"Brushes of good quality are the most important. If properly treated, they will last for years. So do not buy cheap ones that soon go to pieces and do not work well even when new." - Ted Kautzky as quoted from his book Ways with Watercolor
After I completed my studies at art school, I worked as an assistant to one of my professors, James McMullan. He’s an amazing artist who works primarily in watercolor. One of my responsibilities was to purchase his brushes. I clearly recall his instructions on how to select the best ones, "Carefully inspect the ferrel (that’s the metal part that connects the handle to the hairs) and make sure it’s in good shape with no dents or damaged hair. Then, wet a couple of brushes to soften the gum Arabic that the manufacturer applies to protect the hair. Twirl each between your index finger and thumb over a piece of paper and purchase the one that comes to the best point."
Jim preferred Kolinsky hair round brushes which are made from Asian minks. Each hair has a natural curve, tapers thin and is handcrafted to form a point. They are the “Cadillac of brushes" and are quite expensive - ranging in price from $50 - $300 depending on the size! The brush has great flexibility and always snaps back into shape. It holds a lot of water for large painting and a good point for fine detail.
Two of the best brands are Raphaël Kolinsky Red Sable Fine Pointed Round Series 8404 and Winsor & Newton Series 7. The story goes that Queen Victoria (who dabbled in watercolor) favored a number 7 round brush and on the anniversary of her jubilee they named a line of brushes in her honor - the famousWinsor & Newton Series 7 Brush.
These days, I buy most of my art supplies on-line, but I always purchase my Kolinsky brushes at a local art store where I can select the best ones. I prefer the Raphaël brand because it keeps a point longer over time. Like Jim, I am very fussy about my brushes.
A good alternative to the Kolinsky, for those who are just starting out or on a budget, is a synthetic brush. Often called sabeline, erminette or white sable, they are made from nylon. The synthetic hair doesn't taper or curve so the manufacturer trims the hairs along the sides to form a point. You’ll notice the difference right away. They're inferior to a Kolinsky brush but a decent alternative. I recommend Loew Cornell Ultra Round - Series 7020, Princeton Heritage Synthetic Sable Round - Series 4050 or Robert Simmons White Sable Round Brush Short Handle in sizes 6, 8 & 12.
Another inexpensive option are camel brushes which are made from Russian squirrel or pony hairs. They're a natural hair brush that holds a lot of water and forms a decent point. However, they don't snap back into shape and the hair has a tendency to shed onto your paper as you paint which can be really frustrating. I've not had much luck using them, so I don't recommend.
As an illustrator I favored Kolinsky round brushes. But when I began my independent study as a landscape painter, I soon realized that rounds weren’t conducive to my landscape painting needs. I recall watching the popular TV artist, Bob Ross, one afternoon. He put in a tree with an large house painting brush and it looked terrific! It was at that point I asked, why am I limiting myself to one kind of brush? When I worked in oils I used mostly flats with good success. That day, I went to the art store and bought a whole bunch of sableline flats for watercolor.
Flats are rectangular in shape and come in a variety of widths. Purchase sabeline, erminette or white sable and don't get an expensive genuine Kolinsky hair flat. Synthetic ones are affordable and actually preferred. I like to use flat brushes for general purpose painting and often scrap the brush on its side to get texture into my trees. They're especially useful for painting straight edges and great for painting barns, buildings, houses or any geometric object. Flats are sold in inch dimensions - 1", ¾", ½" and ¼" sizes. The better brands include Loew Cornell, One Stroke Flat - Series 7100, Princeton Heritage Synthetic Sable - 4050 Series, and Robert Simmons White Sable Brush One Stroke Series 721.
I paint fairly large, working on full sheet and double elephant size papers and sky wash brushes are very useful for massing in big areas and skies. These brushes are sold in 1" - 2" widths. I have several Loew Cornell Golden Taklon series 7750 Sky Wash Brushes in various sizes. Get one if you like to paint big.
Script liners are another handy brush. They're called riggers because they're useful for painting "riggings" on boats. These narrow brushes with extremely long hair are great for painting thin, curving lines. I also use them for masts on boats and branches on trees. I recommend Loew Cornell Script Liner - Series 7050, Princeton Heritage Synthetic Sable Liner - Series 4050, or Loew - Cornell, Series 7050, LaCorneille size 2, 4 & 6.
Lastly, don't forget to purchase a good canvas brush holder to protect your brushes. When I became a signature member in the American Watercolor Society (AWS), Cheap Joe’s Art Stuff sent me a very special gift to commemorate this milestone accomplishment - a monogramed brush holder with several of their finest watercolor brushes! I still use that holder today.
Do you have favorite brush or brand that you use? Let me know in the comments box below, I'd love to hear what you recommend.