About Brushes: Part II—Current Workhorse Brushes

August 17, 2010

A look at the brushes I use most frequently.

Above: A selection of brushes on which I currently rely. Read this post for details about the brushes linked to the letter labels.

This post continues a discussion of brushes I started with yesterday’s post on the selection and care of brushes.

The above photograph shows a selection of brushes on which I currently rely. Sometimes brands are important, sometimes brands aren’t important to me—some brushes cease to be made but I typically find a substitute—eventually.

Update: December 16, 2022—Some of the brush brands or brush lines within a brand listed here are no longer available. I have been using brushes kept in good order, and replacing some with currently available substitutes, but don’t have any stunning finds to add here. I wanted to bring this post out of the non-public archive as I get questions about brushes frequently. This post will at least give you an idea of the types of brushes I use so that you can do experiments of similar brands you find. I believe there are so many good synthetics coming out these days that an artist on a budget can stretch that budget to cover a lot of different brushes to give him/her variety. After writing this I started using straight flats (instead of filberts, which I still use) and also more on mops. It all comes down to the types of marks I want to make on a given day. I encourage you to explore a variety of brushes and see what types of marks you can bring into your work!

What I think is important about selecting brushes is that you need to know how you like to paint. Do you like to have a lot of pigment in a brush so that you can make a wash in one long continuous stroke? Is stiffness and spring important to how you apply paint and then blend it or “draw” with the paint and the brush?  What size paper, canvas, or board to you work on? What feels comfortable and balanced in your hand? How important is convenience to you (can’t beat the Niji Waterbrush on convenience)? Are you a vegetarian who won’t use natural hair bristles?

All these things matter. How much each item, and many more I haven’t listed, matters to you will impact your selection of brushes.

(Again, on oil painting you’re on your own because I don’t paint in oils.)

The brushes pictured in this post were purchased at a variety of locations: Wet Paint (in St. Paul is where I get all my small, fine, on-sale brushes, as well as many other great brushes); The Italian Art Store has great prices on sable brushes; Blick is ubiquitous across the country and in mail order; Jerry’s Artarama, Cheap Joe’s, Daniel Smith, and other mail order catalogs each carry a large selection of brushes. Since many of my brushes were purchased months, if not years ago (remember if you take care of your brushes they will take care of you), even if I could remember where I purchased them all it wouldn’t help you locate them—so I’ve provided you with manufacturer’s names and numbers so you can search, and then compare with the brush I have in my photograph. (I’ve included everything I could read on the handles, though it is not standard or obvious in each situation what is important and actually part of the brush’s name!)

Shop with goals in mind—goals about the painting size and media, and strokes and effects you want in your painting.

Inadvertently missing from the photo are two brushes I use almost daily: the Pentel Pocket Brush Pen and the Pentel Color Brush. You can read my review at this link.

The terms round, flat, bright, and filbert are brush styles. From the photo you’ll quickly see which is which when you read the key below. I like different styles of brushes for different strokes. For example, I’m most comfortable working on Claybord™ Aquaboard (previously Textured) and canvas board, with gouache and acrylics using filberts. I tend to watercolor mostly with Isabey mops or rounds (sables or synthetics).

I recommend that as your budget allows, you select a medium-sized brush from a given line that you have decided might have something to offer you. Work with it to determine whether the brush feels balanced in your hand and how you like the action of the brush. You can then buy additional brushes from that line to fill out your required size range and you won’t have wasted money on a super large brush you’ll never use.

As you read keep in mind, as I mentioned yesterday, that I may use the same style of brush for more than one media, and if so, I will have duplicates of that brush, one for each of the media I use it with. I don’t buy them all at the same time, it simply evolves. If you don’t find any benefit in segregating your brushes as I described yesterday, don’t bother—it will save you money!

Also, know that when I find a LINE of brushes that I like I tend to buy rounds and flats and filberts as available (and as budget will allow) to fill out a line. For space considerations I’ve only included one brush from a line in the photo.

The red pack in the above photo is a plastic lined, zippered TRAVEL bag,
from Eagle Creek. It has a clip on one corner to attach it to stuff
and a loop of fabric on the opposite side where you can put a clip to
attach it to more stuff. These bags are available wherever travel stuff
is sold. I see them all the time at REI and the AAA travel Store in the
luggage and pack section of each store. I use these bags to carry art
supplies on trips.

Robert Simmons Round CP85 size 0. This is one of several brands of extra small (going down to 5×0) that I buy at sales for only a few bucks each—if I ruin them in the space of the painting it doesn’t matter to my budget; and I have a new special effects brush.

3/4 inch Flat Wash and #12 Round from Princeton. Synthetic, very cheap. I use these with acrylic inks and fluid acrylics, and with cheaper brands of gouache. Any “stiffer” paint needs I have, where I’m going to be tough on a brush and really scrub or push. Princeton makes a number of lines of these inexpensive brushes.

• Loew-Cornell 7020 Ultra Round 12—the black and red brush is a new one for me. Laura Frankstone recommended this economical brush on her blog. Finding a sensitive synthetic brush that you don’t mind losing in the field, or that you can recommend to students on tight budgets, or recommend to friends who just like good brushes, is always a good thing. I’ve just started playing around with it and so far it has a delightful feel in the hand. I love Laura’s work and the sensitivity she brings to her brushwork and value her recommendation. You can find these at Blick, mail order.

• Dick Blick Wonder White 2026 #12 (red and white handle). An inexpensive synthetic that probably just says “Blick” on the new versions. Useful for quick studies and for painting backgrounds in journals, with any wet media I’ve been discussing.

•Richeson 8010 Flat 1 inch (Synthetic) with the Khaki handle with a dark green base. Great for flat wide strokes to make textures on a journal page. I use this brush for acrylics and gouache.

Robert Simmons Signet 42 Filbert #12 (Daler-Rowney) A large filbert that is just right for gouache and acrylics on board or canvas board. Sometimes it is also useful for broad strokes on journal pages.

• Silver Bristlon 1900 Round #4
• Silver Bristlon 1902 Bright #2
• Silver Bristlon 1903 Filbert #6
If I have a favorite brush for gouache and acrylic this must be it—hence 3 different styles of this brush in the photo. This are bristly and stiff and just perfect for digging in and pushing stiff acrylic paint around, or alternately backing up with light pressure and blending passages of gouache. I wish they had short handles, but otherwise I think these are the perfect brush.

• Cheap Joe’s Art Supply (CJAS on the brush) Regal Rigger #3, the name says it all, it’s a rigger, and one of the best one’s I’ve found. They are made with sable and are very reasonably priced.

• Not pictured: I also really like CJAS’s Golden Fleece Brushes, which are synthetic, inexpensive (compared to similar products) and hold a lot of paint and stand up to scrubbing. I’ll used them for watercolor, gouache, and acrylic ink.

• Richeson 6229 pure Kolinsky 1 inch flat
• Richeson 6228 pure Kolinsky #12 Round
I originally purchased brushes from this line as part of a promotion (I have sets of rounds and flats) and they have consistently held up to abuse. They perform exceptionally well in regards to their ability to hold lots of pigment and to constantly spring back. I’ve purchased them even when they weren’t on sale!

• Robert Simmons 431F #10 (reverse of brush reads: Fabric Master Flat Scrubber)
This is the best scrubbing brush I have ever found. I have it in several sizes. It is great for any work, but it is especially great to use on Claybord™ Textured (now Aquabord) to scrub back to the white board.

• Not pictured: Creative Mark Scrubber—various sizes, also has fine stiff bristles for scrubbing in a stubby sort of filbert arrangement. It is softer than the Robert Simmons which makes it more suitable for paper scrubbing.

Three sizes (8, 6, 4) of the Isabey 6234 Petit Gris. This is the most wonderful brush ever made. It holds massive amounts of pigment loaded water and is perfect for creating large even washes. At the same time it will spring up to a point (when it’s wet the bulbous fan of fibers comes to a point) and become perfect for the finest of calligraphic strokes (that can go on and on forever because of the big belly of this brush). In short it will yield anything from pin-point precise lines to thick and slobbering strokes. It is worth every penny that you are asked to pay. I use it only for watercolor. (Though I do have an old one I use for ink.)

If you typically use sable or synthetic rounds this brush will initially seem too loose and perhaps even a little limp—give it a bit more of a go.

Note that Harmony and Yarka both sell knockoffs of this brush. I have tried some of each. They are always losing hairs in the middle of a wash and not worth the aggravation exchanged for economy.

Richeson Professional 7000 #12 Synthetic. This is probably the finest synthetic brush I have ever used. (Not an inexpensive brush.) It is more perfectly balanced in my hand than many Kolinsky brushes, and it handles paint better. I use them for watercolor and gouache.

• Colour Shaper Cup Round 10 for KIDS from NASCO (I mention this because it’s the only place I’ve seen them). Less expensive than the adult versions and I like the stubby handles. I use these when making paste paper and also with acrylics.

• 2-tipped rubber tool—no name on body—lots of catalogs have it. Same use as the first item in K.

• Colour Shaper Cup Chisel Firm—ditto on use.

• Used toothbrush—great for splattering paint and creating texture.

• Niji Waterbrush, my go-to brush for sketching away from home. It’s the blue plastic barreled brush at the top of the L group.

• Raphael Impression Martre #16, Series 1795 Sable—the greatest travel brush ever, because of the handle and the way it snaps firmly together, and the way the brush holds paint well, and the size—it’s hard to find a larger travel brush. (Note #16 is obviously not a huge #16 round that you might find in a regular brush range, but it is equivalent to about a #8 in that range.) I bought this over 10 years ago (it’s still going strong, though the Niji has saved it from lots of wear and tear) and I wanted to see what it costs today. Sadly the place I found it listed said it was not available. Worth looking around for.

• Escoda 1214 #10 travel brush, Sable—cover comes apart as shown, I left this one open so you could imagine what the following two brushes do to collapse, their handles snapping off to become their lids. A joy to work with.

• Isabey 6201.06 Sable travel brush. The base on this one has always been a bit loose so I don’t use it much for fear of loosing it in the field.

• Isabey 6202 Squirrel Quill Mop—How can I not love this brush????? Don’t grind it in your pan watercolors however, use the Niji for that, or make puddles of washes on your palette and then use it.
All of the brushes in the L group are used with watercolors and gouache. Not pictured is the small collapsible plastic cup that I use when I take these brushes out and about. You can find these small collapsible cups in antique stores made out of metal. You press down and they collapse, you pull up and the sections lock together to create a leak proof cup. I have a plastic version I purchased at a pharmacy in the pill box section. Worth looking out for. (Dedicate it to painting and never drink from it.)

House painting brush used for gessoing paper and boards. I have a selection of these in different sizes.

N: Sumi brush for calligraphy and a variety of great strokes. I use it mostly with inks and fluid acrylics.

• An inexpensive Hake brush that sheds at the most inopportune times when doing backgrounds on paintings or in my journals, but which I love anyway for it’s lovely wide stroke and the way the line breaks up.

• Loew-Cornell 1170 White Nylon 3 inch flat. Same use as the Hake. I use both with watercolors, gouache, acrylic inks, and fluid acrylics.

If you have a favorite brush I would love to hear from you. Why do you like it? What media do you use it for? I’m always looking for brushes with which to experiment.

Update July 30, 2019—Current Favorites? What’s Changed?

Recently a blog reader asked about my favorite brushes. 

In the past year I’ve written a bunch of posts about my use of mops and flats. If you put “brushes” in the search engine of this blog a bunch of those will pop up. I’ve written over 100 posts on brushes, but the current ones bubbled up to the top, as well as this post and I thought I needed to update this one.

Why the switch from rounds to mops and flats? Well the past 10 years I was painting more in gouache and I love filberts and flats for that. Then I just started using them on my watercolors because I was interested in the marks one could make with the flats.

Princeton has a bunch of brush lines that have great synthetic flats and filberts. Try some, from “Snap” to “Velvet Touch” you’ll find brushes that are fun to use whether you are painting with transparent washes, using watercolor opaquely, or using gouache. 

  1. Reply

    Thank you for all the time you spent on this post. There are so many choices of brushes out there it is hard to make choices.

    I am definitely looking for the Isabey Petit Gris.


  2. Reply

    One of my great favourites is a 1″ Loew-Cornell hake brush that I’ve bought in many different places, including Michael’s. They’re very cheap brushes. They’re also dreadful when they’re new. They lose hairs at an alarming rate for the first while, so I use a new brush for scrubbing and cleaning my watercolour palette and laying down clean water on unpainted paper. Once the brush stops shedding, it’s wonderful! Soft as can be, holds tons of pigment and lots of water, beautifully. I cut down the handle on an old one and use it for dusting debris away when I’m working in coloured pencil.

  3. Reply

    I am going to Blick today to buy some stuff I need to teach next week, why of why did I have to read about those Isabey Brushes? Purdy lil things.

    Roz! You have done it again. Yesterday I came and read the introductory post. Today this one. I have some 12 year old Hecht brushes, a local man who sells watercolor brushes to The Fashion Institute and the Fashion Industry. I don’t even know if he and his sons are in business anymore.

    My wash brush has gone sour on me, not dead-dead, but not quite right either. So I have been looking around. You Rock! Thanks for answering my question so fully, thanks for the link too.

    How is your head?

  4. Reply

    Thank you for the thoughtful post. I am just starting out and appreciate the thoughts and advice. I am currently using a Koi waterbrush (medium) since it was what the local hobby store carried. So far I have really liked it! I figure I need to get comfortable drawing regularly first to get hooked, and I am afraid that if I get a nice brush I won’t want to use it in fear of ruining the brush (but what’s the point then, eh?). Anyways, if I have a silly fear like that nagging me, then I am happy to use an $8 brush every other day for a short term! After it becomes habit and I become more confidant, then maybe I’ll move up in the world of brushes.

  5. Reply

    Melanie I’m glad the post was helpful. You’re at an interesting point needing to draw comfortably, not wanting to get a good brush for fear of ruining it.

    There is nothing wrong with using an $8 brush your entire artistic life.

    What you want to do, however is let go of any fears related to your art endeavors—fear of failure, fear of success, fear of waste, fear of whatever.

    Buy a supply (whether it’s a brush or some paint) and really use it heavily for several weeks or months and get a feel for it. Don’t feel pressure to try more and more stuff until you are comfortable with what you’re using.

    But at the same time, if you are just starting to draw or use a watercolor brush, do make time each day to practice, whether you do so under the mentorship of an artist or teacher you know, a book you’ve read, or your own intrepid determination.

    Leave the fear behind, because when we don’t, what gets ruined isn’t an expensive brush—it’s our time here, and that’s too precious to give to fear.

  6. Reply

    I’ve got a make-up brush that I like for watercolour- a lip brush. It’s synthetic, but holds a fair amount of liquid, and has a great point. It’s also retractable, so it’s prefect for travel.

    I’m also in love with Winsor & Newton brushes, especially the sable. Pricey buggers, but worth it. The Sceptre Gold synthetic/sable mixes are fab, but I rarely buy them because I don’t like the look of the gold ferrules :). I’ve recently bought a stratford and York Kielder because it was pink. Well, ok, I needed a 00000, but I chose that particular one because it was so pretty. 🙂

    I’m wanting to buy a few Stratford and York Jet squirrel/synthetic blend brushes. They’re beautiful- completely black and I bet they’re great little brushes. Plus, I need a #10…any excuse to buy a new brush…

    I love watercolour brushes and have more than I need and will probably keep buying them anyway. But it’s not just about what one needs, is it? They’re lovely to look at and such a pleasure to use.

    Thanks for this great post; will be bookmarking it for future reference.

  7. Reply

    Michelle, the lip brush sounds like a great find, esp. as it is retractable for travel!

    I have to disagree on the Winsor and Newton series 7 brushes however. I find they are horribly over priced for the quality. All my Raphael sables (which oddly didn’t make it into the photo—I’ll have to do a part two sometime; probably because I only use them for watercolor and I’m doing so much gouache right now they weren’t to hand) are far and above the WN series 7, and not as costly!

    Also the brushes I get from the Italian Art Store are also better than the WN series 7—nope I’m not a fan of series 7 at all.

    I do like the Sceptre Gold synthetic/sables, however and have them on my list as recommended for students in color theory. (Mine are all in that box for teaching, so they didn’t make it on the list today. I hope people try the Sceptre Gold out.)

    I don’t know the Stratfod and York Kielder brush at all, but if it is a 5×0 well then I think I had better find one of those.

    I don’t usually look at a brush’s appearance, however. They all look pretty good before they have been used. (And the Isabey mops always do have a lovely charm.)

    I hope you can get in there and really work some of these brushes you’re collecting to see which ones work best for you. It could be your end of summer project. Then you could have the excuse of buying brushes that worked for you at the end of that project and you could make assemblages with the ones you didn’t like, but still loved the look of.

    Thanks for sharing your favorites. I’m going to have too look for that 5×0! I feel some details coming on!

  8. Reply

    Oops, I should have been more specific…I was referring to the W&N Artist brushes, not the series 7. I don’t own a series 7, but I’ve had a look at them and I agree, they are way overpriced. My brushes are all getting a good work out! 🙂

  9. Reply

    Michelle, Winsor & Newton’s Series 7 sable brush line has always been their top of the line artist brush line, so I’m not quite sure which line you’re referring to.

    But I’m glad that it is not as expensive as the Series 7 which I find have greatly reduced in quality over the past 25 years, while maintaining high prices.

    And I’m most glad that you’ve found a brush at a cost level and quality that suits you and your working style so much that you love picking it up! That’s what it’s all about. Finding a brush that suits!

  10. Reply

    Here’s a link to the Artist brushes on the W&N site:–gouache/artists-water-colour-sable/

    And here they are on Dick Blick:

    Yeah, I’ve heard people say the quality of the series 7 have really gone down.

  11. Reply

    Thank you Michelle for the link, so I could see which brushes you were referring to. I’ll go look now. I appreciate it.

  12. Reply

    Hi Roz,

    I love my old brushes from Jim Hecht. I can’t seem to find him. Do you have any way of contacting him? I want more of his brushes.


  13. Reply

    Ruth, sorry I can’t help you.

    • Michelle
    • January 27, 2012

    Do you have any tips on filling the Niji? No matter how hard I try I can only seem to fill it half way.

  14. Reply

    Michelle, I have two ways to fill it. One is a bit wasteful of water so I’m not proud of myself (I was taught in Australia during all the droughts not to waste water). That’s to hold the barrel with the little black top which has a hole in it, under a light stream of water and squeeze quickly in and out. It fills in about 3 squeezes all the way to the fill line on the barrel.

    The other way, if you have fingernails, is to put your fingernail under the rim of the black top of the barrel and ease it out. You will then just have the blue plastic barrel with its wide mouth open. Hold it under a slowly running tap, or pour a bit of water into it from a bottle of water when you are out in the field.

    Be sure, if you do the second approach, to hold on to the black plastic regulator and don’t drop it and lose it! Insert it again into the barrel top before you screw the top (with the brush) back on.

    Hope that helps.

    • Michelle
    • January 27, 2012

    Thanks, the second option worked great!!

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