All About Watercolor Brushes

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A brush is a highly personal tool and while an experienced artist can make do with just about any old implement, a quality brush will make a job easier and a pleasure to do.

Over hundreds of years, basic shapes have been developed. They use specific hairs, selected for their particular properties. With the advent of synthetic fibers, the manufacturing industry experienced a flurry of activity. The result was a huge increase in the availability of a growing variety of watercolor brushes. With that also came a great reduction in cost to the consumer.

There is a vast range in the quality available today. Some are so poor that they should be outlawed. However, it has given the watercolor artist a great selection and price range for one of their most important tools.

Natural Bristles

Natural hair is the finest choice for watercolor. However, the price can be very high, depending on the type of hair. The Kolinsky brush is the crème de la crème of the watercolor world. Made of Kolinsky sable by a few of the best manufacturers, an artist will treasure one of these tools.

Red sable is the mainstay of most artists’ natural hair brushes. They can be very good quality, and may more likely be within a modest budget.

Other animal hairs are used as well. Some manufacturers use squirrel, ox, goat and badger hair. Trial and error is the only way to know if these brushes are worth the investment.

Synthetic Fibers

Synthetic fibers have given new impetus to the market. There is any number of new companies producing watercolor brushes, and the old standby names in the field are scrambling to add the man-made bristle to their lines. The quality has improved over the recent past, and there are high end lines of synthetics that claim to rival any natural hair tool on the market. Imitation hair has many fine qualities, including price, availability and selection. It is up to the individual to try some of these to see which are best suited for their work.

Shapes And Uses

There are many Shapes and Uses for Watercolor Brushes. Let’s take a look at them…


Long bristles are set squarely in a rectangular shape. They are used for laying in elementary blocks of color in quick rough form in the early stages of a painting.


This is also a rectangular shape, but it has much shorter bristles. Because of this, they do not hold a great deal of paint and have limited use for watercolors. They can, however, be used for scrubbing or removing paint and dry brush.


These round shaped brushes are arranged so the end is pointed naturally. This shape allows them to be used for detail and line work. They hold water well and can be used to draw like a pen.


Like the flat, they are long and flat. The square edges are trimmed away, giving a rounded point. They are meant for general duty, used for some detailing as well as general painting.


As the name implies, these have bristles arranged thinly in a fan shape. Paint is not normally applied with this brush, but is smoothed or blended with it. It is very useful for use in dry brush technique.


A mop is strictly made for watercolor. It holds a great deal of water. It is used for wetting large areas of paper and for laying in large masses such as skies, meadows or mountains.

Specialty Brushes

There are a number of other shapes, which have special applications. They include Rigger, Sumi, Hake, Angle, Liner, Dagger and Egberts. As an artist grows in skill, he may add new tools to his tabouret. These various types, while limited in their usage, may find their way into the artist’s studio in his experimentation with new tools and techniques.

Watercolor brushes come in many sizes. The most commonly used sizes are 000 to 20. They are available in much larger and smaller sizes, but since they have limited usage, there is little need to invest in them.

Just as with any other consumer product, many brushes on the market look sharp or cute, wear the latest colors and have eye-catching packaging. Extra long or short handles of clear acrylic, color-coded bristles and trendy soft grips are marketing lures.

When you select these tools, start with what is tried and true. As you advance in skill and want to expand your experience, it will soon be time to go shopping for a special new addition.

Reading about a new technique or seeing the skill with which an artist uses a particular brush to achieve an effect will lure the artist to try a new brush. A purchase should be based on these things and not the hype of a full color ad in an artist magazine.

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