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You can have premium watercolor paints, the best watercolor paper, and yet you will still struggle to produce top-quality paintings without the right paintbrushes. There are a staggering number of types of watercolor brushes on the market, and it can be tricky to find the wheat amongst the chaff. With the information in this article, you will be able to confidently choose the best watercolor paintbrushes without being taken for a ride.
Table of Contents
- 1 What Makes a Good Watercolor Brush
- 2 The Types of Brush Hair Available
- 3 The Shape of Watercolor Paint Brushes
- 4 The Size of Your Brushes
- 5 The Best Watercolor Brushes for Beginners
- 6 Frequently Asked Questions
What Makes a Good Watercolor Brush
There are several different parts to a watercolor paintbrush, including the handle, ferrule, heel, belly, hair, and tip. The quality of each of these parts can indicate the quality of the paintbrush.
- The Handle: Ideally, a good paintbrush handle will be solid wood. A plastic handle is a sign of a lower quality paintbrush. The weighting of your brush should be even. The paintbrush should be an extension of your hand and so should be comfortable in your hand. A watercolor paintbrush is personal, and so it should fit into your hand perfectly.
- The Ferrule: The metal clasp on the brush, the ferrule should be flush with the handle of the brush. If there are gaps between the ferrule and handle, water can seep in and rot the handle. The best watercolor paintbrushes have seamless ferrules, but paintbrushes with a triple or double clamp are also fantastic.
- The Heel: The heel of the brush is the meeting place between the handle and the brush hairs. The best watercolor paintbrushes will not have a blob of glue at the heel. Visible glue is an indicator that the brush is not well made.
- The Belly: The belly of the paintbrush is the reservoir for water. The amount of water that the paintbrush’s belly retains changes the length of time you can paint and the type of brush strokes you can use. The way the brush distributes the water also affects how your brush strokes look. Does your watercolor paintbrush release the water in a steady stream or all at once?
- The Hair: The hair used in your watercolor paintbrushes is perhaps the most important consideration. On the first inspection, the brush hairs should not be flying out but should lie flat. Different qualities of paintbrush use different types of hair. The type of hair impacts the stiffness, shape, and water retention of the paintbrush. In a good paintbrush, the hairs will be shaped rather than trimmed. You should also see only half of the hair, as the rest will be within the ferrule. Depending on the type of paintbrush you need, the tip of the brush should be perfectly shaped. If you are looking for a thin fine-pointed brush, the brush tip needs to be free of stray hairs.
The Types of Brush Hair Available
Different types of watercolor brushes use different types of hair. The type of hair that will suit your needs depends on your budget and the quality you desire. Top-quality watercolor brushes can be very pricey, and depending on what you want to achieve, you may not need them. Watercolor paintbrushes with hair that can hold a generous amount of water in the belly will offer the best performance. You also want the hair to create a fine tip that evenly distributes the paint. The hair on a good paintbrush will spring back into its original form after each use and maintain this form for a long time.
The best watercolor paintbrushes use hair from the tail of a north Asian sable. Even among sable brushes, some are superior. The best sable brushes are very much worth the expense as they can produce stunning brush strokes for many years. On the other hand, poor quality sable brushes are worse than synthetic brushes but are still very expensive.
Kolinsky sable brushes use the hair sourced from the Mustela weasel that lives in Kolinsky in Siberia. Thanks to the harsh climate in Kolinsky, these hairs are incredibly supple and resilient. The best Kolinsky brushes use the tail hairs of the male Mustela. These top-quality Kolinsky brushes have fantastic water retention and hold their point beautifully. The brush hairs are conical and an orange-brown color with a darker point. You can buy Kolinsky brushes in a range of shapes.
It is a little difficult to distinguish between the good and bad when it comes to Kolinsky sable brushes. Although just as expensive as top-quality Kolinsky, lower quality brushes are worse than synthetic ones. Several manufacturers use hair from elsewhere on the Mustela’s pelt and often mix male and female hair. It is important to do your research into the brand if you want to buy some Kolinsky brushes.
When looking for sable brushes, you may notice that you can get pure sable and red sable. Both of these types of sable brush are of a lower quality than Kolinsky sable, but if you are on a tight budget, they are good alternatives. Red sable can be the hair of other mink, Mustela, or Martes, or the less favorable parts of the Mustelas coat. Red sable hair is typically darker brown and blunter than Kolinsky sable. Red sable brushes are lovely to paint with, but their points are not as fine, and they are not as long-lasting as Kolinsky brushes. If you are on a budget, we suggest opting for a better quality red sable brush rather than a poorer quality Kolinsky option.
Ox, Squirrel, Goat, Camel, and Hog
Watercolor paintbrushes that use these hairs are a step down in quality compared to sable brushes. We do not recommend buying a round brush with any of these hairs, as they do not hold a point very well. These brushes do work fantastically for mop and wash brushes.
Ox hair is typically light brown, although it is sometimes dyed to mimic sable hair. These hairs are durable and well suited for flat or square-cut brushes. There is no variation in the width of ox hairs, and the ends tend to fray, so ox hair is not well suited to round brushes. Ox hairs also do not hold a lot of water or release water evenly onto the page. Many believe that ox hair brushes are the best watercolor brushes for beginners, but we think any student will find them tricky to use. It is best to have a grasp of watercolor painting techniques before complicating your life with a lower quality brush. As such, we recommend using square or flat brushes made of ox hair to create texture or scumbling techniques.
Squirrel hair is fine, soft, and absorbent. Watercolor brushes made of squirrel hair hold an incredible amount of water, even more than sable brushes. You can identify squirrel brushes by their dark and speckled brown color. There is no spring to squirrel hair, but it glides beautifully over the rough and cold-press watercolor paper, producing lovely effects. You can buy fantastic wash and mop brushes made with squirrel hair, thanks to their water reservoir. Squirrel brushes are precise, making them perfect for sign painting. Other artists love using squirrel brushes to create looser watercolor paintings.
Like squirrel hair, goat hair is very soft but not springy at all. The cylindrical hairs are not ideal for making brushes with a dainty point, so goat hair is typically used to make wash or calligraphy brushes. Camel hair does not, in fact, come from camels. Instead, camel hair refers to a range of natural hair combinations. We strongly recommend avoiding watercolor paintbrushes made of camel hair as the quality is usually inferior.
Thanks to their ability to hold and dispense a lot of paint, hog bristles are perfectly suited to large wash brushes. Hog bristle brushes are relatively budget-friendly and are durable, making them good value for money. The quality of hog bristles watercolor paint brushes can vary, so we suggest opting for brushes called China bristles. Hog bristle brushes are best suited to oil and acrylic paints but can create stunning textures with watercolor.
Synthetic Fiber Watercolor Paintbrushes
Synthetic fiber paintbrushes are a bit like marmite for artists. Synthetic fibers are usually polyester or nylon, but there are different types and different qualities. Some artists swear by synthetic fibers while others vehemently reject them. Let us lay out some of the advantages and disadvantages of synthetic fibers, so you can decide where you stand on the matter.
Advantages of Synthetic Fiber Watercolor Paintbrushes
Perhaps the best advantage to using synthetic brushes is the lower cost. Synthetic brushes tend to hold a good point and, as a result, are an affordable alternative to pricey sable hair for round brushes. Nylon, golden Taklon, and Toray synthetic fibers are the best quality you can find. These synthetic fibers have a taper that mirrors sable hairs, which accounts for the point. Some synthetic brushes incorporate natural hairs, so if you are opting for synthetic fibers for ethical reasons, read the labels with care. Synthetic brushes are a fantastic option if you are vegan or have other ethical qualms about natural hair.
There is a greater variety of brushes available with synthetic brushes. While round sable paintbrushes only go up to #14, synthetic paint brushes are available in any size you desire. Although the first synthetic brushes were not excellent at holding water and paint, more recent developments have included little frays or flags on the hairs. These small frays mimic the variation on natural hairs that captures water droplets. Synthetic brushes are much more durable than natural hair brushes and are useful for lifting paint. Nylon synthetic hairs are definitely the best option as they only decrease in strength when wet by around 15%.
Disadvantages of Synthetic Fiber Watercolor Paintbrushes
The main disadvantage of using synthetic watercolor paintbrushes is their lack of longevity. Additionally, while some manufacturers have started to include the little frays and flags on the fibers, most synthetic brushes are too smooth. As a result of the smooth bristles, synthetic brushes are inferior to natural paintbrushes in how they hold and evenly distribute watercolor paint. You will not be able to paint hit and miss strokes with a synthetic brush.
The Shape of Watercolor Paint Brushes
Watercolor paintbrushes come in a variety of shapes, and each is best suited for different techniques. The paintbrush shapes you choose to buy depend entirely on your artistic style and will be completely different from any other artist. As we know by now, the best watercolor brushes are pricey, so ideally, you want to purchase a few versatile brush shapes. To make things easier, we have assigned each watercolor paintbrush shape to one of three categories: detail, wash, and versatility.
We believe that a good quality round brush is one of the best watercolor brushes for beginners. You can achieve a lot of intricate detail with the neat point of a good round brush. Detail brushes like the rigger and spotter brushes are ideal for artists working on a smaller scale. Both rigger and spotter brushes have round ferrules. An unexpected benefit to buying these smaller detail brushes is that you can get more expensive hair at a lower price. It is a good idea to purchase quality detail brushes so that they retain their shape over time.
Rigger brushes are small round brushes with bristles that are super long. These extra-long bristles increase the brush’s water holding capacity and increase the delicacy of the point. These qualities make the rigger brush perfect for creating long continuous, and fine lines. Spotter brushes are just as small as rigger brushes but have shorter, rather than longer, bristles. As a result, spotter brushes are ideal for creating tiny details.
It is a good idea to have at least one wash brush in your arsenal because although flat brushes could achieve wash effects, it will be a more painful process. The two most common wash brushes are the oval and mop brushes. The hake brush is an oriental brush, similar in purpose and appearance to the mop and oval brushes. Wash brushes are typically large, which can intimidate some watercolor artists who work on smaller scales. We do, however, believe that they are well worth having. The large heads make the application and blending of paint quick and easy, while the long and bushy bristles can create dynamic effects like starry skies.
As we have said already, you cannot go wrong with the versatility of a round brush. If your budget is severely limited, the round brush is the one you need. The round brush remains our top suggestion if you are looking to splurge on a single Kolinsky brush. The shape of round brushes makes them suitable for creating washes, broad strokes, and delicate details and lines. The round brush can create a variety of different strokes. You can alter the width of your strokes by changing the pressure you put on the round brush.
Flat brushes produce bold lines and can even be used for washes. While the hair quality is not as important for flat brushes, you still want the paintbrush to be durable. You can buy sable hair flat brushes, but most artists prefer to opt for synthetic fiber or a cheaper natural hair like the ox. Flat brushes typically have a square or flat ferrule. Three of the most common flat paintbrushes are the Filbert, Bright, and Angular. Each of these paintbrushes will produce unique brush strokes. We do not recommend buying one of each type, instead, do some investigating and choose the one that suits your style best.
The Size of Your Brushes
Now you know which hairs and shapes you are looking for, the next question may be, what size watercolor brushes do I need? Luckily, it is pretty simple to choose your brush size. We recommend having a selection of small detail brushes, versatile medium brushes, and large brushes. There is an incredible range of sizes when it comes to watercolor paintbrushes. Brush size ranges from #0000 to #50. We recommend having a range of round brushes and perhaps one wash brush and one detail brush. Due to the expense of watercolor paintbrushes, we recommend starting with only a few. Sizing can differ between brush makers, so you may want to use this handy sizing chart.
The Best Watercolor Brushes for Beginners
Whether you are a beginner or a seasoned watercolor artist, we have compiled a list of some of our favorite watercolor brushes that are affordable and known to be good quality. While we have included amazon links for each of these brush suggestions, we do recommend visiting an art shop, if you can, to feel the brushes in your hands.
The Best Watercolor Brushes for Beginners: WINSOR & NEWTON Cotman Short Handle Brush (Set of Seven)
Winsor & Newton are a well-known producer of good quality yet affordable paintbrushes. Not only does this quality synthetic watercolor brush set come with seven different brushes, but it is also very reasonably priced. The bristles are soft and very springy and hold a reasonable amount of water. The range of paintbrushes is ideal for beginner watercolor artists, allowing you to achieve broad washes and intricate details. The set includes:
- Round #1
- Round #6
- Filbert 1/4″
- Angled 1/8″
- Rigger #2
- Fan #2
- One Stroke 3/8″
This water paint brush set comes with small plastic covers to protect each brush. The round brushes hold their points well. Although the paintbrushes in this selection are pretty small, they are ideal for beginners. As the brushes are synthetic, they are on the lower end of the quality spectrum compared to sable brushes. Despite this, we believe that beginners are better off with higher quality synthetic brushes than poorly made natural brushes.
Budget-Friendly: SILVER BRUSH Susan Louise Moyer Basic Set
This budget-friendly set of three round water paint brushes is ideal for beginners. The blend of synthetic fibers and squirrel hair makes for a soft brush that holds plenty of water. The paintbrushes are soft enough to paint over previous layers without disturbing them but are also firm enough to lift paint if necessary. The tips of these brushes are extra-long, and the bellies are wide. The set includes the following paintbrushes:
- Round #4
- Round #8
- Round #12
As round brushes are the most versatile brush, this watercolor brush set is really all a beginner needs. The smaller brush is ideal for creating detail, while the largest can create lovely washes. The paintbrushes hold a fine point very well. Some users have noted that these brushes can shed a bit of hair. Despite this shedding, these brushes are fantastic for beginners on a budget.
- A set of three black velvet watercolor brushes
- An expertly crafted blend of natural and synthetic fibers
- Specially formulated for watercolor painting
Professional Brushes: PRINCETON Vevetouch Mixed-Media Brushes
Although this brush set is for mixed media, it is perfectly suited to watercolor painting. The brush is a top-quality blend of multi-filament synthetic fibers that holds water and color excellently. The paintbrushes are precisely tapered and have a fantastic spring. We recommend this set for beginners or seasoned artists. The set of watercolor paintbrushes includes:
- Round #4
- Wash 3/4″
- Long round #8
- Angle shader 3/8″
The range of brushes in this set is wonderful for beginners, each watercolor paintbrush can be used for different techniques. You can create fine details with the small round brush, experiment with color blending with the larger round brush, and practice washes.
Premier Selection: DA VINCI Maestro Watercolor Set
This set of top-quality Kolinsky sable watercolor brushes is definitely not for those on a tight budget. Nevertheless, if you are looking to purchase a better quality watercolor paintbrush, we could not steer you in a better direction. Although pricey, you get what you pay for with this set. The three brushes come in a leather case that makes these brushes ideal for traveling. Da Vinci is one of the most renowned producers of quality watercolor brushes, and this set of three round brushes is no exception. The set includes:
- Round #4
- Round #6
- Round #10
The range of sizes is ideal for details, blending, and small washes. The brushes hold an incredible amount of water, as is to be expected from sable, thanks to their fat belly. The Kolinsky paintbrushes last for a very long time, so the investment is worthwhile. The point of these brushes is very sharp, giving you superior control over fine lines and details. The bristles also have a fantastic snap. The handles on these portable brushes are a little thicker and smaller than traditional paintbrushes, but you sacrifice this for easy portability.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the Best Watercolor Brush Brand?
The best brand depends on what you are looking for. If you want to purchase a top-quality Kolinsky sable brush, we recommend looking into da Vinci. If you require a paintbrush better suited to beginners, we recommend trying Winsor & Newton or Princeton brushes as they are good quality but more affordable.
What Size Watercolor Brushes do I Need?
There are so many different sizes of watercolor brushes available, ranging from 0000 to 50. If you are a beginner, we recommend buying a small round brush (#3 or #4) for detail work, a medium round brush (#10 or #12) for blending, and larger strokes, and a large wash brush. As you begin to figure out your style of painting, you can invest in different sized brushes.
Can You Use Synthetic Brushes for Watercolor Painting?
The answer depends on you. If you are only beginning to use watercolors and you have a limited budget, good quality synthetic brushes are perfect. If you are a more advanced artist, you may want to purchase more expensive, but better-quality natural hair brushes like Kolinsky sable.
How Long to Watercolor Paint Brushes Last?
The longevity of your paintbrushes depends on several factors. Natural hair brushes tend to last much longer than synthetic options. The longevity of your brushes also depends on how much you use them. If you use your brush several times a week, natural brushes should last two years, and synthetic around six months.
The key to successful watercolor painting starts with the right brush. This will help you to achieve the best possible paintings, while making your experience so much more enjoyable. Happy painting!