My Virtual Studio: Watercolor Brushes and accessories

Brushes are an invaluable tool in success as a painter; quality brushes that are right for the job make a large impact on the level of success! Making it more confusing: every artist has their own opinion of what makes one brush better than another because they are each unique individuals using their tools in different ways!

Brushes are made from stiff or soft hairs, either natural hairs or synthetic fibers. Modern synthetic brushes are excellent and have the advantage of being cheaper than natural hair. Many artists, including this one, will tell you that no synthetic fiber can beat a Kolinsky sable, the ultimate of soft hairs because of its flexibility and strength, which provide great control.

  • Synthetic brushes are made to mimic specific natural hair brushes but don’t function quite the same; a synthetic brush won’t hold as much water as a sable. Some manufacturers mix synthetic with the natural hair to make them function more like the natural hair brush, and I find mixes to be much better than pure synthetics.
  • Sable: The ultimate soft brush is made from the hairs on the tail of a sable marten; these taper naturally, so when they’re put into a brush they form a point. Sable brushes are expensive, but are renowned for their softness, flexibility, and fine point. Kolinsky sable from Siberia has traditionally been considered the best hair for watercolor brushes. (ie very expensive)
  • Squirrel: Cheaper than sable, squirrel is a soft hair with little spring. Larger squirrel brushes work better than smaller ones because the mass of hairs together gives them support.
  • Hog/bristle: These brushes are the workhorse of the oil painter. The ultimate hard brush is made from the hairs on the back of a pig (hog), which are strong yet springy. The bristles have natural split-ends, which increases the amount of paint they hold. For watercolorists, these can be used for particular techniques, but not regular painting.

Testing a brush in a store: a brush usually has a protective coating of gum arabic that helps keep its shape when you first buy it. Find one without it (it won’t be stiff), or if the store has samples, run the brush over the back of your hand back and forth a few times to test the springiness of the hairs. They should return to their original shape after each stroke. Do not test brushes with your fingers and thumbs, as that leaves dirt and oils on the brush from your hands. Some stores have a buddha board for trying out brushes, so ask if they have one.

Favorite brushes, wet and dry:

L to R: Mop, Casaneo 20, Kolinsky Sable 14 & 10, Needle 9, Silver 12 & 8, DaVinci flat:

I have a lot of brushes, and I use more of them in the studio than when crafting or when out doing plein air. (See a whole lesson about that later in class.) The ones I recommend for and use in my craft videos and classes are the Silver brushes.

Brushes from left to right, above:

  • Jean Haines mop brush, purchased directly from her in a class. Manufactured by Rosemary & Co
  • Casaneo Series 5598 New Wave – Synthetic Round 20 – BLICK
  • daVinci Maestro Kolinsky Sable Brush – Round, Short Handle, Size 14    BLICK
  • Winsor & Newton Series 7 Kolinsky Sable Brush – Pointed Round, Size 10 – BLICK 

    Needle Liner:
  • daVinci Watercolor Series 17 Maestro, Inlaid Long Needle-Sharp Liner Kolinsky Red Sable, Size 9 – AMZ

    Recommended for crafters:
  • Silver Brush Black Velvet, Short Round 12 AMZ or EH or BLICK
  • Silver Brush Black Velvet, Short Round 8 AMZ or EH or BLICK

  • Davinci Cosmotop Spin Brush, Mottler Flat Wash 30 EH or BLICK

Crafters: While I don’t like separating the artists who make craft projects from those creating paintings, (ALL are artists!), I do have different recommendations for each; we might agree that someone making cards doesn’t need a $300 brush. An expensive brush will certainly produce better results, but I’ve found Silver to be reasonably-priced recommendations. They hold a good amount of water/pigment and point well for those tiny stamps we work with. I use these almost exclusively in my YouTube tutorials and classes here on this site (though the advanced classes may entertain other brushes.) The sable brushes release pigment and water more readily than the Silver brushes, but on a small surface that’s not as crucial.

Brush care

It is important to take care of your brushes to avoid ruining them; when I first started, I blamed a lot of my dissatisfaction on things that were my own fault – leaving brushes in the water, putting brushes away that still had pigment in them – and placing them back in their cup while wet!

Clean them well after using them by rinsing them – get a brush washer or make your own with a few cups of water, so you can rinse brushes as you go; when finished, rinse them thoroughly in clean water. Some people use a brush soap, but I don’t find that to be necessary. Let them dry completely FLAT. Don’t put them in a cup or away in a brush roll until 100% dry or the water will settle in the ferrule and seep into the wood, and you can end up with split handles and bristles falling out.

Brushes often come with little plastic “sleeves” on them; I used to try putting them back on to protect the brush, but it’s hard to get them back in without splaying a few hairs – the benefit of the sleeves is not greater than the risk of ruining bristles, so I do not recommend keeping them. 

Brush stroke practice

Watercolor accessories

In the sketchbook page at the top of the lesson, a few other items are included….the brush washer is the 3 piece washing system; I use a lot of different water bottles, use what you have; I recommend white artist tape rather than blue or green tapes so you see accurate color in your work.

Join our creative community! Our Student Facebook Group is for all classes here …and while there are no finished projects in this class, you’re welcome to join the group and get an idea of what kind of beautiful works can be created from learnings in classes on this website!