Are you overwhelmed by the thousands of different watercolor brushes available? Wondering which one is right for you? I’ve been there too, struggling to find the best brushes, watercolors and art supplies for my style.
That’s why I’ve put together a list of my best picks for different painting brush categories. I’ve also provided an easy to follow, indepth guide on how to pick a water color brush suitable for the kind of art you want to create.
- Our Top Pick for the Best Watercolor Brushes
- Watercolor Brush Reviews
- How to Choose The Right Watercolor Brushes
- Brush Hair Type
- Brush Shapes
- Brush Handles
- What Size Watercolor Brush Do You Need?
- Watercolor Brush Brands – Think Long Term
- What Watercolor Brushes Would I Choose?
Our Top Pick for the Best Watercolor Brushes
Watercolor Brush Reviews
#1. Da Vinci Maestro Watercolor Set
You’ll get four classic round brushes (sizes 4, 6, 10) in a leather case in this set, with collapsible handles. These work for both studio and plein air use. The Maestro range uses only high quality sable hair from male winter Siberian Kolinsky Red Sable fur.
- Extra sharp point – Capable of going to a needle point for excellent control. Even on rough and cold pressed paper, you find these bristles move effortlessly – creating smooth marks on a single stroke.
- Excellent capacity – The top-of-the-line hair holds water and paint very well.
- Tightest snap at the point – You’ll be able to bend the bristles for different techniques and have it return to shape.
- Portable – The light, compact design fits into small sets and the hair remains protected.
- No detail brush – This set lacks a brush suitable for detailed work like a size 0 or 1. Creating details with the round brushes takes a lot of skill. You can’t make very small paintings as well.
- Smaller handle – The handle might be a little short for certain painting styles.
- Ventilation hole – It has a small hole in the cap for ventilation – which may not work well.
#2. Silver Black Velvet Basic Watercolor Set (The Susan Louise Moyer Selection)
These watercolor brushes for beginners come in three sizes: 4, 8 and 12. Made in New York, the bristles have a blend of squirrel hair and black synthetic.
- Hold a lot of water – These brushes hold water well and still hold their shape. You won’t risk making puddles with this.
- Durable – You’ll never have falling bristles and chipped handles with this set. The packaging is durable.
- Value for money – If you like juicy washes and want to learn aquarelle techniques, this set is among the best affordable set in the market.
- Good for spontaneous painting – These big bellied tools are just what you need to master those blending and wet on wet techniques that we all love.
- No protective case – This set does not come with a plastic case. So you’ll need to get a protective casing for them if you plan to carry them.
- Very soft bristles – Because they are so soft and hold so much water, you’ll need to get used to them. It will take some time to find the right water and paint ratio.
#3. Escoda Versatil Travel Set
Handmade in Italy, this gorgeous set of travel brushes are a delight to handle. These watercolor brushes come in round shapes with 2, 6, and 10 sizes. The luxurious leather wallet is a lovely touch.
- Close to natural hair brushes: The special synthetic kolinsky sable bristles are an affordable alternative. I like that these tools don’t involve any animal cruelty.
- Sharp point: A good round brush should have a point. This allows you to add details and create sharp edges.
- Easy to carry: These brushes are made with a collapsible handle. When closed, they are about 4 inches long. I find they fit into the smallest art kits and are quite lightweight.
- Hold water well: Holds a decent amount of water. I’m usually able to complete a wash with the round 10 brush without dipping it in the water again.
- Excellent quality: The bristles glide over the paper. I’ve been using these brushes for two years. They keep their point, there’s no loss of bristles, and are easy to clean.
- Lack of variety: For me, the one thing missing from this set is a good flat brush. I’ve since added this Escoda Versatil flat brush to my set.
- A notch below natural hair: Compared to real sable travel sets you’ll find that these have a slightly less capacity and spring.
#4. Princeton Velvetouch, Mixed-Media Set
Good basic set for smaller paintings and practise work. Like Christmas cards, postcards and small floral paintings. A synthetic fiber set comes with four options:
- Round – 4
- Long Round – 8
- Angle Shader or dagger – 3/8″
- Wash – 3/4″
The multiple-filament synthetic bristles hold moderate amounts of paint. They move smoothly on paper.
- Good spring: The two round bristles have a nice point for detailed work and washes.
- Durable: The strong bristles don’t shed at all. So you can mix colors and try rough techniques without worrying too much.
- Easy to hold: The smooth handles are comfortable and delightful to hold.
- Value for money: Good brush set for beginners and intermediate painters.
- Takes some getting used to: The unusual selection takes some practice before you handle the long round and angled ones with ease.
- Not suitable for larger paintings: If you’d like to work on a large paper, then this set is not going to be enough.
#5. Winsor & Newton Cotman Short Handle Set
This set is made from blended synthetic fibers of differing thicknesses. These are the best synthetic options (not considering the sable and squirrel imitations).
- Different brushes – You’ll get a set of different shapes to make interesting marks – from fine lines and doodles to traditional techniques.
- Bounce and snap – The bristles are stiff but they snap back and hold a point well.
- Great for detailing – This set has a good collection of thin and rigger brushes offering excellent flow control.
- Runs out of paint quickly – The round sizes – 1 and 6 – are thinner than i’d like. Especially for those who like a juicy wash.
- Limited use – If you like landscapes and wet on wet techniques, then this set won’t be enough. You’ll find the handles are too short. And, the set lacks a good, thirsty, round brush.
How to Choose The Right Watercolor Brushes
Much like shoes – watercolor brushes are a very personal choice. You’ll need to select ones that complement your watercolor painting style and budget.
Here we’ll talk about the shapes, sizes and bristle types of brushes so that you can compare and narrow down your choices.
Watercolor Brush Lingo
- Spring – How well a brush holds its shape when you pull in across the paper surface and with other watercolor painting techniques. A good spring means:
- The brush feels soft on paper
- You can change the width of the stroke easily
- The bristles remain bent a lot longer
- Capacity or load – The amount of water a brush can hold. It depends on the type of bristles and the size of the brush.
- Snap – If the brush snaps back to parallel after it is bent. Natural hair brushes often don’t have a good amount of snap but a lot spring.
Brush Hair Type
While painting, the quality of the brush determines how effective the techniques are. And, the deciding factor is the type of hair or bristle used in the brush.
Synthetic Vs Natural Brushes
Yes, natural brushes use real animal hair usually taken from the tail. They are expensive and mostly used by professional artists.
When you use good quality, natural hair brush, you’ll find that:
- The hair is softer and naturally textured to be able to hold more water – something you need for smooth and full-bodied strokes
- It moves smoothly on a paper surface (depending on the type of paper you use)
- It holds shape while painting – which means you’ll have clear edges to your strokes
- It distributes paint evenly on the paper
Synthetic brushes have smooth fibres that don’t hold as much water. This means by the time you dip it into water and pick it up, a lot of water would have dropped. For a water based medium, this is a serious drawback.
Nowadays, there are different categories of synthetic bristles. From the cheaper ones with stiff bristles to high-quality fibres designed to mimic genuine hair. These bristles have more texture and can hold water well.
Now, let’s look at the different types of natural hair brushes available for watercolor painting…
The very best watercolor brushes use sable hair. The hair becomes thin at both ends with a thicker middle – giving it a nice point (for clear strokes) and a thick middle (that holds water well).
These brushes offer the most amount of spring and are best used in round shaped brushes. Having one good sable will be enough to create any kind of work – from detailed work to loose washes.
You’ll also hear of different types of sables:
- Kolinsky Sable, the finest and durable ones, come from the Asian mink in Siberia, northern China and Korea.
- A little below Kolinsky Sable are ‘red’ and ‘pure’ sable brushes.
Squirrel hair brushes are soft and dense with a naturally absorbent surface. They tend to stick together when wet to form a fine point. However, these don’t have a lot of spring in the tip (unlike the sable brushes).
They are best used as wash and mop brushes. It is useful to have one for washes, layering techniques, and watercolor lettering.
These are hard and strong bristles that can hold a lot of paint. They make for a good, medium quality flat brush – one that can take some rough use. I like to use them for washes and to mix large batches of paints.
Look for China bristles which tend to have the best quality.
Camel Hair brushes are a blanket term for inferior quality brushes usually made from different types of soft hair. It is preferable to buy a good quality synthetic brush.
Ox hair is taken from the ears of cattle. These are long and stiff bristles that work well for flat shapes. These bristles won’t come to a point. Strong and springy, these brushes work well with dry brush and rough techniques.
Sometimes they are blended with other synthetic or natural fibres to give the brush a rounded shape.
Japanese calligraphy and wash brushes are usually made from goat hair. The thin and wavy bristles are cylindrical in shape and don’t form a point.
These are blended brushes – of synthetic and natural hair – to offer cheaper alternatives to the pure sable brushes. You’ll find a lot of combination hairs in the market in a range of prices.
These watercolor brushes for beginners and professionals can have surprisingly good performance. The trick is to sift through reviews and find a genuine brush.
Brushes are made in a confusingly wide range of shapes. To begin with, you’ll need two types of brushes – round and flat. This is enough for almost all techniques.
Speciality brushes support specific techniques. I’d suggest buying these a little later in your watercolor journey. Once you have more clarity about the kind of work you want to do.
Round brushes are the most versatile shape. They have a fine point for detailed work and hold enough water for washes and broad strokes. It is a must in any brush set. And, when you are starting out, buying two or three round brushes (either sable or synthetic sable) are the perfect option.
Made popular by the Impressionists, these chisel shaped brushes are a must have for every set. They are usually made of harder bristles. You’ll find them useful for making washes (like clear sky or a still water) and bold linear strokes (rectangular shapes of houses).
These are flat and have a slant – so you can paint washes as well as details with the sharp corner.
These are like giant flat brushes. Or, smaller wall painting brushes. You can use these to wet the paper and brush watercolor paint in sweeping strokes. Think of dense storm clouds.
I also use these to apply the first layer of larger paintings … like applying sepia to the entire foreground.
Mop brushes are wide bellied brushes typically made with squirrel hair. They can hold a lot of paint while retaining a fine point. A good mop brush will allow you to make thin lines as well as apply large washes like skies and foliage.
Compared to a round brush, these are harder to control. You can’t get as wide a range of marks. However, the soft hairs help in lifting color, blending, softening edges and applying water.
While doing urban sketches, I use these brushes to work in a fast and loose style. My favourite is the Raphael SoftAqua Watercolor Brush Size 0.
Do you like to paint on smaller paper with lots of minute details and lines? Like intricate botanical illustrations?
Hydrangea Flowers In Watercolour from Anna Mason – Source
Then you should try these variations of a round brush:
- Rigger brush – They have extra long bristles that hold more paint. So you can create longer lines and details without the need to pick paint frequently. These brushes MUST hold their shape, so I’d suggest buying a better quality one.
- Spotter brush – They have very short bristles that give you greatest control for those details like wrinkles on a face or the veins in a leaf.
Watercolor brushes come with wooden, metal or plastic handles. This is where you’ll find the details printed out – like the size and brand name.
It is important to test how the handle feels in your hand. Also, think about where you like to hold the brush – this determines the length of the handle.
If you like making abstract and spontaneous strokes – choose a long handle. For travel and detailed painting, short handles might be more apt.
What Size Watercolor Brush Do You Need?
The holy grail of brush sizes is to have 3 – 1 big, 1 medium and 1 small.
A ‘round brush 2’ helps to add in the details like electrical poles and wires in a cityscape.
This is optional – I like having a ‘flat 6’ to paint washes and broader lines for architecture sketches.
My favorite is a ‘round 10 or 12’ round brush that can be used for small A6 sized paintings as well as larger A3 sized ones.
Watercolor Brush Brands – Think Long Term
Most beginners start with the cheapest brushes they can find. This makes it difficult for them to paint well and they eventually lose interest.
I’d suggest starting with just 3 brushes – the best quality that you can afford.
- Escoda – A high-end brand from Barcelona, Spain with a good collection of round brushes in both natural hair (sable) and synthetic hair that mimics sable brushes. They also make lovely pouches to hold the brush sets.
- Princeton – Among the largest brush suppliers in North America, they stock a wide range of brushes. I love their Neptune series of synthetic squirrel hair brushes.
- Da Vinci – Top-quality artist brushes manufactured in Germany. They have an excellent selection of extra soft synthetic fibre brushes and pure Kolinsky red sable hair brushes.
- Silver Brush – An American fine artist brush company that offers well curated brush sets – great for intermediate and professional artists.
- Rosemary & Co – The UK based master brushmakers who make a range of travel brushes with a variety of specialized brushes.
Some other options for synthetic and blended brushes, easily available in the US, are:
What Watercolor Brushes Would I Choose?
I’ve been painting for a while and have slowly built up a set of watercolour brushes. There have been some expensive mistakes along the way!
Do you love making loose watercolors with broad strokes and an atmospheric feel? You prefer studios to plein air? You like A4 and larger sheets?
Pick the Silver Brush Basic Watercolor Set
Love making detailed watercolors and small illustrations? Use sketchbooks and A5 or smaller watercolor paper? Love plein air and urban sketching?
Pick the Escoda Versatil Travel Set
To sum up, the best way to explore your tools is to put them to use. So, get a suitable set of watercolors brushes and start painting!