Choosing the Best Watercolor Brushes (Beginner’s Guide)

Choosing Watercolor brushes is not an easy task, I mean, there are so many options where do you even begin?

Let’s be honest, once you finally purchase your brushes, that’s when you can get to the fun part… Painting! If you’ve been overwhelmed while trying to buy new watercolor brushes, you have come to the right place.

In this post, I’ll go over what information you need to know before buying your first brushes, and finally, I’ve added a few recommendations to help you out. That way you can get to the painting part of this hobby!

You can also skip straight to the recommendations here:

Please note: This article may contain affiliate links. If you choose to purchase something I will earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. Thank you! You can learn more by reading the full disclosure here.

Structure of a brush

To begin, you first need to know the different parts of the brush and what they’re called.

Tip/toe– This is the point of the brush (as labeled in the diagram above). The tip shouldn’t have stray hairs sticking out and should maintain its intended shape. If it’s a round brush you’ll want a fine point, if it’s a flat brush it shouldn’t be jagged instead it should be a straight crisp line.

Belly– This is the part of the brush that holds water. A brush that holds more water will be able to paint longer steady strokes. With lower-quality brushes, the water is distributed unevenly and in one go rather than a longer steady release.

Heel– This is where the brush hairs are secured, there shouldn’t be any glue visible. If you do see glue or hairs sticking out this means the brush was made poorly.

Ferrule- This is the metal part of the brush that attaches the handle to the bristles. It should be sealed with no gaps for paint water to leak.

Crimp- This is where the brush is sealed and attached to the handle. Your brush should be clamped at least two or three times. You’ll be able to tell by looking at the markings, that the brush in the image has been clamped twice making it secure. You can also try gently pulling it to make sure it doesn’t easily detach from the handle.

Handle– The brush size and company name are usually written on the handle. Wooden handles tend to be more durable and of higher quality than plastic handles. Manufacturers also produce longer and shorter handles (this is more of a personal preference). If you’re a beginner I recommend going for the short handles first.

Qualities of a Watercolor Brush

Tip– a good quality watercolor brush will maintain its intended shape. For example, If it’s a round brush the tip will come to a point. If it’s a flat brush the tip will remain a steady straight line. A mob brush will have an oval shape… you get the idea.

Snap– This refers to how quickly a brush returns or “snaps” back to its original shape. This quality is more of a personal preference and depends on your style of painting. Brushes with little to no snap are more suitable for loose painting styles. Meanwhile brushes with more snap are useful when working with more detailed and controlled painting styles.

Spring– Does the belly of the brush manage to hold its shape when distributing paint on the paper, or does it splay? A brush with spring is easier to control and therefore easier to paint with. Some brushes will have little to no snap but they will have spring.

Capacity– How much water can your paintbrush carry? Softer brushes tend to hold more water and are therefore more suited for watercolor painting. A brush that can hold more water is much more ideal when it comes to watercolors. They are also more convenient as you don’t have to keep reloading while you paint.

Softness/stiffness– Watercolor brushes are much softer than acrylic and oil brushes. This is a crucial quality. because the more soft the bristles are, the more water they’ll be able to carry.

Which hair types are Watercolor Brushes made from?

Brush bristles are made from different types of hairs. There are animal hairs, synthetic hairs, and combination bristles (a mixture of animal and synthetic hairs). Each has its advantages and disadvantages. Animal hairs tend to be softer and higher in quality and price. Meanwhile, Synthetic brushes are more affordable in comparison. Here are the main examples:

Sable Hair:

This is considered the best animal hair type suitable for watercolor painting. These brush bristles are extracted from the tail of the sable with the Kolinsky Sable being of the highest quality. Sable brushes are considered of high quality because they are soft and can carry a high capacity paint load while also maintaining a fine point. They can preserve their shape and texture for years to come. The downside of these brushes is that they are super expensive.

Kolinsky Sable:

The Kolinsky sable is the most expensive, they are found only in Siberia. The Kolinsky sable, however, is a type of weasel, their brushes were advertised as “sable” so they would perform better in the market. The harsh cold weather conditions fostered resistant, durable and supple hairs perfect for watercolor brushes.

Squirrel, Ox and Goat

Brushes made from squirrel, Ox, and Goat hairs are super soft and have a high load capacity and spring. These hairs go well with brushes designed for wash techniques, such as mop and hake brushes. However, they are not known for their ability to hold a strong point compared to other animal hairs.

Hog bristles

Hog bristles are extracted from the back and neck of the pig (hog). Their bristles have a higher load capacity and can distribute a lot of paint in one stroke. This makes them great for large washes, not to mention they are more affordable in price.

Camel Hair Brushes

Camel hair brushes don’t actually come from camels. Their bristles are made from a mixture of other hairs, for example, squirrel, goat, ox, pony hair…etc

It’s recommended to buy a brush that specifies which type of hair it’s made with. For this reason, I would avoid camel hair.

Synthetic bristles

Synthetic brushes are a great alternative to animal hairs, not only are they more affordable, but they are also a great alternative for those who prefer animal-cruelty-free products. They are mostly made from nylon or polyester materials.

Synthetic hairs lack cuticles, because of this, they tend to be less absorbent compared to natural hairs. That being said, there are some synthetic brushes of higher quality that cut it pretty close when comparing their performance with natural hair bristles.

If you’re starting out and have a limited budget I would recommend purchasing some good quality synthetic round brushes. As you keep practicing, you can always save up and upgrade!

What sizes should you buy?

There is no standard brush size, instead, brush sizes vary from company to company. For example, you can have two sizes 6’s from different companies with one being much larger than the other. However, there are a few factors to help you when deciding which brush sizes to get.

  • Use of the brush: The first thing to keep in mind is that different brushes have different uses and strengths. For example, mop brushes tend to be much larger than round brushes because they’re designed for background washes.
  • Think of the size of your paintings. If you’re working with large pieces of paper(e.g. 30 Ă— 42 cm) then choose bigger-sized brushes. If you’re creating A5-sized paintings, then having too many big brushes will be inefficient.
  • Measurement of brush: Look at the measurements instead. For example, a good medium-sized round brush should be at least 6mm (width of the heel) by 2cm (length of bristles).

If you’re a beginner, you’ll need to start with at least a small, medium, and large round brush. A size 4 mop brush for background washes and perhaps a size 1/2 flat brush.

This being said, it’s pointless to buy every size from one collection. You only need one brush from the smaller side of the scale for details, one medium-sized for medium-sized shapes, and a large brush for covering larger areas of the paper.

How much do watercolor brushes cost?

There is a wide range of options when it comes to price. High-quality kolinsky sable brushes can cost you between $100-$1000. For example, a size 24 Da Vinci Maestro Kolinsky round Brush costs exactly $955. On the other hand, you can get a set of cheap quality synthetic brush sets for $4.

While I do believe you should purchase quality brushes, I disagree with the idea of paying an absurd amount for a brush, especially if you’re a beginner. Instead, you can spend about $20-$40 for a good quality round brush that will last you a long time.

The smaller the brush size, the cheaper it will be because of the fewer bristles.

As you become more experienced you can always try different hair types.

Different types of watercolor brushes

Multipurpose Work

Flat brush- These brushes are ideal for painting lines, edges, and angular areas. They are also great for painting background washes.
Round brush- Named because of the round ferrule, these are the most versitile brushes. You can use them for delicate line work as well as broad linear and rounded strokes.
Round pointed– These are round brushes that are shaped with a very fine point for painting super thin lines.

Watercolor brushes for multipurpose work: Flat brush, round brush, round pointed brush.

Detailed work

Spotter Brush- These brushes are a variation of round brushes that have shorter, fewer bristles for painting in small sharp details.
Rigger– These brushes are thin and have long bristles, their narrow long shape makes them ideal for painting out details. Not to mention, their long hairs can carry just enough water to paint long lines without having to reload your brush.

best types of watercolor brushes for painting small details

Large washes

Mop/Quil brush– These brushes are much larger and tend to have an oval shape instead of a pointed tip. This makes them unsuitable for details and ideal for covering large washes on paper. Mop brushes are made from animal hairs and are usually very soft and hold lots of water.
Wide Flat- As the name suggests, these are shaped like flat brushes, however wider to allow more water absorbtion for background washes.
Hake Brush- Shaped similarly to wide flat brushes, these brushes are ideal for large washes.

watercolor brushes for painting large washes or covering large areas of paper: Mop brush, Wide flat and Hake brush

Specific Techniques

Cats tongue– This brush is shaped similarly to a flat brush, however with the addition of a point for delicate detail work.
Filbert – The bristles on this brush are flat with an oval-shaped tip which is great for rounded and softer edges.
Angle
– These brushes are mainly used for sharp edges and angular shapes.
Fan
– Great for creating textured strokes such as painting grass.
Rake brush- A rake brush is the same as a flat brush, instead, it has a few extra long bristles. Similar to the fan brush, you can create a cluster of long thin lines. This is useful when painting grass.

Different shaped watercolor brushes on how to choose which watercolor brush is best for you

Which Brushes do you need?

As a beginner, I thought I needed one of each type of brush. Needless to say, I started a collection of brushes that sit on the edge of my desk gathering dust. To this day, I only use my round brushes and mop brushes and rarely reach for the fan, rake, filbert brush…etc

If you’re starting, you don’t need to have every type of brush otherwise it can get confusing. Instead, you can start with two or three round brushes, a mop brush, and maybe a flat brush. You may actually end up saving money by purchasing higher-quality brushes that last longer.

Round brushes are an excellent choice to start painting with. This is because they are versatile, you can paint intricate details, large washes, and textured strokes.

Best watercolor brushes for beginners

At the end of the day, choosing a brush comes down to personal preference. It depends on what your painting style is and what feels more comfortable to paint with. My aim for this post was to provide you with the basics to help you make an informed decision on what brushes to buy! I hope I have been of some help so far.

Well-known brush brands:
– Winsor and Newton: Based in London, England. Founded in 1832
– Da Vinci: Founded in 1990, Based in Germany
– Escoda: Based in Barcelona, Spain. Founded in 1933
– Raphaël: Founded in 1793, Paris, France
– Silver Brush: Founded in 1990, USA
– Princeton Neptune: Founded in 1997 in New Jersey, USA

Synthetic brushes + Natural hair

Silver Brush Black Velvet Watercolor Brush Set – Susan Louise Moyer Set, Set of 3

If you are a beginner, this set of silver black velvet brushes is perfect for getting started. It consists of three round brushes sizes 4, 8, and 12. Silver brushes are made with a blend of natural squirrel hair and synthetic fibers. The squirrel hairs make the brushes soft enough to carry high capacity load, meanwhile, the addition of the synthetic fibers helps maintain a fine point.

Silver Brush Black Velvet Watercolor Brush Set - Susan Louise Moyer Set, Set of 3

Purchase here

Instead of purchasing this set, you can also choose other sets or individual silver brushes here.

Synthetic brushes

Da Vinci Cosmotop Spin Brush

The Da Vinci Cosmotop round brush is a suitable choice for beginners. Its synthetic bristles are slightly stiffer than synthetic squirrel brushes, however, they are still soft enough to hold lots of water. This brush has a lot more snap, which makes it easier to control for beginners.

You can get a size 16 brush that is large enough to hold more water while maintaining a sharp point for details. There’s also the option of buying a size 10 which is smaller (holds less water) but will be handier when painting detailed work.

Size 16: 10mm (Width), 36mm (length)
Size 10: 6mm (Width), 28mm (length)

Da Vinci Cosmotop Spin Brush - Round, Short Handle, Size 16

Purchase Size 16
Purchase Size 10
See other sizes

Princeton Neptune Synthetic Squirrel Brush

Princeton Neptune are known for creating synthetic animal brushes that come very close to natural hairs. Their Synthetic squirrel brushes make for good quality round brushes. They are much softer than the Da Vinci Cosmotop Spin brushes so they hold more water for wet into wet techniques.

Size 10: 6.4mm (Width), 23mm (Length)
Size 16: 10mm (Width), 36mm (Length)

Princeton Neptune Synthetic Squirrel Brush - Round, Short Handle, Size 16

Purchase Size 10
Purchase Size 16
See other sizes

Raphaël Soft Aqua Brush – Quill, Size 4

If you’re looking for a nice watercolor mop/quill brush for large washes then the Raphaël Soft Aqua brush may be the one for you. This brush is made with synthetic fibers that have a wavy shape to allow the belly to hold a high water capacity, unlike regular synthetic hairs that are straight and slippery.

If you are a beginner I would recommend getting the size 4 which is 11m in diameter and 34mm in length.

Rapha�l Soft Aqua Brush - Quill, Size 4, Short Handle

See the price here

Natural Hair

Winsor & Newton Series 7 Kolinsky Sable Brushes

Winsor and Newton is an English brand known for making quality watercolor products since the company was founded in 1832. The series 7 brush was ordered to be developed in 1866 by Queen Victoria to paint portaits of her family members and landscape paintings.

These brushes are hand-made from Kolinsky Sable hairs giving them a high water capacity while maintaining a fine point. The Kolinsky’s hairs allow the paint to be distributed evenly because of its spring and will also snap back to a crisp point. These brushes are made to last you a very long time.

Winsor & Newton Series 7 Kolinsky Sable Brush - Pointed Round, Set of 5

Purchase here

Escoda Reserva 1212 series

Based in Barcelona, Spain and Founded in 1933, Escoda has been making brushes for over 80 years. The Escoda Reserva series are made from the tail of the Kolisky Sable from Tajmyr region in the very north of Siberia.

The Escoda Brushes are said to be slightly softer and springier than the Winsor $ Newton Series 7 brushes. The hairs are longer and have a high water capacity while maintaining a sharp point and full belly. These brushes are better suited to professional watercolorists who have more experience and control of the water.

Escoda Reserva Kolinsky-Tajmyr Sable Brush - Pointed Round, Short Handle, Size 10

Purchase here

That’s it for this post, I hope you enjoyed and found the content on this article helpful! Sign up for my free 3-day watercolor exercises for beginners to practice and improve your skills!

Also check out: How to choose the best watercolor sketchbooks

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