What are the Different types of Watercolour Brushes, and how to use them

Consider this post, your brush bible.

When you visit your local art store, you’ll probably find a beautiful display of brushes. They come in a variety of hairs – from synthetic, to squirrel, to hog hair and kolinsky sable. Those are just the materials though – every material seems to come in innummerable shapes! One is flat, the other looks like a fan, and the third is so long that you’re wondering what on earth you could use it for. They say variety is the spice of life – and the same is true for different brushes for an artist. In this article, I’ll be detailing all the different brush shapes, and how you can use them to get the most out of your paintings.

I’ve included some of my top brush recommendations to help you shop for art supplies.
If you do CHOOSE to make a purchase, I’ll get a small commission from the seller, at no extra cost to you. All these brushes have been TRIED AND TESTED by me: nothing has been sponsored.

Anatomy of a Brush

To talk about brushes, you need to know what the parts are that make one.

The Handle:

This is often made from wood, sometimes made from plastic. The handle usually displays information about the brush size, manufacturer and series number. Some brush handles will also tell you the shape of the brush.

The Ferrule:

This is the metal part of the brush, between the handle and the brush hairs. Ferrules are often made of chrome or brass. At the bottom of the ferrule, there are compressed rings that hold the ferrule onto the handle – this is called the crimp. The best quality brushes are made from a single piece of metal and do not have a seam in the ferrule.

Tip: Never leave your brush standing in water:

Hardwood handles are treated to help protect against water and paint damage. However, there is little or no coating on the wood just under the ferrule, where adhesive binds the wood and metal together. Never leave your brush standing in water above the ferrule; this can seriously damage your brush by weakening the adhesive that holds it together.

The Heel:

The ‘heel’ of the brush are the hairs that are closest to the ferrule, and furthest from the tip.

The Belly:

The ‘Belly’ of the brush is found in the middle, which is often the widest part. The brush’s belly acts as a reservoir, holding the most pigment and water. This is why, when you’re painting a large wash, you’re often told to run the side of your brush across the paper. Watercolour brushes have larger bellies than oil / acrylic brushes, as they need to hold the most water.

The Tip, or Toe:

The ‘tip’ or ‘toe’ of the brush is the part that comes to a point. This is the most fragile part of the brush. The best detail brushes come to a tip themselves; you can test whether your brush does this by running your thumb gently over the tip. Does it spring back into the same shape? Is there a visible tip? Kolinsky sable is the best natural hair brush for this ‘springiness’, while softer hairs (like some squirrel brushes) struggle to bounce back.

Filaments / hairs / fibres/ bristles:

Collectively, the heel, belly and tip of the brush can be referred to as filaments, hairs (if it’s sable or squirrel), fibres (synthetic), or bristles (hog hair). Only half of the brush hairs are exposed above the ferrule; the rest are bound together underneath the metal cap.

When your brush is full of paint, your brush is ‘loaded‘.

Tip: Fixing Misshapen Brushes:

Sometimes you lose the tip of your brush – maybe you’ve left it standing in water for too long, or you’ve been travelling and it’s become mushed up in a suitcase. Don’t despair; you might still be able to bring it back. Gently massage your brush back into shape under warm water. If that doesn’t work, go to your local art store and buy gum arabic. This is a type of tree sap that’s used in watercolour paint, and it’s also the reason why new brushes sometimes arrive a little crunchy. Dip your brush filaments in the gum arabic, and use your fingers to reshape the tip. Leave it to dry. Then simply wash off and use as normal!

Different watercolour brushes & what they’re used for

Round Brush

The staple of every watercolour artist’s kit is the round brush. This is the most versatile brush shape, which is perfect for fine detailed work, larger strokes and wash-work. If you’re going to invest in any brush, a good quality round brush is a great place to start. With varying amounts of pressure, you can create a huge array of paint marks.

You’ll want a brush that comes to a good point, and it’s simple to test this. Run your thumb over your brush – how much ‘snap’ does it have when it comes back to its original shape? Does it reform with a point, or does it look more shapeless?

What I would recommend:

Miniature & Spotter Brushes

A miniature brush – also known as a spotter – is a short-haired brush that’s perfect for detail work thanks to their pointed tips and diminutive sizes. They aren’t just small though; their shape also makes them perfect for precision painting. Short-haired brushes can only hold a limited amount of water and paint, which makes it easier for the artist to control the brushes output when working in small areas. Additionally, the short tip pushes the artist to hold the brush in an angled position, like a pen, where the wrist can help stabilise the point and allows for more precise movements.

What’s the difference between a miniature and a round brush?

Sometimes small round brushes are mistakenly called miniatures. This is a mistake; ‘miniature’ and ‘spotter’ are brush shapes, not sizes. To illustrate this point, you can find both round brushes and miniature brushes in the same small sizes, right down to the tiny 000. The confusion between small miniature and round brushes is probably further worsened by the fact that miniatures aren’t made in larger sizes, and it’s hard to notice small differences in shape when you’re comparing two tiny brushes.

The key difference is found in the length of the brush hairs; on a miniature, the ferrule clamps onto the brush at a higher point, closing around its thickest part (the belly). This makes the brush tighter and less springy than a traditional round brush. This inflexibility and the shorter profile gives a miniature a more consistent line than a round brush.

The Difference between a miniature and spotter brush:

There is one small difference between miniatures and spotters. Spotters tend to have the appearance of a fatter belly, due to how high the ferrule sits around the short hairs. Miniatures tend to be thinner, which gives them a little more flexibility and flourish than a spotter.

Winsor & Newton, Miniature Brush,
size 000
Princeton Velvetouch Spotter Brush,
size 3/0
What I would recommend:

Flat Brush

Flat brushes are flat-tipped brushes with rectangular brush heads. wash-work, or for making clean straight edged marks. The tip and sides can be used to create thinner strokes. Flat brushes are usually measured in fractions of an inch (the measurements relate to the ferrule’s width).

There are two shapes of flat brush: one is called a Bright and the other is a One-Stroke Brush.

Winsor & Newton, Hog Hair Bright Brush, Size 20
Winsor & Newton, Sable One Stroke, 1/2″

Bright Brush

Bright brushes are flat brushes with bristle hair that is nearly equal to their width. When compared with one-stroke brushes they have slightly shorter bristles.

Flat / One Stroke Brush

One-Stoke brushes have longer filaments than bright brushes. This allows them to pick up more water and pigment, making them an excellent choice for longer mark making.

What I would recommend:

Mop, Wash & Quill Brushes

unshaped / pointed mop (sometimes called a Quill brush)

Mop brushes don’t have the responsiveness of round brushes – they’re floppy and don’t hold their shape well – but what they sacrifice in control, they make up for in water retention. These brushes have great covering power, making them the perfect choice for loose wet watercolours or filling in large areas quickly. They aren’t good for detail work, but that really isn’t what these brushes were designed for. In general, mop handles are shorter than round or flat brush handles.

If sable is too expensive but you still want to use natural hair, I recommend checking out either Silver Brush’s Goat Hair Mop, or the Princeton Mop Brush (it’s a hybrid synthetic, squirrel hair brush). Whilst I usually don’t like hybrid brushes, this is a rare exception as it’s both budget-friendly and great-quality.

Quill Brushes

also known as the Pointed Mop / Wash

Quill brushes are named after how they were originally made. Quills are the main feathers from a bird, found in either the tail or the wing. They’re also hollow. Artists used to fill these hollow feathers with animal hair to create brushes – and the has name stuck. Modern quill brushes aren’t made with bird feathers – the bristle hairs tend to be held together with wire-wrapped plastic.

At larger sizes, quill brushes almost look indistinguishable from mop brushes. They both have a lot of hair, tend to be made from similar materials and carry a lot of water. While both mop and quill brushes are relatively floppy, quill brushes tend to hold a point slightly better. This makes them able to both do large wash work and some more detailed marks.

Jackson’s Icon; Synthetic Sable Quill Brush, size 4
Silver Brush, Black Round Mop, Series 5618S, Size 20
What I would recommend:

Rigger, Line, Script Brush

Rigger brushes were originally created by the French brush company Isabey, in order to help artists paint ships’ rigging. The long hairs were designed to absorb any hand-shakes that might affect the smoothness of the line. This brush works best when held low on the handle. You can either flick the brush for a more organic effect (perfect for tree branches or grass) or use continuous pressure to create long even marks (ideal for ships rigging!).

Unlike many other brushes on this list, the rigger should be used by slowly sweeping the arm rather than the wrist. This brush is perfect for detail work, although you will have less control over the tip than you will with a miniature brush.

What’s the difference between Rigger, Line & Script?

Most brush makers use the terms rigger, line and script brush interchangeable, as the differences between each are so small. There are no industry brush standards manufacturers need to abide by. Traditional riggers are longer with a larger belly. Liners were originally adapted for sign painters and are slightly shorter.

Winsor & Newton Rigger Brush, size 1
White label Kolinsky Liner Brush
How to use them:

In my experience, Riggers tend to work better with watered-down paint for them to load well and for lines to flow off the brush. Load the entire length of the brush from tip to heel with paint. You may want to gently blot the tip on tissue paper before you paint to remove excess water and improve the flow. Lightly pull across the paper for a consistently thick stroke. Add more pressure if you want to make the line larger.

What I would recommend:

Angled, Dagger, Sword Brush

Often found in natural hair, this brush is characterised by hairs which are shorter on one side than the other. The ferrule is flat, like on a bright and one-stroke brush. The result is a brush that can hold a lot of water and pigment, but creates increasingly random and interesting marks as the filaments get longer.

Angled Brush

Angled brushes are the shortest, and easiest to control. Artists enjoy using these these for the range of brush strokes you can achieve from a single brush; you can use the edge to create thin lines and sharp edges, or turn it on it’s wide side for bold painterly strokes. For this reason, these are great brushes for wash-to-detail work, where you need to cover a large space and also need more of a tip than a flat brush allows.

Dagger Brush

Dagger brushes are the halfway house between angled and sword brushes. They come to a sharper point than angled brushes, and are often used to paint organic shapes, such as petals, clouds and waves. There’s also great for more calligraphic strokes. They hold more water and pigment than angled brushes, but that comes at the price of controllability.

Sword Brush

Sword brushes are the longest, most expressive and most unpredictable brush of the three. As there is so much distance between the rigidity of the handle and the flexibility of the tip, this brush flicks and twists very easily on paper. It can achieve very fine lines, as well as interesting wedge-shaped brush strokes.

Winsor & Newton, Cotman,
Angled Brush
Silver Brush, Black Velvet Dagger brush, series 3012S
DaVinci Casaneo Sword Striper brush, Series 703
What I would recommend:

Filbert Brush, Cat’s Tongue Brush, Oval Brush

This is one brush with many names. A filbert is a flat-ish brush that has an oval tip. The filbert brush is named after the filbert tree – it supposedly looks like the nut The filbert gets its name from its supposed resemblance to the nut of the filbert tree – a type of hazlenut – which in turn gets its name from Saint Philibert on whose feast day the ripening of the nut coincides. However, based on shape, I think a more fitting title should have been ‘tombstone’.

What’s the difference between a Cat’s Tongue Brush and a Traditional Filbert?

The only difference between a Cat’s Tongue Brush and a traditional Filbert is the tip; on the Cat’s Tongue it comes to a more tapered point.

What I would recommend:

Fan Brush

The fan brush is often called an ‘effects’ brush, due to its more limited uses. It’s great for creating texture and it shines when used with a dry brush technique, or when painting wet-on-wet. This is the brush you might reach for when painting tree, rocks, grass, flowers, rain, water or waterfalls. It is a very useful one-trick pony.

Winsor & Newton, Winton Hog hair fan brush
Winsor & Newton Cotman Synthetic Fan brush
How to use it:

The first way is to apply very wet watercolour to your paper using another brush. Then, use your dry or slightly damp fan brush to brush that watercolour into your desired shape. Think of painting a giraffe’s mane – you could apply your Yellow Ochre and Burnt Sienna mix across the paper, before using your fan brush to brush everything up and out, creating the impression of tall standing hairs.

Due to its width, it’s easy to dip into two colours; try dipping just the tip into two shades of green to make some convincing foliage. Brushing the fan brush across the page will create the impression of grass – just release pressure at the end of the stroke to taper the end of the mark. Dotting or bouncing it creates a more abstract texture (think of light shining off the ocean far away). You can also create long thin lines by ‘slicicing’ the brush sideways across the paper. Finally, you can do a ‘side crunch’; turn the brush so that’s side on to the paper, before moving up and down in a stabbing motion so that the bristles are ‘crunched’ against the paper.

What I would recommend:

Stippler / Stippling Brush

Stippling brushes are sturdy-hair brushes, usually made from goat or badger hair. These are a speciality texture brush, usually used for creating foliage by lightly tapping or ‘stippling’ to flat head of the brush across the page. These brushes are accomplished at making foliage, leaves, and grass, and can be used to create the impression of distant flowers. They also can be used to add in impressionistic highlights. Stippling brushes come in a variety of shapes; most common are the Deerfoot, which is a slightly angled flat brush, and a short stippling brush (both pictured below).

Jackson’s Art, Short Haired Stippler, Hog hair, 17mm
Jackson’s Art, Deerfoot Stippler Brush
What I would recommend:

Rake Brush

Rake brushes got their name from the alternating long and short bristles found at their tips. Rake’s come in a variety of shapes; the one pictured here is a rake-filbert brush, although you can also find flat rakes and round rakes.

This is another ‘special effects’ brush, again used to create realistic texture. This might be something found in landscapes, or animal fur. If you enjoy painting landscapes, this is a brush that would benefit from being bought in a variety of sizes (ie. size 3, 6 and 12).

What I would recommend:

Sumi Brush


Watercolours aren’t unique to the west. Japan has its own traditional watercolours, which can be purchased internationally (they are called Gansai Tambi, from Kuretake). What makes these watercolours different is their binder; these paints have been described as creamy and very easily resettable. They can be applied in sheer layers, or more opaquely (like gouache). If you apply them thick, they can dry with a slight sheen. Their large pans were designed to be used with traditional calligraphy-style Japanese brushes; of which the Sumi is one.

Sumi brushes can achieve both thin detailed lines, thanks to their pointed tip, and wide broad washes, thanks to their large bellies. They look most like the western quill brush, but the bellies are generally thiner, and the points are snappier. Chinese calligraphy brushes follow a similar profile to Japanese Sumi brushes.

Studio Essentials, Chinese Sumi Brush in Goat & Sable Hair
Studio Essentials, Chinese Sumi Brush in Goat Hair
Keep your watercolour Sumi brushes and ink Sumi brushes separate

You can work with Sumi ink and watercolour in tandem – just think of the Sumi-ink as replacing your waterproof micron pens. Sumi ink does wash out of brushes with water; however, some residue can build up, and can tint your watercolours if you use the same brush for both.

What I would recommend:

Hake Brush


Japanese Hake brushes are most similar to Western Flat brushes; however, where the One-Stroke is long, the Hake has short bristles. Hake brushes are made from natural hair – most commonly goat hair. They’re ideal for painters who like to paint fast and loose, and come in a variety of sizes (most often measured in inches in mm). They’re also excellent for washes.

Jackson’s Art, Wide Hake Brush in White Goat Hair, Flat 3″
Silver Brush, Atelier Hake, Long Handle, 30mm wide
What I would recommend:
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