Of all the artistic media, watercolor is pigeonholed as the most difficult to work with because it’s hard to control. While it has more peculiarities than its contemporaries, they’re also what makes it so exceptional. One way to master this medium is to know the art of choosing the right brushes.
You don’t need a lot of watercolor brushes, for starters. Get three rounds and flats each (in small, medium, and large), and one fan. Choose a natural and synthetic blend for balanced softness and stiffness. When you’ve accrued enough experience, you can spend more on other types.
Whether you’re a beginner or a pro, having the right tools (especially brushes) makes your job a cinch. Read on to demystify the different kinds of brushes, what they’re made of, and how to select the ones appropriate for your type of art. Cut through the clutter by narrowing these even further by format, material, and cost.
Table of Contents
- 1 How Many Is Enough?
- 2 Why Brushes Are Important – Understand Them First
- 2.1 Anatomy of a Brush
- 2.2 Types of Watercolor Brushes
- 2.3 Variations of Flat Brushes
- 2.4 What Are Watercolor Brushes Made Of?
- 2.5 How to Use Brushes by Size
- 2.6 Artists’ Recommendations
- 2.7 A Word on Quills/Mops
- 2.8 Questions to Ask When Buying Watercolor Brushes
- 2.9 How Much Do Watercolor Brushes Cost?
- 2.10 Where to Buy Quality Watercolor Brushes
- 2.11 Caring for Brushes
- 2.12 How to Clean Brushes
- 3 Final Words
- 4 Sources
How Many Is Enough?
Many artists discover that cheaper brushes work just as well as pricier ones. Whatever they use, their paintings look the same, and their styles remain intact. Those just starting only need a handful, maybe three to four brushes.
VIDEO – It is possible to use only one brush for an entire painting. Erik Lundgren, a Swedish artist, demonstrates this in his video below. WATCH – a watercolor painting by Erik Lundgren from start to finishErik Lundgren
Brushes for watercolor can also be used for oil, acrylic, and gouache (a thicker, opaque watercolor paint). To get excellent results, however, choose those specifically designed for watercolor. The right brushes really improve your painting. Rounds and flats are pretty much the only brushes most watercolor painters will ever need.
Why Brushes Are Important – Understand Them First
Superior quality watercolor brushes are critical to the success of your artwork, and also the way you take care of them! If you are interested in this topic you might want to read our article on How to Look After Your Watercolor Brushes: 21 Do’s & Don’ts. This is why beginners are advised not to paint in watercolor with brushes made for acrylic or oil, such as a bristle brush. An awareness of the appropriate brushes and their differences will help you find tools that enable you to create brush strokes and textures that make your work one-of-a-kind.
For watercolor painting, you need a brush that efficiently holds and releases water and lets you easily move paint color around.
The value of a brush lies in selecting the hair or fiber and how it’s shaped and secured to the handle. This sets the brush’s resiliency or spring, its durability, the amount of water it can hold, and the effects it renders. Natural brushes are a lot more expensive and harder to care for, so beginners should refrain from using them.
Anatomy of a Brush
- Handle—gives you information about brush size, brand, series, and shape. It is made of plastic or wood, which can also be coated with varnish. Avoid using the cheap, varnished kind as varnish will chip over time and may end up falling into your painting.
- Ferrule—the metal bit that holds the tuft of hair. It may be round or flat.
- Heel—where the bristles end at the ferrule.
- Crimp—secures the ferrule onto the handle. Make sure the crimp is secure, so the brush doesn’t fall apart.
- Head and bristles—divided into the tip or toe and the belly, the widest and biggest part of the bristles. The bigger the belly, the more water, and pigment it can hold.
- Tip or toe—is the most important part. Use a super sharp tip for fine and tiny lines. Most cheap brushes don’t have a fine tip, making it difficult to control shapes and create details.
Types of Watercolor Brushes
Of all the watercolor brush types, rounds and flats are the most common. Owning a few of these is sufficient for 90% of most paintings.
The most common and most versatile type with a variety of sizes. Round brushes have round ferrules. Their bristles are fuller at the belly but have a fine point. Rounds render a variety of stroke widths, from super thin to broad to large areas. With the fine point, you can paint intricate details, fill in areas of different sizes, and draw narrow lines and dots.
A high-quality round holds a good amount of water, picks up excess paint, and rinses out easily. Gestural painters place a lot of expressiveness in their brush marks and value rounds for their flexibility.
Rounds come in three variations: standard, full-bellied, and pointed.
Quills, traditionally known as mops, are rounds with wonderful, soft hairs (usually squirrel) that hold a large quantity of water. Mops are not recommended for paint applications because they are slow to dry and hard to rinse out. However, they’re perfect for wetting the large paper, blotting, or blending applied paint.
Quality mops have precise points useful for controlled water applications, from thin lines to wide washes of the sky. Compared to rounds, they are limited in their range of brush marks because of their soft hairs. They render a coarse, out-of-focus effect, making them ideal for softening edges, lifting light backgrounds, and applying large color masses. Sizes range from 0 to 14.
They look like brushes used for painting houses but smaller. They extend the range of flats to larger widths, hold more water or paint, and release both over a wider area. Wash brushes, like quills, are best for wetting large areas of paper or charging already wet wash areas with water or paint.
They are not recommended for applying paint, especially to painted areas bound by complex edges, because they are large and have blunt edges. They come in sizes one to four inches, depending on fiber type and manufacturer.
A stubby round that tapers to a precise point. It is used for creating single leaves, hair details (such as fur) and eyes (for portraiture); short lines (especially lines of varying width); small areas of texturing (stippling, hatching), and for signing the artist’s name.
Sizes of 0000 to 0 have the least amount of hair and hold less paint and water, giving you more control with fine lines and tiny facets.
Collapsible round or mop brushes that enclose the tuft in the handle for protection on the road. Together with a pocket pan set and a small watercolor paper block, they are handy for quick sketching. The largest sizes can be used for washes.
Japanese Sumi Brushes
Render elegant flowing strokes that change texture as the water peters out, from the beginning of the wet stroke to its dry end. This is why they are valued in calligraphy. They come in many styles and sizes.
Sumi brushes are made of coarse goat hair, contributing to their poor liquid retention and quick water release. However, this feature creates a variation in texture with an exquisite, expressive effect—appreciated in traditional Japanese calligraphy. In other painting instances, however, it can be not very pleasant.
These are designed for achieving unusual texturing effects, which basic brushes handle-less effectively. They are indispensable for those who specialize in a painting genre where texturing effects have specific applications, such as calligraphy, botanicals, or ship painting.
These are great for adding creative textures that no new brush can achieve.
These are chisel-shaped brushes with straight edges popular among 19th-century impressionist painters. They have flat bristles and ferrules. They’re great for straight, thin lines, large, broad strokes, and for covering large areas with paint and water. They’re also good for techniques, such as glazing.
They aren’t as versatile as rounds but are great for long, linear strokes and skies or backgrounds. Choose big, wide ones for landscapes, large formats, and expansive washes.
Angled flats are appropriate for architectural subjects. The square, chiseled edges are useful around rooftops and down corners.
Variations of Flat Brushes
These have stiffer hairs and square tuft profiles (meaning, the tuft length is the same as its width). They hold less paint than regular flats and deliver sharply angular stroke edges. They are also used for lifting, splattering, scumbling, and comparable texturing techniques.
Their wider, shorter bristles hold less water, offering more control. Employing slightly stiffer strokes with bright brushes allows you to paint short, chunky strokes while keeping their shape.
These are designed like a regular flat brush, but its hair is aligned to create an angle.
It is great for creating washes of paint, thin lines, sharp edges, small details, and fun techniques, like dipping one edge of the wet brush into the paint and allowing it to run into the wet area it creates next to it softly.
You have more control with an angled brush compared to a dagger or sword brush. Angled brushes are great for larger washes that come in contact with hard-to-fill detail shapes.
Dagger or Sword
These are similar to the angled brush but with longer bristles that evenly create a curved (rather than a sharp) edge. It’s useful for washes, thin lines, and details. It holds more paint and water compared to the angled brush.
Filbert or Cat’s Tongue
These have a flat ferrule with a round-shaped end. Usually made with soft bristles like sable, mongoose, or squirrel hair, this oval flat comes to a point when wet. It is used to blend or shape washes, wash strokes with varying widths, and detailed maneuvering.
The filbert is used more with oil and acrylic, but you can fill in small areas or create petals and other round shapes. The oval-pointed cat’s tongue is a more extreme version. It has an excellent tip for painting tiny details.
These are brushes with very long, thin hairs tapering to a precise point. Originally used to paint the rigging lines in nautical paintings, they are perfect for rendering excellent, long lines. The long tip of a quality rigger holds an adequate amount of paint. The flexibility of its tuft helps in wobble or shake control.
Liner, aka script, is basically a rigger wrapped in a round brush. Unlike a rigger, though, its hairs do not come to a needle-point, so the rendered line has a consistent thickness, scaled to the size of the tuft.
Liners and riggers are designed for lines and details. Compared to regular rounds, they have extremely long bristles, which allows them to hold more water and paint. This feature allows you to paint a long steady line in one go without loading up your brush with paint every two seconds. This move requires more practice, though, as a liner is hard to control if you’ve just begun using this type.
Fan-shaped brushes with flattened bristles are used to create special textures, draw clusters of parallel lines (as in grass and twigs), irregular line hatching or texturing, and blending the edges of wash areas or gradations within these.
To achieve the most variation in irregular line spacing, employ parts of the fan’s edge from one stroke to the next. When wet, fans turn into several mini brushes, giving you even more options for creating additional effects.
These are great for creating cool effects. Use them to create multiple, thin lines while painting grass to make it look more natural. Use them dry (without water or paint) to gently distribute paint or water in wash areas after applying the wash solution with another brush.
Rakes appear as regular flats or fans with longer bristles. Some come in sole tufts set in a row of stalks. Others are designed as one row of hairs set in a thin, flat wooden handle.
Although rakes hold their detailed shape a lot better when wet compared to regular fan brushes, they get limp and shed hairs, so they are not recommended for direct painting. The fibers can also spread out untidily across a wash, streaking unsightly marks. They are useful, though, for lifting excess paint and clean-ups.
Flats are made of synthetic fiber and equipped with clear plastic handles with beveled edges. These tips are useful for rubbing, scraping, or burnishing watercolor paper. The tufts produce very even, chiseled edges, but they tend to run out of paint when used for longer strokes.
What Are Watercolor Brushes Made Of?
Watercolor brushes are typically made of long, absorbent natural hairs, synthetic filaments, or a blend of both. They traditionally have short handles for more control over fine details and for working close to the surface.
The best watercolor brushes were traditionally made of Kolinsky sable, the best grade of sable from a mink in Russia prized for its hair structure. A Kolinsky sable brush holds a lot of water but releases it evenly. It has a far superior water wash and moisture control. It holds a better point, and when it’s wet, it snaps back to a point.
High-end brushes with fine points, like Kolinsky sable, pointed rounds, are used for detail painting. Kolinsky’s natural hair alternatives include squirrel—with less spring but more color than sable—and camel hair (pony or goat, actually), which is cheaper.
Despite some craft store suggestions, don’t use hog’s hair brushes for watercolor painting. Even though they’re made of natural hair, they’re too stiff for watercolor painting. Watercolor brushes are softer and more pliable. Hog bristle brushes are mainly used for oil painting.
They’re designed to move around a lot of fixed, stiffer, more viscous paint, such as oil, acrylic, and gouache. They have longer handles for standing back from easels. They make pretty good lifters and scrubbers and are handy for experimentation or special effects.
The expense and rarity of high-quality natural fibers spawned the development of cheaper but high-performing synthetic alternatives. Designed to mimic natural fiber characteristics, these include faux squirrel, faux sable, and natural/synthetic blends.
When used alone, synthetic rounds generally don’t point very well, so they’re mixed with natural hair. Many brush lines mix bristle types, such as red sable with ox hair or synthetic fiber with natural sable. These are called blends, which are cheaper but produce acceptable results.
Modern quality synthetic brushes and synthetic-sable mixes are good, if not better than many natural-hair brushes. Synthetics are affordable yet provide high-quality performance, are more durable, and can be used with other media.
How to Use Brushes by Size
A common mistake new watercolor painters make: using a brush too small for the job. Get a variety of brush sizes. The middle or optimal size in most brush ranges is usually around a #10 or #12. The smallest sizes run to #00 or #000 for extremely fine detail. Start with a #6 and a #10 round and one 0.75-inch flat wash brush.
Brushes are sorted by size, but the size is specific to brands and the series within these brands. There is no standard numbering system. The smaller the number, the smaller the brush—and vice versa.
- 0000 to 0—for smaller, intricate details and fine lines
- 1 to 6—small to medium washes
- 7 to 24—medium to large washes that cover the entire page
- 1-inch flat—for whole page washes, such as skies and backgrounds
Carrie Luc uses only three to five brushes daily: size 4, 6, 12 rounds plus two-liner brushes sizes 00 and 0000. She recommends that beginners get a set of watercolor round brushes and flats. “Depending on your art preference,” she says, “you will discover what sizes and shapes work best for you over time.” By buying a cheap set first, she learned what sizes to invest in for other, more expensive brush types.
Michelle Morris’s starting recommendation is to pick up three rounds (#14, #10, and #6) and two flats (or wash brushes) in 1 inch and 0.5 inches. Specialty brushes and riggers are sometimes handy but not necessary for beginners. Invest in them as you progress.
Steve Mitchell’s most used brushes are the Silver Black Velvet line (his favorite), the Princeton Neptune series, and the Creative Mark Danube and Creative Mark Harmony (pure squirrel hair) lines from Jerry’s Artarama. He values brushes from the last line because their sharp points render anywhere from fiddly details to big washes. They’re perfect for painting one color or from one pool of paint. They also dispense water well.
He uses long-body quills from the DaVinci Cosmotop Spin line and the Creative Mark Danube series for sketching.
Mitchell adds that the Grumbacher Goldenedge brush is a must-have addition to a watercolor painter’s future collection. It is a very crisp, stiff brush with great lifting capability. The Grumbacher line also has nicely crafted golden Taklon rigger brushes with needle-fine points for intricate work.
Taklon is a synthetic fiber ideal for water-based media. While less floppy than squirrel hair, it is bouncier, with a steady flow rate of sable and hog hair. Although less durable than natural bristle brushes, Taklon brushes hold their shape even in rough conditions. Their “snap” makes them suited to sketching and detail work.
Taklon hair is used in professional-grade makeup, paint, and pin-stripe brushes. Its polyester derivative does not contain any protein or allergen components. Without the usual surface irregularities and bacteria-trapping characteristics of natural hair brushes, Taklon brushes are easier to clean, so they are more hygienic than the animal hair variety.
Taklon is a synthetic alternative to brushes made with animal hair; it is touted as animal cruelty-free. In the cosmetic industry, it is labeled as “allergy-free,” “green,” or “vegan.”
A Word on Quills/Mops
Mitchell doesn’t recommend quills for beginners because they’re designed to soak up a lot of water, which can be frustrating if they’re having trouble with fluid control.
Quills are not recommended for making color changes or adjusting fiddly areas but are good for painting loosely and monochromatically. They’re also useful when painting from one continuous pool of paint and only augmenting that pool with other colors without washing out the brush.
Questions to Ask When Buying Watercolor Brushes
- How much water and paint can the brush hold?
- Does the brush have a sharp point or edge?
- Can it maintain this point?
- Does the brush snap back to its original shape after use and when dry?
How Much Do Watercolor Brushes Cost?
Good mid-range synthetic watercolor brushes cost between $20 and $35 each before tax or shipping. For starters, buy the best three to six brushes you can afford. Quality ones last a long time, so don’t hesitate to spend a bit more. You don’t have to buy them all at once. Synthetic blends are as good as expensive sable brushes.
Remember, though, that no matter how pricey your brushes are, they won’t necessarily make you a modern-day Monet. While a good brush makes a huge difference, it’s your talent that counts.
Where to Buy Quality Watercolor Brushes
Blick Art Materials and Utrecht (Blick-owned) sell watercolor series with many good mid-range brushes. Their online prices are lower, but they charge for shipping. If you want free shipping, target their required minimum purchase. Cheap Joe’s Art Stuff, Jerry’s Artarama, and Steve Mitchell’s Amazon store are also good to brush sources.
Morris’s brush of choice is the Loew-Cornell Golden Taklon synthetic line. She prefers their brushes for their affordability, snap, and quality. A level up is Winsor & Newton’s Scepter Gold ll series, made with a natural sable/synthetic blend. It’s reasonably priced and excellent for beginners. All brands mentioned here are available from e-tailers and regular stores.
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Caring for Brushes
Brushes will last longer if you clean them properly. Even crusty old oil brushes can be restored to their original luster and spring with a good cleaner like the Master’s Brush Cleaner and Preserver. It removes oil, acrylic, watercolor, stains, and varnishes from the finest quality brushes and removes grunge and paint even more easily from nylon and other synthetic brushes.
The clean-up kit is useful for mobile crafts, hobbies, art projects, and decorative painting and removes paints, dyes, and stains on the go. Each package contains a 1.5 oz bar of non-toxic hand soap and a 1 oz jar of brush cleaner and preserver. Just add water to the two all-purpose cleaners to gently remove paint and stains from hands and brushes.
The Master’s Brush Cleaner and Preserver do not release toxic smells or fumes, so it’s safe to use even in enclosed studios, workshops, or classrooms.
How to Clean Brushes
Clean brushes by wetting them and then use the hard cake to work up a lather. Rinse the cleaner off. Repeat as needed. Reshape the brush afterward.
To preserve brushes, leave the lather on the bristles, shape the brushes, and dry them out. To restore brushes, allow the lather to set until the bristles soften. Repeat, if necessary.
Ideally, novices should have a variety of brush sizes. For the barest basics, start with two rounds, sizes 6 and 10, plus one .75-inch flat wash brush. Add to your arsenal as you progress.
The best watercolor brushes hold and release water and paint efficiently and have a good snap. To begin with, choose a low-cost brush that handles liquid applications well. A synthetic brush is a good bet as it springs back quickly and holds a point. Ultimately, you’ll develop a personal preference as you accumulate painting experience.
Here’s to a brightly lit canvas achieved with the right tools.
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