Watercolor Brushes

All You Need to Know About Brushes

It is one department of the artist’s equipment where no skimping or compromise should be allowed; one may go without or use makeshift supplies of some items, but poor brushes are a severe handicap to a good painting.

A watercolor brush is a very specialized tool with three key features:

  • belly,
  • point, and
  • spring.

Inside the body of fine hair should be a large reservoir (belly) to hold the paint. Equally important is a very small outlet (point) that allows the paint to discharge, although not all at once.

And the hair of the brush must be both supple and resilient (spring) so that it can flex under pressure to release a wash, then regain its point in time to cut off the fluid the instant the pressure is relaxed.

Comparing Brush Components

Kolinsky and Red Sable. Nothing does the job better than a Kolinsky Sable, a term generally used to classify hairs that come from the tails of several northern Asiatic weasels.

The long thick winter hair of the male Siberian Kolinsky found in the cold river valleys of northernmost Siberia, is used to make the most expensive brushes. These brushes are crafted only by the most experienced brush makers, and you’ll pay dearly for one.

All processes in the cleaning and dressing stages are undertaken by hand, which is why production is so labor-intensive and the cost of the finished product is high. Because of the great expense of collecting the longest, choicest hairs, it’s also understandable why the price of Kolinsky brushes goes up dramatically as size increases.

Animal tails are a 
by-product of the fur industry, and the success of the anti-fur movement in Europe has brought hard times. As a result, the selling of tails to brush-makers has become a profitable side business for the furrier.

While all this talk of price may be somewhat alarming, let me emphasize that Kolinsky sable hair is simply unsurpassed in delivering the big three essentials:

  • fluid retention,
  • needle-sharp point,
  • and springiness.

Each hair is naturally tapered from the belly of the brush where it is thickest to the tip where it is finer and can, therefore, retain large amounts of watery paint. No other hair forms and holds as fine or firm a point while releasing paint. And, Kolinsky hair is naturally snappy, offering the painter great resilience and spring.

If you can afford a Kolinsky in a size compatible with your style, I encourage you to buy one. If it’s beyond your thoughts, then consider the next category of sable brushes collectively known as Red Sables. These hairs come from the tail of the Asiatic weasel, and brush quality varies considerably from brand to brand.

It’s helpful to understand that the fur industry has always been very secretive particularly about the source of hairs, and Red Sables appear to be one of their great black holes. So, it’s difficult to know exactly what you’re getting. I’ve heard that some Red Sable brushes are made from pen-raised weasels as opposed to those trapped in the wild, but no one could tell me whether that yields a superior or inferior brush hair.

One thing remains certain: many Red Sables do not offer quite the level of quality or spring that marks the Kolinsky, but many Red Sables are of fine quality and make excellent brushes for water media. You simply have to find the brushes you like.


Another category of hairs used frequently in watercolor brushes are called “Sabeline.”This name is given to the finest grades of light ox hair, dyed to resemble red sable. The best hairs come from oxen ears and these have good springs.

Used alone or blended with synthetics, the flats perform well with watercolor. Because Ox hair doesn’t point well, Sabeline rounds are not really a worthwhile purchase; when blended with synthetics; however, the rounds perform better and are quite durable.

Don't Overlook Squirrel

Joining the weasels in the world’s coldest valleys are the Kazan squirrel and blue squirrel.  Their tails also make outstanding watercolor brushes.

While European watercolorists have long used squirrel hair, many American painters are just discovering its fine qualities.
Squirrel hair, particularly blue squirrel,, is extremely soft and has tremendous capacity for holding large amounts of watery paint. For this reason, it makes an outstanding wash brush.

The French manufacturer “Isabey” still makes a traditional squirrel mop, and employees even dress the fur themselves. Only the company’s most experienced brush makers – 99 percent of whom are women – are allowed to make these meticulously crafted brushes.

If squirrel is said to have one drawback, however, it’s lack of spring. Squirrel hairs point well, but they aren’t as responsive as Red or Kolinsky sable. “If you try to use them like a sable brush you will be disappointed”.

Squirrel hair requires a different technique: You must drag the brush to get the full power of its point and great water-carrying capacity.

The Progress of Synthetics

The synthetics industry has made great strides with nylon and polyester filaments that simulate the function and behavior of natural hairs. To increase paint retention, brush manufacturers abrade and etch the filaments or amend them with microscopic bumps.

To simulate the spring, pointing ability, and flow of natural hairs, they tip and taper the filaments. Manufacturers have been getting the synthetics to point better, but you won’t get the water-carrying capacity of a good quality natural hair brush.

On the positive side, however, synthetics are incredibly durable and can withstand greater abuse. As you balance brush features, quality, and cost to make your selection, here’s something to consider. If you can’t afford high-quality natural hair brushes, ( join the club) don’t overlook a well-made synthetic/sabeline blend. Often these are a better buy than a cheap natural hair brush.

Regarding Ferrules

The ferrule is the metal tube that connects the brush and the handle, and determines the shape and size of the brush head. The ferrule of a good quality brush is thick, seamless, and corrosion-resistant. The best brushes have seamless brass ferrules, nickel-or gold-plated.

Seamed ferrules are soldered, and the accumulation of paint and water along the seam can cause them to split. “The brush will have a more responsive tip if it’s set deeply into the ferrule”.

The best French-made watercolor mops have traditionally been wrapped in a natural quill instead of a metal ferrule, and the French manufacturer “Isabey” still makes high-quality squirrel mops in quill wraps.

Once the quills of many different birds were used – from larks to eagles – but today Isabey primarily used goose quills. With a very soft brush like squirrel the quill is actually more compatible than a metal ferrule. Because the quill softens considerably when it is wet, it actually protects the hairs better from breakage.

A Word About Handles

Seasoned hardwoods, heavily enameled or varnished to facilitate cleaning, are found on the best quality brushes. Cheap brush handles are made of soft or uncured woods and are susceptible to shrinking or warping with use; as a result, the ferrule can come loose. You can recognize a hardwood simply by its weight and balance.

The Art of Buying Brushes

If you want to acquire a find set of tools for painting, do your homework before you shop. The most critical step in the selection process is to define your own needs; ask yourself what kind of marks you expect to make with a brush. Next, you should learn about basic brush-making.

Familiarize yourself with the parts of the brush and the shapes and hairs most frequently used for watercolor brushes a described in this article then, go shopping. Scrutinize a lot of brushes until you can recognize quality brush components and sound construction.

Before buying a brush, try it out. Some stores have brushes on display that you can try. This is an excellent way to sell brushes. If a store you visit doesn’t provide this service, suggest it. Brush response is a tactile, instinctual process. Until you hold it in your hand, dip it in water or paint, and apply it to paper using your technique, you’ll never know if the brush is for you. Don’t buy a brush without trying it first.

In many stores, the most expensive natural hair brushes are kept in locked cases. Given the widespread problem of theft, that’s an understandable strategy.

Still, don’t try to compare different brands or grades of brushes by eye alone. Ask if you can perform some tests that don’t require paint and won’t harm the brush. This is not an unreasonable request.

Here’s what you do. Make sure the protective gum Arabic coating has been completely removed from the brush and then request a jar of clean water and a piece of watercolor paper. Dunk the brush in the water. With a downward snap of the wrist, give it one good shake and freeze. Note how the round or mop points and how the flat forms an edge.

When you squeeze the excess water back into the jar with your fingers, you’ll see how much fluid the brush retains in its belly. You can test a brush’s response and spring by simply painting with water on paper if the sales staff won’t let you use paint.

Be aware that the terms red sable and kolinsky sable are often used interchangeably, which can cause confusion. If a so-called kolinsky seems too inexpensive or doesn’t own up to its time honored reputation when tested, ask to see the brush maker’s literature.

Collecting brushes takes time and patience. I highly recommend buying the best quality brushes you can afford. Cheap brushes are a false economy; it won’t take long before you curse and fume at the results they delivery (and don’t deliver).

If your a serious painter, you’ll end up buying good ones anyway. That’s not to understate the investment involved in outfitting yourself with a decent set of watercolor brushes. Good quality brushes are still made by hand, displaying a level of craftsmanship that’s nearly extinct in the age of fast-paced production. But if you buy wisely and treat them well, good watercolor brushes can last a lifetime of painting.


Rigger, Scrip. This brush enables you to paint a long consistent line. I like to dry brush with this, using the long length. Wash brush.Use for areas to be wetted or painted. Large variety of hair types.

Flat Brush. It’s broad square shape, covers large areas and renders shape crisp edges

Angle Shader. No experience with this brush.

Filbert Shape. A brush that I have no use for.

Striper. Makes fine delicate lines with great control.

Scrubber. Any brush can be used if it has stiff bristles. You can buy at least 3 brushes made in China for about .99 cents.

Round Brush. I paint 90 percent with a number 14. It should come to a fine point and spring back when you run a finger across the good round brush. It will fulfil most of your needs.

Hake. Great for texture (pushing rather than pulling the brush) will cause the hairs to split, hence texture.

DO NOT BUY a metal ferrule hake brush. Water gets trapped in the metal casing, and it shows up at the wrong time. Stitched brush is best as shown below:

Fan Brush. For smoothing and blending, so they tell me.  I don’t use one.

Fan Brush

Round #16 (see below) is used for comparison in this case. The following two brushes that are a complete cure for overworking due to their size.

Quill Mop #17 holds a great deal of paint and has a long point that can also be used for details. Squirrel Hair.  I love this brush.

Jumbo Round #18. This is a great brush for manipulating large areas, but this brush can produce a very fine line. This brush may not be suitable for everyone. But, a round shown here might be a must for you.

Basic Round Brush Construction

Here’s how a basic sable round is made:

1)  Sable tails are individually cut to length by hand,  then combed.
2)  Brush hairs are sized by length,  then bundled.  The exact amount of hair needed to fill the ferrule snugly must be picked in a single pinch – a task requiring experience and skill.
3)  The hairs are tied with nylon cord.  The bundle is then fed into the ferrule.  In general, only about forty to sixty percent of the total length of hair used is visible in the finished brush.  This helps give the brush additional spring.
4)  The hairs are sealed into the ferrule with a setting compound.  The brush head is heated to cure and harden the cement.  This prevents the hairs from shedding during the painting process.
5)  The ferrule is machine-crimped (pinched) onto the handle.

Children Say the Funniest Things

It truly is amazing what kids say……About Watercolor Brushes for Painting.
I was using my best brushes in demonstrating to some 8 – 10 year old school children.

A very colorful painting was appearing right before their eyes, one sweet little girl raised her hand and asked, “What kind of brush are you using to make such a pretty picture?”  Before I could answer, she added, “It sure is painting so nicely.” As though the brush was doing all the work.   Never-the-less, she was smart –  A GOOD BRUSH MAKES A BIG DIFFERENCE.
So what Watercolor brushes for painting do we buy?
A basic set may be as follows:
A #6 Round
A #12 Round
A  1″ fLAT
A #6 OR #8 Rigger (liner).

Brush Anatomy 101 - Watercolor Brushes

Brush heads can be made of just about any hair material

  • Nylon,
  • Treated Nylon,
  • Blended Brushes,
  • Ox,
  • Bristle,
  • Goat,
  • Squirrel,
  • Red Sable, and
  • Kolinsky Sable.

Know what you are buying so that you can get the best deal. I saw some brushes in a local Art Store marked 100-percent camel hair. Give me a break, these brushes have never seen a camel in their life. They stopped making these a very long time ago, even then they were no good.

Watercolor Brushes listed here are priced lowest to highest:

  • White Nylon, very fine filament, no texture, water and paint runs straight down the nylon, not noted for color holding capability.  Not recommended.
  • Golden (or some other words) Nylon, is a  filament that has been treated, pitting the fine strands allowing it to be not only softer but to carry and retain water and color.
  • Ox, not used in watercolor painting very much.  It has course hair and handles punishment well.
  • Bristle,  same remarks as Ox.
  • Squirrel , very absorbent; borders on being very floppy; will not come to a point very well, but if you have a soft, very organic painting style and you love large washes this brush may work for you.
  • Goat,  soft hair, absorbent; get a large puddle or paint ready it will suck-it-up.  Mainly in oriental brushes, great in Hake brushes.  Great for painting very loose landscapes.
  • Red Sable,  slightly below the performance level of a Kolinsky brush (nowhere near the price either).  A good natural hair brush.  Comes to a good point.
  • Kolinsky Sable,  great brush, great price; however,  your work must justify buying these Watercolor Brushes for Painting.

Overall…. the Blended Brush, or the Golden Nylon are good value for your money.  Recommended.