When purchasing watercolor brushes for the first time, invest in quality over quantity. Also, you probably don’t need all the brushes you see.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed at the art store with all the different bristles, shapes, and sizes. So let’s go over the different brush types you’ll encounter. Plus: our artist-recommended brushes for watercolor beginners.
Do you need specific brushes for watercolor painting?
Short answer—yes. No one brush fits with all media. Some brush types handle watercolor paint better than others.
Most artists suggest investing in natural hair paintbrushes, particularly kolinsky sable brushes. Good squirrel or sable brushes can last you decades if well cared for. Yet these can be pricier at times—especially kolinsky sable.
But are natural brushes better than synthetic brushes? Not necessarily.
In ancient times, the first watercolor brushes were made by attaching animal hairs to wood or bone. Today, paintbrush manufacturers aren’t limited to natural bristles. There are manmade, synthetic bristles out there that often prove to be just as resilient—if not more long-lasting!
Watercolor lingo 101
The Cat's Tongue brush from the Turner Collection, a synthetic and Squirrel mix.
If you watch or read lots of watercolor tutorials—like the ones we have on our YouTube channel and Toolkit section—you’re sure to hear some of these terms. Here’s what artists mean when they evaluate the types of watercolor brushes:
Flow. Not just a zen state of mind. With watercolors, flow is the capacity of a brush to release color unto the page. Some brushes just dump all the pigment upon first landing. Good quality brushes will steadily flow out the color as you continue to move across the paper.
Point. A point is how finely the end of a paintbrush tapers, whether wet or dry. It also refers to how well the brush holds its crisp point when wet or in use.
Snap. Brushes have memory. A brush is “snappy” if it retains its shape after being bent at an angle. In other words: How well or how quickly can a brush “snap” back into place after use?
Spring. A good brush must be easy to control. Stiffer or springy brushes hold their shape on the page, despite carrying all that fluid paint. A brush lacks spring if it splays once it hits the paper.
How do you choose a watercolor brush?
Picking your first watercolor brushes can be a very personal choice. As they say, different strokes for different folks. Not all brush shapes are viable for every technique. A watercolor calligrapher would have a separate set of go-to brushes than a watercolor landscape artist. Though it never hurts to have an extensive set.
First, know your brush types so you can narrow down your options, and over time develop a personal preference. Next, pick the brush shapes you need and will actually use! Finally, follow your budget.
Know your paintbrush’s hair type
Brushes from the Turner Collection.
Brush hairs are what make a brush, well, a brush. Choose bristle type first then shape second. That way you’re sure to get brushes that are high-quality and high-performing. After that, you can tailor your collection to your painting style.
These are animal-sourced bristles. Since watercolors are fluid, your brush should be soft and absorbent. The best brushes are made with soft, fine natural bristles—typically from squirrel, weasel, mink, ox, goat, pony, and kolinsky sable hair.
Don’t call PETA just yet! Animal-made doesn’t immediately mean animal cruelty. There are ethical and sustainably sourced natural watercolor brushes on the market. Still, you can always go for synthetic hairs that mimic natural hairs.
Kolinsky sable hair
A sable is a kind of mink or weasel. Arguably the best watercolor brushes are made with kolinsky sable hair, taken from weasels in Siberia or China. Kolinsky sable hairs are soft yet strong, excellently snappy, and can hold a very fine point. Demand for these natural hairs is high, hence the high price that comes with these brushes.
Red sable hair
The more affordable alternative to kolinsky sable hair brushes, and still as good in quality and performance. Red sable hair is highly absorbent, soft, supple, and gives you a decent spring and snap.
A squirrel hair paintbrush won’t be as springy as a sable brush, but it’s still soft and fine—and very absorbent. They make excellent mop or wash brushes since they hold a lot of water.
Strong and springy, though a little bit stiffer and rough on the edges. A good type of paintbrush for calligraphy.
Perhaps the most inexpensive of natural bristles. Many student-grade paintbrushes are made with pony hair. These brushes don’t form a good point and can fray easily. Some manufacturers use pony hairs as filler.
Sheep or goat hair
What it lacks in spring, it makes up for in holding a point. Great for washes as it’s soft and absorbent, hence why Japanese hake brushes are traditionally made from goat or sheep hair.
A blend of different hairs, whether all-natural, all synthetic, or a combination of both.
A synthetic filament or bristle is made from acrylic, nylon, or polyester. Good synthetic brushes are designed to mimic the behavior of natural hair. That’s why some brushes say “synthetic sable” or “synthetic squirrel.”
Understanding watercolor brush shapes
If you’re just starting with watercolors, you probably don’t need all these watercolor brush shapes. Still good to know these different brushes so you can gradually add them to your collection.
A good flat brush lets you achieve a wide variety of techniques from thin lines to bold strokes, with straight, squared edges. Wider flats can also help you paint backgrounds and large washes easier.
Arguably the most common and most versatile shape. Round brushes are full-bellied and taper off at a tip. Some round brushes have pointed ends, others have domed ends. Get bigger rounds for broad strokes, and smaller, fine-tipped rounds for detailing.
Flats with a rounded tip. Get these if you enjoy painting floral elements like petals and round leaves. Also great for blending.
Thin round brushes with extra long bristles. It holds a lot more water than you think so you can paint long lines and fine details. Also known as a liner or script brush.
A thick chunky round brush that holds more water and pigment. It’s absorbent and soft, ideal for juicy washes on larger paintings.
Like a flat, straight-edged version of a mop brush. The handles are shorter and widen out at the ferrule. Shorter but absorbent bristles allow for, well, washes all over the paper—a go-to for landscape painters.
Alternatively, a pointed round brush. With its short handle and a sharp point, these are better for up-close detail work.
A flat brush that fans outward. These are good for blending, painting leaves or feathers, and creating smoother edges.
Flat with a slanted or angled tip. These can fill in corners in a pinch. When turned to its thinner side, an angled brush boosts your control when painting thin, straight lines or curved strokes.
Cat's tongue brushes
This one gets its name from its distinct shape: a flat ferrule with a pointy tip. Its wider belly holds lots of water and you can paint fine details with its pointy tip.
What brush sizes are best for watercolor?
I suggest buying only a handful of starter brushes: round, flat, angled, and filbert. Get these in two or three different sizes. One small for detail work, one medium—two, if you want a second brush for blending or mopping up water—and one large for backgrounds or thicker washes.
Brush sizes aren’t standardized, so check the measurements provided by the brush maker. For Zen Art brushes, refer to our watercolor brush size guide!
Typically, watercolor brush sizes range from 00000 (5/0) to 30. A larger number means a larger brush. Sizes are also shown as fractions (12/0, 10/0, 5/0, etc.). In this case, a bigger number means a smaller point.
The best watercolor brushes to start with
We believe high quality shouldn’t cost more money. Our shop has both synthetic options and combination blends that suit beginners’ needs. Check out your next fave watercolor brush set to paint with, only here on ZenART Supplies!
Black Tulip Set: 6-piece brush set for beginners
This affordable set of vegan-friendly watercolor brushes is our best seller for a reason! The Black Tulip set is a versatile option for beginners, with six brushes designed to act like squirrel hair.
Sustainability and quality are important to us at ZenART. Again, synthetic brushes can be just as good as natural hair brushes—and without that extra cost or guilt.
This set includes:
- 2 Round brushes: Sizes 8 and 10
- 2 Flat brushes: Sizes 8 and ¾
- Cat’s Tongue brush: Size ¾”
- Rigger brush: Size 2
Turner Collection: 14-piece brush set for passionate watercolorists
A must-have for professional artists and beginners alike! This whopping 14-piece set can help you master many different techniques of watercolor. Made with a combination of squirrel and synthetic bristles, these brushes hold their shape even after a heavy painting session!
Did we mention the handles are shaped and weighted so you can paint comfortably?
This set includes:
- Cat’s tongue brush: Size 1”
- 5 Round brushes: Sizes 2, 3, 5, 7, and 11
- Rigger brush: Size 3
- Detail Round Brush: Size 000
- Filbert brush: Size 6
- 2 Flat brushes: Size 4 and 8
- Angled brush: Size 5
- Fan brush: Size 3
- Palette knife
Fine Line Set: 12-piece brush set for detailed work
For artists who obsess over minute details. Our Fine Line brushes are made with Japanese synthetic fibers that mimic squirrel and kolinsky sable hair.
This set of small brushes includes all the different brushes you need to create smaller paintings!
- 4 pointed round brushes: Size 5/0, 2/0, 1, and 2
- 3 rigger brushes: Size 4/0, 2/0, and 1
- 2 flat brushes: Size 2/0 and 1
- Angled brush: Size 1
- 2 Filbert brushes: Sizes 2/0 and 0
Don’t wait, just paint!
Need more inspiration to start painting? How about some moral support? Join our ZenART community and connect with other artists, discover new techniques, and receive creative prompts!
Now that you’re familiar with our watercolor brushes, why not check out ZenART’s non-toxic and fade-resistant watercolors? We’ve got a guide on choosing the right watercolor paint that also comes with a free watercolor paint swatching guide!
- MEET THE AUTHOR -
Belle O. Mapa is a writer and artist based in Manila, Philippines. She believes that everyone is born with an inner creative spirit—we just need to nurture and discover it on the blank page. Currently, she lives out her passion: writing stories, hosting journaling workshops, and advocating for mental health awareness.