I often get asked, "What watercolor brush should I begin with?" If you're brand spanking new to this medium, I always highly recommend beginning with an affordable but well made synthetic-bristle brush.
Before investing any serious money...
It's important to make sure that you actually enjoy watercolor painting and then spend some time learning a little about your painting style, preferences, and various techniques. After using a synthetic for a while, it's also much easier to recognize a quality, natural-hair bristle brush.
Starting out with one large, pointed round is probably the most versatile option. This one watercolor brush can perform a variety of duties from washes to fine lines to lettering.
After a bit of painting experience...
It's time to splurge. For a second brush, I'd concentrate on the best you can afford which will probably be a natural-hair bristled brush. Some folks (like me) prefer Kolinsky sable for its spring and snap. Others who tend to pull their brushstrokes may prefer a softer brush like red sable or squirrel.
I enjoy painting with a slightly snappy, high capacity round. If this is also your preference, I've listed some of my favorite brushes, from synthetics to naturals, that I think will work well for beginners.
If you don't know what your preference is yet, no problem! I've also listed an option that didn't work as well for me but works wonderfully well for others.
In the samples below, be sure to pay attention to how smooth the letter is (often an indication of softness) and how the pigment is released throughout the pull. Click on each photo to see current pricing, explore various sizes and shapes, and more at my favorite local art store, Cheap Joe's.
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Synthetic Bristle Watercolor Brushes
Loew-Cornell Golden Taklon
The standard round has wonderful capacity and is my go-to mixing brush. (Another good reason to keep a synthetic on hand: Don't wear out expensive brushes with mixing!) Because of this, the tip is beginning to show wear, but this is normal with synthetics which tend to have a more limited lifespan than natural hair. Regardless, there's still plenty of life left in this brush.
Taklon bristles are often earmarked for acrylics so it's a bit stiffer and drier than what's often used for watercolor. In the sample above, it's obvious that the brush runs out of pigment and starts to pull a dry wash about midway. Regardless, this brush performs well with watercolor, and its stiffer texture may aid beginners who are still learning proper brush technique and care.
Miller's Pseudo Sable
I currently own this brush in a travel size, and I've reviewed it here. The bristles don't feel like sable to the touch (Cheap Joe's website says they're nylon), but the performance is so outstanding (just look at that gorgeous pull in the photo above!) that I think this brush is aptly named.
I prefer painting with a large brush so this has quickly become my favorite travel brush. It easily and effectively paints a line from thin to thick, so in the field, I often complete entire paintings using only this brush. Since the prices are so affordable, whenever I need a synthetic, I'll be buying these from here on out.
Silver Brush Black Velvet
These brushes are actually a blend of synthetic and squirrel and are a softer alternative to the brushes above. I've tried two of the brushes, a round and a dagger, but they didn't suit my painting style so I've since passed them along to a friend who enjoys using them.
Her excellent opinion of these brushes: Compared to other similar brushes, Black Velvet hits a snappiness sweet point. I can create loose, organic, expressive brushstrokes or do extremely detailed work with their needle fine tips. I own the 3/4 Oval, Wash, 3/8 dagger (my most used brush), a #1 script, and 4, 8, 12, and 16 rounds. I'd recommend the #8 round to beginners.
If you read reviews, you'll see that she's not the only one who loves these brushes. One of my watercolor heroes, Steve Mitchell, has a video tutorial on lifting and he uses this brush. As Steve paints with it, watch how he constantly repositions the tip. This would drive me insane, which is probably why this brush didn't work for me, but it doesn't bother Steve a bit and it may not bother you either.
Natural Bristle Watercolor Brushes
Dick Blick's Master Kolinsky Sable
These were the first "real" watercolor brushes that I ever purchased, and I still own and use them constantly. I originally chose them because, for Kolinsky sable, they're fairly affordable. They turned out to be workhorses. For more than two years now, they've held up extremely well to daily use. (And in my beginner hands, probably some abuse.)
As I mentioned here (see #4), I've had a bit of trouble with the largest one not holding a point, but I don't think it's the brand but more likely an issue with the individual brush. All it takes is a quick roll to repoint it, so it really doesn't bother me.
Because of Blick's amazing customer support, I have no qualms recommending these. If a problem does arise, Blick will happily make it right.
Cheap Joe's Legend Kolinsky Sable Brushes
I own two of these brushes, one in a travel size and one in a full, and love them both. I think they perform as well as much more expensive brands (see Isabey below), and I constantly use them to lay down a juicy wash or for painting loose landscapes.
My full-sized version splays like a pony brush when it's dry. A bit disturbing, but since it quickly rewets into a beautiful point after a dip or two, I don't let this scare me. For some reason, the travel brush doesn't do this. (If it did, dry splaying is easily resolved with a light layer of Master's. Just allow it to dry in your brush and rinse before use. Won't hurt a thing!)
Be aware that these brushes run large. My size 10 has a massive bristle head (not that I'm complaining) and even the handles are quite thick. However, if you give them a try and aren't happy, Joe graciously offers a 365-day-return-for-any-reason policy.
Isabey Kolinsky Sable
I own four of these brushes, a 6227 round, a 6222 rigger, plus two travel rounds, and every single one is absolutely incredible. (The series numbers refer to nothing more than the bristle shape.) They are super soft but have unparalleled spring and snap. In my hand, they paint like a dream! Just check out that gorgeous sample above!
But be forewarned... these dreams come with hefty price tags. Ouch.
And Isabey runs on the slim side, so you'll have to pay even more to gain the same size you might otherwise score in another brand. Still, if you have the money to spend and you're working your way toward being a professional watercolor artist, Isabey brushes are worth a look. But in all honesty, if you never own one, you'll probably never miss it, so don't stress if these are beyond your budget.
If you prefer squirrel over sable, I've heard that Isabey's Squirrel mops are also the cream of the crop, but again, there are plenty of decent, cheaper alternatives available.
P.S. I have a series of articles about watercolor brushes (scroll through the article gallery below), but if you're still confused, feel free to leave me a comment. I'd love to help or hear what you have to say. And feel free to chime in if you can recommend other watercolor brushes that will work well for beginners. I always love to hear what works for others!