guide to watercolor brushes

This section highlights the brushes available from the more widely marketed brands in retail outlets, and smaller brands that I feel are worth mention. My brush evaluations are based on personal experience, and my brush testing methods.

A comment from Jacques Turner, in his "Brushes: A Handbook for Artists and Artisans" (1992), bears repeating:

Most artists are not fully aware of the influence the quality of their brushes has on the work they do.... It is very difficult to obtain good results using badly made brushes. I have met beginners who were convinced that they lacked ability because they were unable to produce certain painting effects, when in reality their failure was the direct result of the inferior brushes they were attempting to use.

This is valid as far as it goes, and certainly every artist should own a set of high quality brushes, but it is also true that price is a fuzzy guarantee of quality, and an inexpensive brush is sometimes the best brush you can buy for certain painting needs, especially if your methods are aggressive. Your choice of brush depends on your working practices and painting technique ... use these descriptions to guide your own exploration. The brand of brush you use is not as important as using a brush you enjoy and trust.

In particular, remember that the label "kolinsky" tells you absolutely nothing about the quality of a brush, as explained in the section on brush hair & bristle.

Cheap Joe's
Daniel Smith
Robert Simmons
Rosemary & Co
Winsor & Newton

There are several other brands of watercolor brushes on the market, among them Leonardo, Holbein, Manet (still no Picasso, but it's sure to come), Langnickel, Luco, Princeton, Richeson (including the "Quiller Richeson" line for all watermedia) and Creative Mark, to name only the more widely advertised.


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Many art retailers offer brushes under their own brand — Cheap Joe's, Daniel Smith and Utrecht as described on their separate pages, but also Rochester Art Supplies, Pearl Paint or Amsterdam Art. These have been commissioned from the same quality brushmakers that serve some of the larger and most of the smaller brush brands. Yes, that's right, behind Winsor & Newton kolinsky brushes is a brush manufacturer somewhere in India, who either makes the brushes whole or ships the heads and handles for assembly in England.

If you can find an informed retail salesperson in the store (a big "if"), educate yourself by asking them questions about brushes. They will know what sells and what doesn't, and may know of customer experiences and complaints. Be wary of what appear to be the salesperson's personal preferences, however, unless you understand how their standards resemble (or don't resemble) your own.

Perfectly appropriate qualifying questions include: how long have you worked here? how long have you been painting? where did you learn to paint? do you prefer water media? how do you choose brushes?

And buy sparingly. Brushes are relatively expensive, no matter which brand you buy, and most artists discover that just a handful of brushes is sufficient for all their painting needs. Using a limited number of brushes also helps you learn their characteristics well. The real value of a brush — its durability and responsiveness over time — only becomes apparent after long use.

Prices (current as of January, 2004) are provided for a medium and large brush size in each brush category.