Saturday, 3 January 2015

A Question of Brushes

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 Princeton Neptune range of brushes from Dick Blick website
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.


  1. Very informative. I see you have quite a lot of watercolour brushes.

    My favourites are the Da Vinci sable brushes probably because I started out using them first. I've a few Rosemary ones and they are great too.

    1. Yes I do have many watercolour brushes. It is interesting that the brushes we first use are often our favourites. Da Vinci is an excellent brand but not as readily available in Australia. My first brushes were wonderful Chinese brushes - they were more affordable than western brushes and I still have many of them after 35 years!

  2. Thank you so much. I will need to read this a couple of times. I went to the Rosemary Brush website after the discussion on Facebook and saw you were going to prepare a blog on brushes. So I have not done anything yet! I would like a couple of travel brushes. I was wondering about the difference in the Squirrel and Sable as they looked similar in size. So now I know. Thank you again for taking the time to do this.

    1. Carmel Rosemary has three travel sable rounds as well as the sable quill pictured above. The sable quill is quite expensive you will have noticed. The sable rounds are also excellent and I'd recommend the size 8 rather than the size 10. Ir you are thinking of more than one you might consider getting the squirrel R9 and the smaller sable round size 6 for smaller details. It is worth getting more than one brush - get some for friends if you can - as it is the same shipping cost regardless of the number you buy so better to buy more :-)

  3. Hi Jane, I just realized that you had posted and came to read it.
    Thanks for all the information. I have ordered a couple from Rosemary, based on your recommendations - the squirrel mop and sable mop and the dagger.

    1. You'll really enjoy them Dale. Take time to get to know them and see what you can do with them. The dagger is especially good for urban scenes by the way, and the lovely ripples in water.

    2. I'm confused with so many gorgeous brushes! I would love to get a few of the Princeton range and I love dabbling in watercolour and acrylic. Can you kindly recommend s few types and sizes to start with please? I don't mind buying around 10 or so to hopefully have a good start please?

    3. Angie I'd suggest you don't use the same brushes for watercolour and acrylic. In the Princeton range for watercolour you might go with the soft Neptunes, something like a 1" Mottler, perhaps a 4 and 8 round and a larger mop and/or a smaller script depending whether you are likely to do larger or smaller paintings.
      For Acrylic go with the nylon brushes. You tend to want slightly firmer brushes for acrylic. You can check out some of the brush sets available. Once again, what you get depends on the size you are working. I tend to use more flats with acrylic and more pointed brushes with watercolour but others may set up in a different way.

  4. Hi Jane,

    Thanks for this great article! I was wondering if you have tried the Loew Cornell Ultra Round brushes that seem to have great reviews on forums. Also, if a student could get an Escoda Versatil Round as their primary round brush, would you recommend it?

    Thank you!

  5. Hi Jane, thanks for some great information! I usually use Winsor & Newton round sable and travel brushes, but recently bought the Rosemary & Co 1/2" dagger and 1/4" dagger after seeing a review. They're taking some getting used to but I love the travel dagger for evergreens!

  6. Hi! I can't find the Rosemary & Co Squirrel Mop called an R9 on her website. The only squirrel mops are sized like rounds?

    1. Look in the watercolour section, at the pocket brushes. That’s where you will find about 15 different travel brushes, including the R9 squirrel mop. It is about the size of a size 6-8 sable.

  7. Hi Jane,
    Great article!! I was trying to find the Daniel Smith watercolor brushes since my instructor also uses them. I tried finding them and can't seem to locate them. Do you know where I can buy them? Thanks for your help.

    1. Some years ago, Daniel Smith decided to only sell the products they actually make. These were licensed in. I'd suggest looking at Da Vinci who have an amazing range of brushes, or Princeton or Rosemary. All di good synthetics if that is what you are after.

  8. Jane, can you specifically address the care and cleaning of the Raphael Kolinsky brushes? I have heard to use water only, and never use a cleaner such as the Master's. In this article you gave a general answer for all brushes as 'water most of the time, and occasionally use Master's.' I would love an answer to those specific Kolinsky brushes!

    1. Any Kolinsky brush needs to be looked after - they are expensive, gorgeous and will give many years of service if looked after with care. I generally only clean my watercolour brushes with clean water and allow them to dry flat. I wipe off most of the water and gently re-form the point when I have finished using them each time. Very occasionally I may clean and condition them but it's just not necessary unless i have taken them somewhere and they have dried with the tip bent or something like that. In that case I use the Masters Brush Cleaner and conditioner - first to clean them and then to reshape the tip and allow to dry with the product in the brush. Once dry, I rinse and use as normal.
      I haven't heard that there is any problem with using the Masters with Raphael brushes but I guess the point is to only clean them occasionally. You don't want to strip the natural hairs.

    2. Thank you so much for the quality answer and the fast reply! You have a wonderful blog! I will continue enjoying it...

  9. Hi Jane,

    What a great and informative article! Thank you so much! I restarted watercolor painting a few months ago, and am trying to be much more serious than when I was in school.

    I currently live in France, so Raphael & Rosemary are much easier for me to get. When I started, I used a Daler Rowny Graduate synthetic multi-media brush, round #10. It was really affordable, had a decent point (as far as I know :)), snappy enough to help me to control the brush. Then I got a set of Winsor & Newton Cotman brushes (synthetic) while traveling to London, as well as a Raphael travel synthetic brushes (precision rounds & softaqua mop 4). Curiously enough, the Winsor & Newton Cotman sometimes has stray hair at the point and is a bit softer for me to get used to. Raphael precision is alright so far, the softaqua mop is definitely training me on water control. I am also trying to use more of my Raphael set even when I am at home to really understand the differences between brands.

    I have read from your blog and many other artists that a high quality tool will improve the quality of work, I would like to step up and try a high quality brush for detail drawings as you have suggested. Would you recommend Rosemary or Raphael for a snappier hair and its affordability and value? Also is there any synthetic or mix hair brushes from these 2 brands you would recommend?

    Thank you so much!

    1. As most of the brushes I use a sable or squirrel, I can't offer a lot of personal experience advice on synthetic brushes.
      However, in Europe, Escoda did a lot of work on synthetic sables and may be a good option. The Versatil range is a synthetic sable and the Ultimo is synthetic squirrel. Sable is usually firmer and squirrel softer so you can choose which style you prefer.
      In Rosemary& Co you might look at the Golden Synthetics range. Her prices are good as she ships directly to artists.
      In Da Vinci look at the Caseneo, which I do know and like - a synthetic squirrel range. Da Vinci have perhaps the largest ranges of brushes? so will have other good options to consider.
      In Raphael consider the Kaƫrell Synthetic range. Being French, they may be the best price for you. I love their 8404 sables and their 803 squirrels but haven't used their synthetics.
      You might also look at the softer Princeton Neptune range. I love their 1" mottler.

  10. Thank you so much Jane!

  11. I spent a lot of money on Rosemary brushes based on recommendations from you and other artists, the one I was most excited about was a size 8 round kolinsky. When it came I was so careful with it, I rinsed it properly. When I went to use it it formed two points. I conditioned it, reformed the point and tried again. As soon as I loaded it with paint and put it to paper I got two points. Oh well it happens, it was not formed properly. I contacted Rosemary and they told me to condition it, I did it again, it split again. I sent them photos and they said keep trying. I told them the very expensive brush they sold me was useless as it was leaving a second line when I was adding fine detail, they said. Sorry to hear it, keep trying. Poorly made brush, terrible customer service. I will never buy from them again. As you are tight with them I am sure you will delete this but as you have Rosemary's ear you might want to pass on this feedback.

    1. I am really sorry to hear you had this experience. It is an expensive brush and you have a right to expect it to work perfectly.
      Brushes are hand-made and sometimes they are not perfect. I have experienced this with a few brushes I have bought, but they have been replaced.
      Have you tried the Masters Brush Cleaner and Conditioner? I use that to reshape any brushes that need it. Perhaps use warm water?

  12. Hi Jane, I wanted tu buy a round sable brush from Rosemary, a #8 because it will be my first non synthetic, but there are two types in their store, round and one call designer, and I honestly don't know the difference so which one would you recommend to be my one brush. By the way you're a beacon of light for all of us novice watercolorist. Thanks!!

    1. Try the non-designer point first. It will be easier to control.

  13. Hi Jane,

    I have a brush challenge for you..!!

    I have spent over 10 hours googling in jest trying to find a brush in this video.

    Any help appreciated.

  14. Hello Jane,

    Do you see any reason to obtain large size Kolinsky brushes (like a Da Vinci Maestro size 16 or 20)? These brushes are $450 and up. I wonder who would need these and why.