Choosing the Best Watercolor Brushes For You - This Creative Nest Blog

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Choosing the Best Watercolor Brushes For You


July 30, 2019

If watercolor paper lingo can be confusing, then the world of watercolor brush differences can definitely be overwhelming. But it doesn’t have to be that way! While you won’t find a deep comprehensive dive into every aspect of brushes (because trust me, we’d be here for a day or two!), I do want to prepare you with a general overview that you can actually use as you confidently stand in the brush aisle of your local craft store!

There are a few key differences that we’ll take a look at – brush hair, brush sizing, and brush shapes.

Brush Hair Types and Why It Matters

For the sake of simplicity, we’ll break the world of watercolor paintbrushes up into two types: natural and synthetic. 

Synthetic watercolor brushes are created from man-made fibers that are engineered for specific purposes. Most often, synthetic brush manufacturers are looking to mimic the properties of natural bristle watercolor paintbrushes. Natural watercolor paintbrushes are made up of actual animal hair – be it squirrel, kolinsky sable, camel or boar, just to name a few.

Generally, synthetic brushes are a more affordable option. And for the longest time, they were the only type of brush I used because the idea of using natural animal-hair brushes seemed a bit unethical (and expensive!) However, I did a deep dive into researching the industry and came to a decision to try sable-hair brushes. While I won’t open up a can-of-worms here, I think it’s something each artist needs to decide for themselves, and I fully support whichever decision you choose! Instead, I’ll just share the objective differences between the two. And please know, I use both types of brushes on a daily basis – so there is no right or wrong here!


Natural watercolor brushes tend to be very thirsty, hold a lot of water and allow for an incredibly even disbursement across the paper. They bend beautifully and still snap back to a point so that you can get a great variety of thick and thin lines from a single brush. Their superior quality is also reflected in their price! (My favorites are Escoda Reserva and Winsor and Newton Series 7).


Meanwhile, synthetic brushes vary greatly in their performance, depending on the manufacturer. However, quality synthetic brushes (such as Escoda Versatil and Princeton Neptune, my favorites!) come incredibly close to achieving the results of natural brushes. They may have just a bit less snap-back-to-point and not hold quite as much water, but you can still achieve very nice results with them. 

I would suggest beginning with a synthetic brush like Escoda Versatil or Princeton Neptune, and moving onto a natural brush like the Series 7 when you’re ready or want to. 

Brush Types – When to Use Them

There are a variety of brush types to choose from when working with watercolor including round, flat, quill, mop, mottler, filbert and more! Let’s breakdown the most commonly used and their purposes. 


Round brushes are one of the most versatile types of brushes to use! My watercolor brush arsenal is *almost* all round brushes with varying sizes. The beauty of a round brush is that it comes to a fine point at the top, allowing for thin detailed lines, while the belly of the brush can be pressed down on during a brushstroke in order to get thickness and wide coverage. 


Flat brushes are also quite versatile in that they can be used perpendicular to the paper for a thick line, or you can use just the top of the brush for lines. You can get very straight clean lines with flat brushes, making them ideal for pieces with a lot of lines, edges and angles. 


A quill brush has a very thick belly and very fine point, while an angled or triangle brush also allows for some unique angled brushwork. They can also create really beautiful leaves and petals if you’re working on florals, making them ideal versatile brushes for artists who enjoy focusing on flowers. 


A rigger brush is an incredibly fine-tipped brush that is long, and holds a lot of water. It makes it ideal for making long, smooth brushstrokes of thin lines. 


A wash brush is essentially a flat brush – just a lot wider! I use a 1.5” wash brush quite often to lay down large washes for skies, sunsets, and landscapes. 

Brush Sizes – Not Standardized, At All!

One thing to keep in mind when you’re looking at brushes is their size. Sizes may vary from manufacturer to manufacturer and between styles and brands! A Size 6 Round brush from the Princeton Series 7 line may not be even close to the same size as a Size 6 Round brush from the Princeton Neptune series. That’s why it’s best to go to a craft store to feel and look at brushes if you need a specific size. 

I hope this breakdown on the basics of watercolor brushes has been useful and you feel like you can confidently head to the art store and confidently grab what you need! I’ll also be popping on Facebook and Instagram Live to answer questions this week (I’ll post the video below afterward for future visitors, too)




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