Princeton Aqua Elite Brush Review

Bang for the buck – a phrase that means getting the most value for the price you pay.  It’s a phrase that I often repeat when talking about Princeton brushes. Princeton Artists Brush company sent me five of their Aqua Elite™ brushes 4850​ Series ​and a Round Travel Neptune Size 8 for the purposes of a World Watercolor Month review.  Later, they also sent me two travel brush sets for review. The travel sets also include the Neptune round, so I’ll only be discussing the Princeton Aqua Elite brushes here.  ​

Princeton Aqua Elite brushes 4850​ Series with Neptune travel brush

Princeton Aqua Elite – The Brush Specs

Elite Stiffness Rating 2 (Rated 1 thru 5, soft to hard)

  • Oval Wash 1/2
    • Length 1.06 in Width .44 in  
    • Length 27 mm Width 11.2 mm
  • Oval Wash 3/4
    • Length 1.26 in Width .73 in 
    • Length 32 mm Width 18.54 mm
  • Dagger 3/8
    • Length 1.34 in Width .38 in 
    • Length 34 mm Width 9.65 mm
  • Rigger 8
    • Length 1.26 in Diameter .11 in 
    • Length 32 mm Diameter 2.79 mm
  • Mottler 1 1/2
    • Length 1.10 inWidth 1.42 in 
    • Length 28 mm Width 35.99 mm

The Aqua Elite series of brushes is part of Princeton’s NextGen line: synthetic hair brushes with high performance. Elite brushes are formulated to act like Kolinsky Sable brushes.  Every bristle is pleated like sable hair, and they have a wider midsection to hold more water.

Specialty Shape Brushes

Princeton Aqua Elite Specialty Shape Brushes

The brushes I’m reviewing are all ‘specialty’ shapes.  And what, you may ask, are specialty shape brushes? All brushes fall into two types of brush, flat and round.  However, there are variations in the shape of the bristles, handles and ferrules (the metal part).  If a brush isn’t a traditional flat or round, it is considered to be a specialty shape.

Sometimes the variation is small, but they can make more of a difference than you might think. The feel of the brush,  the weight, where you’ll hold it, what you can do with it – these are all things that may be affected.  Many specialty brushes act like a combination of flat and round while others have a feature that is hard to find elsewhere.

The usual flat or round brush might be fine for you, or you might find one of these shapes can really improve your painting experience.  Whether or not you like a specialty shape is going to rely on personal preference and painting style.

All of the brushes reviewed here are variations of flat brushes, except for the Rigger.  It’s a round. 

A Close Look at the Aqua Elite Brushes in the Review

Many brands have these specialty shapes, so I’ll just explain briefly what the shape is used for in general, and what I think is unique to it in the Elite version.

The Mottler 1.5 inch

Princeton Aqua Elite Mottler brush 1.5 inch

A Mottler is very similar to the conventional flat brush.  The main difference is the short handle that is flat for the entire length of the brush.  You can use it the same way as a flat brush, but it feels very different in the hand.  You notice the flat handle most when you turn the brush to use the corners or hold the brush parallel to the paper so you can use the tip of the brush.

At 1 1/2 inches, this brush is a great size for larger washes.  Despite the larger size, the Princeton Elite Mottler is a very light brush, making it easy to hold the brush and move it over large areas.  I love the balance. Having used this Mottler, I’ll never go back to a regular flat. I like the balance and the grip that this brush gives me.

Someone with large hands, or who likes the balance of a heavier brush might not like it as well.

The Dagger Striper 3/8 inch

Princeton Aqua Elite Dagger Striper brush 3/8 inch

The Dagger Striper is sort of a do it all brush.  It’s a brush commonly used by sign painters, so you can use it for lettering.  You see it commonly used in watercolor for leaves and grasses, but it is capable of much more.

Note that the handle is straight, rounded, and the ferrule only flattens out at the bristle end.

I like this brush, but the straight handle and balance threw me a bit. It felt too much like a pen and I found myself wanting to use it like one.  I struggled a bit to get used to it, but I love the effects I can get and out of all of the brushes, this is the one I’ve been using the most.

The Oval Washes 3/4 and 1/2 inch

Princeton Aqua Elite Oval Wash brush 3/4 and 1/2 inch

The Oval Wash (aka the Cat’s Tongue) brush.  In many ways, this brush is similar to the Dagger brush.  They are sort of the thick and thin versions of each other.  The Oval Wash creates a pointed oval in one stroke, where it would take two strokes with a Dagger.  If you are painting longer thin stripes, the Dagger is easier to control than the Oval Wash.

The 3/4 inch looks pointier than the 1/2, even in real life, but both brushes handle much the same and achieve the same effects.  You can get very pointed lines with those tips.

The balance is very good in these brushes.  I’ve used Oval Washes, in the past, that seemed to want to tip in my hand because they were weighted where the handle swells.  These Elite brushes feel solid in my hand and easy to guide.

The Rigger Size 8

Princeton Aqua Elite Rigger Size 8 brush

The Rigger Brush was created for painting the rigger lines in boats and ships and is good any time you need a long, straight line.  Because there are so few bristles, it doesn’t carry as much water as the other brushes so it isn’t meant for covering broad areas.  This is true of Rigger brushes in general, not just the Elite version.

This is a nice size brush for paintings those fences in the distance, or the smaller branches of a tree.  Since I like dry brushing, I also like using the side of the brush to sweep across an area, leaving a scumbled effect.


What an artist likes in a brush is a personal thing so I’ll let you know that I prefer a softer brush.  Princeton gives their Elite series a ‘2’ on the softness scale, with ‘1’ being the softest and ‘5’ the hardest.  Their Neptune line has a rating of ‘1’ and their Velvetouch has a rating of ‘3’.  The Neptune and Velvetouch are the brushes that I use the most, so I’m very happy to have these in-between brushes.  They may be a little soft for some people.

The Elite is a synthetic version of the Kolinsky Sable, which is considered to be the best of brushes by many.  I don’t think these brushes handle exactly like Kolinskys, except … sometimes they almost do.

What I found was that the amount of water/paint in the brush, the way you hold the brush, and the amount of pressure make a BIG difference.

Let’s talk about the way the Elite performs by discussing some brush characteristics.

Brush Characteristics


Aqua Elite brush snap example

When you move the bristles of a dry brush, the snap – the way the bristles bounce back into shape will give you an idea of how the brush will perform.  Some brushes, such as those used for Chinese Brush painting may have no snap.  Harder brushes, like those with hog bristles have a lot.

The Elite brushes have a good degree of snap, falling right back into place. 


Brush spring demonstration with Princeton Elite

When the brush is wet, the bristles should hold together and spring back to shape when lifted.  Applying too much pressure can cause some splaying as in the second photo above, but the bristles should should still snap back when lifted.

The Elite brushes do better than other synthetics I’ve used (except possibly for the Neptune).  If I use the right amount of pressure and the right amount of water/paint I get little to no splaying.  I found the dagger and oval washes were the most prone to splaying or losing shape.  I’m pretty sure that’s because they are the ones that I twist and twirl around the most, with varying degrees of pressure.

I did find that if I’d been painting for a while without washing out the brush, the splaying became more common, especially if I’ve been using thicker mixes of paint.  If I see this happening, I just clean the brush thoroughly before continuing.


Watercolor Brush Wicking

Wicking refers to how much water/paint a brush will suck up if it is dryer than the paint on the paper.  If your brush is thirsty – just damp – and you hold it to an area of wet paint, it pulls the water up into the bristles.

I found all the Elite brushes to work very well at wicking.

Carrying Capacity

The capacity of a brush refers to how much water/paint a brush can hold.  In the photos above you can see that I’ve dunked a dry clean mottler into a very watery mix of paint and after only a few seconds the bristles have absorbed paint almost up to the edge of the ferrule.  It would in fact have continued to suck up the paint all the way.  It is not a good idea to get paint under your ferrule as it can cause damage over the long run and cause problems with cleaning.

Elite brushes have excellent carrying capacity.


Now what happens when you use all that paint that the brush sucked up with its carrying capacity?  Release refers to how evenly the paint flows from the brush onto the page.

The Elite has a nice even release.  There are techniques that will affect the flow.

I had managed to get some thicker pigment on the very tip of the brush which is why the right bottom has a darker splotch.  The splotch a bit further in occurred because I applied extra pressure.  In fact, in this photo, I’m applying too much pressure throughout.  Notice the angle of the bristles in the two photos and the difference in the flow.

The unexpected pigment wasn’t a good thing, but I like the fact that I can get extra paint by applying pressure.  This can cause blossoms – those uneven blotches of color, but blossoms at the right place are cool.  With some practice, that’s under your control and you can choose to blossom or not.

Ease of cleaning

I found the Elite brushes very easy to clean, even when I did get the paint under the ferrule.

Mark Making

So what do these brushes do? What kind of marks can you make with them?

You already seen the flat solid line that the Mottler makes.  You can also twist it around for cool curves.  If you dab each corner in a different color of paint, you can get some awesome blending effects.  Using the tips and corners, you can create some surprisingly thin lines.  Actually, you could use this brush alone and do almost any painting, except mini-detailed ones.

I mentioned above that the Oval Wash is a bit of a combination brush.  You can use the tip and sides of the brush for thin lines and the flat to make pointed oval shapes.  You can twist and twirl it too.  I found this shape very sensitive to pressure and to accidentally releasing more color than I wanted, After a while, though I was doing it on purpose for the marbly effect I could get.

Watercolor Sketching Animals Example

I got a little carried away with the dagger brush.  I love it for doing quick little animals,  Cats and bear and…

…  horses and giraffes. Lots of leaves and birds too!

You can also see how I use the dagger brush in my Tutorial-How to Paint with QoR Iridescent Watercolor, where I use it to paint a Motmot bird and a Folk Art bird.

I prefer larger brushes so the Rigger isn’t a favorite for me.  There are times when you really need that long thin brush though, and you can get larger strokes if you wish to.

Paintings I’ve Done with These Elite Brushes

Watercolor Paintings done with Aqua Elite brushes from Princeton

These specialty brushes are great fun to work with.  They made it so easy to create the many flowers shapes in my Panther’s Picnic.

Princeton Aqua Elite​ Overall

I started this review talking about Bang for the Buck.  Princeton’s Aqua Elite brushes definitely fall under that heading.  They have great snap, good spring, wicking and carrying capacity, even release and they’re surprisingly easy to clean.  They raise the synthetic brush to a professional level at an affordable price.


Other Princeton Brush Reviews on Doodlewash


Princeton Artist Brush Co. sent me five Aqua Elite brushes, 3/8 in dagger, a 1 1/2 inch Mottler, a size 8 Rigger and a 1/2 & 3/4 in Oval Washes  for the purpose of this review. I received no other considerations, though this post contains affiliate links which help support Doodlewash community features. As always, all opinions expressed are my own.

Recommended4 recommendationsPublished in Art Supply Reviews

30 thoughts on “Princeton Aqua Elite Brush Review

  1. I love this study, and I will come back to read it again, and again. It is informative, educational for my knowledge of brushes, and I feel it is coming from someone who has the time to share details with other artists. I love detail, and I choose brushes that have the ability to do what I want. The more expensive ones seem to do better. I love the multi-colored piece. This is detailed art at its best.

  2. Very nice review! I didnt know they’d added a mottler or dagger to the Aqua Elite range–two of my fave brushes in the Neptune set. A lil’ jealous of those travel brushes, gotta be honest 😉. I’ll have to pop those on my wish list.

  3. Thank you, Anna! The brush control did take a little practice, lol, but so worth it! The watercolor is QoR’s Mars Orange Deep. It is a bit more orange in real life but I couldn’t get my scanner or photos to pick up the real color. I love it, but it’s very opaque so it can dominate a painting if you aren’t careful. I like it for initial washes or for doing studies like these.

  4. Thank Sandra for your review. I learned a lot! I have been wanting to purchase a rigger brush (and now I know what it is called ) and never found one locally that I liked. I will definitely search for these. I also like the fact they made this set in a travel set. Will you be doing a review on those, or did they work as well as the regular set?

    1. Mark, I’m so sorry that I didn’t see this sooner. I don’t get notifications when people leave comments on these reviews, so I hope you see this. I have used Silver Black Velvet brushes though only flats and rounds. The Black Velvet is a mix of synthetic and real squirrel hair so it would be more comparable to the Princeton Neptune, a fully synthetic squirrel. The Elite is a stiffer brush and a synthetic Kolinsky. Because the Black Velvet has real hair, I think it does give a better performance but isn’t greatly better and it also needs more care. If I was making a choice between Black Velvet and the Elite, I would base my decision on what I could afford, whether I wanted to avoid animal hair and if I wanted the characteristics of a squirrel or sable Kolinsky. If I was looking for a full synthetic with similar characteristics that costs less than the Black Velvet, I’d go with a Neptune.

      1. No worries Sandra and thank you. I have several Aqua Elites and really like them. Before buying them I was able to try them and compare with Aqua Elites. Up to that point I was all set to buy a couple Neptune’s but after testing I found I didn’t really like how soft they are and preferred the Aqua Elite’s which are a bit stiffer.

  5. I’ve recently found your site and I love it. I appreciate the: well-written comments, lack of ads which makes for a clean, beautiful (therefore enjoyable page) comparisons and tutorials. I just wanted to say I’m glad Princeton sent you the brushes for review as it has helped me tremendously. Between this and your multi-brush comparison review I have learned a lot.
    I started watercoloring a year ago and hated it. I’ve recently started again and now that I more knowledge on the subject, I’m enjoying it very much. Thank you again for this site.

  6. This is a great review, and I really appreciate it! I watch Mind of Watercolor with Steve Mitchell (YouTube), and he used the Aqua Elite oval mop in doing a hickory leaf botanical. It looked like it performed really well, so now (after also reading this) I’m going to get one.

    I also learned some new terms I wasn’t aware of before (release, and also had been confused about the difference between snap and spring, so thanks for all that info as well.
    I love your ‘little animal’ drawings – so cute! They’re very ‘zen’, very much in the style of chinese painting the way they’re simple, but also very…is minimalist the word I’m looking for? Anyway, very expressive!

    Link for MoW video with leaf:

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