All you need to know about watercolor brushes

Nowadays, there’s such a big choice of watercolor brushes on the market! It is so overwhelming! How to choose the right watercolor brush? What brush sizes do you need? What brand is considered as a good one? Which brush shape or bristles type do you need?
Hopefully, I can clear a few things out for you. I’ll try to do my best. For your convenience, I made a few infographics, which are great to use when you want to freshen up your memory. Let’s start with brush anatomy.

Brush Anatomy

The head

The head, also called the bristles, is usually made of synthetic or natural hair fibers. Bristles can be coarse or soft. The head is divided into the tip and the belly. The tip is where the brush will make contact with the surface you are painting on. The belly is the fattest part of the head. It serves as a reservoir for paint and it is important the belly can hold lots of paint.

The ferrule

This is the part of the brush that holds the bristles to the handle. Often made from metal, or less commonly, plastic. A good brush will have a high-quality ferrule with a strong crimp. The ferrules of a well-made brush are made with a high-quality waterproof glue. On the other hand, cheap brushes have ferrules with weak crimps and/or cheap glue. They detach from the handle easily. I don’t recommend to buy cheap brushes ever, even if you are just starting to learn watercolors.

The handle

Handles are made of wood or plastic. They are either long or short. Watercolorists prefer short handles to the long ones. Long handles are great for standing a bit further from the painting surface, like for oil painting.

Paint brushes differ according to several characteristics

1. Bristles type.
2. The shape, width, and thickness of the bristles.
3. The length of the handle.

Brush bristles and hair type characteristics

I think that the most important factor in choosing the right brush is the hair type of the brush. If you choose the wrong bristle type, you can get undesirable results of your painting.

You need to know what hair type suits your artwork. But! If you are totally frustrated and don’t want to read further information, that I chewed for you – just go ahead and buy a set of synthetic brushes. Synthetic brushes usually are more affordable and they spoil less and more slowly than sable or squirrel brushes. So, synthetic is the right choice for you for the first time. When you play enough with synthetic brushes you’ll understand that you need other types too. As for me, I use different brushes, and most of all I love mixed synthetic with natural hair. But that doesn’t mean that this is the only right choice, it’s the right choice for me. You need to figure out what’s the right choice for you.

So, for those who are willing to dig deeper – let’s take a closer look and try to understand the purpose of each brush bristles.


Sable brush is soft and springy. Sable brushes are capable of holding a sharp point for controlled painting. Although its name suggests that the hair fibers are taken from an animal called a “sable”, the hairs commonly originate from a weasel or mink. Interesting fact: the “finest” sable brushes are made from the male hair only.


Squirrel brush are soft but not that springy, what makes them a bit harder to control. Despite a lack of spring, squirrel brushes are capable of producing a fine tip. Squirrel brushes carry color very well because they can hold a lot of water. They are very good as a mop and wash brushes as they do not point as well as Sable.


Synthetic brush is springy and holds a fine tip. These are made from nylon or polyester fibers. Synthetic brushes are used with any type of painting medium. If you are not sure what type of brush to use, synthetic brushes may be the best for the first time. But I must warn you of some disadvantages: they will not last as long as natural hair and they do not hold as much paint or distribute it as evenly as natural hairs because their bristles are too smooth.


Pony brush is coarse and tough. It’s not actually a pony hair, it’s hair from mature horses. These brushes are mostly used for water-based paints such as watercolor and acrylics.


Camel brush is soft and not that springy. The bristles of camel-hair brushes are made of squirrel hair and this is the most common material. But they can also be made from goat, ox or pony or a blend of any of these. They are never made from camel hair. Camel hair is actually unsuitable for brushes because it is too wooly. Children’s paint sets usually come with this variety of brush. Unless you’re a kid – do not use this type of brush.


Ox brush is springy but lacks a fine tip. These brushes are used with a variety of painting media. The Ox hair has a very strong body with a silken texture. Frequently, ox hair is blended with other natural hair to increase the resiliency of a brush. It is most often used in flat shaped brushes.


Goat brush lacks spring but is capable of producing nice washes of color. They have a good color carrying capacity but have no point.


Hog brush is coarse and tough. These inexpensive brushes are usually used for oils or acrylics. Capable of holding a large quantity of paint, brush strokes are clearly defined when this type of brush is used. Hog hair comes in different in qualities. Winsor & Newton Artists’ Oil Brush is the highest quality hog brush. This is the only type that we don’t use with watercolors. I just thought I should tell you about it anyway.

Brush shapes

All brush shapes can be used with any medium.

When it comes to brushes for watercolors there are numerous different shapes suited to a variety of techniques. Brushes are tools that perform different tasks.

I would split the brushes up into three categories: versatility, wash work, and detail work. The most versatile and widely used brush for watercolor painting is round brush, and then flat brush. Script, Rigger and Liner brushes are the best for the detailed work. Mop and Flat brushes are the best for wash work.

So if you ask: “What is a basic set of brush shapes?” My answer would be Round, Flat, Rigger and Mop. When you feel more confident with this shapes then you can try the other ones, that are good in other works.

Let’s take a closer look at each of the brush shapes.


This is the most versatile brush type. It has pointed tip and long closely arranged bristles for detail. A round brush is able to produce detailed, controlled marks as well as thicker ones, it can be useful for washes and fills.


Second place for versatility. Flat ferrule, square-ended, with medium to long hairs. These are used for spreading paint quickly and evenly over a surface and also capable of producing flat strokes. They can be used to create defined edges and controlled lines.


Bright bristles are shorter than flats. Bright brushes have a flat toe and form a shape similar to a square. These are good for driving paint into the weave of a canvas in thinner paint applications, as well as thicker painting styles like impasto work. Useful for short, controlled strokes, with thick or heavy color.


The fan brush features a wide toe. This shape is useful for smoothing and blending, special effects and textures. Natural hair is more suitable for soft blending, and synthetic works well for textural effects.


Filbert brush has thick, flat ferrule and oval-shaped medium to long hairs. This shape is suitable for blending work, allows good coverage and the ability to perform some detail work. Capable of holding a good amount of paint. Oil and acrylic painters widely use filbert brushes.


Angled are versatile and are applied in both general painting application as well as some detail work. These have an angled “toe”, which are used to produce marks or lines that are flat or varied.

Script, Rigger and Liner

Pointed, narrow brush with very long hair. Large color carrying capacity. Scripts are longer than liners. Can produce controlled fine lines. Useful for delicate lettering, highlighting, outlining, and long continuous strokes. Riggers traditionally used for painting the rigging in pictures of ships.


A large format brush with a rounded edge. Mostly used in watercolor painting. These brushes are great for spreading even washes of color over large areas and for getting thinner glazes over existing drying layers of paint without damaging lower layers.


Looks like the angle with longish hairs. Usually used for one stroke painting like painting long leaves.


A great synthetic brush for painting animal fur, human hair, bird plumage, waterfalls, grasses and wood grain. So these are essential in creating realistic hair and grass.

Brush sizes

The sizes are simple to understand. There’s nothing complicated. …Well, maybe just a little bit. I’ll explain. The number on the side of the paint brush refers to the thickness, length, or width of the bristles. Sizes range from 0000 right up to 50.

Large brushes are good for bold strokes and washes.
Medium sized brushes are good for versatility.
Small brushes – for detail work.

There is one tricky thing – the number varies between manufacturers. So, unfortunately, a brush labeled with a “4” may look completely different than a “4” brush by a different manufacturer. And Uuuggh! I hate it! But, the good thing is – you can always return the “wrong size” brush and buy another one that will suit your needs better. Just have patience! And, you know, when you will establish with the brands you like, there will be no more complications with the sizes. You’ll know your what to expect from brands you like.

Which sizes do you need? – Usually, you don’t buy every size for each brush shape. You just have to make some choices.
I would recommend you to have these sizes:

Beginner set

Shape # Sable Synthetic
Round #3 Winsor & Newton Kolinsky Da Vinci Kolinsky Winsor & Newton Synthetic Da Vinci Synthetic
Round #6 Winsor & Newton Kolinsky Da Vinci Kolinsky Winsor & Newton Synthetic Da Vinci Synthetic
Round #12 Winsor & Newton Kolinsky Da Vinci Kolinsky Winsor & Newton Synthetic Da Vinci Synthetic
$443.33 $143.94 $49.72 $35.53

The prices are crazy!   If I were you I would go with high quality synthetic brushes.

Intermediate set

Shape Numbers Examples
Round #2 #4 #6 #8 #12 Sable: Winsor & Newton Kolinsky Sable Watercolor Round Brush or
Synthetic: Winsor & Newton Cotman Short Handle Synthetic Round Brush

Sable: da Vinci Watercolor Round Kolinsky Red Sable or
Synthetic: da Vinci CosmoTop Synthetic Round Brush
Flat 1/2 inch Winsor & Newton Series Golden Nylon Brush – Flat Wash 1/2 inch
Rigger #2 Winsor & Newton Rigger watercolor brush #2
Mop #5 Winsor & Newton Series 340 Watercolor & Dusting Mop Brush

Is natural hair better than synthetic?

Are natural bristles better than synthetic? Yes and No! There’s an opinion that natural always better. On the other hand, modern synthetic brushes are excellent and have the advantage of being cheaper than natural hair. So, I can recommend you to buy the synthetic ones first, and then try the mixed ones and then try the natural ones. So, anyway, in the end, you need to decide – which is the best for your personal style.
I, personally, like the mixed type of natural and synthetic bristles, but sometimes I need synthetic only, and sometimes I need natural only. It really depends on what technique you use, what exactly are you painting and your painting style.

What’s really important – pay attention to these few aspects of the watercolor brush you are using or willing to buy:

1. The brush should load up with paint well to eliminate constantly dipping it into the water or watercolors.
2. The brush should have a wide “belly” in the center, that tapers to a good point.
3. The brush should spring crisply back into shape.The right degree of spring allows superior control over the brush on the painting surface.
4. The color should flow evenly and consistently from the point of the brush.

Which watercolor brushes brands are the best?

Your brushes will last for many years if you buy good quality and take good care of them. So, let’s see what brands offer the best quality and then I’ll tell you how to take care of your brushes. Below, I created a list of brands which are the best on the market 2017.

1 Winsor & Newton watercolor brushes
The Winsor & Newton has long been known as one of the best watercolor brushes. They offer a variety of excellent brushes made from natural fibers as well as synthetics. The Series made of pure Kolinsky sable are an excellent choice for watercolor painting. These watercolor brushes are the most expensive on the market.
2 Da Vinci watercolor brushes
Da Vinci has a variety of excellent brushes. Their premium brush is Maestro, made with Kolinksy Red Sable hair. Da Vinci Brushes are handmade from raw material to finished brush by skilled artisans at the da Vinci factory. They also have excellent travel series! The prices are a little bit less expensive than Winsor & Newton.
3 Silver Brush Black Velvet watercolor brushes
These brushes have a high-quality blend of squirrel hair and synthetics. Squirrel hair is highly absorbent and holds plenty of color but softer than sable hair. These are fairly inexpensive for brushes made with natural hair. It is a good choice for artists, looking for a soft high absorbent brush.
4 Escoda Watercolor Brushes
Escoda brushes are designed to be long lasting tools, with exceptional points and an unmatched ability to maintain their original shape. They have a wide variety of natural and synthetic brushes. Their premium brush, made with Kolinsky-tajmyr sable (Tajmyr is a region in northern Siberia.), is considered the elite hair for watercolor. They also offer a great choise of travel brushes, and I would dare to say – these are the best travel brushes on the market.
5 Grumbacher Goldenedge watercolor brushes
High quality and affordability go hand in hand with this line of brushes. These are designed for creating very controlled brush strokes and details. Professional-grade brush features Golden Toray filament and short handle with a secure, round, gold-plated brass ferrule.
6 Raphael watercolor brushes
This brand offers a high-quality red sable hair brushes and like all sable brushes, these brushes have thick, absorbent tips and hold their shape well. The brand offers several styles of Kolinsky brushes, which have a fine point for precision and full belly for a high paint load.
7 Loew-Cornell watercolor brushes
Loew-Cornell is a respected leader in the art and craft supply market. They offer brushes for all mediums and skill levels. Loew-Cornell Ultra Round Brushes have excellent water holding capacity with an exceptional point for a synthetic. Blending three thicknesses of filament, they perform like the finest natural hair.

How to take care of your watercolor brushes?

It is really important to care for your brushes properly to avoid ruining the bristles. Over time pigment, dirt, and binder can become embedded where the hair meets the ferrule, what causes the hairs to spread a bit and your brush point or edge will become less and less useful. Clean your brushes well after using and store properly if you want to achieve the best painting effects every time you use them.

These are the main 5 tips to keep your brushes in best shape:

1. Do not let your brushes sit tip down in your water bucket for extended periods.
2. Always clean your brush thoroughly before let it dry, never let a paint dry in your brush – it is very destroying for the bristles.
3. Always keep your brush clean and dry between painting sessions.
4. Store upright in jars only when dry, then store in a box.
5. Use your watercolor brushes for watercolor and/or gouache only.

A few words from author

What is the right brush for you? – it is the one that you are comfortable with. It is the one that gives you the best results. Of course, it may take some time and experimentation to find the best brush,- that is why I wrote this article. I believe it will help you a lot. And I hope it can eliminate the frustration of so many choices and information throughout the Internet.

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