Working in watercolour requires only a few tools and materials, which, if carefully chosen, will last for a very long time. You need paper, paint and brushes. Water containers, spray bottles, sponges, pencils, pens, inks and other tools and equipment can be added of course but these are the basics.
Paper is actually one of the most important materials. Working with good quality paper is possible even with cheaper brushes and student quality paints, but cheap paper won't work even with the best paints and brushes. I'll talk more about paper later too - though my most used paper is Arches 300gsm medium for my work for exhibition. For sketching I like the Moleskine
watercolour sketchbooks for more careful work and the Stillman & Birn
Alpha sketchbooks for general purpose. (Click on the links to see these blog posts.)
There are so many brushes available that it is difficult to know where to start. I will add an extensive section to my website at some stage but thought I'd make some brush suggestions that you may find helpful depending on a) your budget and b) your needs.
Watercolour brushes are made from Sable (of various quality), Squirrel and Synthetic, by and large. Don't use hog or other harsh haired brushes for watercolour except for special effects and only use watercolour with your watercolour brushes. Keep your acrylics and oils away! I don't even use gouache or inks with my best brushes but only with synthetics but if you choose to, wash them out well.
Natural haired brushes are better for laying down paint, synthetic brushes can be useful for picking up or lifting out paint. I often use a squirrel with pure water and a sable with paint to be able to soften edges quickly.
|Travel brushes - Isabey squirrel quill, Rosemary & Co squirrel quill and Rosemary red sable dagger,|
If you are only working in a sketchbook, you will generally be working smaller and may want the portability of travel or pocket brushes. I have a more extensive section on travel brushes on my website here
at the bottom of the page, but here are some interesting options to consider. The top one is an Isabey squirrel quill. Squirrel brushes are softer than sables and this is a lovely brush for 'drawing' with paint. I enjoy using it exclusively for smaller works (A6 size) and as a detail brush for larger works. It is called a size 2 but is larger than a sable size 2 might be. It is similar in size to a Raphael 3/0 squirrel quill series 803. Sizes vary by brand so I will try to show the brushes in the same scale for comparison.
The middle brush is a Rosemary & Co Squirrel Mop. This is a wonderful brush and probably my most used brush as I use it for teaching demonstrations and for plein air sketching. It is called an R9 on her website and is about the same size as many sable size 8 brushes, though the length of the brush head may vary between brands. This carries a lot of water if you want it to but has a very fine tip so can be your 'only' brush if you are able to restrain yourself and only get one brush ;-)
The bottom brush is one I asked Rosemary to add to her range. It is a sable/synthetic mix dagger brush. The dagger shape allows the brush to be used on its tip for fine detail, along its full dagger edge for wide strokes and twisted for interesting textural strokes. It can also be a stand alone brush, though it takes some getting used to. It is called an R12.
If you plan to be working from home or a studio you can use full size brushes. You can also put these in a protective case and travel with them of course.
Below is an excellent beginner set. These are Daniel Smith synthetic squirrel mix brushes in size 4 and 8, with a 1" flat brush for larger washes, wetting the paper and interesting flat brush effects. Many of my students begin with this set and later may add a fine sable pointed brush for finer details or a larger squirrel brush for larger washes of colour. The 1" flat brush is also available in the series 24-3 synthetic squirrel mix. It's a great brush. I quite like the clear acrylic handles on this wash brush - they can be used to 'scratch' details into a wash or other painted area.
|Starter watercolour set - Daniel Smith #4 and #8 squirrel synthetic rounds and 1" flat.|
Here is another range of synthetic brushes. These are the Princeton Neptunes in rounds size 4, 8 and 12 with a Silver Cat's Tongue wash brush. You don't need a flat 1" AND a cat's tongue but this shape appeals to some people much as a dagger brush appeals for its versatility. You might choose the #4 and 12 and the 1" wash brush from above.
|Starter watercolours set Princeton Neptune rounds #4, 8 and 12 with a Silver cat's tongue wash brush.|
There is also a delightful 1" Mottler in the Princeton range that has a very small handle so is suitable for travel - you can see it in the photo below. These are soft brushes - softer than a sable - but I like the ones I have tried and have heard really positive reports about them from a number of watercolourists so they are well worth considering. I'll try the Mop at some stage...
The 'best' brushes for watercolour are considered to be the Kolinsky sables, though many also love working with the softer squirrel quills. I tend to use the sables for smaller sizes and the squirrels for larger sizes due to their water holding capacity. These days there are better quality synthetic brushes available that may rival the natural hair brushes, though I haven't tried them all :-) Aim at all times to buy fewer higher quality brushes and get to know them and use them well rather than more lesser quality brushes. If you can only afford one sable, make it a smaller one at first as the point will be very useful for fine detail. Note that the cost of sables goes up exponentially as you go us in size, but the cost of synthetics does not - longer sable hairs are simply very rare. So for larger brushes a synthetic sable such as the Escoda Ultimo
may be a far more affordable choice than a pure sable.
This set shows a #2 sable by Raphael series 8404. Raphael make another range with longer points with a slightly creamy tip instead of orange. Below are a Raphael series 803 squirrel mop in size 0 and 1. These will hold a lot of paint and though they have a point they take a little more practice to control than the sables or synthetics shown above. I haven't tried many other brands of squirrel mops as I love these ones. The only drawback is that you have to be careful not to catch your fingers on the wires that bind the brush together.
|Natural hair brush watercolour set with Raphael sable #2 and Squirrels size 0 and 1.|
And here is another set of synthetic brushes. These are also Daniel Smith with clear acrylic handles. They point well but are very affordable. A 1" or 1/2" flat or cat's tongue could be added to this set.
|Synthetic starter set with Daniel Smith aquarelle brushes.|
There are many other combinations of brushes you may wish to consider depending where you live and what is available to you. Your main 'workhorse' brush should do the bulk of your painting. the better quality brush you get for this purpose the more you will be able to do with it and the more you will enjoy it. I suggest a size 8 is a good 'workhorse' size for larger or smaller works, provided it has a good point. If you have the budget for a sable, consider Raphael, Escoda, Da Vinci maestro, Rosemary and others and you'll have a wonderful 'best friend'.
If you plan to travel, consider the Rosemary R9, Da Vinci #8 travel, Escoda #8 and others. The Da Vinci #8 (top below) is a gorgeous brush - a recent purchase - that screws into it's protective handle very securely. I have always avoided this model as it looks 'clunky' compared to the others, but the brush is wonderful and it is getting a lot of use. Below are the Rosemary R9 squirrel Quill, the Rosemary Sable Quill, The Isabey squrrel Quill, the Rosemary Dagger and the Rosemary sable flat 1/4" that I use for colour charts. These are the brushes I have with me all the time.
With any brush you use, take care with it and it will last well. Try not to put it deeper into your water container than you need to - water can seek into the handle and soak into the wood, split the paint and spoil your brush.
Wash only in water most of the time. Occasionally, wash with Masters Brush Cleaner and Conditioner or another gentle soap or shampoo and rinse. The Masters product can be used as a long term conditioner and left in the brush. To do this, wash and rinse the brush, gently squeeze out the water then brush over the soap again. Shape the brush with your fingers and allow to dry on its side.
Never leave a brush sitting in your water container. They don't like it for all sorts of reasons mentioned above, but it will also ruin the brush tip.
Try to treat your brushes with care when you are loading up with paint - wipe over the watercolour paint rather than digging into it. Good habits are worth getting into. (See also my post about only half filling the pans with paint for more on brush care here)
Store your brushes flat to dry so the water doesn't set in the ferule. Once dry they can be stored upright in a jar. If you are storing them for a long time keep them in an airtight box to keep moths out. They love brushes and will eat a hole right through them :-(
Finally, if you are using travel brushes, dry them off as much as you can before replacing their covers. If they dry completely they are difficult to get back into the covers so you can just dampen your fingers to reshape the bristles and put them away. Make sure, whether using travel brushes or using the little plastic sleeves that can protect the brush, that you don't catch any stray hairs as you are putting the 'lid' on.
Just like paints and pigments, there is no one perfect brush set for everyone but I hope this will help get you set up. If you want to know about specific brushes or see other comparisons let me know and I'll add more if I can.