I’m a little excited about this overview of watercolor brushes because I think a few people were looking forward to it. Brands and/or types offered are Raphaël, Princeton, Rosemary & Co., Escoda, Da Vinci, Royal & Langnickel, Loew-Cornell, travel, bamboo, hake, and water brushes. Resources on fiber, brush sizes, and shapes are provided at the end.
Like journals, brushes are a personal preference, this post is to provide some ideas of what’s out there. Often choices are made due to affordability and availability, because man, these things can get expensive! Some people make great art with crap brushes and supplies. The other day I saw a :50 second video of a guy painting a portrait with a can of spaghetti. My skills aren’t that mad- I need, at the least, a decent brush. I hope this post aids you in finding brushes that you like, and saves you some trial and error, and money.
With the exception of Rosemary & Co., for much of the post I linked to Dick Blick, and a few other places. I am not affiliated with these, or any other companies. Nor did I receive products in exchange for review, or any other incentive. I write these reviews from the heart, to help other artists. I believe that creative expression, in all its forms, is very important. Blick has a lot of info on brushes, they carry a lot of brushes, and it was easier for me to link to them because of all of the different types of brushes being presented. The majority of products shown can be found through other retailers. It’s always nice to support your local art store.
I’ve kissed some brush frogs to find my brush princes. For a period of time, I thought that a different type of brush would help my painting get better, and I tried a lot of them. Turns out what really worked to help my painting get better was more painting ;). I also finally found the brushes that I like and use a lot.
Get comfortable for this bonanza of brushes beast of a blog post….
Since most of us like to see what others are using day to day, I’ve got a few of examples, two up here, and one way down below with the travel brushes.
These are the five I use the most. From the left- Raphaël Soft Aqua Quill in sizes 2 and 3/0, Rosemary & Co. Series 22 Kolinsky Sable in size 3, Princeton Select 10/0 Liner, and a toothbrush. The quills hold a lot of water and paint- I like a lot of flow, and they hold a point. The sable is great for small details and controlled layering. The toothbrush is a star maker- I paint nebulae/space/stars a lot and I use it to flick paint, I use the Princeton liner for them too. Some of the brushes shown are small because I paint kind of small. You might consider up sizing over some of the sizes shown, depending on how large you paint. Above all- always use your own best judgement!
“My love of mops and daggers was created by my laziness at changing brushes. I want to use the fewest brushes possible while painting. Escoda Aquario Mops size 14 and 18 (these are the Joseph Zbukvic models) they are squirrel hair and load a lot of water/paint for coverage of large areas. Royal & Langnickel Nocturna Dagger 1/2″ this brush feels a little more like a sword and gives wonderful thick to thin lines and great drybrush textures. The Loew Cornell 1/4″ Dagger has a tight feel that will let you manage fine line details while also giving thick to thin lines. My Raphael Soft Aqua Quill 3/0 is my little workhorse, it loads a lot of water/paint, it can handle find details, drybrush textures, thick to thin lines and best of all holds its shape after all of the punishment I give it.”
Quill sizes differ from regular brush sizes- they are larger in overall size even if the numbered size looks similar to regular brushes. Quills hold a lot of water, but are also capable of holding a fine point. After I got a couple of synthetic quills, almost all of my other brushes look on in disuse. The Holy Grail of brushes for me- a natural hair quill/mop in a size 4 or 6. I’ve refrained due to price, but looking at them from Rosemary & Co for this review…hmm…their prices are really good!
Raphaël Soft Aqua Quill– comes in sizes 3/0, 0, 2, 4, 6, 8, ranging from $10 to $25. The first time I used one of these brushes, it became my favorite. The one drawback, the ferrule is wrapped by wire and sometimes the end of the wire snags on the brush wipe. That size 8 is a behemoth.
“The unique synthetic fibers in the Raphaël Soft Aqua brush brush offer a fluid retention capacity equal to no other, holding twice as much color as conventional brushes. The wavy, undulating shape of the fibers creates spaces that hold water molecules — in contrast to conventional synthetic fibers, which are straight and slippery.”
Princeton Neptune Synthetic Squirrel Quill – comes in sizes 4, 6, 8. I don’t like this brush as well as the Soft Aqua. It doesn’t hold as fine of a point and the fibers aren’t as nice. Although, the wire wrapped around the ferrule is better seated and the ends don’t snag the brush wipe. It has good reviews from people. These are a tad more expensive than the Soft Aqua, ranging from $18 to $28. The Neptune also comes in a dagger.
“Neptune is Princeton’s thirstiest brush ever, delivering oceans of color to the sheet. Featuring the latest synthetic fiber technology, the Neptune’s multiple-diameter filaments are configured to replicate the smooth feel of natural Squirrel, with enhanced snap and resilient strength.”
They feel more synthetic than other synthetics around this price point.
Raphaël Kaërell Synthetic Sable Brushes– these were my favorite synthetics until I got the Soft Aqua above. Affordable, hold a decent amount of water, hold a point, and nice to paint with
“Raphaël’s Kaërell is the closest thing to a natural hair brush we’ve found at an economical price. Supremely soft with a fine tip, it is excellent for watercolor, acrylic, and oil painting. It is a long wearing brush with excellent water-carrying capacity and surprising strength. It is durable, easy to clean, and an extremely versatile brush for many techniques and media.”
Princeton Series 3750 Select Brushes– come in a large variety of shapes and sizes, are super affordable, and are a general type of brush that can be used with various paint mediums. Found these at my local art store. For the price, they are nice- they range from less than $3 to around $8. I have one where the wood started to split early on, but it’s still usable, and it seemed a fluke.
“Designed by artist Willow Wolfe for artists, the Princeton Select line of brushes goes beyond the basic brush shapes and sizes that make up the artist’s arsenal. Joining a range of high-quality Rounds, Filberts, Flats, Chisel Blenders, Liners, and more are exciting technique brushes that include Lunar Blenders and Filbert Grainers.”
Close up of the Oval Mop- this holds a surprising amount of water, Lunar Mop- soft bristles, and Round Blender- firm bristles on this one.
Take a breather, get a cup of coffee, there’s a lot more to go…
Rosemary & Co.– Rosemary and her daughter Symi operate the company and it is located in the UK. Their prices are excellent, they sell direct, not through retailers. I have always had a good experience ordering from them, and using the brushes. Many artists love and recommend their brushes. The selection is large and the shipping is fast. Those outside the European Union do not pay VAT (value added tax).
“As a general rule of thumb the finest hair is used for watercolour. Kolinsky Sable being the ultimate, followed by Pure red Sable, Squirrel etc. At the moment, there are some excellent Nylon fibers which imitate Sable thus keeping costs low. It’s not just about ‘snap & spring’ which are familiar terms but how the brush strokes the paper. Sable has the advantage of holding a huge quantity of liquid and ‘flows’ when pressed onto the paper. Some beginners/intermediates would choose Sable/Nylon blends or indeed 100% Nylon as the feeling of a controlled strokes is more prevalent.”
Okay, there is a lot going on with what’s shown below. I won’t be able to go into full detail and prices on these, so if you are interested, click the links and check out the catalog. From the left:
Series 46 Red Sable Extended Point– just over $10 for the size 8. These brushes are also referred to as an inlaid liner brush. They hold a lot of water. Here is a 5:06 minute video of Sylvaine Jacquart sketching the Taj Mahal. She starts out using a quill and then uses an extended point. I love this video, and think you will enjoy it.
Series 323 Pure Kolinsky Spotters- these start at just over $4, Series 66 Pure Kolinsky Filbert, Series 22 Pure Kolinsky Designer. All but the first two came in their Set 70- Botanical– just over $44 for that seven brush Kolinsky set.
From the left- Series 107 Goat Hair Oval Wash starting at $7. Sable blends- I like these brushes a lot, nice water retention but not too sloppy. They are super affordable, starting at less than $3- Series 401 Pointed Sable Mixture.
Unusual and specialty brushes. Series 32 Tree and Texture Brush, Series 40 Triangular/Pyramid Shape- I’ve not quite figured out what to do with this, but it makes some interesting shapes- there’s an example in the link. There is also a Rotary Tree Brush, not pictured here. See the catalog link below for nice examples done with the Tree brushes.
I ended up doing this quick example showing the marks they make, and now I want to use these brushes more, especially the Triangular- it’s very interesting. It seems good for making waves, and maybe mountains…and dinosaur feet. I was never excited by the Tree & Texture brush, but I’m going to give it another shot. In order to get the texture the brush has to be fairly dry, and so does the paper. Might need to click to enlarge this one to get a good look.
Here is a PDF of the Rosemary & Co. catalog, there’s a picture of the lovely Rosemary on the front. The photos and size presentation of the brushes is outstanding. There’s photos of a brush in the making and lots of other helpful information. They have a large selection of brushes. If you end up ordering brushes from Rosemary & Co. and like interesting papers, check out the Two Rivers Studio Pads- Mixed Colour. There is a fascinating variety of paper in this thing, not suitable for watercolor though. So far, I’ve used it with chalk pastels.
Oriental, or Sumi, or calligraphy, or bamboo brushes– they are referred to by those names. Usually made with real hair, like goat, horse, occasionally sable, or “natural hair,” whatever that vagary means. Usually very affordable. Can be used for watercolor painting, but might feel a little strange if new to this brush style.
“Oriental and Sumi Brushes are used in the traditional painting techniques of Japan and the Far East, such as sumi painting. Bamboo and sumi brushes have become popular with watercolor artists for detailing and fine lines, while the hake brush is used much like a square wash.”
There is something about Chinese Brush Painting that I am attracted to. By no means am I skilled with these brushes, but here are a couple of examples of sumi ink on practice shuen paper. The first symbol is Japanese- ensō, the other pic is from when I was starting to learn the brush painting technique.
Hake brushes usually made from goat hair, and an affordable option. They also work well to brush eraser dust off of drawings. That’s what I use the one on the right for and it came from my local art store, it’s similar to these Yasutomo brushes. The first two are Princeton Series 2900,
Travel Brushes- these usually have a detachable handle end that the brush end inserts into. Rosemary & Co. has a nice diverse set of travel brushes to choose from.
“Escoda’s Versatil Synthetic Kolinsky Travel Rounds are amazing brushes with characteristics matching those found only in real Kolinsky. Reversible Cap/Handle.”
Da Vinci Maestro Kolinksy Travel Brushes– The size 2 below is one of these and the size 4 on the end is also a Kolinsky, just a different handle. There are many sizes to choose from, and the travel brushes are at the bottom of the linked page. They start at $21. While scrolling down in the link, check out the price on the Jumbo Round size 50- holy cow that’s a house payment! I put that nicely because this is out in public.
“Da Vinci’s “Maestro” designation is reserved for brushes manufactured using male winter Siberian Kolinsky Red Sable fur. These are top-of-the-line, high quality brushes. The extra sharp needle-like point and longer tapered hair length result in faster action at the tip and the tightest snap at the point. Expect superior spring and control, plus unsurpassed water-carrying performance.”
Da Vinci Cosmotop Spin Travel Brushes– the synthetic variety and these are the sizes 5 & 6 pictured below. Again, scroll down to the bottom in the link to find them. They start at $20. These feel stiff and too controlled to me. Nor do I think they hold more water than any other synthetic, like they claim in that blurb below. Other people seem to like the Comotop Spin because they get good reviews. They would work well for detail, or for a more controlled style.
“Holds more water than any other synthetic. Large belly tapers to a fine point. The blending and placement of 5 different diameters of fine synthetic filaments make this brush perform like natural hair. The long-lasting, high quality synthetic fiber has an energetic spring. Brushes are made by hand, so there may be variation with the handles.”
The other two are just kind of hanging out to model with their travel buddies. The silver brush came with a set of paints that I got from Holbein. The other little one is the Da Vinci Kolinsky mentioned above, I couldn’t find a link to that handle type.
Waterbrushes- nice to have around, and to carry in your bag, handy when you don’t have a water container. I’ve used these a lot. They work great for pen and ink wash.
Niji Waterbrush– these start around $7 sold singly in a variety of tip sizes- mini, S, M, L, flat. Out of the three pictured I like these the best, there’s a bit more flow control. “Squeeze or fill the water reservoir, screw on the brush tip, and you’re ready to go! Squeeze the Niji Waterbrush gently to wet the brush and keep it moist, which eliminates continually dipping your brush. This brush is great for travel.”
Pentel Aquash – these start around $6 and come singly, or in a set of three tip sizes- S, M, L. Less than $13 for the set on Amazon. “Ideal for sketching and drawing, the Pentel Arts Aquash Water Brush has a durable nylon tip that holds its point for better stroke control. Available in a variety of tip sizes, this versatile brush loads easily with water, inks, or fluid colors. What’s more, the soft, easy-to-squeeze barrel has a shape that prevents it from rolling off surfaces.”
Aquastroke– comes in a set of 4 for around $13. One is missing in the photo because I gave it to someone. These don’t seem as well made as the other two.
Dick Blick has decent info on bushes. Here are some helpful links- Brush Shapes, Brush Hair Types, free downloadable PDF charts that “describe the different brush shapes and hair types, and Blick’s system of standard brush sizing and measurement.” This is also a nice link on general watercolor brush info and types.
In case you missed it up top, the Rosemary & Co. catalog has a lot of helpful information.
Brush cleaners- there are a few types out there, Pink Soap, and Escoda Artist Brush and Hand Soap. I like the General Pencil Company The Masters Brush Cleaner & Preserver because it works well and comes in a little jar that’s easy to swirl the brush around in.
Honorable mention- the brush wipe. I had to put the brushes on something so they didn’t roll around for their photo shoot. I’ve been using the same wipe for months, and just changing the fold. This is the best artistic investment that I’ve made- a pack of cloth diapers (aka nappies). These are the unbleached flat variety. Much nicer and more absorbent than a paper towel, washable, less wasteful.
A little hello from the creative area of my living room.
This is an ongoing Saturday series of watercolor and art supply reviews. July is officially World Watercolor Month! If you haven’t already joined the Face Book group for this first ever celebration, come join us! Next month is all about, you guessed it, watercolors! The month will start out reviewing watercolors that are suitable for children, and to raise awareness about arts education, and The Dreaming Zebra Foundation. Then we will be going on a World Tour of Watercolors with stops in Japan, Russia, Germany, France and the UK!
Whew! You made it to the end 😉