Artists brushes come in all shapes and sizes. They also vary considerably in price. The ultimate watercolor brushes have, for many years been Kolinsky sable. These are also used for acrylic and oil painting. Modern synthetic fibres such as Taklon are quickly closing the gap and providing almost the same quality for a fraction the cost.
You don’t need a huge selection of different watercolor brushes – what you paint will determine which brushes suit you best.
Much of my work involves geometric, architectural shapes, so square tipped one stroke brushes are important for me. I dont use any round brushes, my old 1/2 inch bristle brush takes care of all the organic marks I have to make. If you paint flowers, animals or still life a lot, then a few round brushes would be beneficial.
One inch flat Taklon One Stroke (also called long flat)
Used for precise geometric marks around 1 inch wide. Also useful for softening edges and applying washes.
Half inch flat Taklon One Stroke (also called long flat)
Used for smaller scale geometric marks around half inch wide.
Quarter inch and One Eighth inch Taklon One Stroke (Long Flat)
Used for fine geometric shapes such as bricks windows and fine details
#1 Rigger or Liner
Used for fine lines and small details.
Held perpendicular to the paper will produce hair thin marks.
A round sable brush is ideal for calligraphic, organic marks. Sable brushes retain their point and spring back into shape. The down side is they are very expensive. New synthetic fibres like Taklon are almost as good but a fraction the cost.
Squirrel Hair Mop
Drinks up a lot of paint, but great for big wet washes.
Half Inch Bristle Brush
Great all round brush for watercolor and acrylic. More suited to expressive, organic marks and is always a little unpredictable.
Three Inch Bristle Brush
For covering large areas with acrylic , a big bristle brush is hard to beat. The more expensive variety don't shed bristles as readily as the cheaper ones.
Two or Three Inch Hake Brush (Goat Hair)
Traditionally used for applying big wet washes, but used dry, will smooth and even out a wash. Also useful for feathering out gesso and gouache glazes.
Chinese Calligraphy Brushes
Ideal for varied, calligraphic, organic marks. The large ones can soak up an enormous amount of paint, but will cover a lot of paper before they run dry.
Essential Watercolor Brushes
These are my favourites, but you might like to add whatever brushes you have grown accustom to1/2″ bristle, 1″and 1/4″ Taklon one strokes, 2″ or 3″ Hake (goat hair) #1 rigger
Essential Acrylic Brushes
1″ and 1/2″ bristle, 2″ synthetic house painting brush, 1″and 1/4″ Taklon one strokes, 2″ or 3″ Hake (goat hair) #1 rigger.
Essential Oil Painting Brushes
Because it is more difficult to quickly rinse out an oil brush, a larger number of brushes are required. A few 1″, 1/2″ and 1/4″ flat brushes, a couple of 2″ bristle brushes for larger works and some small taklon flats and riggers (these should always be kept clean by wiping with a rag then washing thoroughly with soap and warm water). I’m not a fan of round brushes, perhaps because of the subject matter I prefer, but Rembrandt used nothing else, so try them and see what suits you.
Quality of Watercolor Brushes
As a general rule, buy the best brushes you can afford. The exception is the 1/2 inch bristle brush I use. This has to be genuine bristle (not synthetic) and the worst quality you can find! It is the unruly, stray bristles that give these brushes their character. These brushes are getting harder to find but Cheap Joe has a set of three containing a 1/2″, 1″ and 2″ for under $4 Better quality versions give more predictable marks with less character.
Hake brushes should be the best you can find – pure goat hair and properly bound and glued so they don’t shed bristles.
Most Taklon brushes are of a similar quality, so the brand doesn’t really matter. I have tried cheap ones and they seem to do the job as well as more expensive ones and last just as long.
If you are going to use sable brushes, buy good quality and be prepared to spend a lot of money.
The two wild, feral bristle brushes on the left are cheap and nasty, but the 3″ Hake is good quality pure goat hair.
Looking After Your Brushes
Watercolor and Gouache are pretty forgiving with brushes, but oil, gesso and acrylic will soon ruin good brushes if they are not kept clean.
Gesso and Acrylic should be washed out of the brush immediately after it is used. A thorough rinsing in a big bucket of water will keep them clean through the day, then a wash with soap and water at the end of the day.
Don’t leave your brushes standing in water – rinse them out and lay them down to dry. An old towel on your painting bench helps dry out brushes while you are painting.
Watercolor and Gouache brushes should be thoroughly rinsed during the process of a painting then washed with soap and water every couple of days. Never leave them standing in water – rinse them and lay them flat to dry.
Oil painting brushes should be cleaned with a rag then washed till thoroughly clean with soap and warm water at the end of each day. Gum Turpentine or Kerosene can be used to initially clean off heavy paint before washing with soap and water.
TIP – when traveling with your watercolor brushes, protect the bristles by taping the finer rigger brushes together like this.