(Please note: This post may contain the occasional affiliate link, which can help me earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. Thank you! You can find the full disclosure here).
When choosing brushes remember that price is not necessarily a guarantee of quality. At the same time the brand of brush that you choose is not as important as the quality of fabrication and the type of hair used.
That being said, I think that every watercolor artist should own a set of good quality brushes.
To quote Jacques Turner, from his book "Brushes: A Handbook for Artists and Artisans" :
Most artists are not fully aware of the influence the quality of their brushes has on the work they do.... It is very difficult to obtain good results using badly made brushes. I have met beginners who were convinced that they lacked ability because they were unable to produce certain painting effects, when in reality their failure was the direct result of the inferior brushes they were attempting to use.
I have searched long and hard for the best watercolor brushes, and in doing so I’ve made some disappointing (and sometimes expensive) mistakes ! So I invite you to learn from my personal experience …
Below are some brushes which I highly recommend. These are brushes which I own and use regularly, so I’m happy to endorse them to anyone struggling to find the right watercolor brushes:
If you can only afford to buy one single watercolor brush then I would recommend you get a good quality size 8 round brush. A mid sized round brush like this is going to be the most versatile brush you own and is suited to many situations and styles of painting.
If you're on a tight budget my recommendation would be the Black Velvet Squirrel and Risslon round size 8 brush by Silver Brush Ltd.
This brush is a blend of natural and synthetic fibers. Natural fibers often give the best results, but don’t let the idea of synthetic blends put you off. Squirrel hair is softer than sable, but it retains water beautifully. I have even found this brush to handle better than some of my much more expensive sable brushes !
Your basic watercolor brush collection should include a small, medium and large round brush for different levels of detail, such as this set of 3 black velvet brushes by the Silver Brush.
My absolute favorite is the pure Kolinsky sable, series 33, size 8 brush by Rosemary & Co.
The company is run by Rosemary Jackson from Yorkshire in England. She’s been designing and making brushes for 35 years. I find her brushes are incredibly good value for the quality of their hair and construction.
The series 33 brush is a pure Kolinsky sable brush. Sable has the reputation of being the best type of hair for watercolor brushes. This is because the hairs are somewhat elastic, so they retain their shape extremely well and form a good point for painting detail. At the same time this type of hair retains water very well, which will give your brushstrokes a good flow. To sum up, this brush has excellent capacity, flow and pointing and is very good value for money.
You will need a small brush for painting details and fine lines. I recommend you stick to sable hair for your fine detail brush, simply because sable has the best resilience and maintains a pointed tip. The small size keeps the price quite reasonable. A size 2 or 3 brush will do the job well.
I very often use my Kolinsky Red sable, series 10 Maestro size 2 round brush by da Vinci
A bigger brush is also an important addition to your collection for large watercolor washes.These kind of brushes are known as “mops” and traditionally they are made from squirrel hair.
Squirrel can be loaded with a lot of water because the natural fibers have barbs on them. these barbs help retain water, unlike synthetic fibers which are smooth. Squirrel holds even more water than sable which is why they make such great wash brushes for when you need to lay down large areas of paint. Mops have a good “belly” which retains a lot of water allowing greater working time between “dips”.
One of my favorite mops is the da Vinci Watercolor Series 418 Petit Gris Pur
This is a pure natural hair brush (Petit Gris” means Squirrel in french). I use a size 4 most of the time (about 1 ½ inches / 35mm long), but a lot of beginners tend to paint small at first so you may prefer a smaller option.
As you can see, three or four brushes is enough to get you started. Always clean you brushes thoroughly after use by rinsing in clean water. Remove any excess water before leaving them to dry tips upward.
Afterwards you need to store your brushes correctly to keep the tips protected, (did you know that moths love natural hair ?)
I use a bamboo roll-up mat which protects the delicate brush heads and also allows the brushes to breath.
This is important because if your brushes are still a bit wet and you seal them in a container, they will soon go moldy!
Choose your brushes wisely, look after them, and they will serve you well for many years to come.