Watercolor Paint Brushes

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A car mechanic has a wrench, a cook has a spoon and an artist uses a brush.

Brushes are one of the basic tools of the trade, so it pays to be knowledgeable about which styles and sizes you need.

That auto mechanic has a whole array of wrenches in different sizes and lengths. The cook has a number of spoons in both metal, wood and slotted in various sizes. Each tool is used for a different purpose. Artists tend to acquire paintbrushes the way a mechanic accumulates tools. There are so many brands, shapes, bristles and styles that once you get started, it’s hard to stop collecting.

An Artist And His Brush

Watercolor Paint Brushes are very personal items to an artist. We all have our pet brushes. Ones with which we feel comfortable, confident and paint away with ease. An artist develops an affinity for a particular shape or bristle type as he gains experience and tends to make it his “go to” brush for particular tasks.

Watercolor Paint Brush Tips

Experienced artists can paint with just about anything. In the Pacific Northwest during the 1950s and 1960s, an itinerant cowboy artist painted his artwork with ordinary house brushes. He created appealing landscapes filled with mountains, streams, snow drifted plains and lonesome horses. While not masterpieces, these rustic paintings were quite good and provided the old cowboy with a modest income.

The point of the anecdote is that a knowledgeable artist can use a poor brush and still have good results. However, a beginning painter has many skills to master and using inadequate tools makes his learning curve much steeper.

A novice painter needs a small variety of brushes to begin his quest in becoming an artist. Brushes are produced in all price ranges and qualities. Avoid the least costly brushes. Economy brushes are great for scrubbing, applying liquid masking fluid and hard use, but they should not be used for actual painting. Plan a good portion of your supply budget to include a few good quality brushes. You’ll thank yourself for your wise investment.

Brush Basics

Brush shapes have developed over centuries of artists’ experiences, and the preference for specific hairs and bristles for different mediums and techniques has evolved. Hairs from various animals are selected for their specific properties to create brushes for different tasks. These can range from coarse, stiff boar bristle to soft and resilient sable.

Watercolor Paint Brush Basics

With the advent of synthetic fibers, the production of man-made fiber brushes went into high speed. This made a huge difference in the variety and price of watercolor brushes. The range of quality in both synthetic and natural fiber brushes is vast, and brushes are readily available everywhere art and craft supplies are found. Some brushes are of such poor quality that one wouldn’t use them to baste a turkey. Others are so expensive that an artist who has the great fortune to acquire one will probably keep it in a locked security box.

Watercolor Paint Brushes are very soft. Since the support of choice for a watercolorist is paper, the bristles must be soft and resilient. They need to be absorbent to hold the water-like paint, as you don’t scoop up globs of thick medium as you may with acrylic or oil paint. You apply paint to the surface of the paper. One does not scrub watercolor into the texture of the support. It flows and does not require anything but a simple nudge of the brush to send it scurrying to cover the paper. You will not substitute oil painting brushes for watercolor purposes.

Brush Fiber Choices

There are plenty of Fiber Choices of Brushes to choose from. Let’s take a look at them…

Natural Bristles

Natural hair is the watercolorist’s first choice for a quality brush. However, depending on the type of hair, these brushes can be very expensive. Kolinsky is the ultimate choice in natural hair brushes for the watercolorist. Made of Kolinsky sable by a handful of high-end manufacturers, a Kolinsky sable brush will be an artist’s prize possession if he is fortunate enough to own one.

Red sable is the core of most artists’ natural bristle brushes. Very good quality red sable brushes are available at reasonable prices, and are affordable for a modest budget.

Manufacturers use other animal hairs to make brushes of all sorts. Some manufacturers use badger hair, squirrel, goat and ox. The hairs range in softness, resiliency and length. Trial and error is the only way to determine whether these brushes are worth the investment.

Synthetic Fibers

We owe a prayer of thanks to the Muse of Art for her influence in the invention of synthetic bristle brushes. Synthetic fiber brushes are made in every shape and size for watercolor, acrylic, oil and any other liquid you may wish to spread around with a brush. Many new companies have sprung up to join the brush market, and the traditional manufacturers have added synthetic fiber brushes to their lines.

The quality of brush construction is much improved, and there are top-drawer man-made brush manufacturers that claim their products match the quality of natural hair brushes. Synthetic fiber brushes have many fine qualities, including selection, price and availability. Just as with any brush, personal preference and experimentation are imperative in evaluating its suitability before adding it to your paint box.

Brush Shapes And Uses

You would not use a tiny detail brush to paint a large background, nor would you attempt to paint the highlight of an eye with a three-inch mop brush. Brushes are designed to maximize their usefulness for a given task. Learn which brushes are best suited for a particular job to make your painting easier and more efficient.

Watercolor Paint Brush Shapes


Flat brushes have long bristles formed into a rectangular shape. Used for applying blocks of color quickly, these brushes are great for roughing in basic shapes and foreground, middle ground and background in the preliminary painting phase.


A bright is also a rectangular shape, but the bristle length is much shorter than a flat. Because of this stubby nature, they cannot hold much paint. This shape has limited uses for watercolors, but they can be used for scrubbing out color from a heavy paper that will stand up to the abuse.


Hair, bristle and synthetic fibers are not equal in diameter from top to bottom. The base of the hair is thick and it gradually tapers to a point. To produce these round shaped brushes, hairs are arranged so the tip of the brush points naturally. These brushes are perfect to use for detail and line work. The base of the brush acts as a reservoir and holds a lot of paint. The artist can paint without the constant need to reload his brush.


A filbert is similar in basic shape to a flat. Both brushes are long and flat. However, a filbert’s square edges are trimmed away and have a rounded painting edge. They are used for general duty, some detailing and all-purpose painting.


As the name implies, the bristles of this brush are arranged in a thin layer that is similar to a fan shape. This brush is used for smoothing or blending paint that has been applied to the support. It is valuable for dry brush technique or creating a haze or softened edge effects.


A mop brush is made for watercolor and almost nothing else. It holds a great deal of water and used for wetting large areas of a support or massing in areas of local color. It’s great for preliminary paint applications of skies, meadows or mountains.

Specialty Watercolor Paint Brushes

Specialty Brushes

Manufacturers would like you to be continual customers. They develop all sorts of shapes and sizes to make their products stand out from the crowd. They sincerely hope that you will be intrigued enough to purchase one, or preferably a set, of their wonderful new brushes.

However, if you have need of them, there are traditional specialty brushes that have specific applications that can be useful additions to your collection. These brushes include Angle, Dagger, Egbert, Hake, Liner, Rigger and Sumi.

As you develop your skills, you may find some of these brushes to be valuable supplements to your paint box. If you find yourself agonizing over painting the rigging of a three-mast schooner, buy a rigger brush. If you want to tackle oriental watercolor or learn calligraphy, get yourself a couple of Sumi brushes. Not every new technique requires a special paintbrush, but it’s fun to test out the limits of unusual shapes and sizes when there’s discretionary money for new brushes.

Brush Sizes

The most commonly used sizes Watercolor Brushes are 000 to 20. They are available in much larger and smaller sizes, but unless your painting requires them, there is little need to invest in the ultra small or large sizes. You don’t need every size from 000 to 20. Three or four brushes, ranging from small to large are enough to get started.

It’s all about profitability for any manufacturer, and many brushes are produced for little more than eye appeal. They may come in festive colors, have Lucite handles in rainbow shades or sport a silicone grip for ergonomic handling. These marketing schemes may sell more products, but it’s up to the artist to decide if the brush works well, is durable and maintains its resiliency and has good water absorption.

When you venture out to make your initial purchases, stick with the basic shapes and sizes of brushes. After you get comfortable with your brushes and determine their limitations, you’ll see the holes in your collection. Then you get to repeat the fun of shopping for even more art tools and treasures!

An instructor will teach new techniques, you’ll read an article about an artist who uses a unique method to achieve a particular look, or you may talk to fellow artists about alternatives they have used with success or failure. Use these as a guide for making a new brush purchase, and don’t be enticed by a manufacturer’s marketing tactic. A fancy paintbrush won’t make you a better artist. Regardless of how many brushes are peeking out of your paint box, practice and honing your skills are what make you a better artist.

FREE Online Art Paint Course

Free Online Beginners Guide To Painting!

There are 27 Chapters in this Free Online Painting Course:

Let Us Begin…

The Beginners Guide to Painting

Watercolor Paints

Watercolor – Where to Start
Watercolor Paints
Watercolor Paint Brands
Watercolor Supports
Watercolor Paint Brushes (This Article)
Watercolor Basic Painting Techniques
Advanced Watercolor Painting Techniques
Watercolor Painting Accessories
Watercolor Painting Tips and Tricks

Oil Paints

Oils – Where to Start
Oil Paints
Oil Paint Brands
Oil Paint Supports
Oil Paint Brushes
Oil Painting Techniques
Oil Painting Accessories
Oil Painting Tips and Tricks

Acrylic Paints

Acrylics – Where to Start
Acrylic Paints
Acrylic Paint Brands
Acrylic Painting Support
Acrylic Paint Brushes
Acrylic Painting Techniques
Acrylic Painting Accessories
Acrylic Painting Tips and Tricks

In Closing…

Getting Creative!

Enjoy the Free Art Course!

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