Why is it so hard to find a good watercolor brush?
It might be because every brush manufacture makes what they call a “watercolor” brush. In the madness to determine what really is a good tool, I have simplified what to look for when purchasing one.
BRISTLES: First, try if you can to sample (yes touch) a sable, camel, or squirrel hair brush, no matter what label they are under. Choosing a truly old-school watercolor brush should come down to what it’s made of. Sable has an auburn color, unless it’s marked “white sable”. Squirrel hair is black. These brushes are soft and pliable and do not spring back into shape when you run your finger over the top of their bristles. You want a soft brush for swooshing on washes that won’t fight stiffly to do so. You want a brush that you will waltz with as you paint with watercolor.
You will find that there are brushes that mimic the look of theses brushes, but are not made with natural fibers. They are the same shape and size, but made out of synthetic materials. It’s the rose by any other name scenario. Often they are not solely intended for watercolor painting. They list multi-media, including acrylic, watercolor, and even oils.
We like natural hair watercolor brushes because of the retention: how much water they can absorb. Synthetic brushes do not soak up the water and often the water rolls right off the brush.
The second thing to look for in selecting your brush is absorption. We like to suggest purchasing no smaller than a size 8 pointed brush. You want a brush that can hold a lot of water and release it only when you put it to paper. Our personal favorite brush is a pointed tip size 12. It can handle everything from applying a wash to handling fine details, as long as you take care of it.
There are many watercolor brush shapes to choose from that can also trip you up when making your brush selection. Like so many other occasions in art, when you are first starting out, the saying “less is more” really sums it up. We find that the extremes, like a size zero brush or a 10/12 , can get you from wet on wet washes to fine details and can even help with masking your paper.
After that, it basically comes down to practice and making that brush feel like part of your hand. It will be second nature and just like any other brushes you use often, (hair, tooth, blusher) you will come to rely on it and favorite it over all others.