Watercolor Brushes 101

A selection of brushes: Da Vinci Casaneo Quill #4, Princeton Velvetouch Flat Wash 3/4″, Etchr Round #10, Princeton Heritage Round #10, Princeton Velvetouch Round #8, Etchr Round #6, Princeton Heritage Round #3, Princeton Velvetouch Round #2, Princeton Velvetouch Script Liner #2

Of the major categories of watercolor supplies (paint, paper, brushes), brushes were the last ones that I got into. Actually, I put it off, improving my paints and papers while continuing to use cheapo brushes from the discount bin (which I chose based on the color of their handle.) It just seemed complicated! There are so many brushes with various attributes, and I had no way of telling what’s good and bad about them.

Well, I’ve now done my research, so if you’re still stuck where I was six months ago, let me break it down for you! 

Watercolor brushes differ from each other in three main ways:

  • Shape: The shape of the tip. Different shapes make different marks on your page.
  • Size: The size/diameter of the tip, which affects how large of a line it can make at one time.
  • Material: What the bristles are made of: natural animal hair or synthetic (plastic).

Shape

Brushes come in all sorts of shapes, but there’s only one you really need: round. Round is the basic bush. It might also be called “pointed round.” The point at the end of the brush means that you can make fine lines and small marks, even with a large brush size. By tilting or pressing down on the brush, you can make larger lines and marks.  

Because of this ability to make various sized marks, round is the most versatile brush. It’s all you really need.

Still want to explore more shapes? Here’s a quick primer, in order (in my opinion) from most to least useful.

  •  Mop (or quill): A large, thick, soft round brush that holds a ton of water and is useful for putting down large washes, like the sky. (You could also get a really large round brush, but it might be more expensive. Note that mop sizes are different; my size 4 mop is roughly equivalent to a size 20 round.) Some artists use mop as their main brush, especially in the “urban sketching” genre, because you can make highly expressive thin-to-thick lines with just one brush; but since it holds more water than a round, water control can be difficult. I get a lot of puddles, is what I’m saying. But there’s nothing like it for a quick, expressive sky.
  • Flat wash: A wide flat brush that’s good for laying down large areas of paint. Perfect for laying down a flat wash with gouache, and I’d say about a B+ for large watercolor washes. Doesn’t hold as much water as a round or mop brush. I have a 3/4″ flat wash from my Velvetouch set and it gets a fair amount of use, primarily for wetting the entire page before I begin to paint a wet-on-wet wash.
  • Rigger (aka liner, fineliner, script): A long-bristled, slanted, narrow brush for fine lines, e.g. ship rigging, tree branches. I have a #2 and full disclosure I can’t super tell the different from my #2 round.
  • Edge shader: A straight-edged or flat or angled brushes for making straight edges and rectangular shapes. I guess. I haven’t figured this one out, tbh, but it seems like it SHOULD be useful.
  • Oval: Similar to round, but holds more water and may take some more getting used to – you have to hold it differently because it’s not symmetrical. 
  • Dagger: For swooshy calligraphic shapes. Probably this would be more useful for lettering, but I tend to just letter with a brush pen because I’m lazy.
  • Fan: A fanned-out brush which makes multiple marks at once. Supposedly good for grass, leaves, and other texture; some people use it for evergreens. I find this 100% impossible to use, but you do you. 

At first I felt as though I were missing out because I only ever used round, but having tried some of the other brushes, I rarely find them better than round even for the special situation they’re supposed to be good for. I don’t know if this will resonate with you, but I liken it to digital art in Photoshop or similar, where there are a gajillion special effects filters and things you can play with when you first get the program, but when you actually want to do something, it’s the basic tools that you actually use.

Size

It’s helpful to have a few different sizes of round brush on hand. Generally, you need a small brush for detail work, medium size for most painting, and large for putting down a wash of a large area. But how do you translate this into brush size numbers? What does “medium size” mean?? It’s tricky; different people have different preferences about how big they like to work.

“Beginners often try to get by on tiny little brushes – don’t,” Cathy Johnson in First Steps Series: Painting Watercolours. “You’ll want to choose the largest brush you can comfortably work with to paint. It will hold more water and pigment – and cover more ground before needing refilling with fresh paint.”

I was certainly tempted to stick with small brushes at first (they are a lot cheaper, for one thing), but I agree with Johnson that larger brushes are more convenient and versatile. Even the largest pointed round brush still comes to a tiny point, so it can handle detail work, it’s just also capable of working large! I have also found that going up in brush size encourages me to work more loosely and expressively. When I first started, I probably would have said that #6 was the “medium” brush, and now I feel that it is more like #10.

Personally, with a loose landscape style on small paper (A5, 8″x8″, 9″x12″), I tend to do most painting with a size 10; details in 4-6; and large washes in 14-20 (or a size 4 mop, or a 3/4″ flat wash). Your mileage, as with so many things in art, may vary.

Natural or Synthetic

Synthetic bristles are made from plastic fibers like nylon and polyester. Natural brush bristles are made from animal hair, usually sable. (A sable is a type of marten, which, if that doesn’t clear it up, is an animal in the weasel family.) The fanciest kind is Kolinsky sable, a special rare type of marten from Siberia. Another common choice is squirrel (also known as Petit Gris). Some brushes uses a mix of synthetic and natural.

Each material paints differently:

  • Synthetic varies a lot and can be made in different styles, but it has the capacity to be firmer than natural brushes. It also holds the least water. It can be easier to control, but you have to go back to your water cup and paint box a lot, especially with smaller brushes.
  • Sable is springiest and holds the best point, which makes it great for detail work, and holds a whole lot of water, which makes it great for washes as well – it’s a jack of all trades! Generally, this is considered the overall best material for watercolor painting, and most synthetic brushes that are successful are imitating the qualities of sable.
  • Squirrel or petit gris is the softest and holds the most water, making it an ideal specialist for large wash brushes. Some artists like to paint everything in squirrel, though I personally find it too floppy for details.

Any of these choices work for watercolor depending on your style and preference.

ConsiderationNaturalSynthetic
FirmnessSofter (especially squirrel) Firmer, usually
CostMore expensiveCheaper
QualityUsually fairly high, because it would be a waste to make a low-quality brush out of expensive materials, but can vary.Varies wildly by brand and model. There are extremely good synthetic brushes, but all terrible brushes are synthetic.
Holding CapacityDue to the structure of the hair, they hold a ton of water and pigment, and tend to release it evenly. Less porous, they hold less water and need to be rewet more often. They can also create less even washes.
EthicsThe paintbrush industry sources fur cast-offs from the fur industry that would otherwise go to waste. So while no additional animals are being killed to make paintbrushes, I’d say the ethics are pretty similar to fur or leather. Natural hair is biodegradable at end of life.No animals are directly harmed, but plastics use oil to produce which causes environmental harm, and plastic brushes will eventually end up in a landfill. I’d say the ethics are similar to other plastic things.
LongevityHigh-quality natural brushes can last and hold their point for a long time – like 10+ years – if you take care of them well, but they can be sensitive to improper handling.Synthetic brushes typically wear out faster (high-quality ones may take 3-5 years instead of 10+ years), but can withstand rougher treatment.
Other ArtsOil paint, India ink, liquid watercolorGouache, acrylics

Again, it comes down to preference. You can find professional watercolorists who insist that natural is better, and those that prefer synthetic. They have a different feel and paint differently, so if your budget allows, you may want to try some of each and see which you prefer. Each material has its place for different tasks and styles.

Brands & Models

But which exact brushes should you get? There are many options! Here are some I’ve tried. [Edited 9/19/22 to add more!]

Midlevel Synthetic

These were the brands and lines that I started with. In retrospect, I think it would be more cost effective to skip these and get fewer, nicer brushes, but I learned a lot on these medium-price brushes about what kind of shape and handfeel I prefer. I’d say start with a few of these but don’t go overboard.

  • Princeton Heritage: Versatile, relatively soft for synthetic, and hold water well. They come in useful four-packs or can be purchased individually. Good “middle of the road” brush, not too firm or too soft. Good value.
  • Princeton Velvetouch: Firmer than Heritage. Springy, lively, retain a good point. They can also be used with gouache. Great if you like a firmer, more controllable brush, but don’t hold a ton of water. Good value.
  • Princeton Neptune: Softer than Heritage. I personally found these to have the downsides of sable (floppiness) without the upsides (springiness), but I know other artists who feel the opposite.
  • Silver Black Velvet – An incredibly soft handfeel (velvet is apt) makes this an unusual brushing experience that some people prefer. (Not me though.)
  • Etchr: Versatile, springy. Similar to Princeton Velvetouch. These only come in a set of 10. The #6 and #10 round were among my most-used brushes for quite awhile. However, the set also came with several I never use, so I’m not sure it’s a great value overall.
  • Wonder Forest: Similar to Velvetouch if not a bit firmer. Usually pretty inexpensive, good value if you live in Canada or you can bundle with a larger paper purchase.
  • Betty Hayways: Similar to Etchr or Velvetouch, with multicolored ferrules making them very cute and Instagrammable.

Fancy Synthetic

Some “synthetic sable” or “synthetic squirrel” brushes cost as much as the real thing. While these are more similar to the real thing than the midlevel brushes, and hold more water, I overall didn’t find them to be different enough to be worth the premium price.

  • Da Vinci Cosmotop-Spin: Synthetic sable on the soft side. I like actual sable, but I didn’t love these. I know some artists who adore them. It’s all a matter of personal preference.
  • Da Vinci Casaneo: Synthetic squirrel. Super soft and absorbent mop with a ton of range from thin to thick. Great for large washes. I know some artists also find them to be good for detail, but I could never master it.

Sable and Sable Blends

  • Winsor & Newton Series 7 Kolinsky Sable: This is reportedly the brush that Winsor & Newton came up with when Queen Victoria asked them to make the perfect watercolor brush. I remember using this a decade ago for inking comics and found it wonderful, but I was less impressed when I tried it for watercolor – I’m not sure if the quality has degraded, my memory is wrong, or it’s just better for ink than watercolor.
  • Rosemary Pure Sable – one of my favorite brush lines, soft enough to be washy but holding a wonderful point. (They also have a Kolinsky sable, which I’m unable to import in the US at this time, but red sable is good enough for me.)
  • Rosemary Sable Blend – another favorite. For me, this is a wonderful Goldilocks balance between synthetic and sable. It’s firmer than pure sable, but with more water-holding capacity than a synthetic.

Squirrel

  • Isabey 6235 Cat’s Tongue Pointed Oval Wash – Wonderful sky wash. The oval shape helps it cover lots of area at once, but it still has a point to get into those small areas. It’s soft, holds a ton of water, and has a lovely handfeel.

The Only Three Brushes I Use

[Section added 9/19/22]

My three favorite brushes

At the moment, I have had the same three brushes out on my watercolor table for several months (and dozens of paintings). I have a whole box of other brushes, but I’ve found I’m rarely if ever tempted to stray from my three faves. They are:

  • Rosemary Series 401 Sable Blend Round, size 4 – Detail. I could see an argument for using pure sable for a detail brush since it would hold more water, but I find that the increased firmness from the synthetic blend gives me more precision, which I like in a detail brush. This is a great balance of what I like in sable with what I like in synthetic.
  • Rosemary Series 99 Sable Round, size 8 – General use. Ideal for laying in the midlayers of a landscape. Soft enough for expressive impressionist strokes but pointed enough for precision. Holds lots of water and paint.
  • Isabey 6235 Cat’s Tongue Pointed Oval Wash, size 4 -Perfect sky wash. Size 4 (1/2″) is as large as I need or want, especially since I tend to work on smaller size paper (e.g. 6″x8″).

Brush Care Tips

It’s not too hard to take care of watercolor brushes; no special deep cleaning is required. All that’s needed to get the paint off is a simple rinse under the faucet, maybe with a bit of a massage with your fingers. Brush soap is optional – you can treat your brushes to a spa every few months, but it’s not necessary every day.

The main issues are (1) retaining the point, so you can continue to get fine detail from brushes of all sizes, and (2) not letting the handle get waterlogged, which can lead to bristle loss.

Painting

These tips are aimed at preserving your point.

  • Mist dry paints with water a few seconds before loading your brush, so you’re loading soft, moistened paint instead of digging into a hard lump.
  • Paint at an angle, not straight up and down. Save the point for tiny details.
  • Paint with a light touch; don’t press down as you might with a pen or pencil. Think of gently guiding the paint across the surface of the paper. 
  • Never leave brushes bristles-down in the water cup! When you’re done painting with a particular brush, swish it in the water cup, blot it on your cloth and lay it down horizontally on the cloth or a brush rest.

Cleaning

These tips mainly concern avoiding waterlogging.

  • When you’re done with a painting session, take all your brushes and run them under a gentle stream of water, then gently reshape the tips with your fingers.
  • Lay brushes flat to dry with the heads off the edge of the table. Don’t put them upright in a cup to dry, although you can store them upright in a cup once they are fully dry.
  • Store dry brushes in an open-air location, e.g. cup, drawer, open bin – anything with air flow.

That’s all there is to it! Happy painting, and give your brushes some love from me.

10 thoughts on “Watercolor Brushes 101”

  1. I’m a huge fan of natural bristles despite being a “beginner” too… and don’t use synthetics much at all (ever cleaned up waterways?)

    I saved my money for a Winsor Newton series 7 too- also number 2. I was bitterly disappointed because it was floppy and gutless. I later found the quality control had changed- it was quite a bit thinner than others who had older identical brushes.

    Rosemary and Co were recommended by the art shop who listened to me whinging about the WN debacle. (They sold me the brush, on sale, but we couldn’t find any WN dot cards- all 5 they had were mouldy! Not a recommendation. I mostly use another brand of paint that you don’t review.)

    I bought direct as their website is amazingly detailed. Couple quality issues BUT they’re cheaper and better made than the WN Series 7. I have a few but I love their travel brushes. I find I reach for my R21 most despite owning other brush sizes.

    I also love my Isabey 3201.03 travel brush too. The others don’t leave their case as much.

    Don’t chuck your dud brushes as you may find a use for them later and kick yourself. (Like for masking fluid and fabric medium.)

    Reply
    • Wow, you solved a mystery for me! I loved w&n series 7 about 10 years ago when I used them for inking comics, but I’m unexcited about the one I have now… I thought it might be a difference in medium, but it makes so much sense if they’ve changed.

      I’ve been curious about Rosemary – a good reminder to check them out! Thanks for the detailed recommendations!

      I’m so curious now what paint you use.

      Reply
      • Art Spectrum artists watercolour

        In lockdown it was much easier to find and cheapest (made locally, smaller range, 10ml tube is standard size, specific colours, production guarantees no mould or insect issues).

        https://artspectrum.com.au/products/artists-watercolour/

        I also use watercolour pencils natural ingredients like honey is asking for trouble

        I do have Daniel Smith but not much (exxy, LF rating’s bogus, hard to find- 5ml tubes were UK imports). Buff Titanium is a must, won’t replace the rest. Can’t trust the ingredients or the LF…

        Same goes for WN (exxy but cheaper than DS, easier to find, but mouldy dot cards despite not being in the tropics). Opera Rose won’t replace but Burnt Sienna (PR101) yes. Just got a Perylene green (PBk31) so

        Schmincke’s Transparent orange (PO71) is the only one I own and will be replaced (exxy and hard to find had to import 5ml tube from UK).

        I only buy transparent as granulation and opaque (plus mould and insects) isn’t for me- and only when on sale.

        Reply
        • Oh cool! I’ve heard good things about Art Spectrum but yeah that one is harder for me to find in the US. I’ve been getting way into Da Vinci lately – made in the US and there’s a lot to be said for a smaller range that’s all reliable and works well together. DS has a lot of “huh?” colors.

          And yeah, annoying that DS’s LF ratings are always “excellent” even on colors like Moonglow and Prussian Blue where it’s clearly not true.

          Reply
          • Art supplies are unique to the region I reckon. I didn’t think about the light and colours for a country but maybe there is something in that. (Aussie red gold by Art Spectrum is great, as are the specific green gold and leaf green dark. Pilbara red is also a must. None may work for what you see or want to paint.)

            DS doesn’t seem to play nicely with others. Not even my Winsor Newton (which are made in France). So I have to layer (glaze). WN plays well with my AS!

            I got a couple Primatek by DS but didn’t like the colours at all… actual vs shop online swatch and then saw Jane Blundell’s LF tests. (BIG fade change for supposedly LF1. And she’s a DS brand ambassador!)

            For $45 tube (on sale!) took them back. Art shop refunded. (I had my swatch book and showed them. It’s a long drive to that shop. Staff are artists.)

            So single pigments aren’t always better. I do like DS Ultramarine Turquoise as a single swatch out done later that refund wasted day.

            I’ve not pulled out the paints since. (Too hot to paint. Not sulking about my mess of a series of mixing charts. Much.)

          • Wow, $45 for one tube is so much! Even with the conversion rate it’s about twice what I’d pay for a 15ml tube.

            I’ve just tried some Primateks and I’m “so so” about them. I can feel myself trying to love them because they are expensive, but they’re sort of finicky. I’ll have to lookup Jane Blundell’s Lightfastness tests, I have used a lot of her resources for looking up colors but I generally don’t bother to check out LF since I don’t want my art to last 100 years anyway ;P

            I hear you about single pigments not always being better. I’ve repeated that dogma on this site (maybe even in some scheduled upcoming posts lol) but I’m starting to think that single pigment doesn’t matter as long as the color is bright. You have to try to it to see how it mixes.

            Good to have your recs for the best AS colors to look out for if I get the chance – there are a few random ones on Amazon or Jackson’s which I might check out if I can find the uniquest/nicest colors!

  2. Actually the UV kills us here and I don’t just mean the hole in the ozone layer! Prints can fade in 3 months, inside the house away from windows. Jane’s initial tests were for 2 months where she is- I’m higher up with cleaner air!

    More seriously the colours I’m after are convenience mixes the pros say- for gums (aka eucalypts or as you’d say “eucalyptus trees”) and most other stuff the Aussie green gold and Aussie leaf green dark are all I’d need. Alone or mixed they’re pretty much going to cover everything. Same again for the dirt/dust colours I see- Aussie red gold and Pilbara red. (Think of Uluru aka Ayer’s Rock.)

    Alone I can never get the colours right myself.

    I don’t know what sort of foliage/dirtscape you’d have so these could suit you or be very SUPER badly wrong!

    Pilbara red could also make great skin tone mixes- but I’d use Aussie grey, that and of course DS buff titanium. (Assuming only for Anglo-Saxon skin tones aka white fella.) AS Aussie Grey is a dull pale chalky greyish pinky pastel out of the tube. I’d mix Aussie Grey with smidge of red gold for sand- DS Buff Titanium is all Jane needs. (She’s the pro not me. Who cares who is right?)

    DS Grey Titanium looks like a good option for mixing with Aussie Grey for sandstone. Painting 70s concrete buildings in a big city it’d be perfect neat, but isn’t really that common or fun for me. I got it for painting ghost gums- should’ve stuck with Payne’s Grey (not all single pigments are better)!

    Yep these are muted or dull colours… funny. I have the regular bright ones but find it hard to mix the dull extremely useful ones without (sweary effort). So I buy them. They’re predictable across the spectrum of uses I want AND I can brighten them up easily. Wierd I know.

    It just depends on what you enjoy painting!

    Reply
    • Oh yes – what colors are convenient definitely depend on the landscape! I have a post about this coming up, actually, with photos I took near me in northeast USA. Around here in winter at least I’ve noticed a lot of very cool gray-browns, blues, and taupes, with the occasional splash of dark maroon or rust color – so colors like Van Dyck Brown, Indanthrone Blue, Transparent Red Oxide, Perylene Violet. In the summer coming up there will be a lot more deep greens (mostly maple and pine trees), I’m looking for good convenience colors for the greens.

      Reply
      • Glad I bookmarked your site- I’d be curious to see that. (I did see the mesas in New Mexico but while impressive, the colours I remember were very different to here.)

        Wish I could ask Albert Namatjira what paints he used, especially in his mid 1940s works onwards.

        The exposed rock colours in the background shows what the dirt/dust colours are like… and a ghost gum in the foreground of this ’56 piece, held at the South Australian gallery, show his work best (basically a photo of the area)

        https://www.agsa.sa.gov.au/collection-publications/collection/works/ghost-gum-central-australia/23867/

        The National Gallery of Australia holds the largest collection of his work, mostly on permanent display though some are travelling Australia at present. I would link but their (new) search tool is junk!

        Reply
        • What an amazing piece – I love how vibrant it is! I looked up Albert Namatjira. Amazing artist, sad story. Thanks for introducing him to me.

          My best color guess is a bright but earthy trio with something like red iron oxide, yellow ochre and manganese blue? I just love how it manages to be earthy and bright at the same time. I’m always looking for earth colors that are also bright.

          Reply

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