Types of watercolor brushes: Which ones do you really need?

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It may seem like there are a zillion types of watercolor brushes to choose from, but I can assure you that with a little more know-how, you’ll be able to distinguish them all in no time.

Learning more about different brush shapes, sizes, and hair types will give you more perspective on performance and outcomes and undoubtedly pay off as you evolve in the craft.

This guide is for first-time watercolorists who want to learn more about all the different types of watercolor brushes, from shape to material. If you just want quick recommendations for which ones to buy, check out our list of the best watercolor brushes!

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How many types of watercolor brushes are there?

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It’s hard to pinpoint precisely how many types of watercolor brushes there are, but unless you’re a full-blown watercolor pro, you won’t need a vast range to get started.

The main types of watercolor brushes used across all skill sets include round, flat, filbert, liner, and mop brushes.

You’ll find variations within each brush type, including models with different hair types and brush sizes. You’ll also find watercolor paintbrushes with longer or shorter, thicker or thinner handles.

You can even find collapsable travel watercolor brushes and nylon-bristle water brush pens. Just this variety alone pretty much explains why it’s so hard to define the exact number of watercolor brush types!

On the bright side, you’ll never have to worry about running out of options!

As a beginner, when you’re searching and learning more about watercolor brushes, remember that the goal isn’t to use them all but to discover your personal preferences based on the techniques and effects you want to explore.

Round brushes vs. flat brushes

Many artists tend to categorize watercolor brush types into two main categories: round brushes and flat brushes.

An easy way to distinguish each brush type is by looking at the ferrule. A rounded, oval-like ferrule will support round brushes, whereas flat brushes will be attached to a broader, rectangular-shaped ferrule.

Each brush style has different features which can be more or less convenient for specific techniques.

Here’s what you need to know about each:

Round watercolor brushes

  • Perfect for precise lines and detail
  • Easy for beginners to control brushstrokes
  • Can be used for most essential techniques
  • Available in various sizes, from tiny to large (roughy sizes 0-14)
  • Don’t hold as much water/paint as flat brushes
  • Not ideal for covering large surfaces

Flat watercolor brushes

  • Best for larger washes and broad brushstrokes
  • They tend to have denser bristles, retaining more paint/water
  • Not as versatile as round brushes
  • Excellent for many techniques, including glazing and dry brushing
  • Ideal for creating crisp edges
  • Slightly less beginner-friendly

Types of watercolor brushes by shape

Now, let’s take a closer look at one of the features that often perplexes most beginners: brush shapes.

Below, I’ve compiled the main types of watercolor brushes used by newbies and experienced painters alike to help you get started.

The good news is that you can’t go wrong with any of these!

Round brushes

Round brushes_types of watercolor brushes
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Of all types of watercolor brushes, standard round brushes are the most versatile; they’re a must in every watercolorist’s toolset!

Round brushes have a slightly pointed tip ideal for fine lines and detail work but are also excellent for washes, blending, and transitioning between colors.

These brushes come in multiple sizes but are primarily used to work on medium-sized areas. It’s the essential brush for every artist, regardless of skill set or experience!

Flat brushes

Flat brushes_types of watercolor brushes
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Flat watercolor brushes are easy to detect because of their rectangular shape and flattened bristles.

Because of their design, these brushes have a great range, allowing for large watercolor washes as well as straight, dimensional paint strokes.

This versatility makes flat brushes ideal for painting looser works like landscapes and skies but just as convenient for more structured paintings requiring sharp, clean lines.

Angled brushes

Angled brush_types of watercolor brushes
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Angled watercolor brushes feature a triangular-like shape, with “tilted” bristles cut at an angle. 

These tools allow for lots of control, which is particularly handy when working on sharp edges and precise lines — they’re also perfect for tackling small corners! 

In addition, angled brushes are great for adding depth, dimension, and organic shapes and forms to your paintings.

I highly recommend these brushes if you want to add interest to your botanical illustration, map illustration, and urban sketching projects. 

Mop brushes

Mop brushes_types of watercolor brushes
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Mop brushes are a lot of fun! These types of watercolor brushes are an excellent match for loose washes and blending techniques.

Brush tips are rounded and contain a large amount of bristles, making them especially dense and, therefore, very effective in retaining pigment and water.

One of the perks of mop brushes is that they lay down color very smoothly without leaving brush marks. Mop brushes are great for painting soft, flowy textures and shapes, like clouds, water, and foliage.

Liner brushes

Liner brushes_types of watercolor brushes
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You’ll want to add a few liner watercolor brushes to your collection to deliver delicate lines and touch-ups.

Easy to identify due to their long, thin bristles and narrow shape, liner brushes provide lots of control and are a life-saver when adding accents and dainty linework.

Liner brushes are also perfect for incorporating lettering/calligraphy features into your projects. They’re also ideal for hyperrealistic art. I love these for painting intricate details such as facial creases, leaf veins, and animal whiskers.

Hake brushes

Hake brushes_types of watercolor brushes
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Hake brushes are traditional Japanese brushes with ultra-fine, soft bristles stitched onto a flat wooden handle.

Authentic Hake brushes have goat hair, making them slightly more high-end than standard watercolor brushes, and are highly sought-after for their incredibly smooth performance.

Due to their unique broad tips, Hake brushes are fantastic for painting large areas and loose washes such as landscapes, seascapes, and more. Although not necessarily a must for newbies, Hake brushes are it if you enjoy collecting one-of-a-kind art supplies.

Filbert brushes

Filbert brushes_types of watercolor brushes
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One of the most popular and useful types of watercolor brushes is Filbert brushes.

Filbert brushes are a mix of flat and round brushes and feature curved, flattened, rounded brush tips — think something along the lines of a flat oval!

Best used for washes, blends, and soft lines, these brushes are easy to control (and find!) and are commonly used for painting flowers and foliage for their ability to create organic shapes.

Dagger brushes

Dagger brushes_types of watercolor brushes
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Dagger watercolor brushes are some of the more unconventional types of watercolor brushes.

These brushes feature a flat, angled design and small, pointed tips. You’ll make excellent use of these watercolor paintbrushes if you’re after long, flowy lines and thin strokes — many even use these for calligraphy!

Dagger brushes are also convenient for achieving small details and patterns: picture painting texture on grassy landscapes or tiny bricks on country houses.

Are they essential for beginners? Not really. But they’re really worth adding to your set once you begin exploring more detailed works!

Cat’s tongue brush

Cat's tongue brush_types of watercolor brushes
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Cat’s tongue brushes are extremely flexible and singular in that they have a pronounced tapered shape.

Their pointy tips allow for precision and detail, while the broader body of the brush performs beautifully for washes and covering larger areas.

The design of these brushes enables both thin and thick brushstrokes, which is especially helpful in creating textures and effects, such as animal fur, water ripples, or features on greenery.

Fan brushes

Fan brushes_types of watercolor brushes
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Fan brushes are all about the fun part! As one of the most unique types of watercolor brushes, these tools have open, fan-shaped bristles meant to create beautiful effects.

I highly suggest fan brushes if you’re searching for the perfect tool to incorporate eye-catching textured patterns into your work. While suitable for blending, they’re best used for light, feathery effects.

Although these watercolor brushes serve a more technical purpose, they’ll make great additions to your beginner watercolor setup.

Water brush pens

Water brush pen_types of watercolor brushes
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Painters on the go will have a blast with water brush pens. They’re becoming increasingly popular for their convenient, portable design and appealing price tags.

These brushes are plastic, have nylon bristles, and incorporate a built-in water reservoir. They’re also very easy to fill and use!

Although bristles won’t hold as much water or pigment as standard watercolor brushes, they’ll do the job for sporadic watercolor sessions.

I especially suggest these if you craft with alternative watercolor mediums vs standard watercolor sets, such as watercolor pencils, Tombow markers, and watercolor brush pens.

Types of watercolor brushes by hair

Watercolor brush hair_types of watercolor brushes
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As you begin your watercolor journey, learning about the different types of brush hairs is essential since this element will determine how your brushes perform.

Here’s a quick rundown of the most popular types of watercolor brush hair every beginner should know about.

Sable/Kolinsky hair

Sable or Kolinsky hair brushes are made with the tail hair of the Siberian weasel (Kolinsky) and are considered the cream of the crop in the watercolor brush universe.

These brushes are premium quality for their extra fine, soft, flexible consistency, which allows them to hold large amounts of water and paint.

They also have a natural springiness that provides another level of control. However, note that these types of watercolor brushes can get very expensive.

Being a natural material, Sable/Kolinsky brushes require more TLC than synthetic options but will last a lifetime if cared for properly.

Ox, goat, and squirrel hair

Ox, squirrel, and goat hair are great alternatives for something natural but slightly more affordable.

Ox hair is stiff and resilient, perfect for washes and blending. On the other hand, squirrel hair is very soft and absorbent, ideal for glazing and delicate techniques.

Quality goat hair is soft but durable and works beautifully for dry brushing and creating textures.

Although less high-end than Sable/Kolinsky hair brushes, you’ll still get excellent results and long-lasting tools, given you preserve them well.

Camel hair

If you’ve never heard of camel hair brushes, these are a great choice due to their affordability and versatility. They come in different ranges and prices.

Camel hair brushes contain a blend of various types of animal hair, providing a mix of consistency and springiness.

These brushes are best suited for broad strokes and washes and very convenient for layering and blending.

Overall, this is a good option if you’re looking for natural fibers on a budget.

Hog hair

Hog hair is particularly coarse, making for very stiff and durable watercolor brushes. Because of their consistency, these brushes are best for bold paintings that require texture and depth.

While suitable for watercolor, these brushes are best for thicker paints like gouache and acrylics. Note that these brushes can get pricey, but if you’re all about textured effects, they’re worth a shot.

Synthetic hair

Synthetic hair brushes are the most accessible, budget-friendly options. These consist of nylon or polyester fibers that replicate the feel and spring of authentic animal hair.

While obviously incomparable to natural hair, synthetic brushes are excellent for beginners to get started without breaking the bank. And you’ll have just as much of a variety to work with!

Synthetic bristle brushes are also great if you’re looking for animal-free art supplies. Sure, they won’t last you years, but they’ll serve you well during the first stages as you learn how to watercolor.

Watercolor brush sizes: What to know

Watercolor brush sizes_types of watercolor brushes
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Finding the right watercolor brush size as a beginner isn’t a one-size-fits-all scenario.

Like brush shape and hair type, at the end of the day, the best fit for you will depend on personal preference and the projects and techniques you want to incorporate into your artwork.

If you’re entirely new to watercolor painting, I suggest starting out with a range of 2-12 size round brushes. A size 6 round brush is a standard medium size suitable for most beginner projects.

For detail work, a smaller size 2 brush (or even 1) is helpful to achieve finer lines and accents. Brush sizes 8-12 are ideal for broader strokes and large washes; I love these for wet-on-wet techniques.

However, know that brush sizes vary according to each brush type. For instance, mop brushes are generally larger than round brushes, so a size 6 mop brush will not correspond to a size 6 round brush.

That said, I advise buying your brushes in person first vs. online — or making it to your local craft store to peruse options. Doing this will allow you to compare brush sizes, models, and styles in the flesh to know what to purchase down the line!

What types of watercolor brushes are best for beginners?

Different watercolor paintbrushes_watercolor for beginners
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As a beginner, start with the basics. It’s really that simple. There’s no need to get into fancy watercolor brush sets if you’ve just started learning how to watercolor.

In a nutshell, round brushes are excellent all-purpose choices, while standard flat brushes are ideal for washes and covering larger areas. Snatching a few liner brushes for details and accents are also good additions to consider.

At first, having these three types of watercolor brushes is more than enough. And remember: you can always add to your brush collection!

Regarding brush hair, high-quality synthetic brushes are easier to maintain and will also cost a lot less. On the other hand, don’t go too cheap — always aim for quality.

There are a lot of synthetic fiber brushes that provide great value for money; you can find our favorites in our guide to the best watercolor paintbrushes if you want to start looking right away!

That’s it for this guide to the best types of watercolor brushes for beginners! Have any suggestions to share with other budding crafters? Share them in the comments below!

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