Watercolor Brushes - The Real 411

Watercolor Brushes - The Real 411

watercolor of young woman reading a book Winslow Homer The New Novel                                       Watercolor                                    Winslow Homer

   Anyone who has tried to paint with watercolors quickly realizes the necessity of having a really good brush to work with. Unlike any of the other plastic media, proper watercolor techniques rely on a tool which can delicately release a thin layer of paint onto the surface rather than physically push a more viscous liquid around like oil or acrylic. A novice oil or acrylic painter can make good progress with student tools for a long time. Not so with watercolor. One must have professional paper, paint and brushes in order to learn and advance. There is no way around it.

What Makes a Good Watercolor Brush?

   Deciding what is the best brush for you will require some trial and error. Each artist is looking for certain specific attributes and may ignore others. We all find our favorites over time. So we will discuss what minimum qualities a professional-grade brush should have.

   Watercolor brushes are traditionally short-handled to enable close-up (and sometimes detailed) work on a horizontal surface.

   The watercolor brush should come to a clean shape once wet, with no broken, bent or stray hairs hanging out or any evidence of having been trimmed to shape.

   It must have a large capacity (for the size), be readily absorbent and able to execute fine details from a sharp point.

   It must load and release paint evenly and consistently across all angles to the surface.

   The brush must also have a quality called “snap”, which allows the brush to respond and rebound quickly as the amount of downward pressure applied to it on the surface of the paper is varied. Snap refers to the action of the damp brush hairs snapping upright after they are pulled down and sideways to the handle.This is most important, for this resiliency allows the artist to create a variety of paint widths within the same stroke of the brush, sometimes referred to as “action”.  A brush with no snap bends and does not rebound at all and has no action. I would much rather paint with a blunt, unpointed brush with loads of action/snap than the converse.

Photo of bent sable brushExamples of Problems with Sables: Top, Kolinsky Brush with No Snap
Below, An Older Kolinsky with No Point to It, Literally

    A good watercolor brush should not shed more than a few hairs. Shedding after a break-in period may indicate poor construction.

   It should balance well in the hand. The handle should not feel too fat. I personally prefer perfectly round handles.

   The brush should be durable. The handle should not come loose in the ferrule. There should be minimal warping or swelling of the wood over long periods of soaking. Expect some paint cracking to occur on the handle over years of service.

   Professional quality brushes should be "gummed" when you purchase the brush. Gumming is a common practice that manufacturers of professional watercolor brushes—whether sable or synthetic—employ to preserve the perfect shape of the brush hairs and keep them from damage during shipping. A small amount of water-soluble gum arabic is used to saturate the brushes at the factory. Before use, this must be carefully washed out by working the hairs between the thumb and forefinger under lukewarm water. Once rinsed out, the brush should return to its ideal factory shape by making a simple downward snap of the brush. Do this for each new brush, one at a time. I mistakenly tried to snap out three at once and one of my brushes flew out and hit the floor hard enough to bend the ferrule—ruining the brush. Dope slap for me! By the way, reputable art materials retailers will often provide water to dissolve the gum arabic so that you may try out the feel of the brush in your hand. Use your palm or back of the hand for this.

               print of Siberian Weasel
                         Mustela Sibirica, (Siberian Weasel) by Johann Christian Daniel von Schreber

What is a Kolinsky Sable?

   The best of the watercolor brushes have traditionally been hand-made from the long tail hairs of the winter coat of the male Kolinsky (Mustela Siberica), a species of the weasel family. Native to the Kolin Peninsula in Siberia and also northeast China, Kolinskies do not do well in captivity and therefore must be trapped to obtain their fur. Kolinsky brushes are often referred to as “Kolinsky Sable”, but this is actually a misnomer. A true Kolinsky brush will have no hair at all from the Sable animal—another species of Marten. In fact, there are no laws regulating the use of the word Sable or Kolinsky in brushes. Unfortunately the terms “Sable Brush” or “Kolinsky Brush” don’t necessarily guarantee what type of hair is in the product. Sometimes manufacturers substitute Squirrel or Rat hair or just about anything to get their price point down and still sell as Sable. It is truly "buyer beware", so personally try out in a store any brushes before you buy from an unfamiliar source.

   An import agreement (CITES - Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), which affects only United States customers, has made the pure Kolinsky Sable brushes more difficult to find and much more expensive to buy. Although they are killed to obtain their precious fur, Kolinskies are not currently an endangered species, nor is it illegal to own their fur. The issue is that paperwork documenting the origin of Kolinsky fur (and the rate at which they are harvested) is notoriously difficult to obtain from the rural Siberian and Chinese trappers who harvest them, and the U.S. requires such paperwork for importation. Eventually old stocks will be exhausted and there will not be any more available in the U.S., unless the requirement is lifted.

watercolor of hillside in Maine by George Van Hook
Island Hilltop                               Watercolor                            © George Van Hook

How Are They Made?

   The reason the winter tail hair of the male Kolinsky is so prized for brushes is two-fold. First, the male Kolinsky spends more time hunting outside the burrow than his female mate, developing longer, thicker hair in the winter. To get good snap in a brush, the hairs must be much longer than what is visible emerging from the ferrule—usually twice that, so these long hairs are highly prized and very valuable.

   Second, the unique shape and composition of each strand of these special hairs is what gives the brushes their ability to hold and release paint and to make a sharp, resilient point. The hair is unique because it gently tapers at both ends, with a widening of the shaft about at two-thirds of the hair’s length. This widening creates the paint-holding belly and the tapers create the point. Additionally, each hair has tiny microscopic “scales” along the shaft which give them superior paint holding abilities. Some hairs are thicker and less resilient than thinner, softer hairs. The thicker, stiffer hairs are used in the center of the brush to give it snap, while the thinner hairs are arranged on the outside to absorb and release water quickly and are cupped to form a sharp point. The length of the hair and the arrangement of it within the brush all combine to give it the action and snap which are so desirable.

   Provided that the materials are the very best, ultimately, it comes down to the brush maker—the skilled individual who knows just how to build a great brush. This is why it's important to shop different makers and test drive their brushes until you find ones you love. Today, some of the top Kolinsky brush makers work in Germany.

The Process

   After harvesting, Kolinsky fur pelts are shampooed and hung to dry. Tufts of fur are cut from the pelts, combed and cleaned. Hairs are then carefully sorted by length. Kolinsky hair is extremely valuable. Usually the weight-for-weight price is three times the price of gold, or currently about $58,000 per pound!

   The modern brush consists of three parts. The tuft is the bundle of hair. The ferrule is the seamless metal collar, usually of nickel-plated copper or brass which holds the tuft. The handle is made of a dense hardwood selected for straightness.

photo of brushmaking at daVinci Brush Co.
Steps in Hand-Making Fine Brushes at the da Vinci Brush Company

   To make a tuft, the brush maker selects or counts out the exact number and thickness of hairs required for a given size of brush and places them pointed ends down in a special mold. Thicker hairs will be in the center for stiffness and finer hairs arranged on the outside for water-holding ability. This mold is a hollow brass cylinder with thick sides and base whose inner contour defines the shape of the brush. The bottom of the mold is shaped to the profile of the brush being made—flat for flats and rounded for round brushes. The mold is then tapped repeatedly on a stone slab to drive all the hairs toward the bottom and cup them to the desired profile. Once cupped, the exposed end of the tuft is carefully wrapped and tied with string before the tuft is removed from the mold.

   Then comes the part requiring real skill. The brush maker manipulates and teases the tuft to create the perfect belly and point. It is done partly by eye and partly by feel. The inner end is sheared off to the required length. More than half will remain inside the ferrule, called the "length in". Then the tuft is pulled from the wide end of the ferrule to expose the working end, or "length out". The inner end of the tuft is secured with waterproof glue and hung tuft-down to dry.

   Finally, the ferrule/tuft combination is glued onto the butt end of the prepared handle. A machine triple-crimps it in place to seal out water. The butt end of the handle is intentionally left unpainted or varnished so the glue will bond firmly to it, but this leaves the door open to a failure if water should manage to get past the crimping and is allowed to soak in there for too long. Over time, I have had to re-glue wobbly ferrules back on to the handles of a few brushes with epoxy. White glue won’t hold up.

   As much as I love the silky feel of painting with a natural Kolinsky Sable, I can no longer justify the exorbitant price for that feel when modern synthetics can perform just as well. Yes, synthetics do “drag” a bit more on the surface of my paper, but sables quickly lose their sharp points and over the course of several large paintings become merely high-priced mops, in my experience.

What is Red Sable?

   Red Sable fur is from either of two subspecies of Marten or Sable and is commonly used to make long-handled fine oil brushes. The hair differs from the more expensive Kolinsky in that it is shorter, thinner and tapers more quickly to a slightly blunter point, so the brush is shorter than a Kolinsky for the same size. Quality varies tremendously between manufacturers, but the very best and usually most expensive Red Sable brushes are nearly the equal of a top Kolinsky. The materials used and skill of the brush makers make the difference. They can be used equally well for both oil and acrylic painting if cleaned and cared for properly.

   Watch this short video of brush making produced by Princeton Brushes:



   Another popular type of brush hair is Squirrel. Squirrel is very soft and absorbent, though not really resilient or springy. It has no snap. For this reason it is often used to make high-quality mop brushes. A mop is a brush that is generally used to spread water or a big loose wash of color, or to pick it up. They are not often used for details, except for the special Chinese pointed brushes shown below. This type also does not have any snap, but some artists excel with them. The best squirrel hair is either sourced in Canada or Kazan, Russia. Kazan is more resilient, thinner and longer, and therefore is the premium choice.

Photo of flat squirrel hair brush Photo of flat squirrel hair brush
Richeson Kazan Squirrel Series 20520 Flat Wash Brush, Dampened

Synthetic Watercolor Brushes - the Rise of the Pseudo-Weasel

   Thirty years ago, most synthetic watercolor brushes were crude tools compared to the Kolinsky sable, but a few manufacturers began to develop new fiber technologies in an effort to mimic the qualities inherent in natural Kolinsky hair. During that time I was illustrating books and painting plein air landscapes. I was also wearing out a lot of very expensive sable brushes, (cutting into my food budget), and looking around for any alternatives. Around 1985, Jack Richeson created a new pointed round synthetic watercolor brush, the Series 9000, which I found behaved very similarly to a Kolinsky for a small fraction of the cost. It was made from seven different types of pointed nylon fibers which gave it marvelous painting qualities. Immediately impressed, I switched from using a $125 size 12 Winsor and Newton round Kolinsky to a $25 Richeson size 20 round Synthetic and have never looked back. This development also let me expand the size of my fine art watercolors. By using three size 20 rounds simultaneously, I could keep three colors going at the same time. This allowed me to work big wet washes in my Hudson River landscapes as large as five feet across on a stretched sheet of Arches paper.

watercolor of trees fallen across a stream by John Hulsey
Fallen Trees III                                   Watercolor                                        © John Hulsey

   Today, the latest technology allows the synthetic fibers—either nylon or polyester, (often called “Taklon”), to be tapered to extremely fine points. Fibers are extruded in varying weights allowing the brushes to be made up of different thicknesses of "hairs" to provide hard snap. These fibers can be abraded, etched, tapered, tipped, dyed or baked to give them specific qualities. They can also be curved along their length so that they “cup” to form a brush with a large paint-holding belly ending in a razor-sharp point. Most of the major brush manufacturers have now adopted these technologies in their synthetic watercolor brush lines creating fine, high-quality durable brushes for the professional and amateur both.

   There are significant advantages to using synthetics for the watercolor artist (and for the Weasel!). They are far less expensive to own and replace. They are less prone to damage from paints, insects or breakage. And, they are easier to clean, so the base of the brush and ferrule does not stiffen up with age. They are not sensitive to the caustic action of India ink either, which will quickly ruin a good sable. Overall, they are far more durable than sables - I still have good brushes from 1985! According to Darren Richeson at Jack Richeson and Co., Inc., historically, some of the best synthetic brush makers have been in Japan and the U.K. Recently, synthetic brush makers in India have steadily improved and are now equal as top quality producers of synthetics. Over the decades, I have had the opportunity to slowly try out synthetics from most of the major brush manufacturers. While the low-end seller's brushes are often mediocre to poor, there are companies who regularly make brushes of considerable quality, and I always have a few in my kit. We encourage you to purchase and try products from various companies. Some may be tossed into your brush drawer, never again to emerge, but you will also  discover some life-long favorites this way. It is worth the journey.

Types of Watercolor Brushes

   The rise of synthetics has also had another beneficial side-effect—manufacturers can design and develop many new types of brush shapes, and tailor others to specific applications. This created fertile ground for opportunistic artists to try to incorporate unusual brushes into their mark-making vocabularies. No longer bound by the high-cost and small repertoire of marks which traditional brushes could produce, artists can now create watercolors with all kinds of unusual techniques and imagery in them. We have tried some of these unusual brushes and found them interesting and fun to use, but for the most part we paint with a small assortment of fairly regular shapes. Below are the basic types of watercolor brushes and the kind of marks they can make.

watercolor of an Adirondack lake by Sarah Yeoman
Abanakee Atmosphere                                 Watercolor                              © Sarah Yeoman


   Rounds are the workhorses of watercolor and are the one type of brush where it's important to obtain the very best. Before the advent of high-quality synthetics, it was necessary to have two or three different sizes of Kolinsky brushes to paint with. With the arrival of professional synthetics, we can now use a very large size 20 as both a wash brush for big passages of paint and as a fine-pointed detail brush. This saves both money and time spent switching to flat wash brushes and back. Kolinsky rounds come in three configurations: the standard round which has a length out of about four times the belly diameter when wet; the full bellied round, which also has a length out about four times the wet belly, but has a larger belly; and the pointed round, which has a length out of five or more times the wet belly, but without any widening of the belly. The pointed round is used for very detailed work. Sizes in Kolinsky Sable start at #000, and end about size 14, limited by the length of the Kolinsky hair. Synthetics start at #000 and run all the way up to size 40 or beyond, depending on the application.

   Another type of traditional watercolor brush is the Kazan squirrel mop/wash. (See below.) It is a hand-made brush of the finest Siberian Squirrel hair mounted with Goose quill and copper or brass wire to a sturdy handle. Although it has little snap, it can carry generous amounts of color and paint very fine lines. Some artists,
like Joseph Zbukvic, swear by them, but they take practice to enjoy.

Photo of watercolor round brushesA Favorite Selection of my Rounds, From Top to Bottom: Winsor and Newton Blue Squirrel Wash
Series 250 Size 4, Isabey Series 6234 Kazan Squirrel "Petit Gris" Size 6, Richeson Series 6228
Kolinsky Sable Size 8, Richeson Professional Series 7000 Steve Quiller Size 12, Richeson
Series 9000 Signature Series Size 20, Richeson Professional Series 7000 Steve Quiller Size 24,
Artisan - Santa Fe Series 5580 Size 40

Photo of watercolor round brushesA Comparison of Richeson and Escoda Brushes
(Note the differences in both length of tufts and
bellies, size for size. There are no industry standards for size or construction.)


   Flats are generally used as wash brushes and can carry larger volumes of paint or water than rounds. Flats can be obtained in either Kolinsky Sable, Squirrel or Synthetics, but here again, the Sables and Squirrels are limited in size by the natural hair length. Synthetics can be made almost any size needed, and the availability of four- and five-inch wide flats has made it possible to work much larger and faster than ever before. Professional flats also retain a sharp edge when wet, so can also be used to draw sharp lines. A good flat should be able to hold lots of paint and be rotated during a stroke from flat to edge to create a variety of shapes, including full circles with clean margins. Professional synthetics handle these jobs better than any other types.

photo of flat watercolor brushesA Complete Selection of Flats for Every Purpose: Top to Bottom, Jack Richeson Extreme
Kolinsky Series 7778 3/4-inch, Richeson Professional Series 7710 Steve Quillers in 1/4-inch, 1/2-
inch, 3/4-inch and 1-inch, Loew-Cornell Series 798 Flat Glaze #2

photo of flat watercolor brushesFlats Large to Small, Jack Richeson Signature Series 9010 3-inch and 2-inch, Richeson
Professional Steve Quiller Series 7010 2-inch and 1.5-inch, Richeson Series 20520 Kazan Squirrel
1.75-inch and 1- inch

watercolor of Canyon de Chelly by Gerry Fritzler
Long House Sunlight                          Watercolor                           © Gerald Fritzler


   Filberts or Ovals were designed for blending or shaping curved areas within a wash, or to leave a soft tail on a wet stroke. The hairs or fibers are tapered toward the center of the tip. This feathering allows for a softness in the stroke as pressure is lifted. They can also be rotated on edge during a stroke to create a sharp line. Larger sizes, 1 inch or more, are sometimes called "Oval Sky Washes" for their preferred use in painting seamless washes in landscape skies. Synthetics are excellent choices in this type of brush.

 photo of filbert watercolor brushesA Few Fibert/Ovals: Top to Bottom, Loew-Cornell Series 7000 Oval Size 10, da Vinci 
Cosmotop Spin Oval Size 12, Robert Simmons Sapphire Series S52, 1-inch

Mops and Specialty

   Mops are large very flexible but thirsty brushes designed to pick up and deposit large volumes of water or paint. They are useful in painting where edges are not important, since they generally cannot produce any consistent reliable shapes. A damp-dry mop can also absorb and lift paint or water from a painting surface very effectively, hence the name. They are made from a variety of natural hairs such as squirrel, goat and even pony hair. Synthetics are not as good for mops as natural hair is. They come in a variety of shapes and are generally quite inexpensive. It is always a good idea to have several different types around. Specialty brushes have been developed to answer the demand from craftspeople and industry for specific shapes or fiberts to suit their needs. They are usually made of either synthetics or inexpensive natural hairs—even hog bristle. This presents an opportunity for artists to try non-traditional tools in their painting and see what happens.

photo of watercolor mops and special brushes
Left to Right: Cheap Hardware Store 2-inch Bristle, Silver Brush Co. Series 5518S Round Mop
Size 20, Jack Richeson Series 5235 Pony Mop 1-inch, Richeson Series 9156 Angle Flat 1.5-inch

Liners, Riggers and Stripers

   These small brushes are generally used to create very fine lines or script. The Dagger Striper, so named for the profile of its tuft, was developed for sign painters and automobile stripers who need a small brush which can hold enough paint to draw a long line, and which can also make a variety of fine widths. They are usually made of squirrel hair and take lots of practice to gain any confident control. They work best on vertical surfaces.

   The Liner is a long-tufted pointed brush with tremendous snap and color carrying capacity. It is used to paint long fine lines of consistent width and sometimes has a dull point. Synthetics work best and are more durable than natural hair.

   The Rigger is similar to a Liner, but has a very sharp point, longer tuft and a pronounced belly. The Rigger was developed for marine art to paint ship’s rigging.

photo of striper and liner brushesTop to Bottom: Dagger Stripers, Dynasty Black Gold Series 206SL Liner Size 2, Richeson Series
9020 Liner Size 3, da Vinci Kolinsky Series 1200K Rigger Size 10

Stroke Tests

watercolor strokes testWatercolor Stroke Test: Escoda and Richeson Synthetic Rounds and Flats,
Top to Bottom, Escoda Versatil Syntetico Round Size 20, Richeson Professional Series 9000 Size 20,
Escoda Versatil 1-inch Flat, Richeson Professional Series 7010 Steve Quiller 1-inch Flat,
Escoda Versatil Size 12 Round, Richeson Professional Series 7010 Steve Quiller Size 12

watercolor strokes testTop to Bottom: Robert Simmons Oval Sky Wash 1-inch, Isabey "Petit Gris" Wash/Mop Size 6,
Richeson Kolinsky Series 6228 Round Size 8,
Jack Richeson Extreme Kolinsky Series 7778 3/4-inch 

watercolor strokes testTop to Bottom: Richeson Series 5235 1-inch Pony Mop, Dynasty Black Gold Liner Size 2, Richeson
Series 9020 Liner Size 2, da Vinci Pure Kolinsky Series 1200K Rigger Size 10

watercolor strokes testTop to Bottom: Dagger Striper, Richeson Kazan Squirrel Flat Series 20510 1-inch, Richeson Series 9156
Angled Flat 1.5-inch, Richeson Professional Series 7010 Steve Quiller 1.5-inch

watercolor painting of woman sleeping with dog
Watching You Watching Me                                     Watercolor                                   © John Hulsey

   This is by no means a comprehensive review of all the great professional tools available to us today. We are fortunate to have so many choices, even though the sheer number can be confusing. We have our personal favorites chosen over decades of painting and reflecting only our painting styles, professional expectations, preferences and techniques. Yours may be different. Whatever you choose, always buy the highest quality tools for your watercolor efforts that you can possibly afford. You will be rewarded by their superior responsiveness and durability. With watercolor brushes in particular, try them out in person if you can before you buy. Keep in mind that there are no rules in the brush-making game, and each manufacturer is guided by their own particular goals, whether pride or profit. You be the judge of the tools you want to use. Above all, great professional tools make watercolor a joy to work in. Happy painting!







Copyright Hulsey Trusty Designs, L.L.C. (except where noted). All rights reserved.
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