How to Choose the Right Round Watercolour Brush

Posted on November 23, 2016 by Hayley McMachan

Over the years i have been asked many times which brushes i would recommend for a beginner to watercolour and recently spotted this article on the 'Artists & Illustrators' blog page. A Simple, useful article on the absolute must, the round watercolour brush!

How to Choose the Right Round Watercolour Brush

Faced with the vast array of watercolour brushes available from artists’ suppliers, even a fairly experienced painter might feel a little daunted. Diana Craig explains why round brushes are a good, all-rounder option and tests some of the best on the market.

Visiting an art shop or browsing any art supplies catalogue is a bit like looking into an Aladdin’s cave – it’s so full of goodies you don’t where to start. If you want to buy watercolour brushes, you’ll be confronted with rounds and flats, hakes and mops, filberts and fans and riggers.

In addition, you’ll be required to choose between a range of different fibres, from sable to squirrel to synthetic. You may ultimately want a comprehensive collection of brushes for a variety of different tasks, but for versatility it’s hard to beat a medium-sized No.8 or No.10 brush.

Calling these brushes ‘round’ is perhaps misleading because the heads more closely resemble a teardrop in shape, being rounded towards the base and slimming down to a point at the tip. It’s this shape that’s behind the versatility of the round brush, and a lot of work goes into getting it just right. The ‘belly’ (the bulbous part) needs to be in the lower part of the head. If it’s higher up, the brush will lack the required springiness. The belly is the brush’s reservoir – it’s where most of the wet paint is held. Applying gentle but firm pressure as you draw the brush across the paper opens out the head and releases the paint retained in the belly so that it flows onto the surface, to create bands of colour. Lightly touching the head to the paper means that less paint feeds through to the tip, allowing you to control your marks more and produce finer lines. Of course, you won’t be conscious of this process – it’s something you do instinctively.

The hair or fibre from which the head is made also determines how much paint it will hold and how well it will spring back into shape during use – and therefore how controllable the brush will be. The length of the handle is another factor to consider. Shorter handles seem to invite a tighter grip, and many artists find a length of around 15cm is the most comfortable to use and gives the greatest flexibility. Holding a longer handle close to the ferrule offers increased control and thus finer marks; holding it further down for looser wrist action and freer brushwork.


Sable is the aristocrat of brush hairs, with Kolinsky sable being the very finest. Red sable brushes are also of extremely high quality. The structure of this natural animal hair means that it holds liquid – and therefore watercolour – exceptionally well. It is also resilient, springing back into shape quickly. As always, though, you get what you pay for and sable isn’t cheap. But the good news is that, cared for properly, it can last for years.

Ox and squirrel hair

Although these are both natural fibres like sable, the difference in performance between the two groups is surprising. Manufacturers obviously strive for the highest quality but even they are limited by the nature of the material they are working with. They hold colour fairly well but the heads are somewhat floppy with little resilience, which makes them harder to control and to achieve the marks you want.

Sable blend

In an attempt to give their customers the best of both worlds in terms of both quality and price, manufacturers have come up with a clever solution: the sable blend, a mixture of sable and synthetic fibre.


Given that there is not a scrap of sable hair in their composition, brushes made of synthetic fibres such as nylon are an impressive lot. Shape retention and the firmness and springiness of the head were notable characteristics of all those tested. Durability is another of their qualities. If you can’t afford sable or even sable blends, synthetics are the way to go.

 Diana Craig

Posted in artists brushes, choosing brushes, round brushes, watercolour brushes