This is part of my Watercolor Lessons series of posts, where I share personal experiences that I feel have not been sufficiently or succinctly covered elsewhere. If you’re interested only in the lessons and not my normal blog posts, you can easily select them in the categories box on the right. ”
If you’re anything like me, I was just chomping at the bit to buy some new watercolor brushes. You have a few different directions to go at this point, but they really come down to two things. Available cash, and the style factor we talk about in my first lesson (click here). There are of course many styles and methods, so please consider these two styles as generalizations.
Fast, Expressive, and Energetic Style Brushes
If you’re interested in working like Alvaro Castagnet or Joseph Zbukvic, i.e., quickly, splashing a lot of paint and water around and really slopping it on, there’s no real reason to go out and buy ultra expensive Kolinsky sables. You’re just going to destroy them. You’ll probably want to pick up a mixture of synthetics and squirrel. Synthetic brushes are quite inexpensive, generally have a nice feel when painting, and spring back well, but they don’t hold a lot of water and you’ll have to replace them from time to time. The squirrel brushes will hold a great deal of water (really, lots and lots) and have the added benefit of quite an expressive range of stroke size variation, so you don’t have to have so many brushes. A nice squirrel brush is usually very wide when you bear down on it, but has a fine tip. The drawbacks are that they don’t have any spring and are limp, and they tend to drop hairs. Even the fancy Isabeys. Not a big deal. You can just brush them away when the painting dries. I have cheaper and expensive squirrel brushes, and honestly, I don’t see much of a difference.
Here are some examples. In the pictures, the brushes are quite wet so you can see what they look like full. Note that different companies size their brushes differently, so you’ll have to do a little research when choosing the size you want if you are ordering online.
Jackson’s Pure Squirrel Mop Brush series 828: These squirrel mop brushes are very nice quality and nearly identical to the Isabey except at the price point, which is much lower. They might use different hair or materials, but when painting, they work great. They are only available from Jackson’s Art Supply in Europe, but Jackson’s offers free shipping globally on brushes.
Isabey Kazan Squirrel Quill Mop Series 6234: A nice brush, but for the price, I’d stick with the Jackson’s or something less expensive.
Remrandt/Royal Talens Series 114 #12: While the other two brushes are good for laying down a wash, and I’ve seen many artists use them to paint with, I like this one the best for actual painting. I have a size #8 and a size #12 and with them, I could lay down washes or paint fine details due to their fine point, although for large washes, you’ll probably need something bigger. Not sure how available these are outside of Japan.
Traditional Style Brushes
If you love the work of John Singer Sargent, Charles Reid, Andrew Wyeth, or more classical watercolor artists, you’ll want to invest in some Kolinsky sable brushes. These brushes will last decades, if not a lifetime, if properly taken care of. I’ll discuss that in a later lesson.
Escoda Kolinsky-Tajmyr Sable Round Series 1210 or 1212: These are my favorite brushes based on the price to quality ratio. They hold a nice amount of water (though not quite as much as the Isabey or Da Vinci), have a wonderful snap (better than the Isabey), and feel very good while painting. On top of that, though this isn’t important, they’re the prettiest of the brushes to look at. The 1210 and 1212 are essentially the same brush, but the 1210 is a travel brush that can fold into the handle for protection while out and about.
Da Vinci Maestro Kolinsky Tobolsky Red Sable Series 35: This is my favorite brush. It’s like painting with a fuzzy bunny rabbit wrapped in tissue paper and dipped in hair conditioner. And the best thing is it has a great big wide belly that holds a tremendous amount of water, but it tapers to a needle-like point, so you can use one brush for both washes and details. Unfortunately, this was the last brush I bought, so now I’m going to have to go out and buy more in sizes I already have just because I love them so much. Notice I even bolded it?
Isabey Kolinsky Sable Series 6228: This is a very nice brush that points well and holds a good deal of water. It would be an easy brush to recommend, but at nearly the same price, I wouldn’t recommend it over the Da Vinci.
Winsor & Newton Series 7 (*not shown): Let me just say I don’t have one of these. When I first started looking into watercolor, I was told that the quality was decreasing, but they were still incredibly expensive. You’ll likely pay more than three times the amount of the other brushes I’ve listed. Still, I can’t speak from personal experience, so I thought I should mention them.
Winsor & Newton Artist Sable: This is a very inexpensive sable brush. I picked two of these up on sale for about ten dollars. One is small (#4), and one is a rigger, so I can’t really judge well how much paint they can hold. I will say that the #4 paints very well, has an excellent point and snap, but seems to go dry quickly. After I use it for a while, it gets better. I don’t know what kind of sable they use, and I’ve read mixed reviews on other sites. I rather like mine for small work were I don’t have to cover a large area. The point is excellent.
If money is no object, try similar sizes in the brands I have listed above. Maybe go with a #6 in the Isabey, a #8 in the Da Vinci, and a #12 in the Escoda. Sky’s the limit? Try the Series 7 (and share some info my way). But lets face it, for most of us, money is and object, so if you’re just starting out and only want to invest in one serious brush, go with a Da Vinci Maestro #8. You can’t go wrong with either the Da Vinci, Isabey, or Escoda, but I think the Da Vinci is the best, so I recommend you start with one so you have a basis for comparison.
If you expect to lay down washes, pick up a large, inexpensive squirrel mop brush no matter which style you work in. I tend not to wash large areas at a time, so I rarely use them any more. Most instructors will tell you to always use the biggest brushes you can, to which I generally agree, but it’s not a rule without exception.
Pick up a rigger in maybe a #2, and you should buy a few small brushes for details, and don’t be afraid to use them. Just don’t go overboard. Big shapes are most important in watercolor. I find the Escodas in the small sizes work very well. American watercolorist Charles Reid recommends the Raphael 8404 series, which I haven’t tried yet. He says they hold the most water in the smaller sizes, but they’re quite expensive.
Where to buy:
With brushes, the most important thing is you buy from somewhere that has an easy return policy, or will let you try them out in the shop. Sometimes, no matter how good the brand, you get a brush that just isn’t ‘right.’ Maybe it’s limp, or it doesn’t point well or whatever. Don’t even muck around with it. Ask for a replacement.
Where I live the prices on watercolor brushes are ridiculous, so I import them from Europe or America. For brushes, I can highly recommend both Jackson’s Art Supplies (who ship brushes for free globally!) and Cheap Joe’s from personal experience. I’ve also heard good things about Dick Blick, but their shipping costs overseas are far too high. As a side note, I hold customer service in very high regards, and on the occasion I had to deal with Jackson’s, they were wonderful to work with. * Note: I am not affiliated with, nor do I receive any compensation, from the above companies or retailers. This is all based on personal experience.
Good luck! Feel free to drop any questions in the comments below, or share your own experiences.