Monday, August 4, 2014

What Kind of Watercolor Brushes Should You Choose?

Maddening, isn't it? There are hundreds of watercolor brushes available in an endless variety of sizes, shapes, and materials. What's a beginning artist to do?

I have over 50 watercolor brushes of various sizes and shapes that I've experimented with over the years. In reality, I only use about eight of them regularly. For beginning students, I recommend trying out a few different sizes of inexpensive brushes before investing in more expensive ones. Soon you'll find yourself reaching for certain brushes over and over and you’ll know which ones to upgrade.

Here's the  basic low down in case you are just starting out. Brushes have natural or synthetic bristles, or a combination of the two. 

Natural bristles consisting of sable, kolinsky (also known as red sable), or squirrel hair are soft and pliable. By holding more water and paint than synthetic bristles, natural ones allow you to work longer without interrupting your work to reload your brush. For that very reason, my two favorite brushes are my medium and small kolinsky round brushes. 

*Note: Because natural brushes use the hair of animals for their brushes, I spent some time researching ethical animal practices before choosing my supplier, Rosemary brushes.

Synthetic bristles are made of man-made materials and are durable and less expensive than natural bristles. They also tend to make good “scrubbers" and "lifters", allowing you to remove paint. (I also use a few small oil brushes for scrubbing and lifting.)


Medium and large round brushes are by far the most versatile. Depending on how much pressure you apply, you can make wide to thin brushstrokes.

Small round brushes are useful for making very fine brushstrokes, such as for hair or eyelashes.

Flat brushes make nice, wide strokes and are great for backgrounds and large areas. 

Oval brushes can make wide strokes or, turned sideways, very thin ones.

To care for your brushes, clean them with lukewarm water and reshape with your fingers after each painting session. Never leave them sitting in water or the bristles will lose their shape and ability to maintain a point. I lay clean brushes upside down on paper towels on my drafting table, which has a slight downward slant, to let the water run out.

Below are some of the brushes I use regularly:


    1              2           3       4       5     6     7       8      9       10

1. 2" flat sable
2. 1½" flat sable 
3. Size 40 round synthetic
4. Size 11 round kolinsky
5. Size 8 round kolinsky
6. Size 4 round kolinsky
7. Size 1 round kolinsky 8. 1" Cat's Tongue (or oval) synthetic 
9. Size 10 synthetic
10. Size 2 bright oil painting brush

This is an excerpt from my book, "Watercolor Made Easy: Portraits", available at Walter Foster Publishing, Amazon, or Barnes & Nobles.

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