Watercolor Brushes – Which Are Best?

Painting with watercolor can be both fun and challenging. One of the questions I often hear is, “which brushes are best, and should I buy those with natural filaments or synthetic brushes?” There are many brands of watercolor brushes on the market, and the choices can seem endless. I will sum up some of what I have learned on this topic, but there are many books and articles available on the subject if you want to go into further detail. One tip is to buy the best brushes you can afford. The easiest way to become familiar with those you select is to practice painting with them!
Watercolor brushes made from natural hairs are often hand-made and cost the most. They have ridges in the filaments (hairs) which hold more paint. This allows for fewer strokes which tends to produce a clearer, fresher painting. These brushes are made from the hair of the Kolinsky Sable, Red Sable, and Camel, to name a few, and can be very expensive. Others are made from a mixture of synthetic and natural hair and work quite well. Those brushes which are strictly synthetic can work fine, and I suggest you purchase some from each category if you can afford to do so.
As you select your brushes, it is important to buy those made specifically for watercolor. They will be either rounded or flat. My suggestion is to start out with a #12 round, #8 round, #5 round and a#2 round. The smaller the number, the smaller the brush. (The numbers range from #1 through #24.) There are also brushes even smaller ranging from 0 to 000 which I don’t recommend. They are for minute detail, which you can achieve very well with a good quality round brush, which comes to a precise point, in size 2.
Some watercolorists don’t use any of the smaller round brushes and paint well without them. I personally use a #1 and #2 brush in addition to the larger sizes mentioned, because I paint a lot of fine detail.
I also suggest you purchase a 1/2 inch flat, a 1 inch flat, and a two inch flat (used for laying large washes/glazes.) The smaller flat brushes are useful for making straight lines and small washes.
There are many “beginner” watercolor brush sets, and art supply stores are happy to help with your selection as well. One final word on the care of your brushes. Wash them in warm soapy water, then reshape the tips by hand. The better care they receive, the longer they will last.