enjoy painting with big dollops of watery color, opt for a rounded tip, called a ‘quill’.  If you want a ‘one size fits all’ round brush, a pointed round or cat’s tongue that is flat and wide enough to hold a good amount of paint/water that also comes to a fine point. It is super versatile!  I’ve painted entire paintings with just one brush like this.  If versatility is your first goal, then try investing in a very good quality size  8 round or bigger with a fine point.

Here’s a demo of how versatile a pointed round/cat’s tongue brush is:

 

Flats brushes are wonderful for seamless gradient blends and laying in wide swaths of color.  They’re also very useful for wetting the paper with clear water.  For decades when I painted in watercolor, all I used was a 1 inch flat that came to a chisel point.  It cost me some big bucks in college, but I used it for probably 30 years before it bit the dust…or maybe got left behind when I painted outdoors?  I like flats because they are useful: I can ‘chisel-up’ by holding the brush vertically and draw with the thin tip edge,  or I can load it up with paint and use the entire flat side for big swaths or just use one corner to make leaf shapes. A wide fat, flat brush is sometimes called a ‘mottler’.  If the fibers of the flat are TOO long, they start to act like a mop brush and can’t retain their shape.

Ovals – sometimes called ‘cat tongues’ are amazing brushes. They are fat at the base near the ferrule and come to a teardrop fine point at the tip.  I’m just beginning to use my $49 cat tongue brush but I can already see why people rave about it.

Liner brushes/script brushes are long, slender brushes with just enough hairs to hold a long stream of paint.  The beauty of these brushes is that they are capable of making extremely thin lines that will go on and on.  The better quality of fibers, the longer you can paint.

Daggers The shape of a dagger is a long, slender, sharply slanted brush that is used in car pinstriping. For watercolor, it works exceptionally well for doing a thin, graceful line.

Hake brushes are traditional very wide, flat brushes from Japan.  They are used for applying wet washes to paper, prewetting the paper and also applying glue and sizing to papers.   They range from scratchy or soft goat hair brushes to sheep hair.

Squirt bottles are used for spraying a thin line of paint onto wet paper for a more abstract approach to art.  You need to mix tube watercolor with a ton of clear water in a ceramic or plastic small dish then pour it into the cylinder. A fine needle tip allows a super-fine line to flow out. Here’s a photo of mine:

Universal Squirter best watercolor brushes verycreate.com
Fill the barrel with inky watercolor and squeeze a line of paint across your surface for great experimental work

Size

A good rule to follow is to use the largest sized brush you can get away with given the constraints of the size of your subject.  Using too small a brush in a large area will result in little dab-like strokes.  The larger the number on the brush, the larger the brush will be.  Anything smaller than a size 6 round or flat is going to be most useful for tiny details and delicate small subjects like small flowers and leaves.  When I’m laying in washes, the smallest brush I’ll use is a one inch flat. When I’m doing anything larger than 5 x 7, I tend to use size 8 rounds and a size 10 flat, for example.  My advice for beginners is to invest in one good one inch flat and a pointed oval first.  Then as you progress, you can try adding a few other rounds, liners and flats to see what you like best.

Handle length

Watercolors are generally painted laying flat on a tabletop to avoid running the pigments unintentionally.  This means the artist will stay close to the surface, as opposed to oil or acrylic painters who often step back or use long-handled brushes so they can paint further away from the canvas.  Watercolor brushes are generally shorter than oil/acrylic brushes and it is possible to purchase some of them in a travel size, which is either very short, or in two pieces with a metal cap for transportation.

ProTip:

O.k., this comes with a caveat: the choice of brushes for watercolor is very personal and varies from user to user. For what it’s worth, here are my preferences:

I love a good springy flat for the initial lay-in of washes and to prewet the paper.  As I said before, I painted with just a flat for many years.  I used a natural hair flat in those days, but today I do like a soft synthetic.

I also adore a cat tongue.  The flexibility to use a fine point, a wide swath and calligraphic strokes all with one brush is a joy to paint with.

Also indispensable in my studio are liner/rigger brushes for long, luxuriously winding lines. When I first tried them, I was astonished how much paint I could load in the brush and what a long continuous line I could paint without reloading.  What a revelation!  There’s nothing worse than trying to reload your brush and resume a long thin line with an invisible join.  With a great liner/rigger brush there is no need to reload.

I don’t paint ‘blobby’ dollops of paint, so a limp, fat round is useless for me.  I find them difficult to control and impossible to get any fine lines with. If I want a round stroke, like for example when doing shrubbery or painting a portrait, I’ll select a superior quality pointed round.

A few size 0 to size 2 rounds are indispensable for drawing in fine details.

And here’s the embarrassing truth: I do own an uber expensive sable from years ago that I got 70% off when a store went out of business.  It was originally $150!! (see my review of the Arches Sable Kolinksy brush above).  It came with a case to protect the tip.

Honestly, I never use it.  I don’t enjoy the long hairs and I’m frugal enough to resist using it for fear that I’ll ‘damage it’.  I know. I know. A terrible waste.  Just goes to show: you should buy the best quality at the price point that is just slightly uncomfortable, not exorbitantly uncomfortable!

 

On my wish list: 

  • A quality  three or four inch Hake brush for wide washes
  • Several one inch or wider flats for ‘just in case’
  • A backup cats tongue in case I lose my one copy
  • Several firm liner brushes for long thin lines, you can never have enough of these!

ProTips:

If you are interested in exploring the best watercolor paper, you’ll enjoy reading our in-depth article here.

Also, if you enjoy painting in a sketchbook, here is our review of the best watercolor sketchbooks.

Lastly, we have a great seascape tutorial demonstration using watercolor brush pens here.

Anita HC

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