Since prehistoric times, humans have used brush-like instruments to paint on cave walls. They most likely used sticks with the ends crushed to soften the fibers, and/or animal hair tied at the end of sticks. Until recent history, watercolor brushes were handmade by attaching animal hair to the end of wooden handles.
In the 1800s during the Industrial Age and the invention of the metal ferrule, the manufacturing of watercolor color brushes began. Today, most watercolor brushes are machine-made. Top-quality watercolor brushes are still handmade.
Watercolor Brush Construction
- Hair or synthetic fiber tip
- Metal ferrule
Hair or Synthetic Fiber Tip
Watercolor brushes are made with natural sable hair, synthetic sable fibers, or nylon. The very best are made with Kolinsky sable hair from a species of weasel in Siberia.
Fine quality watercolor brushes are mounted into ferrules made of a hard but malleable, corrosion-resistant metal such as brass or copper. These are typically plated with nickel, silver, or (rarely) gold. Ferrules on cheaper brushes are made of softer aluminum or tin.
Better quality watercolor brush handles are made of seasoned hardwood that is sealed and lacquered for a high-gloss waterproof finish. Cheaper, mass-produced handles are made of unfinished raw wood. There are also brush handles made of molded plastic.
Watercolor Brush Shapes
- Round – for a variety of brush strokes with a fine tip for details.
- Flat – for spreading paint quickly and evenly over a broad surface.
- Mop – for broad washes, soft paint application over layers and glazing.
- Rigger – useful for painting fine lines.
Watercolor Brush Sizes
There is a wide range of brush sizes from very small to very large, respectively: 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 16, 18, 20, 22, 24, 25, 26, 28, 30. The most frequently used are in the mid-size range: 6, 8, 10, 12, 14, 16, 18. The size indicates the width of the hair tip. The larger the size, the broader the brush stroke will be.
Quality watercolor brushes are expensive but worth the investment. If you handle your brushes with care – rinse them thoroughly after a painting session, and store them flat or in an upright brush holder to dry – they will last you for many, many years. To start, I recommend buying Blick Masterstroke Finest Red Sable Brush – Round, Size 8, Short Handle. My favorite and most frequently used sable brush is a Round, Size 12, Short Handle. To learn my process and improve your painting skills follow me on Instagram @vanissajames or by visiting my gallery website: Vanissa James Fine Art.