best watercolour brushes

Best Watercolour Brushes

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The best watercolour brushes are those that have soft fibres, suitable for moving fluid paint. Watercolour brushes also have short handles, giving artists better control when painting. 

It’s better to invest in some higher quality brushes that will last and that you will enjoy using. If you get the cheapest brushes you can find, you will soon get frustrated at how they perform with the paint. The bristles will quickly splay, spread and shed. You will also have much more difficulty controlling the paint flow on the paper. 

In this guide, I’ll show you some outstanding options for painting and some brushes that are more budget friendly too. Find out about the different kinds of brush filaments, shapes and sizes available to watercolour painters and how they perform.

Table of Contents

Natural Fibre Bristles

Natural hair bristles are those that come from animals. Sable, squirrel and even goat, pony and badger hairs are all soft enough to work with watercolour paint. Animal hairs will be more expensive than the synthetic alternatives. Synthetic hairs can closely emulate the performance of some natural hair fibres, however there are noticeable differences in the performance.

How to look after natural hair brushes

Natural fibres have a long lifespan, but it’s a good idea to clean and condition them after use. The Master’s Brush Conditioner and Restorer will do the trick. This soap nicely restores your brushes to a like-new condition after each use. It also improves the colour holding abilities of the brush fibres. Be mindful that you don’t leave your brushes upside down in brush washers or leave the pigment to dry for too long on the bristles.

When you first receive your watercolour brush, it will be tapered to a point with gum arabic to set the bristles in place. Wash this off with water and brush soap before using.

Kolinsky sable watercolour brushes

Sable hair is the fibre most commonly associated with watercolour painting. Most favoured by professional artists, it is the finest type of bristle available to watercolour painters. It gives a brush some unique attributes.

Kolinsky sable hairs are ultra soft and hold a high amount of pigment in the bristles. When applying paint to the paper they seamlessly release the pigment smoothly and evenly. This gives the artist the capability to create long, even washes of colour. Round shaped sable brushes taper to a point when wet. The fine point gives the painter the ability to create thin or thicker lines depending on the pressure applied.

What makes kolinsky sable brushes stand apart from any other is its ability to retain a sharp point over the years, if washed and conditioned properly. Many synthetic alternatives offer this benefit to a certain extent. However, a kolinsky brush will stand the test of time, compared to a synthetic.

The bristles come from the kolinsky, a type of Siberian weasel, rather than a sable marten. Sable bristles that meet the highest standards of brush making will be obtained from the red male kolinsky weasel’s coat during the winter. These hairs are long and tapered, with elasticity spring and a round, full shape. 

Kolinsky sable brushes are the most expensive type of brush you can get. The prices seem to increase by quite a bit with each increase in size increment. Buying a kolinsky sable brush is an investment, that could bring benefit to your painting practice. I’ve reviewed the best watercolour brushes made from kolinsky sable hair thoroughly to give you a better idea of how they perform. So you can decide which brush will best suit your budget and your style of painting.

Kolinsky sable product picks

Winsor & Newton, Series 7

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Attributes: most expensive, good water holding ability, built to last

This is possibly the most famous kolinsky sable brush. As Winsor & Newton have a world-wide reputation for excellence. 

The bristles are made from the finest kolinsky sable hairs and it is reflected in the price. It is the most expensive brush on the list.

Brush tips are finely shaped, taper to a point and have a high level of softness.

The water holding capability of this brush is good. However, some artists report inconsistencies in the snap and point of the brush.

Water and paint is released from the bristles evenly. With the right brushwork techniques, you will be able to achieve even washes.

Some artists report that this brush is overrated for the money and that the quality of Winsor & Newton’s brushes have decreased over time. It might be better than other kolinsky sable brushes, but it is priced as a luxury product at two or three times the cost. Is it worth the extra money? Maybe not as much as other kolinsky sable brushes on the list.

Da Vinci Maestro kolinsky sable brush

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Attributes: holds a lot of water, tapers to a point, feels smooth to paint with, holds its shape whilst painting, firmer than other kolinsky brushes

The Maestro brush is handmade in Germany and comes in several different varieties. Series 1503 is small with a lidded case for the brush, making it easy to transport and travel with. 

This is an exceptional quality brush that is made from kolinsky sable hair, selected from the male winter tails. These are Da Vinci’s top of the line brushes and their water holding ability is of a high standard. 

They have finely shaped tips, enabling painters to create delicate details. With a high amount of elasticity, it gives superior control over the brush.

The bristles are firmer than the Winsor & Newton series 7 and the Escoda brush. This means the bristles snap back to a point easily. If you want a brush that will last years, this may be the one for you.

Escoda Reserva

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Attributes: Most expensive Escoda brush, stiffer than Optimo, wide range of sizes, cheaper than ‘designer’ kolinsky brushes

Escoda makes two different kinds of kolinsky sable brushes, Reserva and Optimo. Reserva is slightly more expensive for larger sized brushes. The higher price of the Reserva is due to the fact that the bristles are selected from only the male winter tail hairs of the weasel. This brush is stiffer and tapers to a sharper point compared to the Optimo.

Compared to the Optimo, the Reserva comes in a wider variety of shapes and sizes. Buy it from as small as 5/0 and up to 18. Reserva is best for ultra fine detail work compared to the Optimo brush. If you’re looking for a kolinsky sable brush that is cheaper than the top of the line ‘designer’ brushes like the Da Vinci Maestro, then this could be a good pick.

Escoda Optimo

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Attributes: Soft, high quality brush, cheaper than Escoda Reserva

This brush is made from a mix of male and female kolinsky weasel winter coat hairs.

The hairs of this brush are slightly longer than the Da Vinci Maestro. This is a unique watercolour brush that is great for outlining and detail work. Hairs are cured to give them extra spring.

The Escoda Optimo seems to adhere to a similar sizing scale as Da Vinci Maestro series 10. As a size 6 brush from both manufacturers is 3.2mm wide.

Compared to the Da Vinci Maestro sable brush, for larger sizes (10+), the Optimo brush is almost half the price. 

This brush has a high water holding ability, it is great for washes of paint. Both the Reserva and Optimo brushes will stand the test of time, if treated well. 

Rosemary kolinsky sable brush

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Attributes: Handmade, high quality, cheaper than other brands, wide range available, durable

Rosemary & Co are a UK based company, however they operate worldwide and have a large user base of professional artists from across the globe. They have a few different types of kolinsky sable brushes available to artists.

The brushes handle paint beautifully, as the water holding capacity is excellent. The brushes are made in the perfect full bodied shape and bristles have a wonderful snap to them.

These brushes are significantly cheaper than Da Vinci Maestro and the Escoda kolinsky sable brushes. They cut costs by sourcing materials directly and cutting out middlemen.

Brushes are handmade by a small team based in Yorkshire and have been running for the last 35 years. The brush materials are carefully sourced, so the bristles will last.  

Raphael kolinsky sable brush

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Attributes: Fine tip, full body, brilliant for details, more expensive than Escoda

Made in France, Raphael watercolour brushes are made from kolinsky sable. It is made to high specifications, with a fine tip and a conical shape. 

The bristles are springy, have high water holding capacity and they have beautiful fine points that are brilliant for painting details. If you want to try this brand out, I’d recommend getting a smaller size and testing it for details, as this is where it performs well.

The water and paint runs off the bristles smoothly and evenly onto the paper, giving rich or delicate washes, depending on the pressure applied.

Compared to the Escoda Reserva, the Raphael brush has a slightly different sizing guide. A size 8 Raphael brush roughly equates to a size 10 Escoda brush, as they are both around 6mm wide. Raphael brushes are more expensive than the Escoda brushes, however.

Squirrel brushes

Cheaper to make and buy than sable, squirrel hairs are softer than kolinsky sable. But this means that they have little ‘snap’ to them. As in, they will not spring back to shape when moved as much as a kolinsky sable. The softness of the bristles makes the brushes suitable for techniques such as washes. You will often find squirrel hair made into mop or wash brushes. 

Squirrel hair can hold a huge amount of colour, just like sable. So in using these brushes you won’t need to worry about reloading your brush after each stroke. This is brilliant for those who like to work on a larger scale, or who like to make bold, large, unbroken brushstrokes across the page. However, when using a squirrel brush, bear in mind you won’t have as much control over where the paint ends up due to the lack of springiness. 

Silver Brush: Black Velvet (squirrel and synthetic blend)

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Attributes: springy like synthetic, ability to hold water like squirrel brushes

These are premium brushes made from a mix of squirrel hair and a synthetic filament called Risslon. By getting a brush with a blend of synthetic and natural hair, you get the best of both of their attributes.

These brushes have the spring and durability of synthetic bristles, but the soft qualities and water holding capabilities of squirrel hair.

Other natural fibres

Under this heading fits the bristle fibres that you don’t see being made into artist grade brushes as much.

Pony hair, for example, is used to make some of the cheapest brushes available to artists. The hairs are soft, but they are just not as suited to providing artists with the possibility of using a variety of techniques like sable and squirrel are. Pony hairs don’t taper or hold a point, meaning they’re not great for detail work. If you need some cheap brushes for very basic paint applications, then it may be useful to get a few.

Goat hairs are almost exclusively used to make mop brushes. Mop brushes are used to create very thin, transparent washes for backgrounds, such as areas of sky. The reason for this is that goat hairs are so soft and fine, they don’t have that snap to them that sable brushes do. They are still useful to have, however, just remember how you need to make the paint runny before you use them. Buy goat mop brushes here.

Synthetic bristles

Synthetic bristles are cheaper than natural hair, they can emulate the properties of different animal hair fibres pretty closely. Bristles made of synthetic fibres can range in softness, with some being stiffer than others.

One attribute of synthetic bristles that makes them perform differently to natural hair, is that they are much more springy and flexible. This means that they require a lighter touch when applying watery washes to the paper. But they also lend themselves to be used with applications of paint that are less runny or have been altered with a medium.

One drawback of using synthetic brushes as opposed to natural hair brushes like kolinsky sable, is the lifespan. Sable brushes will last longer if conditioned and washed properly. 

Below, I’ve outlined the synthetic brushes that best emulate the properties of natural hair.

Synthetic brushes product picks

Princeton: Neptune Faux Squirrel

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Attributes: smooth even washes

These brushes hold colour brilliantly and they come in a range of different shapes and sizes. 

They feel smooth to paint with and are less expensive than natural hair, so they make excellent brushes for beginners. The brushes give an even release of colour but don’t taper to as sharp of a point as some other natural hair brushes.

Escoda: Versatil Synthetic Sable

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Attributes: Economical price, closest to genuine sable in water holding ability

The Escoda Synthetic Sable brush is a brilliantly versatile option for watercolourists, coming in at a mid-range price. Bristles are springy and soft, with excellent absorption properties, holding fluid and releasing it smoothly onto paper. This brush comes in a range of shapes and sizes, making it great for fine details or large washes.

These brushes very closely emulate the water holding capabilities of genuine sable bristles, more so than other brands.

Da Vinci Casaneo

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Attributes: Springy, good elasticity, fine point, vegan

Da Vinci Casaneo brushes are made from synthetic Kazan squirrel hair. The brush has a brilliant spring and elasticity, more so than a natural squirrel brush. Use a lighter touch than you would with a natural hair brush. These brushes snap back to a point better than a natural hair Kazan squirrel brush.

The water holding ability of this brush is excellent. It comes in round, flat, pointed oval, mottlers and wash shapes.

This brush is vegan friendly, as it uses no animal products in the production process. They are significantly cheaper than natural hair brushes, so would also suit a watercolourist on a smaller brush budget.

The round brushes go up to a size 40, much larger than most kolinsky sable brushes go up to.

Best watercolour brushes for travel

Escoda travel brushes

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Escoda has a huge range of travel sized brushes. They sell compact pocket brushes in their optimo, reserva and versatil ranges amongst others. The travel brush sets come in handmade leather cases. Travel brush handles have a beautiful metal and wood finish, with a lid to keep the bristles safe.

Da Vinci travel brushes

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Series 1503 of the Da Vinci Maestro brush range comes in a retractable ferrule and cap which makes them perfect for travel and painting plein air. Get the quality of the Maestro sable brush in a compact format.

The brush handle is made from a durable plastic that does not detract from the quality of the brush. There is a ventilation hole in the, which is essential for transporting wet brushes. However, after painting outdoors, you should always take the lid off to dry brushes thoroughly in the air when you return home.

Brush shapes and what they do

Paintbrush types

Mop

Mop brushes often come made from goat hair or a synthetic alternative due to the softness of the filaments. These brushes are perfect for background washes of thin colour, blending and softening areas.

Round

This brush shape is perfect for filling in small areas of the painting, drawing fine lines and creating detailed areas. You can get two different kinds of round brushes, those that taper to a point also called ‘pointed rounds’ and those that are more rounded at the end. Round brushes with a softer tip will usually be more inexpensive.

Fan

Depending on the density of the bristles, you can use this brush shape in two different ways. You can use it as a soft blender. Or if the bristles splay, you can use it to create textured works. Like creating the appearance of multiple blades of grass at once, or the fur on an animal.

Rigger (and liner)

Rigger brushes have extra long bristles and taper to a needle point at the tip. The length of the bristles absorbs shakes from your hand and creates a drag effect, allowing you to create long precise, fine lines.

A rigger is the perfect tool for thin lines of grass, hairs or other small details. They are great for signing work at the end too.

Flat

A flat brush can be used for large, wide washes. You can also utilise the flat edge to make square shapes, or vary the angle and pressure to create different thicknesses and effects. Botanical artists favour flat brushes to create leaf and petal shapes by using the angle of the brush.

Hake

A hake brush is made from super soft and fine filaments, such as goat hair. It has a long flat wooden handle with short, flat bristles attached. The bristles can hold a large amount of water, making it perfect for creating large fine washes of colour across the paper.

Dagger

A dagger, or dagger striper is a brush with wide bristles near the ferrule (metal clamp) that tapers to a dagger point at the tip. Because the bristles are so thick near the ferrule, this brush can hold a lot of paint. Use it for detail work, or creating natural shapes that require varied pressures to create different patterns, for example, petals or leaves. Also, they are the perfect tool for creating the appearance of waves and water ripples.

Brush sizes

Brush sizes range from 20/0 to size 40 and beyond. 20/0 is the smallest brush you can get, the tip is needle sharp and is brilliant for creating ultra fine details in your paintings. At size 40, you can cover large areas of your canvas. You can get brushes larger than size 40, but they will usually advertise their size in their width measured in inches. 

The size you choose for your brush depends upon the scale in which you intend to work on. If your style is expressionistic and you work at a larger scale, mainly larger brushes will suffice. If you want to paint more realistically, you will need smaller brushes to achieve detail. 

There is no standardisation in brush sizing. Different manufacturers use different sizing models to create their brushes. So a size six from Da Vinci may be different to a size six from Winsor & Newton. It’s important to look not at the sizes given to brushes, but the width and length measurements themselves.

Best watercolour brushes for beginners

When you first start out, you’ll want to get some basic brushes that come at a good value.

Get a round brush and also a larger mop or flat brush to fill in areas such as backgrounds, or sky washes. A size 6 or 8 would be a good place to start. Synthetic brushes are cheaper than natural hair and in many ways they outperform natural hair brushes too, in their elasticity and spring. For that reason it makes sense to start with synthetic brushes.

I would start with a Da Vinci Casaneo, or the Escoda Versatil in a few different shapes and sizes, depending on the size you planning to be working at and the subjects you plan to be painting. If you want to create small detailed paintings, a couple of small, round brushes would suit you. For larger works, get a wash or mop brush too.

That’s really all you need to start. If you’re interested in any other types of brushes described in this guide, follow the links to find where to buy them. As a beginner, it’s great to experiment with different tools and materials to get a broader understanding of the medium you are using and to find new ways to enjoy the process.

As a beginner, you’ll be feeling your way with watercolour for a little while, learning some basic techniques, getting used to applying paint to paper and most of all having fun with it!

As your skills develop over time, you’ll become more particular about which materials you buy. You’ll get to know the brands and tools you like to use and the effects they can achieve with them. It’s at that point that artists start to build upon their collection of brushes and maybe even invest in a real kolinsky sable brush.

Best watercolour brushes: Pin it!

Watercolour painting: Further reading

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