A good watercolor brush should do at least one fundamental thing: hold water well. Ones made of synthetic hair do a fine job, but those with natural hairs have much better liquid-holding capacity. This is due to their fibrous anatomies, which excel at picking up and retaining water for lengths of time. They also tend to feel more like extensions of the artist’s hand since they’re more sensitive to shifts in pressure. Our picks below will help you find your next go-to brush or upgrade.
1. Winsor & Newton Series 7 Kolinsky Sable Watercolor Brush
If there’s any family of watercolor brushes with celebrity status, it would be Winsor & Newton’s Series 7. These sable brushes have every desired quality an exceptional watercolor brush should have: high water capacity, satisfying spring, and a structured tip that retains its shape and hairs. Developed in 1866 to meet the artistic standards of none other than Queen Victoria, the Series 7 has remained a favorite among beginner and experienced watercolorists. And these brushes sit at the top of our list not only for how they deposit color evenly and smoothly but also for their longevity and relatively accessible price point. In this case, you can definitely trust the hype. Though Series 7 brushes come in a wide range of shapes and sizes, we find this short-handled, #7 round brush to be most useful.
2. da Vinci Russian Red Sable Brush Set
Da Vinci’s brushes come in as a close second to the Series 7, and they offer a more economical option if you’d prefer to purchase a set rather than individual brushes. This assortment includes rounds in five sizes, including a size 0 that is exceptional for miniature painting. Also made of sable, these are not quite as springy as the Series 7, but what impresses us is their ability to carry a surprising amount of water for their size, so you can lay down a lot of paint before loading up again. The brush heads also hold their tips very well and yield consistent strokes with no streaking.
3. Isabey Squirrel Watercolor Brush
A good mop brush is key to achieving great color blending and washes. And a mop with a fine point can additionally be used for detail work. Isabey’s legendary mop brushes are handmade in France from the finest Siberian blue squirrel hair and are rightly known for superior water retention and even paint application. The fat body tapers to a fine point for line work, and the hand-tied plastic ferrules ensure there will be no stray hairs in your painting. The brushes are available in a range of sizes; we find this #6 to be ideal for general use.
4. Escoda Reserva 1212 Series
If you can afford to invest in these top-quality, wood-handled brushes, we assure you that they won’t disappoint. Handmade using hand-selected kolinsky sable that is carefully sourced from Northern Siberia, each elegant tool balances beautifully in the hand and responds to the slightest of gestures. The hairs are dense and long, capable of holding an impressive amount of paint and water. They are a touch softer and springier than the Series 7 brushes, maintaining a perfect point and belly when wet. Because of their remarkable pliancy, they are best for experienced watercolorists who feel confident in their control of water. We wouldn’t be surprised if these brushes last not just for years but for decades. This size 8 brush is a touch larger than our top choice for bolder marks.
5. Raphael Kolinsky Sable Fine Point Round Brush
These brushes are particularly beloved by artists for detail work, as they offer just the right amount of stiffness for drawing fine lines with watercolor. Made of top-range kolinsky sable, they maintain superbly fine points while in action, snapping wonderfully back into shape. They give you so much control over contours that using one is almost akin to drawing with a pencil. This size 6 is fine enough for precision work while still holding a good amount of paint.