Basic Guide To Water Brushes: Comparing Brands, Pros & Cons, and Picking the Right Brush for You

Basic Guide To Water Brushes: Comparing Brands, Pros & Cons, and Picking the Right Brush for You

Guide to Waterbrushes Comparison Pros and Cons Greenleaf and Blueberry Watercolor Painting Plein Air

I resisted water brushes for a long time, regarding them merely as crude tools that were simply a waste of time and money.  Nonetheless, I purchased one several years ago.  I had an artist friend that was wild about them and used them for nearly all of his paintings.  

It took some time and fooling around to get used to painting with my first water brush.  However, the experimentation allowed me to form realistic expectations and understand the brush's capabilities.

These days, the art supply market seems to be flooded with different brands and designs of water brushes - also called aqua brushes.  Each artist I talk to seems to have a certain favorite, each water brush a different set of features.  

This post is a basic guide to water brushes.  I will go over the pros and cons of water brushes in general, do comparison of the different designs available, and offer tips on how to go about choosing the right brush for you!

Guide to Waterbrushes Comparisons Pros and Cons Greenleaf and Blueberry Watercolor Painting Jess Greenleaf Plein Air Aquabrush 


The Water Brush: Pros & Cons

Let's go over the drawbacks of water brushes first since that's all I could focus on in the beginning -- and what often keeps people from giving them a try.

Water Brush Cons

- So much plastic! I haven't yet seen a water brush that isn't plastic with synthetic bristles.  As many of you are well aware, I'm no big fan of plastic tools.  They have a cheap, uninspiring feel and lack durability.

-  Brush head bristles wear out quickly.  Synthetic bristles can be wonderful and even preferable in watercolor brushes, but the bristles in water brushes seem to wear out particularly fast.  As the ends begin to fray the tip you fell in love with and became accustomed to will change and become blunt.

-  Disposable.  A regrettable fact because of the previous two points.  It's less a matter of taking impeccable care of these brushes and more a fact of the materials they are made of.  If you use them they will wear out and need to be replaced.

Lack of control.  This is the biggest complaint I hear from new water brush users - and especially painters that are accustomed to using traditional paintbrushes.  When using a water brush, you will never have the same feel and control as a traditional watercolor brush.  They are simply different tools, and as such should not be compared as if they are the same.  There are more working internal components - like a sponge and water reservoir - to take into account when managing your water to pigment and water to bristle ratios.  

Small, elusive parts.  Some water brush designs involve small parts and all of them can be taken apart, which means there is always the chance of losing part of your water brush, rendering the rest pretty much useless.

Water Brush Pros

-  Water brushes eliminate the need to carry water when traveling.  This is a game-changer.  Watercolor is already an exceptionally portable medium.  Paints and paper are lightweight and packable.  When you travel with water for painting there is always a high likelihood that it will leak, and when you have it open while you're painting it is practically inevitable that it will spill or slosh about.  For me, I can count on it.  Since a water brush contains plenty of water, it creates the most minimal travel painting set-up yet.

-  Water brushes allow a more fluid painting experience.  With traditional brushes your hand guides the brush between the water cup, the paintbox, and the paper.  With a water brush you are simply moving you hand back and forth between your paint and paper.  It's a very different more straightforward flow that gets pretty addictive.

-  That cap though!  One of the best features of the water brush is the cap.  It protects the bristles and brush head while also sealing the water inside the brush.  As a result, you'll never have to worry about bent and distorted brush heads - just remember to put the cap on carefully!  That cap makes these a breeze to travel with - just toss them in your pencil bag.

-  Lightweight.  A definite plus for backpackers and travelers managing extra baggage weight.  It's not like traditional paintbrushes are terribly heavy, but they do involve both metal and wood and do not contain your paint water.  If you've ever backpacked uphill a few miles, or hauled your luggage from one end of the airport to the other, you know that every little bit counts!

Size versatility.  A number of brands offer mini sized water brushes.  And any of these can be stored in two pieces if length space is an issue (like if you are wanting to store your brush in your paintbox).

-  Light colored bristles.  Almost all water brushes have either white or transparent bristles.  This allows you to quickly and easily ascertain your pigment load and concentration.


Water Brush Brands & Designs

Some of these water brushes differ in branding only, while others differ in design components.  I will run through the features of each and my observations from using them.


Yasutomo Niji Waterbrush Guide to Waterbrushes Aquabrush Greenleaf and Blueberry Jess Greenleaf plein air painting

Yasutomo Niji Waterbrush-  This is the water brush option I most commonly see available in art supply shops.  And for good reason.  There is a nice range of options regarding brush size, brush shape, and handle length.  The brush head shapes aren't as long and tapered as others.  The internal sponge mediates the waterflow nicely.  A great all-around choice for sketching on the go.
Sizes: Small, Medium, Large, Flat, Mini-Medium
Reservoir: squeeze barrel
Bristles: white


Pentel Aquash Brush Guide to Waterbrushes Aquabrush Greenleaf and Blueberry Handmade Watercolors Jess Greenleaf plein air painting

Pentel Aquash Brush- These brushes are also very widely available.  The brush head features a longer shape with a more defined point.  Bristles are transparent and seem more fibrous, though amply flexible.  Available in a range of options.  I find these brushes better suited to finer details because of the brush shape.  It is delightfully satisfying to squeeze their flared water reservoir, though this design keeps them from being as sleek
Sizes:  Fine, Medium, Broad, Flat, Mini
Reservoir: flared squeeze barrel
Bristles: transparent


Kuretake Zig Brush2O Waterbrush Aquabrush Guide to Waterbrushes Greenleaf and Blueberry Aquarelle

Kuretake Zig Brush2O-  These brushes are less commonly available, but nearly identical to the Niji Waterbrush (mentioned above).  They are both manufactured by Kuretake and only the colors differ - not the design, with the notable exception of the Mini (Niji) /Petit (Zig).  The colors of these water brushes are brighter and contrast a little more from one another, which makes the different sizes more easily distinguishable.  (Yasutomo Niji Waterbrushes all feature blue reservoirs with only the caps differing in color to indicate different sizes.)
(I guess it's pretty obvious which of these is my favorite, with the green brush sporting discolored bristles from lots of use.)
Sizes: Small, Medium, Large, Broad (Flat), Petit (a different design from the rest)
Reservoir: squeeze barrel
Bristles: white


Caran d'Ache Waterbrush Aquabrush Guide to Waterbrushes Pros and Cons Comparison Greenleaf and Blueberry Watercolor

Caran d'Ache Waterbrush-  I was initially very excited when I learned that this company had come out with its own water brush.  However, they seem a little overbuilt, but do offer different design and features from other water brushes.  The cap is more economical, space-wise; there is less room between the brush tip and the top of the cap, whereas most other companies leave much more space here, creating unnecessary length.  These brushes feature a syringe-style reservoir that is better filled from an open water cup than from a sink.  After filling your brush with water, the plunger will be all the way out, creating excessive length, but allowing for ample water storage.  While this may seem like a stupid feature at first, especially when contemplating traveling with a loaded syringe of water that could easily be depressed, you can still travel with plenty of water loaded in the brush and the plunger fully pressed in.  The plunger may seem unnecessary, but it does provide a different feature.  To release more water you can squeeze the soft area at the grip of the brush, or if you would like a deluge of water - if you are perhaps creating a wash, for instance - you can press down on the plunger and release a greater amount of water all at once out of the tip of the brush.  While there isn't a very fine brush size available, the length of the brush heads do allow for some fine details.  Also there is a fiber tip version available, which is fun and totally different.
Sizes:  Medium, Large, Fiber-Tipped
Reservoir: hard barrel with squeeze at grip and plunger
Bristles: white


Faber Castell Deluxe Waterbrush Aquabrush Guide to Waterbrushes Pros and Cons Comparison Greenleaf and Blueberry Watercolor Paint

Faber Castell Deluxe Waterbrush-  Arguably identical to Caran d'Ache Waterbrush Medium.  The brush seemed a little bit more flexible - maybe.  For all intents and purposes I consider these two brushes the same, differing only in color.
Sizes: Medium
Reservoir: hard barrel with squeeze at grip and plunger
Bristles: white


Sakura Koi Waterbrush Aquabrush Guide to Waterbrushes Pros and Cons Comparisons Greenleaf and Blueberry Watercolor Paint

Sakura Koi Water Brush-  These water brushes feature long and slender brushes that are well-suited for finer details and long lines.  These brushes can also be stored in two pieces with a full reservoir, but only if you don't loose the little black plug (which I did, despite a good effort not to).  Also, you have two different sizes of reservoirs when you purchase initially.  For all sizes, you have the option to purchase with either a 4ml reservoir or a 9ml.  The 4ml is much shorter and therefore more packable, but does not hold as much water.
Sizes:  Small, Medium, Large
Reservoir: squeeze barrel
Bristles:  white


Molotow Aqua Squeeze Pen Waterbrush Aquabrush Guide To Waterbrushes Comparisons Designs Different Brands Greenleaf and Blueberry

Molotow Aqua Squeeze Pen-  I was surprised and impressed by these brushes.  I have the 1mm and the 4mm.  The 1mm has a nice shape, not too long, nicely flexible, but still capable of good details.  The 4mm is a narrow flat that doesn't splay out when painting.  Probably the longest of all the water brushes.
Sizes:  1mm, 2mm, 3mm, 4mm (flat), 7mm (flat), 10mm (flat)
Reservoir:  squeeze barrel
Bristles:  white

Royal & Langnickel Waterbrush Aquabrush Guide to Waterbrushes Comparisons Pros Cons Greenleaf and Blueberry Watercolor

Royal & Langnickel Aqua Flow Brush Set- These feature the simplest design of all of the water brushes I have tried, and are the only ones not to use a sponge between brush and reservoir to mediate water flow.  As a result, the water can leak out of the threaded joint when squeezing the barrel.  These are also the only water brushes that have a bristle color other than white or clear - they are orange-brown and seem to splay with a little more ease than others.
Sizes:  Small, Medium, Large
Reservoir: squeeze barrel
Bristles: orange-brown


How To Choose the Right Water Brush for YOU: 5 Tips

It's not necessary to collect every type of water brush on the market.  The key is to figure out which type is best suited for your work.  

Tip #1:  Take a look at the brushes you use most often. Focus on the brush head.  What size are they? Is the point long and tapered like a designer, short like a spotter, or typical of a regular mid-length round? Are they rounds or flats?  Do you rely on a wash brush?  Try to pick a water brush that is a similar size and shape to the brushes you are accustomed to working with already.  It will create a smoother transition.

Tip #2:  Think about how you like to travel.  Are you an extreme minimalist?  Do you want to be able to store your brush in your paintbox?  How much room will you allot to brush storage?  Answers to these questions will help you determine to what extent brush length is an issue, if you would prefer a brush that can be stored more compactly (in two parts), and how many brushes you have room for.

Tip #3:  Consider subject and technique.  What techniques do you most often employ?  Are you creating lots of washes and color pools?  Are you obsessive about fine detail?  If you enjoy washes you may want to consider a large brush, a flat, or a water brush that features a plunger-style reservoir.  If you enjoy creating lots of fine details you may want to consider a brush that features a long, slender tip.

Tip #4:  A word on choosing the right detail brush.  Many people simply choose the smallest brush available for creating fine details, which can lead to unnecessary frustration.  Tiny brushes can't hold very much water or pigment and need to be reloaded frequently.  They are best suited for creating tiny dots or filling in very small areas.  Perhaps surprisingly, they are often ill-suited for fine lines.  Medium-sized brushes that tend to be longer with a nice, fine tip and some spring will allow you to not only create nice details but also paint for longer periods before needing to reload your brush.  When attempting fine details with a water brush, it is also good to keep in mind the limitations of the tools.  Water brushes will always be a different experience from traditional brushes.  Make an educated decision about which brushes you purchase, practice using them, and set your expectations accordingly.

Tip #5:  Try a test drive.  If you are lucky enough to have a fine art supply shop where you live (I'm not referring to the big three here), head in to browse what they have in stock.  Many shops have the water brushes they carry available to test at the counter.  It can also be very helpful to chat with the staff about the different features and options.

 Guide to Waterbrushes Aquabrushes Comparisons Pros and Cons Greenleaf and Blueberry Jess Greenleaf Watercolor Painting

It's important to keep in mind that water brushes are very different from traditional watercolor brushes.  They each have their own set of pros and cons.  When using water brushes for the first time, try to remember to take it slow, experiment, and be curious!  You will have to develop new methods and skills before you are at home with them.  And either way, enjoy the lightness and ease of leaving all that extra paint water at home!


Have you tried any waterbrushes that I haven't mentioned?  I'd love to hear which ones and your experience.

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