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Best Watercolour Painting Brushes For Your Artworks

Artists brushes

How do you know which are the best brushes?

Choosing watercolour painting brushes is not simple. When you visit your art supply store, are you bewildered by all the types, sizes, handle lengths and composition, bristle types, price?

While there are many and varied types of watercolour brushes, the ones that are most often chosen by watercolour artists are listed below, with the hair (bristles) types shown at right.

John Lovett, a renowned Australian watercolour artist, has a very good article on brushes for watercolour as well as some tips for caring for your watercolour brushes.

Watercolour painting brushes on mixing palette

Watercolour painting brushes on my mixing palette

Some brush types

Most popular watercolour

  • Round
  • Flat
  • Rigger/Liner
  • Mop or Wash
  • Hake

Some Bristle Types

From most expensive to least

  • Kalinsky sable
  • Red sable
  • Squirrel
  • Synthetic —Taklon, Nylon
  • Sable/synthetic mix

Round Brush: Work-horse

You can do so much with each brush type, but for a general 'work-horse' choose a round brush.

One of the online courses I took when I began watercolour painting was “Dictionary of Marks” on Art Tutor. (Previously I always painted in acrylic.) With a number 8 round brush, I made all the marks you see in this picture, and more on other pieces of watercolour paper.

Since that course, I have learned much about brushes from taking other online lessons, and from my own practice. Most often I use a number 12 round brush for almost all the work I do. Any time I need fine detail, I use a rigger.

Quality of Watercolour Painting Brushes

You may have read that you need a pure Kalinsky sable brush for watercolour painting. These can be many hundreds of dollars.

The truth is that you can get beautiful results like the wonderful paintings of Heidi Willis with good quality white taklon brushes.

While participating in one of her classes, we had to practise making marks with a number 8 round taklon. The picture shows marks on 300gsm cold pressed Arches™ paper on the left and on Stonehenge™ coloured pencil paper on the right. (The only smooth surface paper I had on hand.)

Sable/synthetic mix bristles in a watercolour brush give you the best of both worlds.

Marks made with a round brush

Marks made with a round brush

Marks with No8 Taklon round brush

Marks with No 8 Taklon round brush after class with Heidi Willis

Which Are The Best Watercolour Painting Brushes For You?

While there are many types and styles of watercolour painting brushes, it comes down to the style of paintings you want to produce. Rough (cold pressed) paper, big brush strokes in a loose manner with little fine detail, or smooth (hot pressed) paper, fine brushes and even finer detail? When you find your style, you will know what brush type is for you.

Daffodils in loose watercolour technique

Daffodils in loose watercolour technique

Therefore, The Best Idea Is To:

buy the best quality brushes (and indeed all your equipment) that you can afford, take good care of them and they will reward you with good service for years to come.


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Watercolour paper trials and paper weight information

Watercolour paper is finicky. It is either too soft, too thin, too smooth, too rough, can have insufficient sizing ...

Paper for painting is sold by its weight in pounds (lbs) or grams, in sheets or blocks or pads, its surface texture, and its content.

In the picture at the top, I used 300 gsm sketchbook. This paper absorbed less of the water and so the pigment was more diluted, drying paler, and could be glazed for deeper colour. There is no cockling.

In the other (110 gsm) sketchbook, the cockling is very evident. The paper absorbed more water, making it buckle, and glazing would not be satisfactory.


300 gsm watercolour paper

300 gsm watercolour paper

Cockling on 110 gsm watercolour paper

Cockling on 110 gsm watercolour paper

Paper weight

In metric terms, the weight of 500 sheets of paper can be:

  • 90 grams per square metre (gsm) — great for sketches, notan thumbnails, but too thin for watercolour. Imperial equivalent is 60 lbs.
  • 110 gsm/74 lbs — often on a school requirements list, but not recommended by most serious artists for paintings. Again, great for sketchbooks.

The two most popular papers for watercolour painting are:

  • 300 gsm/140 lbs is the paper of choice for many artists, although it may need stretching to prevent cockling, especially if you are using very wet washes.
  • 640 gsm/300 lbs is excellent for painting your 'masterpieces'. Although the cost is greater, the results are far and away worth paying the extra.
Turquoise Flight

Turquoise Flight (300 gsm paper)

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Hake brushes: What are they?

Hake brush

Watercolourists use a hake (pron. har-kay) to help them when painting

Artists use hake brushes in different ways, but I was impressed with how it was used to re-wet areas that were drying and to dampen areas that are next to paint, while watching a video boxed set course by Paul Taggart, Learning to Enjoy Painting  in Watercolour

Paul showed how to use a hake brush in several ways:

  • Wetting the page
  • Wetting the area you are about to paint
  • Removing extra water before it causes problems
  • Blending areas together
hake brushes
Image: Dick Blick Art Supplies, click the image to see more details.

Of course I had to go straight away to the art supplies store, Express Hobbies to buy myself one.

The hake I got from Bob at Express Hobbies was like the largest one in this picture. It has soft goat hair bristles packed thickly together, which makes it a ‘thirsty’ brush which will hold a lot of water.

How to use a hake successfully

  • To stretch the paper before you start to paint
    • Thoroughly wet the brush and starting at the top, brush across the paper moving down at the same time.
  • To wet or re-wet an area you about to glaze or paint
    • Wet the brush thoroughly, then flick it to remove the excess water and gently stroke the surface where you want the wetness
  • As you paint, runs may start if you work at an angle
    • Image: John Lovett Watercolour Workshops - Hake brushDry the brush on a towel by stroking it across the towel, and then stroke across the painting where the run is, and blend it away
  • In the same way, blend an area of sky with a mountain or hill top

While I painted Cudgegong Afternoon, I used a large squirrel hair mop brush but wasn’t able to get it flat enough to do what the hake will do.

Now that I have my own hake brush, I will get more control of the wetness, an issue for me as I paint on the verandah outside the cabin.

I will let you know how I fare with it.