Tuesday 16 June 2015



I love exploring different types of brushes and exploring what they can do. There are some great shapes and sizes and brushes can be used to create a range of effects. The problem is which to choose? What type of hair? What size? What shape?

Princeton Neptune range of faux squirrel brushes.
For watercolour I have always loved natural hair brushes, especially sable and squirrel. My favourites are round brushes, and I've used Raphael sables and squirrel quills for many years. I also enjoy some flat, dagger and sword brushes, liners and other special effect brushes.

As natural hair has been harder to get in the US, due to changes in customs regulations, more companies are creating better synthetic versions of sable and squirrel brushes. I hope to try more over time. I am quite impressed with the Neptune brushes by Princeton, seen left. I particularly like the very cute 1" 'Mottler' brush - its short handle makes it very convenient for travel and plein air sketching. These are definitely soft brushes, with good water-holding capacity.

Roymac have been creating some good synthetic brushes for a while. Escoda has launched a range of synthetic sables that have reviewed well too.  See Parka's review of the Versatil range here. Da Vinci brushes are excellent and come in a huge range of shapes, sizes and hair types. Their maestro sable and travel brushes are gorgeous - I love the size 8. You might also consider Isabey brushes.

For acrylics I prefer synthetic brushes, though I sometimes use some synthetic brushes to remove watercolour paint. And for oils I like hog bristle brushes with long handled sables for fine detail. I clean these carefully with vegetable oil and soap rather than turps.

I thought I'd share some great resources on brushes here. I plan to add to it over time. This first chart is from Dick Blick. It shows some of the many shapes available and what they might be used for.
Chart from Dick Blick - click here for the link on dickblick.com

As well as those shown above, there are the interesting sword, dagger and pyramid brushes. Here are a few varieties, though they come in many shapes and sizes.

These are, from left, Roymac 0 squirrel - I love this one though Art Basics also make a very similar one for less $; Rosemary & Co 1/4" sable blend; Rosemary & Co 1/4" Kolinsky sable; Michael Wilcox Large sword liner (synthetic) and small sword liner (synthetic); a Da Vinci Cosmotop Spin size 14 and the Neptune Dagger 1/4". Liz Steel shows more in her excellent post here.

Generally, synthetics are more 'flippy' and harder to control. The longer the hair the harder they are to control - great for random marks and vegetation. Squirrels are softer and hold a lot of water, sables are firmer though this long sable one (third from left) has a mind of its own!

This chart, also from Dickblick.com, shows how to measure a brush but also has information about different hair types.
How to measure a brush and information on the hair types. Click here to link to the chart on the website
Brush sizes are difficult to compare between brands as there is no one universal sizing system. This is the Blick sizing chart but a Blick size 4 and a size 4 in another brand may not be the same size at all.
Brush sizing from Dick Blick. click here for the link to chart on the Dick Blick website

For more on dagger and sword liners, see Liz Steel's post here.

For suggestions on a few brushes to use to get started in watercolour, see here.

For suggestions about travel brushes, see here and my website for more updated information at the bottom the page here.

For a great guide to waterbrushes, see here.

For more on waterbrushes see Parka's comparison here.

More to come....


  1. I LOVE the Princeton Neptune brushes... the #8 is a staple for me with watercolors... Thanks for this information... I'm in need of a travel brush so may check out the Da Vinci's.

    1. Hi Emie. If you love the Neptune brushes, do consider Rosemary & Co pocket brush R9 - it is a squirrel quill brush in about size 8 and has a wonderful point. Her Sable size 6 pocket brush would be a good buddy if you want two travel brushes. In the Da Vinci, the size 8 sable is gorgeous though you'll notice it is firmer than your Neptunes.

    2. Hi Jane
      What brushes would you suggest for my wife. Looking to get some for home and some for travel. I just purchased your suggested palette and will be getting the book to go along with it. My wife has always wanted to do watercolor but she doesn't like spending money on herself, so she has never taken the step. So I'm gonna surprise her here on our anniversary.


    3. Jon It does depend where you live which brushes you can get hold of easily. I recommend Rosemary & Co (online from the UK www.rosemaryandco.com) as a fabulous company with good brushes at good prices. From her you might get the R9 pocket travel brush ( a lovely squirrel quill in about a size 8) and the R1 - number 6 sable pointed brush for travel.
      Another alternative is to get the Da Vinci Maestro travel brushes in a size 8 and 6 - they are sable and have an exquisite tip.
      For home use, the Rosemary range or the Da Vinci range are well worth considering, as are Raphael and Escoda. A set with a number 4 sable, a number 8 squirrel or sable and a larger (0 or 1 size - they are numbered differently) squirrel quill would be a nice start for your wife. I would certainly suggest you get a few good brushes rather than lots of ordinary ones.
      Another recent range that is very good is the Da Vinci synthetic squirrel mops. These are affordable but very nice to use. With natural hair being difficult to get at times, a number of synthetic sable and synthetic squirrel ranges have been developed.
      In general, sable are a firmer hair - good in smaller sizes for fine detail and for excellent control, but very expensive in larger sizes. Squirrel is softer and good for larger washes though they often also have a lovely tip.
      What a lovely surprise for your wife. All the best :-)

  2. What brush is best for signing art pieces?

    1. That is an excellent question. I find it depends on the size of the piece and the style of your signature. For larger pieces I have sometimes used a flat calligraphy brush, or a large felt-tip pen, or a pointed brush. For smaller pieces I often use a fountain pen, or a fine pointed brush or the new Kakimori nib. You have to work out how you wish to sign your work and then which tool best suits you.