A Review of Watercolor Brushes: What Type of Watercolor Brush Is Best?

With so many choices available on the market, how can you decide on the best brushes to use for watercolor? First, watercolor is a transparent medium. It goes on in thin layers of color and lets the white paper act as a white light source for your hues. How you want to put down those colors is as much personal choice as it is functional device. So, you want the feel and comfort of the brush to help guide your decision.

From a practical perspective, you want a brush that loads up with paint well to eliminate constantly dipping the brush into the paint or water. You want a brush made with natural hair that has a nice “belly”, wider in the center, that tapers to a good point. Some natural hairs do this better than others. The best, in my opinion, is pure Kolinsky sable. Its large belly and long, tapered hairs hold a lot of fluid. These hairs, in the finest brushes, come from only the tail hairs of the male. So, for a truly fabulous watercolor painting experience, splurge on a Kolinsky sable brush at some point. These are the finest brushes for watercolor. But, keep in mind that pure Kolinsky sable was banned in 2014. Pure red sable from the sable marten is no longer available. Hence, today’s Kolinsky sable comes from the tails of Siberian weasels. Still, they are fine brushes.

You can certainly find good watercolor brushes without going all out for pure Kolinsky. These are squirrel, goat, horse and “camel” to name the rest of the naturals. Then there are the synthetics such as nylon, silicone, and faux this or faux that. Try as many as you can until you find what works best for you and your personal style. By the way, earlier you saw that I put camel in quotes. That is because camel hair brushes are made from other critters’ hair such as horse, goat, or squirrel. Also, many times these mixed hair brushes are just marketed as natural hair brushes. There is also ox, which comes from inside of cows ears. Sabeline is ox hair that has been bleached, then dyed to look like red sable.

Other considerations when buying brushes include a well-made ferrule (the metal thing that holds the hairs), short or long handle (short is usually preferred by watercolorists), and handle material (wood or plastic). The ferrule should be put on, as well as the hairs, with waterproof glue. The handle should be sealed well if made from wood.

Your brushes will last for many years if you buy good quality and take good care of them. One more tip: brushes last far longer if you always pull, and never push them across the painting surface.

There are several brands of good quality brushes. In better art supply stores you can find Winsor & Newton, Grumbacher, Princeton, Simmons, and Liquitex, to name a few.

In our store in Hamilton, Ohio, you can see many of these brushes and touch before you buy.

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