Watercolor Brush Basics
Ever browsed the brush aisle at the art supply store and wondered why the heck there are so many options? Is anyone really so fussy that they could possibly need such an array of choices? How can prices vary so much - from dirt cheap to astronomically expensive - and all for paintbrushes?
It's true that there are tons of options - and it can be overwhelming to sift through them all to find which ones will be right for you.
This post will walk you through the basics of watercolor brushes so that you will have a better idea of what you want to look for. We'll start with the different parts of the brush, then go over the main component variables, talk about quality, and lastly we'll go over some of the various manufacturers.
Anatomy of a Brush
A paintbrush has a basic anatomy, with which you are likely already familiar. The diagram above shows what the various parts of the brush are formally referred to. This will help us to clearly break down the different characteristics or component variables that you will encounter when shopping for watercolor brushes.
Paintbrush Component Variables
Every watercolor paintbrush you pick up can be further broken down into different sorts of categories according to brush size, shape, and what kinds of bristles the head is composed of.
Head / Bristle
As shown in the watercolor brush diagram above, the brush head is composed of bristles. These are made of either natural hairs, synthetic fibers, or a blend of the two.
The bristles of your brush will effect absorbency (how much water your brush can hold), snap (how flexible your brush is - stiffer brushes will allow greater control), and the point of your brush (a fine point will allow for fine details).
Natural Hair Bristles
Natural hair brushes have been used traditionally for hundreds and hundreds of years. Probably every type of hair has been tried for different brushes over this span of time, but only a select few are sought after for watercolor painting.
Kolinsky - Kolinsky hair brushes are widely considered the gold standard for watercolors. However, there are many different types of hairs that are labeled "Kolinksy" - to the point where the label is arguably meaningless.
Traditional top-quality "Kolinsky Sable" hairs come from the male Siberian Kolinsky (Mustela sibirica), which is actually from the weasel family - not a sable (which is a species of marten). The hairs are harvested from the tail of the winter coat. These hairs are so sought after because they taper naturally to a fine point and have the best snap of all natural hairs while still maintaining good absorbency. It is that blend of absorbency, snap, and point that makes this specific type of hair the traditional top choice for watercolor painting.
Sable - True Sable hair brushes are considered second only to true Kolinsky hair brushes, and are distinguished by being labeled usually as "Red Sable". However, "Sable" is really a misnomer anymore, and often means nothing except that the hairs are natural. Many different types of fur (such as weasel, marten, mink etc.) can be mixed together and labeled "Sable".
Squirrel - Squirrel hair brushes are prized most for their absorbency. They have almost no snap, and therefore a less defined point. Squirrel hair brushes are used for conveying large amounts of water onto the paper, for washes, and for loose brush techniques. The two most sought-after types of squirrel hair are Canadian and Russian (there is some debate about which is better with the Russian variety generally winning out).
Camel - These natural hair brushes are not made from camels, though they may appear camel-colored. They are often made from other natural hairs such as ox, pony, goat, etc., or a blend of those. A camel hair brush is usually much less expensive than a sable hair brush.
*Of Note*: The natural hair used in artist's brushes, cosmetic brushes, and musician's bows is referred to as "Forgotten Fur". While only a small amount of hair is used for an individual brush, the brush industry as a whole is very large and very much a part of the fur trade.
Synthetic Fiber Bristles
The modern plastics and textile industries are leading the way in innovations that trickle down into synthetic fibers used for artist's brushes. Top quality synthetic fiber brushes are much more affordable than top quality natural hair brushes, which is seen of one of the biggest perks of opting for synthetic. They are also more durable during their usable life, and easier to clean as well. They have an unmatched snap when compared to natural brushes, decent absorbency, and a good point. The downside? Shorter lifespan, even when properly cared for. The fibers just wear out more quickly, with the point becoming fuzzy over time. However, to notice and appreciate these differences generally requires lots of experience and time spent using both types of brushes.
Synthetic Sable - Often nylon and brown in color. It has a superior snap, good absorbency, and a good point. You will notice a more cylindrical brush head silhouette (natural hair brush heads have more of a "belly").
Synthetic Squirrel - Many brush companies are developing their own proprietary synthetic squirrel fibers. These are very fine and very absorbent. A wonderful more cost-effective alternative to natural squirrel hair. The point is likely not as defined, but this may or may not be a quality you are concerned with.
Blends (Natural Hair & Synthetic Fiber in One Brush)
These brushes offer some of the best of both worlds, and are generally priced between the two (being less expensive than natural hair brushes and more expensive than synthetics). These brushes benefit from the superior snap of synthetics, and the excellent point and absorbency of natural hair. However, most manufacturers seem to offer more vague information as to which types of hair and fibers are used in blended brushes.
Personally, I have opted for synthetic brushes for years now. I have a little collection of natural hair brushes, but almost always reach for my synthetics. However, I have worn through some of my favorites over the years, which is always frustrating. My work tends to be small in scale with lots of fine details; I also enjoy traveling with my supplies. As a result, the excellent snap and durability of synthetic brushes is particularly well-suited to my work.
In my carving work as well, I nearly always choose to offer synthetic brushes because I prefer them and because I prefer to keep my support of the fur trade as minimal as possible.
The Shape of the brush head will determine what kind of stroke your brush will make on the page, as well as what techniques are possible to achieve with a given brush. Brush shape can be described using different terms by different companies. The shape you see is more important than the label on the brush handle.
Three Rounds. Top: Designer (Natural), Middle: Regular Round (Synthetic), Bottom: Spotter (Natural)
Round - This is your all-around jack-of-all trades workhorse. Rounds are extremely versatile: when used lightly with little pressure, rounds can create long lines and fine details, and when more pressure is applied they can create broad strokes and be used to fill in larger areas with color. There are also subcategories of rounds, such as Spotters (which are shorter) and Designers (which are longer).
Top: Wash, Middle: Flat, Bottom: Bright
Wash / Flat / Bright / Chisel - These brushes are all recognizable by their flat, squared-off (or Chisel) shape. Wash brushes are generally larger, square in shape, and designed specifically to quickly apply water or washes to the page. Flats are generally smaller and have longer bristles, but still the squared-off or chisel shape at the tip. Brights are more commonly seen as an option in acrylic brushes and are generally much shorter than flats. Flats and brights can allow you to create more geometrically shaped brush strokes with defined corners (as opposed to the more organic shapes of the strokes made by rounds).
Oval Wash - Just like wash brushes, but with a rounded edge instead of a chisel edge. These will allow you to make a softer edge when you touch your brush to the paper and when you lift it off again.
Top: Quill, Bottom: Squirrel Quill or Mop
Quill / Mop - Quill is a term that refers to how brushes were traditionally made. Before metal ferrules came into use, natural bird quills were used to hold brush hairs together and attached to the handle. The quill was tightly wrapped with wire or string. Today, Quill brushes feature a plastic ferrule instead of a natural bird quill ferrule because plastic is both more durable and easier to source.
Beyond the basic construction difference, Quill brush heads differ from rounds in that the point is less tapered. The handle is also usually longer and more tapered. These factors all work together to form a brush with a different balance than regular modern brushes.
Quill brushes that feature natural or synthetic squirrel hair are often also called Mops. Mops can also be regular brushes that are simply designed to convey as much water as possible to the page, without much attention given to point or the appearance of the brush stroke.
Rigger or Liner Brush
Liner / Rigger - These brushes are very long, very skinny rounds, designed specifically for creating long, fine lines. For example, this type of brush would be a perfect choice for painting whiskers or ship's rigging (hence one of the names). While the function of these brushes is straightforward, there is a bit of a learning curve to get the hang of them (they are awkward to dip into paint and keep properly moistened). These brushes are also easily damaged if not stored properly.
Cat's Tongue / Filbert - These are smaller flat brushes, but they come to a point like a round (but are flat like a wash or bright). These brushes are a lot of fun, but much more specific, though they can be versatile. Used flat, they can create broad strokes that taper gradually to thin lines. Used on their edge, they can create nice lines. When used lightly, engaging just the point, they can create nice details.
Fan - In watercolor, fan brushes are really more of a special effect brush used for creating nice textures. They are shaped just like they sound - like a fan. Thanks to Bob Ross, most people use fan brushes to create stylized evergreen trees.
Dagger - These brushes are shaped like flats, but longer with a diagonal slant. This shape has long been used by sign painters and automobile painters to create long, even lines.
Your next consideration when thinking about brush component variables is Size. Unfortunately, brush sizes are not standardized across brands, or even different mediums. A size 1 watercolor brush will be on a very different scale from a size 1 acrylic brush. A size 1 watercolor brush from one company will probably not be the same as a size 1 from another company.
However, almost all companies size brushes according to a numeric scale with size 1 being at the smaller end and size 10 being at the larger end. Some brands offer sizes in even numbers only, while others offer both even and odd number sizing. When selecting brushes for your collection, you need not have one in every size.
When you see brush sizes such as: 0, 00, or 000, the more zeros, the smaller the brush. When you see brush sizes such as: 3/0, 5/0, or 10/0, rest assured you don't need to do any math, the larger the number over zero the smaller the brush - and all of these are smaller than size 0. If purchasing online, look at the pictures carefully to make sure you are selecting the size brush you intend.
Larger flat brushes, such as wash brushes are often sized by measurement, like 1/4", 1/2", and 3/4".
It is worth mentioning that quills are sized larger than rounds. So, a size 1 round will be much smaller than a size 1 quill. (For example: If you are trying to purchase a Quill in an equivalent size to a favorite round, you will not necessarily be able to choose the same number. This is one I learned the hard way, and have several extra quills as a result!)
When selecting brush sizes, think about the scale of your work. If you prefer to work on big Arches paper tablets, make sure to choose larger brushes. No matter what scale you most enjoy, it is often useful to have a variety of brush sizes, but they can occupy just a section of the size spectrum instead of spanning the full range.
I personally like to use Rounds in sizes 1, 4, 6, and 8, a size 10/0 Quill, and 1/4" Flats.
Watercolor Brush Quality
In many respects, you get what you pay for with watercolor brushes. However, labels like "Kolinsky" and "Sable" can be added to a brush handle to command a higher price than the brush is really worth. Beware of getting over-excited about bargains. Chances are that you will never see a top-quality Kolinsky brush on an excellent sale. The natural materials are simply too precious, and the manufacturing method too laborious to offer that caliber of brush for low prices.
So, why are the best watercolor brushes so expensive? You've already learned that the winter coat of the male Kolinsky are most desired, and of that coat, the tail hairs are what are used for artist's brushes. These animals don't breed in captivity, so they must be trapped in the wild. Right there are several layers of specificity and complexity. Once the hair reaches the brush manufacturers it must be cleaned and then meticulously sorted. Brushes are never trimmed. Each individual hair tip is the natural end. This is important because each hair has a naturally tapered tip, which contributes to the lovely point of the brush head. So, hairs are sorted individually by length, the longer hairs being reserved for the core of larger brushes. Hairs are also sorted so that they go the same direction. Ever run your fingers up a few strands of hair or upwards on braided hair? It feels completely different from the satiny smooth feel of running your fingers down through your hair. This is because natural hair has scales to it. For the brush to function properly, every hair has to be facing the same direction. More layers of labor and complexity.
Some manufacturers have also started to develop their own synthetic fiber technology from scratch, which can take years and years of research and development. This especially is why synthetic squirrel hair brushes may seem more expensive than you expect.
Also, just like your watercolor paints, watercolor brushes can come in Artist Grade and Student Grade varieties. It is important to choose what is right for YOU. I am certainly not suggesting that the only brushes worthy of your attention are the top-of-the-line. However, starting out with the cheapest, bottom-of-the barrel brushes can cause unnecessary frustration, especially when just starting out. The information in the post is all about giving you the knowledge you need to understand your options and make an appropriate choice for your painting practice.
My advice to beginners would be to start with a few quality synthetic rounds in different sizes (say a small, medium, and large) and one or two wash brushes also in different sizes. Make a small investment. Take care of the brushes, use them, and see what you think. Then start branching out. Try some different shapes and sizes. The most important thing is to just paint. The more you paint the better you will understand what you need. The brushes that are right for you are the best.
Watercolor Brush Manufacturers
There are a multitude of different brush manufacturers out there. Some are huge and mass producing their brushes, while others are much smaller companies working in the handmade tradition. It helps to do a little research. Head in to your local art supply shop and browse the selection. Many shops will let you test brushes with water and can answer many of your questions.
In general, it will be easier to characterize different bristles from company to company than from material to material. For example, if you decide you love painting with natural Kolinsky hair brushes, you will find that brushes labeled "Kolinsky" will vary widely from company to company.
My advice would be to find a couple companies who you trust and whose brushes you love to use. Staying within a couple brands will help you establish a better baseline of expectations when branching out to different sizes and types of brushes.
Here are some of my favorite watercolor brush brands:
Rosemary & Co. - I LOVE this company. Family owned and operated out of England. Wonderful brushes and excellent customer service. They are only available through their website.
Da Vinci - They make wonderful quality brushes that are available at most fine art supply stores. Made in Germany.
Escoda - Superior quality brushes manufactured in Spain. Family owned.
Isabey - While I haven't personally used many of these brushes, they are considered by many to produce brushes unsurpassed in quality. Handmade in Northern France.
Raphaël - Another top quality brush manufacturer. I adore their synthetic squirrel quill mop. Handmade in Paris, France.
Fibonacci - Wonderful quality, absolutely beautiful brushes. Made in Germany.
Silver - A newer company, founded in 1991. Located in New York, USA.
Princeton - These brushes are available almost everywhere. They are nice quality and affordably priced. Another younger company, based in New Jersey, USA
A handful of some of my favorite brushes.
Above all, remember that your watercolor journey is yours. If you don't want to pay a bunch of money for expensive brushes, then don't. There are so many wonderful brushes on the market for you to choose from. And there is absolutely no shame in choosing Student Grade brushes. You can use what you have on hand too! They key is to be educated about your tools and your supplies so that you will have complete control of your creative vision. If you have any further questions on how to whittle down your options, just drop me a line in the comments below!
As always, wishing you happy painting!