As a family, we try to travel as much as our budget will allow. And I'm often out sketching somewhere in a woods or field, which my sodden, muddy boots can bear witness. Though I'm willing to use water brushes in a pinch, having a tried and true, really real brush in my hand can't be beat.
Because of my partiality for "real" watercolor brushes, I've built up a small arsenal of pocket brushes that work for my needs.
Well, most of them.
Brushes are favorable only to certain owners. Like a magician's wand in the realm of Harry Potter, the brush chooses the owner. I've had brushes that I've absolutely hated and wanted to fling out a window turn around and perform marvelously in another's hand.
Artist's tools are also like a fairy tale in that, oftentimes, you must kiss a lot of toads before you can find your prince.
In other words, finding your magic wand without Ollivander's assistance may take some trial and error. So that being said, take my observations and comparisons of these common pocket brushes with a grain of salt, try as many as you can, and then let the brush do the choosing.
After that, pack it up, head outdoors, and go make some magic!
[To compare each brush equally, I've posted current list prices at the time this post was written. However, distributors rarely charge list prices, so please note that brush prices and availability vary. Post contains affiliate links, so thanks!]
So what's a pocket brush?
In the art world, a pocket brush is commonly known as an artist's brush with two parts: a short handle with a brush end, and a cap (or "pocket") that protects the brush. When the cap is removed, it posts at the end of the handle to extend the length for painting.
Pocket brushes are also called travel brushes, and there are two main types of travel brushes—a brush that is simply a shorter version of a standard artist's brush and pocket brushes. (There are also retractable brushes, but these aren't common.)
I'm certain the word "pocket" also refers to the fact that the brush can be carried inside a coat or pants pocket, so many shortened brushes are also called pocket brushes by their manufacturers.
Just like in the world of watercolor tube names, there really is no industry standard for titling artist's brushes, so feel free to call them whatever you like. I tend to call any two-part brush a pocket brush, but to minimize confusion, throughout this post I'll use the manufacturers' names.
Tip: Click on any of the images below to enlarge. Click on the title to view product(s).
Purchasing these pure sable pocket brushes was a no-brainer for me. I already have an Isabey rigger that I can't live without, so I hoped Isabey's pocket brushes would perform as well.
I have not been disappointed! These brushes aren't very heavy but have a nice weight and feel in my hand, a lovely point, excellent snap, and release a solid wash... at least a very small one.
Because the one thing I have been disappointed in is the limited sizes available. Isabey only produces a very slim size 4 and 6 round—so slim that the size 4 seems more like a 2. I rarely reach for the size 4 because of its small size, but the brush performs well when I do.
In hand: Thin, light, & balanced
Bristles: Soft with excellent spring
Quality: Excellent overall
Price: $$$$ (size 6, list $52.80)
P.S. Isabey also produces a squirrel mop pocket brush that I haven't tried, but I want to! If you own it, leave me a comment and let me know how you like it. If I ever get my hands on one, I'll update this post.
I had heard much hoopla in artist's circles about Rosemary brushes, so it was with high hopes that I ordered a size 6 rigger and a size 8 round. Shipping to the U.S. added quite a bit to the overall cost, but Rosemary's prices seemed moderate enough to offset this, especially for pure sable.
When the brushes arrived, it was love at first sight. These are probably the most gorgeous brushes that I own. The pearlescent handles and silver accents make these brushes appear like a work of art, and the balance and weight is perfect in my hand. The belly of each brush is full yet tapers to a sharp point.
After a bit of gawking, I packed them in my bag and headed off on a family trip to Washington D.C. However, when I pulled them out to journal the first day of our trip, all love was quickly lost.
These brushes quickly become waterlogged and lose all performance. The rigger paints about as well as a wet noodle, and the round seems to derive great joy in dumping all its water and pigment at once. For example, in the brief test above, the round's inefficient release resulted in a poor wash, blobby grass, and though it's not as evident, a nearly botched line test.
All I can say is that if you prefer a soft, pliable brush similar to squirrel, you may find these perform better in your hand. As far as I'm concerned, these Rosemary pocket brushes are headed into my resale bin.
In hand: Moderate thickness & weight but well balanced
Bristles: Soft & lacking snap
Quality: Beautifully constructed but poor performance
Price: $$ (size 6, list $14.55 + international shipping to the U.S.)
P.S. I reached out to Rosemary about my dissatisfaction with these brushes, and the only solution they offered me was to try their Red Sable blend. With shipping costing as much as the brush and being a bit gun shy from my previous failure, I passed on this suggestion to spend even more money with this company who would offer me no recourse.
This brush was included as part of a set along with the first Pentalic Aqua Journal that I ever purchased. At the time, the set was nearly the same price as a single sketchbook, so I thought this might be a good deal.
I love a fairly firm brush, but these nylon bristles are really too stiff for watercolor. You can see how it just can't hold a wash. However, I keep it in my travel kit because it does have its uses. It works well for lifting, dry brushing, or soft scrubbing and also for times when I don't want to risk damaging my "good" brushes. It's not a "bad" brush; it's just not a great watercolor brush.
Unless you can grab this utilitarian brush for free or in a deal like I did, I don't think its usefulness justifies its hefty list price. At least not for watercolor.
In hand: Lightweight & short
Quality: Decent construction but not suited for watercolor
Price: $$$ (size 7, list $23.95)
P.S. I'm not familiar with this brand, but Connoisseur also produces a pure Kolinsky sable travel brush albeit at a pretty steep price. If you've tried this brush, please leave me a comment and let me know your experiences with it.
I live close to a Cheap Joe's outlet store and was thrilled to discover that Joe Miller offers an affordable set of travel brushes in various sizes... including big ones! Since they are also sold separately, I immediately purchased the largest available, a size 12 round, and set out to use it.
I've spent the past week painting almost solely with this brush, indoors and out, and I love it! The bristles are moderately firm without being overly stiff and taper to a sharp point. The point isn't stiff enough for detail work, but I'm fine with that because I can always reach for another brush.
The broad belly holds a juicy amount of liquid—in the sample wash, I ran out of paper before I ran out of pigment—and the brush has a nice release, especially for a synthetic. There's a slight bit of streaking in the wash but not enough to be a bother. For the price (about $20 for the size 12), this brush performs exceptionally well.
My only issue is that the handle is a bit husky. I'm sure the cap was cut extra wide to fit over the bristles, but this one is rather oversized and could be narrower. I'll have to wait to see how well the tip holds up, but at this price point, I'm happy to purchase another if/when this one wears out.
In hand: Light & balanced but a bit on the husky side
Bristles: Medium firmness but nicely pliable; sharp point; belly holds plenty of pigment
Quality: Excellent for synthetic
Price: $$ (size 6, list $17.32)
P.S.S. A knowledgeable reader just alerted me to Cheap Joe's 50/50 travel options. See Rebecca's remarks about these in the comment section below.
Wild Plein Red Sable Blend Set
Wild Plein is located in sunny California and is a new face in the watercolor world. The company currently offers a set of 6 travel brushes that are available at a fantastic price. The bristles are 95-percent kolinsky sable and 5-percent hog's hair, and they perform as expected for a sable blend.
The size of brushes used in the examples above are listed below each test. The wash is smooth, nearly perfect, but line and loop tests vary with these brushes. Some of the brushes perform well and some struggle with an unsteady release.
The brushes also have trouble holding a point and this is noticeable in the too-wide upstroke of the loop and in the blobby grasses. However, the bristles repoint easily with a little help.
I've written a complete review of Wild Plein's 6-piece travel set, and I'll continue to use these brushes because I'm fine with how they perform overall. However, I've had a few quality issues with the handles, and I've disclosed those problems in my review.
In hand: Light & nicely balanced
Quality: Bristles perform moderately well; handles have issues
Price: $$ (set, list $144.00 but retails for less than $85)
Other Travel Pocket Brushes
In the hopes that my experiences can help you find a brush that you love, below are my opinions of other brushes that are also available in pocket brushes. However, please note that I haven't used the pocket or travel version of these brushes. I have only used the full-size brushes. I assume that the pocket brushes have the same tips as the full-size versions, but I can't guarantee it.
Escoda produces their synthetic Versatil series in a travel size, and I own a full length #8 round. The bristles are moderately firm yet soften in water, and the brush loads and releases well. However, the tip wore out quickly (a commenter below mentions the same issue). Escoda also produces their kolinsky sable Reserva series in a pocket size. Oh how I would love to try these! Currently, Jackson's has the best prices and they often offer free international shipping.
Silver Brush Black Velvet
I tried several full-sized Black Velvet brushes and immediately decided that these weren't for me. I'm not partial to squirrel, but I gave them to a friend who really enjoys using them. If you prefer a very soft brush, these may work for you. You can learn more about these brushes here.
Da Vinci Cosmotop Spin
I once ordered a large, flat Cosmotop brush to use for washes, and this dry, stiff brush did not work for me at all. Kudos to the team at Dick Blick who offered me a full refund for my woes. I suspect that all of these brushes are fairly stiff, but I can't say for sure. If you're itching to try them, it won't hurt to give them a chance, but don't say that I didn't warn you.
Da Vinci Russian Red Sable Series 1523
When I first started painting, I ordered a three-piece set of these full-size brushes because they seemed an excellent brush for the price. Nope. These brushes had absolutely no spring and wouldn't hold a point, so I promptly returned them. I haven't had much luck with Da Vinci brushes, so research these thoroughly before shelling out your hard earned money. Da Vinci also makes a Series 1503 travel brush, called their Maestro line, that I haven't tried. [Edited to add... an SJ reader has tried Da Vinci's Series 1503 travel brushes and was kind enough to share her experience. For more info, please see Deborah's comment below.]
One final recommendation: Jack Richeson Travel Set
If you would like a set of affordable travel brushes that aren't pocket brushes, I have had good results with this travel set. These aren't top of the line brushes by any means, but I think they are a decent, affordable option and have served me well.