This is my take on watercolor (WC) brushes. Above is most of my in-use collection. Artists can be very fussy and sensitive about their choices of brushes. Those who have painted a while have their favorite brush material, size, brand, and shape. Ask them their opinions on their favorites; experiment, you are worth it! One main point is there is NO perfect brush for all painting. Don’t skimp on quality. When cared for brushes will last MANY years!!
Use brushes only designated for watercolor. They are softer and made to hold water. Brushes I use are in different categories. Note: Don’t use your WC brushes for other mediums, it may damage them.
For any WC artist, especially a beginner good paper is most importance for success. Brushes are a close second!! Don’t skimp on brushes if you are serious about watercolor. Avoid the inexpensive student brushes (e.g. less than $10 for a #12)! Don’t waste your money. See them as in investment. You don’t want to use 2nd rate tools for any job.
Most common brush size for 11×14 size painting is a #12 or #10 round (about $10 – $20). Bigger paper needs bigger brushes. You will still use these size brushes for painting smaller but if you are painting 5×7″ cards or details on larger paintings you will also need smaller brushes. Other common size brushes are #10, #6, #0, ½” flat and 1” flat.
Discovering and choosing different brushes
When starting out you won’t know what brush is for you. Since you are reading this so you will have a good start! Don’t hesitate to ask others about their brushes. Ask about which they use for washes, and detail. If you know the person WELL, you might ask them if you could try a little swish with them. But beware, some might be hesitant. Brushes are sort of personal. You can use any of mine! Wet Paint Store in St.Paul will let you try their brushes before you buy them. They have an excellent selection of brushes and talented workers to help.
Things to look at when you try a brush:
When you get the brush wet, flick it a few times and see if it comes to a point. Check out Handprint.com for LOTS of info on brushes
When it is wet gently stand it up on the tip. Soft “moppy” brushes bend a bit. Cheap stiff brushes won’t bend much. They both have uses, see below.
While wet, gently move them on a surface back and forth like a mop. Cheap brushes will make stiff zig-zag marks, not flowing ones.
I am a portrait artist and here starts my bias. Refer to the photo above.
Using multiple brushes at all times:
When I paint I will always use several brushes at the same time!
I like to blend my colors constantly. Instead of rinsing color off my brush to change color I will lay that “blue” brush down near the blue on my palette and grab the “burnt sienna” brush to blend in the hair. (Sometimes I get confused which is which. Get in a habit and stick to it! Always have a scrap of paper in front of you on which to test)
Always in the later stages of a painting I will have one brush with color and another in my other hand with clean water to dampen the paper or soften an edge.
When doing backgrounds I will use a larger brush for the big juicy areas and a smaller pointed brush ready in my other hand for getting close to the edges of shapes. Might be two in my left hand while using another in my right.
Sable brushes. The good thing about sable brushes is how much paint they hold and how soft and lovely you can get smooth strokes. Good sable brushes also comes to a natural fine point for details, so a twofer. The problem with the larger sizes is they hold SO much paint/water. You are always rinsing/wasting a ton of paint when you change colors. They are also so soft that when they are almost empty they bend over and end up in an L shape. Kind of annoying. I let my wife buy me one of these beautiful, very expensive, Raphael Kolinsky Sable brush 8404, #14. (She got credit for a fancy Christmas present!) If you are going to buy the best, do it, buy a Raphael. You deserve it!!! They are about $200 or more for a #14. It is a bit too big to use all the time! I want to buy a #12 or #10, next time.
Size and Shapes of Brushes:
Sizes are dependent on the scale of what you are painting. For 1/4 sheet portraits (11×14″) I like a #12 for a utility brush. They cost about $12-$16 for a good synthetic brush.
Soft round tipped brushes. With these I can make 80% of my strokes.
I stress the use of a mop strokes in my classes. Keep your brush on the paper and gently swish it back and forth. Good soft brushes will not disturb the paper and layers of paint below. Conversely, cheap stiff brushes have a risk of disturbing the layers below. More on them below.
Suggested Synthetic brands: Jack Richeson Series 9000 or 9010 flat , Robert Simmons White Sable (synthetic) and many more in that price range. Brushes Size #10 #12 are around $15-$20 or so. An inexpensive “animal friendly” brush option, that I have not used but I understand they are good and inexpensive, are the Mimik Synthetic Watercolor Brush Round #10 ~$7, #12 ~$8
Blended hair brushes, Silver Black Velvet brand brushes. (See photo) They are a blend of squirrel and nylon. I use a #4 round, #10 and #16 rounds. I have a couple others of the Silver that I don’t use very much. These brushes cut their hairs to a point. I have a Jumbo Round Medium. This is a nice blunt, fairly large mop brush. I want to buy a Jumbo Round Small next! I have their Oval wash. I use this for large washes. Its tip makes interesting shapes. Very nice brushes but too soft for lifting.
Pointed detail brushes, stiff nylon. For painting eye, nostrils, jewelry, details, and for small lifting, I bought Escoda : Perla : White Toray : Synthetic : Series 1430 : # 6 $7.00. JacksonArt.com. This small brush is very stiff and almost like using a pen for detail and stiff enough to lift small details. Not at all a brush for blending!
When I use it I will have my soft #4 Silver Black Velvet in my other hand with water to blend. Other pointed brushes I own are Loew Cornell 7020. #6, #10 & #14 They are pointed almost to a fault! I only use the 6 & 10 for tight details on the face . Seldom use the #14, too big and too pointy! But great for fine detail in painting eyes. If you are a negative painter and need pin-point control, these are for you. These rounds can be used for exact detail as with the Escoda above but too soft for lifting. (Note these Loew Cornell 7020 have been discontinued by their manufacture) Please read my page for KINGART as a sub for this brush)
Lifting Brushes. (Not Scrubbing) Use caution and go slow. Lifting is using a firm but soft brush to gently lift surface layers of paint to lighten. Whichever brush you choose, your first strokes dampen the paint and then you can blot off the paint. You must go slowly. If you keep stroking you will soften the paper and possibly damage the surface. If the surface sizing on the paper is disturbed the next layers won’t match the area around it. For detailed lifts I use one of 4 different sizes angle brushes. My lifting brushes are a Robert Simmonds 1/4, 3/8, and 1/2″ Angle Shader, short handle, Sapphire brushes. They aren’t cheap like a scrubber. They are not stiff scrubbers.
Scrubbers. I bought a set of cheap scrubbers. I don’t like the brushes designated as scrubbers at all (you can get a set for $5-6). Scrubbers are intended to lift all layers of paint down to near white. Use them if you have no intention to put paint back down and your are only looking for highlights, If I want a glint on jewelry or in the eye, I will mask off the tiny little spot and use a scrubbing action to lift back to the white. Masking off an edge with tape and scrubbing is a good way to get sharp detailed highlights back on tops of rocks and items in the focal area. Remember paint will soak in and look muddy on top of scrubbed paper so scrub at the very end. AND in my traditional style of painting-opinion scrubbing is MUCH better than using white paint!!!
Plein Air Painting or sketching: Pentel Aquash Water Brush Round, Large $8.00
This is a must in a small kit with a small palette of paint. Try to buy the large round, not the medium. May not be available locally. Buying other store brands of water brushes are not recommended.
One new use I found AMAZING is using this waterbrush to soften edges with its clean water! Also, if you are doing a wash on a large area, like a background on a portrait, and don’t want to leave a hard edge (on top of the head), just use this “tool” to apply clean water and it will give you time to come back and do the other side!
Of course, never leave your brushes sitting in the water. That maybe OK for oil painters, but NOT for watercolor brushes! The water can go up into the wood and split it. These brushes will last many many years if cared for.
Updated: Sep 2022, added my current brush photo. Mar 2022, added using waterbrushes to soften edges, Dec, 2021 for minor edits, Dec 2020, recommended brushes and added Handprint Links, Created Sep 2020