Choosing the Right Brushes: Comprehensive Guide

Feb 12, 2024

It can be intimidating to shop for watercolor brushes when you're not sure what you really need. The choices are endless.

You might find yourself asking questions like:

  • What makes a brush a good brush?
  • Why are some watercolor brushes so expensive?
  • What is the bare minimum I need to buy in order to set myself up for success? 

This guide will answer all these questions and more! 

Stroke of Genius: Choosing Brushes to Create Stunning Watercolors

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Painting From Big to Small

As a general rule of thumb, when I'm painting a watercolor, I'm going from big to small, and this method effects the brushes I choose. Let me explain.

At the beginning of my painting, I am using a large mop brush because the these brushes can hold a lot of water and a lot of pigment. This the phase of the painting where I'm covering a lot of the paper. With a mop brush, I don't have to go back and reload my brush very often, and I'm able to cover the whole paper more quickly.

I usually use the Escoda - Mop Brush, Size 18, from the Joseph Zbukvic box set. This runs for about $132 on Amazon. These are good brushes because when you load them up, they can still come to a nice fine point, which makes it possible to paint around shapes where you want to preserve the white of the paper. 

Then after my first wash dries, I start on the large, connected, middle value shape of the scene. For this second wash, I often use a medium-sized round brush called a Dream Catcher Brush, Size 14 which costs about $40 on This is a quality round brush I've had for a long time, and I really like it.

  • A cheaper alternative to this is a Chinese calligraphy brush. This comes in a pack of three for around $10. Lately I've really been enjoying using this brush because it has a long handle. If I'm painting foliage or just want to kind of loosen up a little bit, this is a nice brush for that.

After I get through the large connected shape of the scene, then it's time to paint the darks and the details. This is when I typically use a smaller synthetic brush that comes to a point like the size 12 Round Escoda Perla White Toray Filament. This brush has a short handle and costs around $25. It is perfect for the little details of the scene. If I'm painting watercolor subjects that require a bit more precision - like a car or a figure, I use a brush like this or a smaller size 6.

Now, aside from those basic brushes, sometimes I need to paint branches or the rigging on a boat, things that have really fine lines. For this, I use a size 4 Escoda Rigger Brush. There are many different brands that are just fine, but you want something that has longer hairs that can come to a nice point. 

Another watercolor brush I sometimes like to use is called a Sign Writer's BrushWhat I like about these brushes is that they can come to a really, really fine point and it can hold a lot of water.

Want to see some of the Escoda Brushes in Action? Check out their Instagram Post

8 Types of Watercolor Brushes 

As a beginning watercolor artist, it can be helpful to acquaint yourself with the names of brushes that you'll hear as you shop.

Cheap Joe's has a great breakdown of the 8 major types of watercolor brushes that you may encounter:

A Quill Mop Brush has long bristles with a tapered tip. It holds a lot of water and often has a shorter handle. 

A Round Brush is named for its round ferrule (the metal part that connects the bristles to the handle). These watercolor brushes are great for beginners because they have a pointy tip that is great for fine lines and details along with a wider heft for larger brush strokes.

A Filbert Brush has a thick ferrule and medium to long bristles shaped in an oval. These brushes are often used in blending work.

An Angle Brush is a flat brush with an inclined edge. It is great for curved strokes and tight shading, especially in small corners.

A Dagger or Sign Brush has longer bristles, holds a lot of paint, and is used for thin lines. 

A Fan Brush is shaped like - well, a fan. It is great for blending and softening edges.

A Rigger or Liner Brush has long, thin bristles with a small point. It has a round ferrule that narrows as it reaches the bristles. It is great for artists who are trying to create long, smooth lines in their paintings.

A Cat's Tongue Brush has a flat ferrule with bristles that are rounded and come to a point in the middle. These brushes make unique shapes and are fun to play around with. 

A Flat Brush has a pinched/flat ferrule and thick, stiff bristles that end in a blunt edge. These brushes can cover large areas well and also are great for creating geometric shapes and edges.

Each of these types of watercolor brushes come in different sizes, and you can often find varying handle lengths too. Experiment with them and see which brush is best when trying to create a certain brush mark. It can be fun to see the possibilities available to you!  

How Do Watercolor Brush Sizes Work? 

The size of a watercolor brush is determined by its width.

Sizes usually start at 0 and increase in intervals of 2 (i.e. 2, 4, 6, 8, etc.). Most brands' largest brushes are 24. Some very small brushes are sized with fractions. In this case, it may indicated a particularly small handle or short bristles.

What Makes Some Watercolor Brushes so Expensive?

As it is the case with almost anything, the pricing of watercolor brushes can seem arbitrary. Some brands that are priced at a higher value may or may not suit your needs. 

However, there are characteristics that often increase the price of a watercolor brush. One of these is the bristle material. 

What are Bristles of Watercolor Brushes Made of?

The most likely reason for a high price tag on a watercolor brush is the type of hair used to make it. Animal hair is softer, of course, and more absorbent. 

Synthetic fibers are less expensive, but this doesn't necessarily mean that they are not as good. In fact, they mimic animal hair very well, making the experience comparable if not nearly the same. I use some synthetic brushes, and they work beautifully for certain watercolor techniques and at particular moments in my watercolor process. They are often firmer, offering the consistency and control that I appreciate. 

Non-synthetic Brushes are often made from:

  • Sable,
  • Squirrel,
  • Weasel (Kolinsky),
  • Goat, or
  • Ox. 

What Characteristics Should I Look for in a Watercolor Brush?

Brushes are often described by the following qualities:

  • How well they absorb and hold water,
  • How stiff the bristles are,
  • Which type of fiber was used to make the bristles,
  • How long or short the handle is, and
  • How wide the brush is.

What matters most is up to you. It's really a personal decision based on what you want to accomplish with the brush. If you have a collection of brushes already, you might be looking for a brush to address a specific need. If you're a beginner and are just starting to explore, scroll down to the bottom of this blog where I answer: which watercolor brushes should I start with?  

Here, I list 3 (affordable) brushes to get you started in the right direction!

Which Brands of Watercolor Brushes are Best?

Determining which brushes are the best is, of course, subjective, but there are some more trusted watercolor brands than others. 

Overall, watercolor artists trust the following brands:

  • Daler Rowney
  • Escoda
  • Princeton Brush
  • Pro Arte
  • Raphael

This shouldn't dissuade you from trying out other brands - you'll notice even in this blog, I've listed others that I like and use - but I find it is helpful to have a good starting place when you're making decisions like this. You don't want to spend good money on a brush that isn't going to offer you what you need. 

Are Watercolor Brushes Different from Acrylic or Oil Brushes?

Yes, absolutely.

Acrylic brushes and oil brushes are stiffer than watercolor brushes so it is easier to move the thicker paint on the canvas. They also do not absorb water like watercolor brushes do, so they are not suitable for watercolor painting. Sometimes brushes are labeled to be used with all kinds of paints, but you will have much better outcomes if you use watercolor brushes for your watercolor paintings.

Which Watercolor Brushes Should I Start With?

So, after that thorough primer on watercolor brushes, let's boil it down. You might be wondering - okay, but where do I start? What brushes do I need to begin my watercolor journey? 

Here are the three brushes I recommend for watercolor beginners:

These three brushes will suit your needs well. As you go along, you'll learn what you really value in a brush and you may find some other favorites. 

But at first, keep it simple: use a large mop brush in your first wash, a Chinese Calligraphy Brush in your second, and a round synthetic brush for the darks and details of your third wash.

How Crucial is it to Have the "Right" Watercolor Brushes?

When it comes down to it, choosing the right brushes is:

  • a personal decision (what really works best for you),
  • less consequential than choosing the right paper (make sure it's 100% cotton), and
  • cannot make up for a lack of practice  

Developing a proficiency in watercolor fundamentals (like values, timing, and composition) is much more important than finding the perfect watercolor supplies. Practicing day in and day out may not be as instantaneously gratifying as purchasing a new brush or easel or paint set, but it pays off in dividends. 

If you're interested in delving deeper into the craft, consider my Watercolor Essentials course. In it, you will learn the five essential watercolor skills to paint any scene in a dynamic, powerful, and expressive way. 

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