In every painting, the materials that the artist uses are of great importance. A great artist can overcome inferior materials, as evidenced by masterpieces such as those of Toulouse Lautrec painted on cardboard. But genius is the exception.
Using poor quality brushes in watercolor sets up a huge hurdle for the artist. Bad or inferior paper is no picnic either, but a poor brush is nearly insurmountable. The very finest watercolor brushes are made from kolinsky sable, which are from the tail hairs of either a Kolinsky weasel or sable, which traditionally live in Northern Europe from the Ural Mountains of Russia to Siberia. Due to the rarity of the material and the craftsmanship required to manufacture such brushes, prices are usually very expensive. In order to perform well, a watercolor brush generally has a substantial "belly" to hold pigment, but also must have the ability to come to and hold a point so that the artist can draw with the brush while depositing pigment over a large area. A small brush is usable for minor details, but to really paint, a large brush/ large belly is essential.The classic watercolor brush is the Winsor & Newton Series 7, number 10, which can cost upwards of $160 or more. The #12 is currently available from Jerry's Artarama for $299.
Thankfully, there are some very good alternatives to the Series 7 brushes.
Cheap Joes offers their Golden Fleece synthetic watercolor rounds at a very inexpensive price. A huge brush, the number 32, is available online for $18.29. I have painted some of my favorite watercolors with that one brush. I used it exclusively for several years. It was recommended by Milford Zornes, a wonderful painter and a National Treasure, who passed away last February at age 99.
Luxartis also manufactures a terrific kolinsky sable brush at a reasonable price. I ordered both #14 and #12 and find myself constantly reaching for their brush. Currently, a #16, large and pointy, is listed for @ $36. Prices online are quoted in the British Pound, but are easy to translate. Shipping is extra, but seemed minimal.
The last brush that I can personally recommend as both inexpensive and a very good value is the Yarka Kolinsky sable watercolor brush. While I have bought other Yarka products in the past, and been genuinely underwhelmed, their watercolor brush is exceptional. Sadly, I just noticed that Richeson will be moving the production from Russia to India and will sell the Yarka brush under their own name. To buy any of the originals before they're gone, go to Aardvarkart.
If anyone has a great brush that I've missed, please let me know and I'll include the name in a future follow-up post.