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How to Choose Your Watercolor Brushes?

Today, I’m talking about watercolor brushes!

A few weeks ago, I read this interview with the artist Manu, of which I have already spoken to you. I really liked what he says about brushes:

For me, a good brush is the one we use with pleasure because it is the way of writing our soul . […] In the end, my tests made me understand one thing. A brush is like the love of your life, once you have found the one that suits you, the rest does not matter!

I totally agree. Before talking about technique and material quality, since all these years of practice, I learned one important thing:

The brush is the tool that extends the hand and helps to transcribe what you want to create. For that, whoever it is, one must feel good when one uses it. It helps to form as precisely as possible what we imagine.

With this tool, as with paper, contact is essential. There is a sort of sensuality and also familiarity. The body gets to know the material and learns how to use it best.

There are some watercolor brushes that we will try and reject, even if they are good qualities, and others, not necessarily the best on the market, that will correspond exactly to what we need.

Some technical notions

Before giving you tips on choosing your watercolor brushes, here is some information to know about the tools available.

How is a brush built?

The brush is composed of 3 parts:

  • The handle: it can be wood, plastic, or metal. More or less long, depending on the size of the tuft and the practice for which it is intended (brushes oil and acrylic longer in general than brushes watercolor).
  • The shell: metal, plastic with wire – brass – or feather. It helps retain the hair. Yes, it is indeed possible to find brushes with a feather ferrule. These are the ”  brushes mounted on the feather.”
  • The tuft: the hairs of the brush. They can be natural or synthetic and come in several forms: round, square, cat’s tongue, fan, beveled, moistener, tracer … For natural hair, the most common are those of marten, petit-gris, or mongoose, but we can also find brushes in badger hair, wolf, beef ear (yes, yes), …

Watercolor brushes little gray or marten

The brushes most commonly used for watercolor are small gray  – Nordic squirrel hairs. They have a high capacity for water absorption, allowing them to paint longer on the sheet. Gentle, they are perfect for making washes and large areas of background.

Brushes of sable hair are great qualities but are more expensive. They are flexible, resilient and wear-resistant – subject to proper maintenance – with tips that hold up well and a good temper.

Synthetic brushes

Synthetic brushes are useful for depositing pigments raw with little water. They can also be used to make withdrawals.

So far, I have not used a synthetic brush with similar qualities (including pleasant quenching) to those obtained with brushes in natural hair.

Brushes with a water tank

Practical when painted outdoors, brushes water tank is well suited for watercolor. It avoids having to manage a cup of water: empty the water, rinse … which can be a plus depending on the environment in which you are (urban, museum, public space …).

Watercolor brushstrokes

As mentioned above, you can find different tuft shapes that will help you create effects, get flat tones, or special features.

Some ideas, according to the forms:

  • The dishes to extend the pigments
  • Fans for making foliage
  • Tracers for nets
  • Bevels to create special angles

More original shapes are available … brush to strangle, brush stripper, brush whale tail …

Other tools

Many other tools can be used and it is up to you to appeal to your imagination according to your needs.

I sometimes use a toothbrush to make fine projections, a knife and a feather to make more or less fine lines or a shaper to deposit masking liquid.

I also use natural sponges to make clouds or produce other effects and I have in my tools a straw and shells …

How to choose watercolor brushes?

1- Determine your practice

Before choosing your tools, the first question to ask yourself is, what do you want to paint and how?

Your tools must adapt to you: the goal when we create is not to obey the technical constraints but rather to push them back by finding the tools that best adapt to what we want to create and how.

What format do you use?

If you are painting in large formats, you will not be using the same tools as for smaller formats.

Do you usually paint on small and medium surfaces? You will need appropriate watercolor brush size: beautiful, small and medium — no need to invest in big brushes.

In what environment do you paint?

If you paint rather outdoors, on the pattern, then it will be more interesting to choose brushes adapted to be transported: travel brushes.

Their particularity is that the handle unscrews to be screwed on the side of the tuft and thus protects it during the transport.

They are also known to be stronger and stronger than other brushes.

Which technique do you use?

Do you work in a wet technique? You will need at least a large watercolor brush that holds water well to moisten your entire leaf quickly.

2- Test

There is no secret, to find the tool that suits you, you must test. It’s not about buying anything for any reason: I know Fine Arts is expensive.

The tester will also help you avoid getting lost with brushes that lose their hair on first use. The hairs that are found everywhere in the paint, the buckets, on the sheet. To remove them, must put your fingers at the risk of sacking what has just been created, hell …

Know it : a correct brush that lasts a minimum is difficult to find less than $10. Each strategy, you can choose to buy 10 brushes to $2 that will paint for 6 months or so a brush more expensive better quality that will last as long or longer with good maintenance.

How do you hold your brush when you paint?

This influences the type of tool you will choose and with which you will be comfortable.

I hold my brush in two ways:

  1. When I make funds or work very spontaneously and imprecisely, I hold the bush by the end of the handle to have the most flexibility in my gesture. I appreciate at this moment that the brush is not dense.
  2. Conversely, when I work on details, I will rather hold my brush like a pencil and vertically. For that, I prefer that the handle is not thick because I have small hands.

You go to the store to buy it? Take in hand the watercolor brushes, touch the hairs: are you comfortable with the size? The length and width of the brush? It’s weight?


The Internet is full of opinions posted here and there on brands and it also exists for watercolor. Manù, of which I spoke to you above, tests the watercolor fine arts products and points you in what can suit you, according to your practice but also your budget.

Do you know other people painting with watercolors? Ask them about their equipment and ask if you can test their brushes.

3- Have fun

There is no secret: when we are in a creative process, the tools must be forgotten, integrate with ourselves and represent the least possible constraints so that there is more than you and your creation.

For that, the best is to choose tools which, besides corresponding to your technical needs, correspond to your desires and your pleasure.

Also, think about contact: do you like to feel raw wood or varnish? Or preferably something plastic or even metallic? Ask yourself these questions, because as small as it may seem, it affects you, your well being and therefore the quality of your creations.

4- Where to buy her brushes?

To buy a brush is delicate: before the purchase, one wishes to see it, the touch. Unfortunately, I have observed over time that Beaux-Arts stores only offer a limited edition of what the entire brush market provides us – and it is vast. And … I live in the USA, so in terms of signs, I have the choice!

We find each time the same brands, the same range of brushes and the best for watercolor are not always available at all in-store.

The alternative is the Internet and some specific sites, distributors of material for watercolorists – impossible to have the brush in hand and whether it will suit us. Still, when looking for a particular product, it’s worth it. Long live e-commerce.

5- Extend the life of your watercolor brushes

For some, it will seem obvious, but yet many people ignore these practices and suddenly damage their equipment too quickly.

A good and beautiful watercolor brush, it can be expensive, so we want it to last in time.

For this, some tips:

Do not leave the brush in the water cup: it crushes the advice and after a few uses you will end up with that. This kind of blunt tip can be recycled to make foliage or work with grass, but a single damaged brush is enough.

After use, rinse with warm water and leave to dry either flat or on brushes as in the picture on the right. Do not put them in a pot upside down because the water will penetrate the ferrule, eventually deform and hope we end up with lots of hair everywhere.

Regularly, do a little more cleaning using a specific soap. I noticed that some pigments – and according to brands – cling more to the hair. It is up to you to adapt the frequency of cleaning with soap as needed.

When you use your brush when you rinse it in the cup to make a change of pigment, do not crush it at the bottom of the cup: shaking it in water to remove the pigments is just as effective and less deadly.

And you?

What is your favorite brush? Do you use original tools to paint and produce effects? How do you choose them?

Share your experience with us. 

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