This article shares my experience with watercolour brushes over the years. It covers the reasons why some brushes cost more than the other, and I'll also provide my recommendations on the value-for-money brushes.
When I first started using watercolour, the brushes that I used were the cheap synthetic ones with brands unheard of. It wasn't a very satisfactory experience because of the way those brushes handle. Over time, I read many books and also learned from other artists regarding what they use, and upgraded my brushes slowly.
You don't really have to spend too much to get a good brush. There are lots of different types and brands of brushes today that offer good value for money.
What affects the price of watercolour brushes?
The type of material used to make the hair determines the price of the brush. And the more hair used, the more they cost.
When comparing brushes of the same size, those that use natural hair usually cost more. By natural hair, I mean sable, squirrel, ox, goat and any other type of hair commonly used in watercolour brushes.
To rank the types of hair in terms of affordable, from the most affordable to the expensive: synthetic, imitation synthetic, mixed hair, squirrel, sable.
Synthetic hair brushes (CHEAP)
Synthetic hair are fine filament of plastic cut into bristles. Some examples of synthetic materials are Black Taklon, Golden Taklon, White Toray, and Gold Toray, Nylon. These plastic fibers can be dyed into different colours and the more common colours are white and golden.
They are firm and good for details. Some manufacturers actually make them soft to mimic natural hair brushes. Downside is they don't hold as much water compared to natural hair brushes. When painting, I find that I need to reload them much often. Because of the low water carrying capacity, they are not suitable for creating large areas of wash. For detail work that involve short strokes, these brushes suffice.
Since it's cheaper to make brushes out of these materials, these are the most affordable brushes you can find in the art store. Synthetic brushes don't last longer than natural hair so you have to take into account the cost of replacing them as they wear out.
While they have their purpose, personally for me, I avoid them and prefer to spend a bit more to get a better brush, the mid-range brushes.
Imitation hair (MID-RANGE)
These are hair fibers designed to mimic natural hair characteristics, more specifically the ability to hold more water.
Escoda is an example of a company that offers imitation hair watercolour brushes in addition to their huge variety of brushes. They have the Versatil brushes that are made to mimic expensive sable hair and the Ultimo Tendo Synthetic that mimics squirrel hair. Both Versatil and Ultimo are much cheaper compared to the natural brushes they are trying to imitate. They actually perform quite well compared to natural hair. In particular, I really cannot differentiate the Ultimo against real squirrel brushes.
As for the Versatil brush, when it comes to small sizes, a sable brush is still able to hold more water. But at larger sizes, the water capacity difference between Versatil and sable is not that significant. However, at large brush sizes, the sable cost significantly more. Hence, it's more economical to get a small sable and a large Versatil.
Mix hair (MID-RANGE)
These are also economic alternatives to natural hair brushes.
Da Vinci have their MIx B and Mix F watercolour brushes that use mix hair. Mix B is a mixture of Kolinsky Red Sable, Russian Blue Squirrel, and Russian Fitch (Black Sable) and synthetic hair. Mix F is a mixture of Kolinsky Red Sable, Ox Hair (sometimes called Sabeline), Russian Fitch (Black Sable) and some synthetic hair.
Nice thing about mix hair brushes is they have characteristics of individual hair that are used. For example, squirrel can retain lots of water, and sable gives you the ability to return to shape, and synthetic cuts down the cost of these brushes.
Natural hair (EXPENSIVE)
Natural hair brushes are the most expensive type of brushes. There are different types of hair, such as sable, squirrel, ox, goat and others. The rarer the animal, the more expensive the hair. Sable hair is most expensive because the animal that provides the hair only comes from Russia.
Sable hair are prized because they can retain lots of water, release water easily, retains a sharp point and can go back to shape easily.
Prices of the brushes increases significantly compared to the brush sizes. Some can go over hundreds of dollars. And there's a reason why you don't see sable hair being used in flat brushes. They are just too expensive!
There may be travel versions of the brushes mentioned above. For the portability, sometimes these brushes may cost more. The ones that I've reviewed includes Versatil, Reserva, Optimo, Rosemary and the Da Vinci Maestro Travel (shown below).
If you really have limited budget, then perhaps the synthetic brushes might be good for the short term.
My recommendation would be to get imitation hair or mix hair brushes because I think they are more affordable and still provide a good quality experience. A good mix hair round brush such as the Da Vinci MIx B, Mix F or Escoda Versatil would be good.
If you have more budget, you can then upgrade to sable brushes in the future.
Where to get the brushes
I usually buy my brushes online as local art stores here do not stock the ones that I want.
Jackson's Art Supplies (UK) is a good online store that offers free shipping for brush orders over £20. If the brush I'm looking for is not there, I go to Amazon (US | CA | UK | DE | FR | IT | ES | JP) but I have to pay extra for shipping to Singapore.
If you're in US, there's Utrechtart, DickBlick and many others.