Best Watercolor Brushes

Choosing watercolor brushes from a sea of different options (natural or synthetic, student-grade or professional, different shapes and sizes and materials – oh my!) can be really stressful – and making the right choices can turn your mediocre creation into a masterpiece. Finding the best watercolor brush for you takes practice – taking into consideration your painting style, your budget, and where you are on your artistic journey. Here are some of the best options for any artist. 

Overall Best: Winsor & Newton Series 7 Kolinsky Sable Watercolor Brush

If you’re looking for a high-quality brush to take your paintings to the next level, look no further than the Winsor & Newton Series 7 Kolinsky Sable Watercolor Brush. Winsor & Newton first produced these brushes in 1866 for Queen Victoria, naming them after her favorite size – the No. 7. Each one is made by hand with quality materials (including genuine Kolinsky sable hair).

With a variety of brush sizes to choose from – all the way from 000 to 12 – the Series 7 brushes can handle any project your artist’s heart can dream up. Each one offers a crisp point, superior snap and spring action, and consistent flow control. You’ll be able to paint wide washes of color or add intricate details with finesse. These brushes allow you to stay in control at all times, and they are an excellent overall choice for any watercolor artist. 

For Beginners: da Vinci CosmoTop Spin Set

If you want the best brushes for budding artists, the da Vinci CosmoTop Spin Set is a great choice. With enough variety and a great bang for your buck, this set is perfect for watercolor artists at the beginning of their artistic journeys.

This set includes four distinct synthetic brushes – two round brushes (one size 0 and one size 6), a bright brush in a size 10, and a cat’s tongue in a size 8. There’s just enough variety to create different kinds of paintings, but not so many options that you’re overwhelmed.

These brushes hold water well and provide consistent color application, and they’ll hold up over time if you take care of them properly. Overall, this collection is a great starter set for any beginner watercolorist. 

For Experienced Artists: Princeton Heritage Series 4050

Experienced artists who want to level up their masterpieces should definitely check out the Princeton Heritage Series 4050. Whether you want to experiment with new brush size and shape, or you want to refine your current technique – this series will have the brush for you.

Made from synthetic sable hair, these brushes are easy to use – but they don’t sacrifice performance. You may have to work with them a little bit to get them soft and properly broken in but don’t let that discourage you. These brushes will hold water and paint, keep their shape, and spring back into action when you’re ready for the next stroke.

Once you’re ready to invest in some quality tools, choose any of the brushes in this series to upgrade your work to the next level. 

Budget: Princeton Art & Brush Real Value

If you want the best bang for your buck, the Princeton Art & Brush Real Value brush set is a perfect choice. If you’re a budding artist (or you’re just on a budget), this set will get the job done for a fraction of the cost of other fancy implements.

Made from synthetic fiber, this set has a great variety of brush sizes and shapes including round brushes, liners, and shaders. It also includes an angled brush and a wide brush – perfect for washing those landscapes and adding happy little trees.

These brushes provide a firm stroke with a good snap, and they don’t shed and fall apart like other budget brushes. This set provides a perfect way to get into watercolors or offer the pro a way to experiment – all without totally breaking the bank. 

Synthetic: Princeton Select Series 3750 Synthetic Brushes

For the artist who doesn’t want to shell out for genuine sable, Princeton Select Series 3750 Synthetic Brushes are an excellent alternative. With a wide variety of brush sizes and shapes to choose from, you’ll have a wide range of options – and plenty of extras.

These short-handled brushes are soft and easy to use. With 75 brushes in this line, you’ll be able to build a solid collection of tools with rounds, filberts, chisel blenders, liners – and even some technique brushes as well (like the filbert grainers).

These brushes are particularly useful for small, thin lines and intricate detail work. If you’re looking to add some great synthetic brushes to your collection, this series has a ton of great options for you. 

Professional: Da Vinci Russian Blue Squirrel

For the professional painter (or the amateur with big dreams), da Vinci Russian Blue Squirrel brushes will give your paintings the pizzazz you’ve been looking for. These brushes are an excellent upgrade to student-level synthetic brushes.

Soft and well-arranged, these brushes can hold a ton of water. You won’t have to constantly dip your brush into your paints over and over, and they hold their shape as you work with them on your canvas. Not only that, but these brushes are designed to release the paint in even strokes – giving you a consistent painting performance each and every time.

Hand-made in a variety of shapes and sizes with quality materials, these brushes are built to last. They’re an excellent choice for artists looking to improve the quality of their pieces. 

For Travel: da Vinci Cosmotop Travel Set

If you like to take your art on the road, the da Vinci Cosmotop Travel Set is the way to go. Compact, versatile, and designed for travel use, this set is an excellent choice for creating mobile masterpieces. 

A durable synthetic leather travel case protects the three included brushes – which come in size 4, 6, and 10 rounds from the 1573 series. These brushes hold a good amount of water (especially for synthetic brushes), and they retain their shape without shedding or fraying.

The best feature of these brushes is that they unscrew from the handle. When you’re done painting, your brush tips will remain safely stowed away – inside their own handles. For watercolor doodles on the go, this handy little set will take you far.  

For Detail: AIT Art Select Red Sable Detail Brush Set

If you like to add intricate details to your work, the AIT Art Select Red Sable Detail Brush Set will help you finesse your fine art. These genuine red sable brushes are high-quality and handmade in Germany.

Each set consists of 7 small detail brushes including three rounds, two mini liners, one longliner, and one flat shader. This variety will give you plenty of control over your fine detail work. Each brush is 5 1/8” long with nickel-plated double crimped ferrules that won’t corrode or easily come loose.

The brush heads themselves will keep their shape and provide a great flow of water – no more stray hairs or smudges ruining intricate pieces. For the artist who likes to have some variety with their fine detail brushes, this set is a great choice. 

Flat: Princeton Velvetouch Artiste

Flat brushes are great for shading, adding washes, or painting large swaths of color, and the Princeton Velvetouch Artiste brushes will do the job nicely. With plenty of different size options to choose from, picking up one of these brushes will complete any collection.

These flat brushes have an easy-to-use comfortable grip that won’t splinter or flake. The even distribution of synthetic hair on the brush heads will give you perfect lines every time, and they hold color well without fraying or shedding.

They’re a solid choice for blocking in color or adding a nice background wash to your canvas. If you want to add a nice flat brush to your collection, one of these will be a well-performing economical choice. 

Buyer’s Guide

A good watercolor brush will move water easily to blend color and create crisp, smooth lines – but not all art brushes are created equal. Finding a good brush to make your watercolors come to life can mean the difference between hours of enjoyment – or hours of frustration. It can be hard to know where to start, so here’s the breakdown of the different factors that will help you find the best watercolor brush for your needs. 

Hair Type

Before the invention of nylon and other synthetic materials, all paintbrushes were fashioned out of some type of animal hair. Different types of hair produce different kinds of results in your paintings, and these days, synthetic fibers can perform almost as well as their natural counterparts. To find the best type of brushes, consider your painting style, or budget, and whether or not you prefer a cruelty-free option for your artwork. 

Animal

Brush-makers still produce paintbrushes from various types of animal hair today, and these natural bristles remain a popular and high-quality choice. While sable hair is the most expensive, it’s also generally regarded as the best.

Russian Kolinsky Sable (which is actually a kind of Siberian weasel) hair fibers are considered the top of the line when it comes to watercolor paintbrushes. They have beautiful spring and snap, hold a lot of water, and are quite durable. A sable brush will last for years with proper care without losing form, and is usually worth the initial investment. If you want an excellent Kolinsky – check out the Winsor & Newton Series 7.

If you still want natural brushes but you don’t want to shell out for genuine Kolinsky sable, try brushes made with squirrel hair. An excellent squirrel hair brush that holds a lot of water is the Da Vinci Russian Blue Squirrel hair brush in various sizes.

You can also find goat and ox hair brushes for unique effects, but beware those made from “camel”. This usually means it’s made with a blend of natural and synthetic fibers, and you’re better off with either genuine sable or fully synthetic instead. 

Synthetic

Synthetic brushes are man-made from nylon or Taklon fibers. For beginners or budget-friendly artists, they can be a wonderful alternative to expensive sable hair – and many of them are fully cruelty-free and contain no animal products at all. For casual everyday painting, a synthetic brush can handle the same techniques as its natural counterparts.  

The only downside to synthetic brushes is that they don’t perform exactly the same as animal hair. While they mimic the effects and produce similar results, they generally don’t hold water as well, nor do they have that same spring and snap that real animal hair fibers can produce. However, if you do a lot of detail work, you may not want a brush that gets waterlogged easily – and synthetic brushes are perfect for this.

They are often touted as being less durable than animal hair as well, but some synthetic brushes can handle the rigors of vigorous painting without falling apart. There are plenty of good synthetic brushes out there to try (especially if you’re into painting those fine details), but the Princeton Select Series 3750 Synthetic Brushes have a ton of options for you – all without breaking the bank. 

Types of Watercolor Brushes

Water can be an unpredictable medium, and having the right brush shape for the job is important. It’ll be nigh impossible to create big swaths of color with a tiny rigger brush, so having a good starter set with a nice variety of brushes will make it much easier to create your art. Here’s what to know:

Round

These basic brushes are a standard choice for most watercolor artists, whether you’re a beginner or a professional. The bristles are arranged with a nice thickness at the base of the brush, and it gradually tapers into a point with good flexibility that should easily “snap” back into place.

You can make a variety of different lines and washes with a single brush, as long as it’s made from good-quality fibers and can maintain that nice point. If the tip of your brush is jagged or the brush is fraying, it’s time to replace it. Round brushes come in a ton of different sizes to choose from, but you’ll probably only need a few to start. 

Flat

Flat brush bristles are arranged on an even horizontal plane, and the tip should be crisp and straight across. They’re perfect for filling in large blocks of color, making sharp edges, or adding wide areas of color wash.

They aren’t quite as versatile as round brushes, but you can make a lot of interesting linear designs with their stiffer flat edges. If you’re putting together your first set of brushes and debating which ones should be synthetic or sable, a nylon flat brush will give you good results – and you can save the sable for your rounds instead. 

Detail

It can be difficult to add intricate details with a large round brush, even if it has a good point. That’s why most artists will have at least one detail brush in their kit to add paint in hard-to-reach areas. Small rigger brushes are technically round in shape, but the bristles are very long and end in a stiff fine point. A spotter brush is a small round brush with short bristles, so you still have plenty of control.

You can get detail brushes in both nylon or natural fibers, but you may find it a worthy investment to get the best quality possible. Tiny brushes are prone to falling apart with heavy use, so it’s a worthy investment to choose sable detail brushes over synthetic. 

Wash

Wash brushes are large and flat, but they’re very wide for adding large washes of color. You can tint your paper with them, add interesting layers, or fully cover a canvas with just a few broad strokes. A mop brush is a round wash brush with a soft dome at the end, which allows you to paint large areas of color without any harsh edges. Sometimes, a mop brush will look more like a round brush – it’ll have a fat base with a fine point at the end. These wash brushes can hold a TON of water and still work in some fine details as well. Regardless of which one you choose, you’ll be able to add a big area of color quickly with a good wash brush. 

Brush Sizes

Brushes come in a variety of sizes to choose from, and the shape of the brush dictates how it’s measured. For example, round brushes are generally available in sizes 5/0 (shorthand for 00000) to 20, with the 5/0 being the smallest. Queen Victoria’s favorite round brush size was a No. 7, which inspired Winsor & Newton to make an entire line named for its versatile size.

Other brushes have their own sizing requirements. Flat brushes are measured straight across the ferrules in fractions of an inch – a small 1/8” brush is 1/8” across, a 1” brush would give you a 1” wide painting stroke, and so on.

Beginners only need a few different sizes to start with. If you want a decent set to handle any kind of watercolor painting, pick up these brushes: a relatively small (size 2 or 3) round brush, a medium (size 5) round brush, a large (size 10 to 12) round brush, a detail brush (in sizes 000 – 2), a small flat brush, and a large flat brush. You can add more specialty brushes later as your specific technique preferences emerge. 

Shapes

Aside from your standard round, flat, detail, and wash brushes, you may encounter a bunch of different specialty brushes for various techniques. Many of these are also popular for oil or acrylic painting, so they can be really handy for mixed-media artists (although you’d be wise to keep your watercolor brushes separate from sticky permanent paint). Most watercolor work can be achieved with a few basic brushes, but these can be fun for experimenting.

·        Bright. A thick brush with shorter bristles, a bright has a flat tip but the chunky feel of a round. Try using it for adding thicker layers of color. 

·        Filbert. This soft oval-shaped brush can be used like either a flat or a round, but it’s great for soft edges and adding color.

·        Fan. Add texture or blend colors with this brush made from flat, splayed out hairs in a fan-shape.

·        Angular Flat/Shader. A flat brush with an angled edge, good for making curved but crisp lines. 

Handles

You might not think that handles make a difference, but there’s actually quite a bit of variety in shape and size – and the right choice can dramatically improve your painting experience.

The length of the handle will determine how up-close and personal you get with your painting. Long-handles give you the perspective to see your work at a distance, and shorter handles help you get close enough to add even the tiniest details.

Handles are usually made from plastic or wood (either natural or lacquered). Plastic handles tend to hold up better over time, but they can sometimes feel too light and flimsy. Wood handles are sturdy, but poor-quality construction and constant use can cause them to splinter.

Some handles will have soft grips or other unique shapes to help ease any discomfort during long hours of painting. It all comes down to personal preference – if you want to try plein air painting, pick up some long-handled brushes for sweeping strokes. Interested in detail work? Give short-handled brushes a try instead.