This post and video are from 2015, as I documented my initial forays into watercolor. This post has been updated as of 2021 with notes about what I have come to use, and opinions of some products discussed here originally. There’s also an additional video comparing synthetics and natural brushes in a post HERE.

I started in with watercolors last fall (2014), and have been trying to learn all I could from experimenting. Many of my readers have wanted me to make recommendations – and that’s so hard! There are so many brushes, papers, and paints, and much of the decision-making has more to do with YOU and what you plan to do with it.

This post is 2nd of a series of three, and is broken into:

  1. Paints and papers
  2. Brushes
  3. Technique basics

Supplies for this project are linked at the end of this post. Compensated affiliate links may be used at no cost to you.

An artist’s brush is a VERY personal choice. I mean VERY. It’s challenging to find a brush that I think other painters would be happy with, since I only live in my own skin.

Note that by 2021 I have a different selection of brushes, and that’s after trying so many over the years. It’s a rabbit hole we all fall into! Check out the comparison video between natural brushes, which I love best, and synthetics or blends.

But….I’ll share what I learned at the start and hopefully you’ll learn from my experience! I think my biggest AHA in the past few years is learning that a brush doesn’t make me a better artist. Good supplies are important, but the biggest change you’ll see in your work comes from practice.

2021 assessment: Synthetics are manmade brushes; natural hair brushes use the fur of animals. I have no interest in getting in a fight over animal rights when it comes to brushes; I have bought many synthetics over the years, which have ended up in landfills as they fell apart, lost their spring or bristles, or the handles came detached. My natural brushes have remained intact and useable for this entire time, none ever needing to go into the circular file. Just food for thought – everything is a tradeoff.

Synthetic Brushes

I decided to limit the test to “round” brushes only. That’s a brush shape that I think best suits papercrafters, though there are many other shapes that can work too. The following are all #4 brushes, and they look so different, right? Different companies measure them differently, so don’t assume a $4 is a #4.

7 brushes

Remember….this test did NOT include every brush out there. Do not be offended if your favorite is not listed here. These are all student grade, more economical for crafters (who are my main audience).

  1. Princeton Select
  2. Robert Simmons Sapphire
  3. Robert Simmons White Sable
  4. Raphaël Kaërell Synthetic Sable 
  5. Silver Brush – Black Velvet Line*my pick for crafters
  6. DaVinci Cosmotop 
  7. Blick Master Synthetic 

What size brush do you need?

Well that’s obviously a personal choice too. What do you paint? What size? A great mentor once told me to use a brush just slightly bigger than you think you need for a project, because that will keep you loose. Watercolor isn’t meant to be a tightly controlled medium, so I find that bigger brushes make me hold the handle loosely and not concentrate on details more than necessary.

For crafters I recommend the two sizes below: a Silver Brush Black Velvet Round #8 as a size that can work for most stamping. If you want to do big brush strokes for backgrounds, try a Round #12. And for nice background washes where a large flat is needed, a Mottler Flat Wash by DaVinci.

Natural hair brushes

While natural brushes were not addressed in this video, these are the ones I use regularly for my fine art; I really love how soft they are and the paint flows off the brush. There’s much more discussion and video on this post, but my go-to brushes on a daily basis for fine art:

Water brushes or Aqua brushes

Aqua brushes carry their water with them! There are some advantages to that – when out and about there’s no need to juggle a container of water. And you can impress artists worldwide; I was painting in the sculpture garden of the Louvre, and used an aquabrush. I soon had a gathering of international artists watching my terrible little sketch – and realized it was the brush they were looking at, not my art! In trying to figure out how to answer them, I simply said “Amazon…” It’s the universal language for where they could get one!

Anyway, my favorite aqua brush is the Pentel Aqua Brush – some of the others bloop out water when I’m not ready for it to do so. These do too, but less often.


Handling dirty paint water

First, be careful not to drink it. That’s why I don’t use mugs. LOL.

Having multiple water containers is helpful to keep painting without water getting too filthy too fast; make one a really dirty container, and the other less dirty or clean so it gets any remainder of color out of the brush. This can also be done with one giant container – usually in the studio I use a big plastic container from M&Ms – the Costco size! The water takes a long time to get dirty in that.

Nesting water cups are what I use when out doing plein air painting – they fold up small, and I can hang the handle on my easel.

Brush care

Brushes should be dried flat. Period! Water down inside the ferrule (that metal part around the base of the bristles) will make bristles let loose eventually. Rinse them really really well, shake out the excess, then lay them on a towel to air dry. After all water is gone they can be stored upright in any kind of cup you’d like. You can also store or transport them in a Bamboo brush roll or a make your own brush roll.

Watercolor Supplies I use in 2021

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