Best Watercolour Brushes for Beginners

During a recent Q&A session on my Instagram page, a follower asked for brush suggestions. So today, I'm going to talk more about watercolour brushes that I think are good for beginner artists.

Different types of brushes

There are many different types of watercolour brushes. They can differ in the shape of the brush, the type of hair used, the body and of course the brand.

Let's look at the shape of the brushes.


These are some brushes that I have, from top to bottom

  • Flat wash
  • 2x round
  • Flat
  • Waterbrush
  • Mop

Without confusing you too much on the variety, the most common and versatile brush is the round brush. It's a brush that can produce thin and thick strokes. Next common brush is probably the flat brushwhich can cover a larger area but the strokes are rectangular in shape, unless you paint on its edge. Even for flat brushes, there are the normal flat and flat wash (can hold more water).

The last brush in the photo above is the mop brush, which is a larger variation of the round brush but uses (mostly) squirrel hair to increase its water holding capacity.

Other types of brushes not shown are rigger, fan, angled, filbert, etc.

If you're a beginner, or have limited budget, I recommend you to start with the versatile round brush. The shape of the hair determines the type of strokes it can create. You should choose the brush for the type of work or strokes you want to create. The round brush is a good general purpose brush.

When you have more budget, you can then explore other brushes.

What are the characteristics of a good brush

A good brush should be able to spring back to its original shape after each use. It should be able to hold a satisfactory amount of water so that you don't have to keep on reloading. A good brush should be durable too and be able to last long or you will have to replace them regularly and spend more money as a result.

The characteristics of the brush comes from the type of hair used.

Type of hair

There are three types of hair, namely synthetic, mixed hair, and natural hair.


Sometimes it can be difficult to tell what type of hair the brush is using just by looking at it. So it's important to read the label on the brush.

The type of hair used will affect the characteristic of the brush.

Synthetic brushes are usually slightly stiffer, although nowadays there are those that are quite soft. They hold less water compared to natural hair brushes so you may need to reload the brush quite often. They release water differently compared to natural hair brushes. Synthetic brushes are usually the most affordable brushes.


For example, this synthetic brush is made of white Toray, a type of synthetic fiber. The hair is white when new, but it will be stained with colours upon use. You can clean the brush properly after each use, but the stained colours will not be washed off so don't be too concerned about it.


Mixed hair brushes, as the name suggest, uses different types of hair. Shown above is a Series 5550 Cosmotop Mix F. It uses a mix of Kolinsky Red Sable, Ox Hair (sometimes called Sabeline), Russian Fitch (Black Sable) and some synthetic hair. The use of mixed hair allows the brush to have characteristics of each hair. It's not like brush has all the best characteristics because the portion of hair used is split between the types. For example, if a mixed hair brush has more squirrel hair, then it's going to be able to hold more water, but it will also be softer and less able to go back in shape.


Natural hair brushes are from animals. Different animal hair have different characteristics, of course. Goat hair for example feels like a rag and is difficult to achieve a sharp point and get back in shape. Sable hair is the top quality hair for watercolour painting. They can hold a good amount of water, have a nice spring back to shape and can achieve sharp points. A good Sable brush is expensive.

If you're a beginner with limited budget, I suggest starting out with synthetic hair brushes first. If you find that the brush is limiting you, or is unable to achieve certain effects, you can then upgrade to better quality brushes. But if you're really serious about watercolour, then perhaps you can just go ahead and get a Sable brush.

Type of body


There are the traditional wooden bodies and the portable collapsible versions.

I recommend getting the collapsible ones because they are as durable, and they have the advantage of being easy to transport around. You can collapse the body, use it as a cap to protect the hair. In its collapse form, you can put it in a pencil case or throw it into your bag. Downside of collapsible brush would be the limited sizes. The largest collapsible brushes from Da Vinci and Escoda go up to size 12 only, which is actually more than large enough for most people.

Water capacity and control


This picture above shows the water capacity of synthetic, mixed hair, Escoda Versatil and the sable brush. The difference may be appear obvious, but in real life, synthetic brushes hold less water and you will need to reload it more often.

Low water capacity means it's challenging to create large washes, either flat or gradated. When working in hot climate where paint dries quickly, by your next reload, your earlier wash may have dried and when you add the second layer, you'll see a sharp edge from the first wash, which may be something you do not want.


Here are some thin and thick strokes from synthetic brush and the mixed hair brush. Note the uneven distribution of paint at areas where I press down to get thicker strokes.


These are thin and thick strokes from a sable brush. The sable is able to release water more consistently and it's easier to achieve flat and predictable washes.

Which sizes to get


I usually draw in A5 sized sketchbooks. I find size 6 to be a good size.

Personally, I would recommend either a size 6 or 8. You can get a few brushes in different sizes. For example, you can get a small (2), medium (size 6 or 8) and large brush (12). If you're unsure, start somewhere in the middle, and determine what other brushes you need later on.

Note that Sable brushes become exponentially more expensive as they become bigger.

Durability

With proper care of brushes, they can last quite long. Generally speaking, synthetic brushes are less durable compared to sable brushes. But with proper care of brushes, they can last for a long time too.

Should you get a waterbrush?

Waterbrushes are convenient because they are easy to transport. But they can be difficult to use because the in-built water supply is always providing water, so it will affect your mixtures. For example, I personally find it to be more difficult to create a perfectly flat or gradated wash (both are very easy to achieve with normal brushes). Also painting with waterbrushes may make the painting look a bit patchy at times because it may be difficult to control the water flow.

It's easy to learn watercolour painting with normal brushes.

That's why I suggest a brush that's collapsible. At least the brush is still portable, but you do have to bring additional water supply to wash the brush.

Recommendation

These are my personal recommendation. Links are to Amazon. You can research further because there are so many brands out there. As long as the hair is the same, the quality of brush should not differ too much across different brands.

I'll recommend collapsible travel brushes whenever possible. There are always the wooden handle version. The names of the brushes are the series. In each series, there are different shapes, e.g. round, flat, rigger, filbert, etc. Get the round brush when starting out.

Synthetic round brushes

Mixed hair
Da Vinci Cosmotop Mix B

Sable brush

Mop wash brushes

Flat brushes

Other recommendations

da Vinci Watercolor Series 5240 set - This is a good set with all the necessary brushes, but quite pricey. So it may be worth well to get the brushes separately.

You can check out watercolour brushes from Jackson's Art Supplies (UK) too. They have free shipping for brush orders above £20 (easy to reach).

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28 Comments

Teoh,

Teoh,

The nevskaya palitra is very hard to get online. I brought one from Taipei last year and love it, the point is good and the brush retains its form. I'm struggling to find any online, do you know any shops that sell and ship internationally? I want to get other sizes.

Thanks
Tina

Hi Teoh

Hi Teoh

One more thing, I found the size of the Nevskaya a lot bigger than other brushes, but I’m not sure because I’m comparing them to my synthetic brushes and that all kolinsky sizes are bigger. I brought the size 5 and it felt like a size 10 (compared to escoda versatil). I would like to get a size smaller, if I go for the Escoda brand kolinsky, do the sizes align to the Escoda versatil range or are they the same size as the Nevskaya?

Which escoda range should I look at, I saw your review on optimo but it’s Mixed hair, and the next one up (Rivera?) looks to be a travel brush which I don’t need.
Thanks

Thanks again Teoh

Thanks again Teoh

I brought a da Vinci Watercolor Series 5590 Petit Gris Mix Paint Brush previously and I hated it. The brush wouldn’t hold its shape and when it’s wet it bends sideways and stays slanted and it’s also hard to control the shape of the brush. Since then, I stayed away from the da Vinci brand. Even my cheap cheap $1 brushes performed better than this one. Perhaps it was a bad line of the da Vinci brand.

But I’ll check out the casaneo brand

Thank you again

I just read your review on

I just read your review on the casaneo brush where you say

“Real squirrel brush hair cannot go back to their original shape after each stroke because the hair is too soft”

This is exactly what happens with my da Vinci brush - why do people use real squirrel brushes? They don’t swing back to shape! I don’t understand the benefit of this. I find it most annoying :D

I don’t have this problem with the nevskaya, isn’t that real sable as well

Hi Teoh - I got to know you

Hi Teoh - I got to know you through the Urban Sketcher videos you had made, thank you for all of these informative recommendations!

I would like to get your take on brush selections. (I live in France) I have been using synthetic brushes for a few months, and I would like to get recommendations on an upgrade. I am currently using Winsor & Newton cotman brushes, but the larger round (#6, 10) don't snap back and stay flat after making washes, and had been quite hard to manage with multiple reloads. The smaller rounds (#1, 4)are nice for details, but I also find the tips bend after a while, and sometimes a stray hair sticks out longer at the tip, maying it hard to make precise strokes. The other set I have is a Raphael precision travel set. They hold water better, and also provides nice point, perform nicer than Cotman for me, but perhaps not snappy enough. (I draw in A5 or A6 smaller scale drawings, largely of pets, objects, plants, etc.)

I would prefer to stay with synthetic brushes to be animal-friendly - I have heard both Escoda Versati and DaVinchi Casaneo - how would you compare the stiffness of these 2? And how are these compared to Raphael Karell or Rosemay & Co, if you have experience with them?

I am however still very curious about sable hair brushes - do they really make a huge difference in performance? As I was browsing the website of jackson's art, I found a set of Escoda Optimo, 5 round brushes, for less than 40euros! I saw your other review that optimo is not the best, but for this price, would you recommend it for the value this price provides?

If you feel that it is better to invest in one nice natural hair brush rather than a cheaper set, which would you recommend? I would like to start with a round hat is about 0.25 - 0.35cm diameter small brush for detailing.

Thank you again!
Cecilia
instagram - @monsieur.fifi

Thank you Teoh!

Thank you Teoh!

I will consider the 2 options,
- escoda optimo set (sable) from Jackson’s art ( as it is a great deal ), and use my current W&N round 10 for large area, or,
- Davinci Casaneo for synthetic option.

Love your blog as always!
Cecilia

Hi Teoh

Hi Teoh
Thank you so much for all of your wonderful posts and videos, they’ve been very helpful! I’m a beginner and I got a size 8 round Silver Black Velvet and a size 8 round Princeton Neptune. I thought I’d love the black velvet but both brushes feel a bit too soft to me. I’m trying to decide what to try next as a main brush. I think I want a travel brush. Budget is an issue but I do want to get something I’ll be happy with. I thought maybe a Escoda Versatil or an Escoda Reserva but the reserva is pricey. Should I get an 8 again? Is there another brush you think I should try instead? I just want more spring than the Neptune and black velvet with decent carrying capacity and a nice point. Thanks!

Hi Teoh!

Hi Teoh!
I am considering buying my first watercolor brush and I was thinking about buying a da Vinci brush (I am not sure if I should buy a size 6 or 8). I have two types in my shop:
Cosmotop mix B and Casaneo
They are both at the same prise. I haven't really found a review on them and I could not decide on the size. Which one would you recommend for a beginner in size and type (it would be my first brush for now)?
Thank you very much!

Hi Teoh, I have a question,

Hi Teoh, I have a question, between the Da Vinci Casaneo large round set 5598, or the travel kit Da Vinci Cosmotop Spin 3-brush set, which you recommend? because I read in some parts says the Casaneo, but in others the travel kit. I know the travel kit is for go out and paint, also it comes with a good protection, but on the other hand many persons and you also recommend Casaneo.
What do you think?
thank you and great job!

Oh thank you Teoh, because

Oh thank you Teoh, because now I am in Canada and I don't have many choices to buy online, so I have a big doubt with the Casaneo because in Amazon I found 2:
1) Da Vinci brushes 5598 Casaneo Large Round (sizes 5, 6, 8, 10) set Black 4.
2) Da Vinci brushes 498 Casaneo Quill (sizes 0, 2, 4) set Black 3.

The second is squirrel