Brushes! What a HUGE topic! I put off writing this post for a long time because I wanted to give myself space to really get to know the brushes that I like and why. I’m still no expert, but friends keep asking me what brushes I use so I’ve written this field guide to watercolor brushes.
THIS is the post about choosing watercolor brushes I wish I could have found somewhere when I was getting started about 20 years ago! (Has it really been that long?! 😳)
I don’t recall where I read someone comparing a brush to a magic wand but it’s so true. Each person is unique and what works for me may not work for you. If you’re just starting out I’d try 2-3 brands all in the same size to see what you like. I’d recommend a size 8 round so you can do a nice juicy wash.
I’m going to share my brush collection below and what I use them for — I often wished for photos like this so I could compare brushes before purchasing them.
Before we dive in to the brushes, I thought I’d start out with The Questions I ask people when they ask me what brush to get:
- Where will you be using the brush? Studio or out in the wild? If you’re sketching in the wild, how will you carry the brushes around? Also what will you use for water?
- What size painting will you be working on? Large landscapes or detailed botanicals?
- What kind of paper will you be working with? (Paper is a whole other post that I plan to write soon!)
- What is the your main subject matter? Flowers? Sky? Clouds? Buildings?
- What is your budget? I’ve found that price doesn’t always equal how well I’ll love a brush.
- Do you have ethical considerations/want to stick to synthetic brushes?
So many questions!
Let’s find answers.
Before we get started I wanted to give you a quick brush overview.
- Use bigger brushes for larger areas like skies and backgrounds and smaller brushes for details. There’s nothing more frustrating than trying to work with a brush that’s too small for the job.
- Natural and synthetic squirrel brushes have great carrying capacity but have softer points and are best used for laying in initial washes and skies. The extra water that they hold can be hard to get used to, so allow yourself time to practice. Granulating pigments really come to life when used with this type of brush. One thing I wish I’d known when I was first getting started is that you can squeeze the water out of a brush with your fingers — no harm done.
- Sable brushes and nylon synthetics keep their points and are great for adding details and making calligraphic marks. Nylon synthetics can be a little trickier to work with because they release paint and water faster, while sables have a slower release that gives you more control.
- There are natural hair and synthetic blends that combine the best of both worlds and help lower the price.
A quality brush will last a long time, so it’s worth it to find ones you like. I save my old brushes to use for mixing colors and activating dried paint as it saves my good brushes! Old brushes can also be used for cool effects like foliage.
Now on to the guide, broken down by their handles.
Travel brushes are so handy — they have a cap to protect the brush tip so you can just throw them in a pouch or pack and not worry about them. I’ve found that it’s best to put the cap on while the brush is wet so that you don’t catch any stray hairs.
Here’s my collection:
From left to right:
- Isabey 6201 size 6 red sable and 6202 squirrel mop – I keep these two in my daypack at all times and use them at just about every paint session. I’ve had them for many years and they’re still going strong. NOTE: I heard from two readers who have had trouble with newly purchased Isabey size 6 sables not coming to a point, so I purchased one to see and the new ones are definitely sub par! Sadly I no longer recommend them. I plan to use mine until it wears out though.
- Rosemary & Co Brushes – Rosemary & Co is based in the UK and can be hard to find here in the US. I purchased mine from Art Toolkit. I added those labels by printing out the text and then adhering it with packing tape — a great idea I picked up from Maria at Art Toolkit! Thanks, Maria!
- R12 dagger – this brush is also has a place in my pack. The dagger shape is fun and can be used as both a flat or a round.
- R10 size 8 synthetic – has a beautiful fine point! It can be a little hard to use with watery paint — I’ve had some paint drip off the tip of the brush. Just something to be aware of. It’s great for detailed work.
- R13 size 8 sable/synthetic blend – another brush that I usually carry in the pack. Compare the size of and shape of this one with the synthetic to the left.
- R5 rigger – I don’t bring it out into the field often but it’s a dream to work with.
- R9 mop – this squirrel brush holds a good amount of paint for washes and also has a place in my pack.
- Mimik Kolinsky – this is Jerry’s Artarama’s house brand of synthetic brushes, designed to mimic Konlinsky sable. I got mine in a set of 4 (watch for sales) and while I don’t think they work like sable, they do work great! They’re tough enough to use with gouache, too. Really springy and nice snap.
- Escoda – I have a size 10 Perla and a size 12 Versatil. Both of these are synthetics. While both of these brushes work well, the handles are thicker so they take up more room in my pouch and I don’t bring them as often. I also find them a little awkward to hold. I prefer full size Princeton Heritage brushes — I just stick them in my pack with the clear plastic brush protectors that come with the brush to protect it during shipping — more on that below.
- Case for Making – Case for Making has a house line of synthetic brushes and I find them on par with the Mimik Kolinsky. That’s a size 2 in the photo that I use for adding cactus spines. I also have a size 8 brush that was camera shy, but I use it often.
Note: You don’t HAVE to have a travel brush if you want to keep it safe in your pack — more on that below!
If you haven’t heard of a water brush you’re in for a treat. It’s a brush that has water in the handle — nifty, right? No need to carry a water jar — but refilling them in the field can be tricky.
Full confession: I have a love/hate relationship with water brushes. On the one hand they’re super portable and convenient and I can have them out and ready to go in no time. On the other hand, they don’t have the same “feel” as painting with regular brushes and sometimes they seem to stop working on me for no reason — maybe it’s the brush gremlins? I also think they wear out faster than synthetic nylon brushes. Last but not least it can be tricky to get good color saturation with them.
All that being said, they do have a place in my practice. I use them when:
- I’m traveling super light. They’re great to use for value studies/thumbnail sketches.
- I’m working on thin paper, like printer paper. This helps to keep the paper warping to a minimum.
- They’re great for going over water soluble pens to create a light wash.
Here’s my collection:
- Koi size 8 round – this is the cutest little brush — the smallest I’ve found! You can take the brush part off and the handle part and then put the little black stopper in to keep the water in. I just know I’m going to lose that stopper someday.
- The next two are Pentel – the petite (compact) and regular handles, both size large brush heads. I’ve pretty much settled on the Pentel as my go-to water brush as I’ve had the best luck with them.
- Kuretake round and fude/flat brushes – these have long handles so you don’t need to refill as quickly — but those round handles can be tricky to fit in a pouch. They’re also harder to fill in the field — I use a needle point syringe to fill mine.
Speaking of filling water brushes, here are some options to fill them in the field:
- A syringe from the pharmacy — I think this one came with cough medicine or something? All I remember is thinking about saving it to fill brushes lol! I also have one of these from Art Toolkit.
- A pipette — this was the best 10 cents I ever spent!
- A needle nosed syringe — many people use these to fill fountain pen ink cartridges — you can find them at Jet Pens or Goulet Pens. The needle part is removable and slips inside the sleeve for storage.
- Kuretake Petit set (find it here on Amazon, affiliate link) — comes with the yellow water container plus a little water brush. I don’t like the water brush in this set at all as it’s super hard to control but the container is a keeper! I keep one with me to refill the Pentel brushes in the field. Oddly enough it won’t work with the long handled Kuretake brushes.
Pentel are my go-to waterbrushes.
Short Handled Brushes
Next up let’s look at some short handled brushes, also great for travel:
- Raphael Softaqua size 4 mop – I want to love this brush, but it has this habit of grabbing on to color and not letting go in the rinse water — especially phthalo blue!
- Miller’s Golden Fleece – 1/2″ flat and rigger — these Cheap Joe’s house brand brushes are made out of Toray Nylon synthetic fiber and are almost indestructible ! I’ve thrown them in my pack, no problem. They keep a really nice point and have great spring.
- Hake Brush – a Mandalay 1” hake from Jerry’s Artarama — J cut it down for me so I could keep it in my pack. It’s nice and soft so it’s great for wetting paper and skies. The blue on the side is paint — it came like that.
- Herend 25 mm brush – this is a sweet flat brush — I don’t know what kind of wood it is but it smells so good when wet. A joy to use. I find it a little stiff for sky washes and use it more for details on larger landscapes. It’s also great for buildings on the rare times I’m urban sketching.
- Princeton Neptune 1″ squirrel mottler – another great wash/sky brush. I find this one a little tricky to work with in the field since it holds so much water/paint that it can be hard to rinse.
Full Size Brushes
Now let’s have a look at full size brushes! But first, a quick note: you can easily bring these in your pack with you in a bamboo brush roll. The trick is to roll the brushes up one at a time so they don’t fall out. Here’s a quick video demo.
I wish I would have known about bamboo brush rolls when I first got started. There’s a huge range of brush sizes and types that you can’t find in short handles or travel versions — by using a brush roll the sky’s the limit! Plus full size brushes are usually more cost effective than travel brushes.
Also! The brush roll gives you a place to perch your wet brushes — no more dropping them in the dirt or sand. Travel brushes usually end up weighing more than regular brushes, so by using a brush roll you might end up shaving some weight from your pack.
Note: I’ve tried canvas brush rolls but the brushes got bent so I don’t recommend them. This is the brush roll that I use. One more note: I’ve tried the bamboo ones with the pockets and prefer the ones without.
Synthetics are getting so good these days!
I suspect that the golden nylon and white nylon are pretty much the same across brands. Look at the shape of the brush point and the feel of the handle to narrow down your selection. These nylon brushes hold up really well and have great snap/spring.
Here are some that I’ve used:
- Winsor & Newton Cotman – these were some of my first brushes and I still like them.
- Loew-Cornell – these come in “ultra round” and “round stroke” — the ultra rounds have more of a point. I like to keep them even when they get pasT their prime to use for foliage and digging the last bits of paint out of pans so that I don’t ruin my good brushes.
- Princeton Elite – these seem pretty similar to the Mimik Kolinsky but I don’t really care for the feel of the handle – it’s kind of rubbery feeling?
- Princeton Heritage – these are a great workhorse brush! I keep a size 12 or 10 in my pack — I keep the brush protectors on them to keep the points safe — when I’m using the brush, I just slip the brush protector over the handle so I don’t lose it. I also love the size 2 rounds for detail work.
- Escoda Perla – I found these 2 plus the travel brush above in a set on sale and could’t resist trying them — I don’t think they live up to the hype, the Princeton Heritage are very similar but at a better price point.
- Polar Flo – this is Jerry’s Artarama’s house brand white nylon and I think they’re pretty similar to the Escoda Perla’s.
- Beste – another one of Jerry’s house brands that you can find at a really great price point! The handles feel a little cheaper than the Princeton Heritage but the brush itself works great. Love it for larger sizes like this #30
- Mimik Kolinsky – these are a little softer than the Princeton Heritage but still pretty similar. Another of Jerry’s house brands.
- Princeton Neptune – these are synthetic squirrel and are great for wash brushes and softening lines. I used them more often before I discovered the DaVinci Casaneo line below.
Natural Hair and Close Synthetic Cousins
Last but not least, let’s talk natural hair brushes and some really close synthetic cousins.
- Isabey 6223 Sable – these brushes work like a dream. The handles are narrower than my other brushes and they remind me to hold them looser and let them dance on the page.
- Isabey Squirrel Cat’s Tongue – I love this brush for skies working up to 6″ wide or so. It’s such a beautiful brush. The cat’s tongue shape is super handy for working around areas.
- DaVinci Casaneo – I’ve been using these for a while now and really like them. They’re a synthetic brush but feel somewhere between a squirrel crossed with a sable. When my natural hair brushes wear out I won’t be replacing them — I’ll just reach for these instead! Note that I sharpened the end of my size 6 brush so that I could use it to scratch into wet paint.
- Cheap Joe’s Scroggy’s Loose Goose – these squirrel hair brushes are so fun to use for trees! You get such unpredictable marks with them.
- Escoda Reserva Kolinsky Sable – I’ve had this brush for a really long time and it’s wearing out, but the Casaneo’s are so good that I won’t be replacing the Escoda
- Cheap Joe’s Legend Kolinsky Sable – sable brushes at a really good price point! I got mine during Cheap Joe’s anniversary sale. Compare how much bigger the brush is than the Escoda — both are size 8.
- DaVinci Squirrel Mop – I’ve had this brush for about 10 years now, and it’s developed a crack in the handle — I won’t be replacing it, will just switch to the Casaneo. Hmmm, I’m noticing a pattern…
- Dynasty Quill – I picked this brush up at Flax Art in San Francisco while on vacation and I’d love more info on it. love using it for expressive florals and mark making.
One quick note: Winsor & Newton Sceptre Gold brushes used to be some of my favorites, but the quality has changed the past few years and I can no longer recommend them. Also, I wanted to mention that I tried to like Silver Black Velvet brushes but I just can’t get into them. I know several artists who love these — they might be for you if you like a softer brush.
Brushes I Use Most
So after all that, which brushes do I use the most? If I could start over at the beginning I’d just purchase these:
In My Daypack
- Isabey size 6 travel sable
- Isabey travel mop
- Rosemary & Co R9 travel mop
- Rosemary & Co R12 size 8 travel synthetic/sable blend
- Rosemary & Co R12 dagger
- Hake with a cut off handle
- Princeton Heritage size 10 or 12 (Keep the clear plastic caps that are meant to protect the brush during shipping)
If I’m going somewhere and want to take bigger/different brushes I bring them in a bamboo brush roll.
In the Studio
- DaVinci Casaneo brushes — all!
- Isabey squirrel cat’s tongue and sable
- Princeton Heritage
- A Pentel waterbrush and the yellow Kuretake water container
Before I go I thought I’d add a few things I’ve learned about brush care:
- First off, I no longer leave my brushes sitting in a jar of water :) I cringe when I see other people do it now ha! I ruined too many brushes this way when I was getting started — luckily they weren’t expensive ones.
- I have a ceramic dish/plate thing on my desk and I’ve gotten into the habit of throwing the brush in there after I rinse it out — this way the bristles don’t get messed up and it can dry flat without water running back into the ferrel. The dish was originally intended for holding olives like at a fancy dinner party. Since I don’t host many fancy dinner parties and J hates olives I put it to better use. If you don’t have a dish you can just set the brush flat on your desk to dry.
- I periodically clean my brushes with Master’s Brush Cleaner — it really helps. One trick I’ve learned if your bristles get bent out of shape (like when you throw a good sable brush in your backpack oops) is to slather on the cleaner, re-shape the brush, and then let it dry overnight. Rinse it out the next day and it’s good as new. The cleaner also helped when my brushes have a bad hair day, like when I’m visiting my Dad in Ohio in the winter. They tend to fuzz all out and misbehave, so they get a bath and they’re like new again.
Here are some great resources that helped me on my watercolor journey:
- Jane Blundell – A Question of Brushes
- Jess Greenleaf – Watercolor Brush Basics and a guide to Water Brushes
- Liz Steel – Liz has a whole collection of articles on brushes — start here!
- Sandy Allnock – Watercolor Brushes
Related articles here on my site:
- How I carry water in the field, when not using a water brush
- My current sketch kit, with travel brushes
Hope this field guide helps someone out there!
Please let me know if you have any questions and I’ll do my best to answer them. Have a brush I should try? Let me know that too! Thanks for reading!