Guide to Water Brushes

Guide to Water Brushes

September 1, 2015 - Posted by Heidi to Guides, Brush Pens

Guide to Water Brushes

Water brushes have changed when and where artists can paint. Whether it's hiking the Appalachian trail or piloting the Millennium Falcon, water brushes open a universe of possibilities for painting on the go.

What is a Water Brush?

A water brush is a reservoir of water attached to a brush. Water flow is controlled by a small plastic feed and can be increased by squeezing the barrel. Artists love their portability: water brushes can be filled from any source, remove the need for open water containers, and clean themselves through use.

Characteristics to Consider
Brush Size
Brush size
Water brushes come in a few basic sizes. Fine, medium, and large sizes have a round brush tapering to a fine point. Fine brushes release less water per stroke and are good for detail work, while large brushes are suited for covering larger areas. Flat brushes on the other hand are great for large washes of color.
Body Length
Brush length
Water brush bodies come in several lengths. Shorter brushes fit easily inside pen cases or pockets, but hold less water. Long brushes need refilling less often, but are slightly heavier when filled.
Water-Filling Mechanism
Water-filling mechanism
Water brushes have two filling styles. Some water brushes have an open top reservoir and can be submerged into water or filled with a faucet. Others have a small black cap to keep the water from escaping, and are filled by squeezing the body to suction water inside.
Staff Picks

Water brushes all function similarly, with slight differences between brands and sizes. The few differences they have make them great to use as a set. While they all performed admirably, we found these to be our favorites.

Kuretake Waterbrush - Medium - Compact Size
Kuretake offers the largest selection of brush sizes, including compact, flat, and petite sizes. The compact medium offers a size good for both details and large areas, and is small enough to put in most pen cases or pockets. For those with smaller hands, the compact body is a good balanced length.
All-in-one Kit: Sakura Koi Watercolor Field Box Set - 18 Color Palette + Waterbrush Pen
The Sakura Koi Watercolor sets come with a water brush, cleaning sponges, and a mixing tray (removable in the 18 and 24 color sets, built into the lid of the 12 color set). The lid of the 18 and 24 color sets can be used to hold a postcard-size piece of watercolor paper.
Traditional Water Brush Uses
Watercolor Paints
All-in-one Kit: Sakura Koi Watercolor Field Box Set - 18 Color Palette + Waterbrush Pen

Water brushes are the perfect accompaniment for small watercolor sets. These small pans of dry paint can easily be activated for painting with a few strokes of a water brush.

  • Use the water brush to pull color from dry or wet watercolor pans. You can squeeze the water brush to add water to the paint pans if desired.
  • Paint directly on to the paper. When the color begins to fade, return the brush to the pan to dissolve more color onto the brush.
  • You can mix colors in a separate tray, or with thin washes of colors on the paper.
  • Clean your brush between colors by wiping your brush on a paper towel or other absorbent surface until the brush flows clear again.
  • A clean water brush can be used to soften edges, blend colors, or scrub away unwanted color.

Product Used: Sakura Koi Watercolor Field Box Set - 12 Color Palette + Waterbrush Pen

Watercolor Markers
Akashiya Sai Watercolor Markers

Watercolor markers are water-soluble dyes contained in a convenient marker body. Their vivid colors are easily dissolved with a water brush.

  • The easiest way to use a water brush with watercolor markers is to apply the markers first, then dissolve the color with the water brush. This provides the most intense color and is great for deep shadows.
  • For softer colors, pull color from the marker tip with the water brush. Once you have absorbed the desired amount of color, paint with the brush on the paper.
  • Soft-focus and blurry effects can be created by painting with clear water first, then drawing in the wet area with the marker.

Products Used: Akashiya Sai Watercolor Markers, Yasutomo Niji Waterbrush - Flat, Pentel Aquash Waterbrush - Medium, Stillman & Birn Premium Sketchbook - Delta, Sakura Decorese Gel Ink Pens

Watercolor Pencils
Watercolor pencils with water brushes

A water brush can easily be transported with a set of watercolor pencils for fast color and fast clean-up.

  • Before applying water, you can color with the pencils on the paper.
  • Activate the color with the water brush. To prevent color contamination, paint small areas of similar color, then let dry.
  • Light pressure will give fainter color which dissolves more completely with the water brush. Heavy pressure will create more intense color but may leave a pencil texture. Coloring with two or more colors will create a single color when wet.
  • You can also dissolve color straight from the tip of the pencil to paint fine details.

Products Used: Derwent Inktense color pencils, Holbein Waterbrush Pen - Round Medium, Yasutomo Niji Waterbrush - Flat, Stillman & Birn Premium Sketchbook - Delta

Gel Pens
Hi-Tec-C, Slicci gel pens with water brushes

Gel inks are partially water-soluble, and release a small amount of color when painted over with water. A water brush can add shading to a drawing without compromising the pen lines.

  • Use the water brush to dissolve some color from a pen drawing.
  • Denser lines will produce a darker wash, while sparse lines will only release a little color. Some inks will separate into different colors.
  • This technique works with Pilot Hi-Tec-C pens and Pentel Slicci pens. Uni-ball Signo pens are specially formulated to be waterproof and will not work.

Products Used: Pilot Hi-Tec-C Gel Ink Pen- 0.3 mm - Black, Pilot Hi-Tec-C Gel Ink Pen - 0.4 mm - Blue, Pentel Slicci Gel Ink Pen - 0.3 mm - Black Ink, Kuretake Waterbrush - Large - Compact Size, Stillman & Birn Premium Sketchbook - Epsilon

Fountain Pen Inks
Lamy Fountain Pen with water brushes

Many fountain pen inks can be dissolved with water. Adding a few splashes with a water brush can add a feeling of spontaneity to a drawing.

  • Use a water brush over a fountain pen drawing to dissolve the ink.
  • Some color will remain on the water brush and can be used for light color elsewhere.
  • Some inks will not dissolve with a water brush, while others will dissolve partially or completely.

Products Used: Lamy Safari Fountain Pen - Medium Nib, Diamine Fountain Pen Ink - 80 ml - Eclipse (Black), Yasutomo Niji Waterbrush - Flat, Pentel Aquash Waterbrush - Medium, Stillman & Birn Premium Sketchbook - Delta

Water Brushes and Other Mediums

Artists love experimenting and creating new ways to use materials. Water brushes are inexpensive and recyclable, making them perfect test subjects. We tested the most-requested materials in various water brushes.

What Can You Fill a Water Brush With?
Fountain Pen Inks
Fountain pen inks with water brushes
We tested several fountain pen inks, including the J. Herbin 1670 ink and the Sailor STORiA Pigment Ink, in our water brushes. The inks flowed smoothly and allowed for beautiful brush lettering.

Products Used: Sakura Koi Waterbrush - Large (#8) Nib, J. Herbin 1670 Anniversary Fountain Pen Ink - 50 ml Bottle - Emerald of Chivor, Kuretake Waterbrush - Medium, Sailor STORiA Pigment Ink - 30 ml Bottle - Balloon Green, Stillman & Birn Premium Sketchbook - Epsilon

Drawing Inks
Drawing inks with water brushes
We chose three of our thickest inks to test in our water brushes. All three flowed through, though the Kuretake and Holbein water brushes allowed for the wettest stroke and darkest lines.

Products Used: Kuretake Waterbrush - Small, Kuretake Waterbrush - Medium, Deleter Manga Ink - Black 4, Stillman & Birn Premium Sketchbook - Epsilon

Copic Refills
Drawing inks with water brushes
Copic markers refills can also be used in a water brush. The colorless blender refill can be used as a way to create painterly effects on copic drawings. The standard refill colors are less smooth in the brush than in a marker.

Products Used: Copic Sketch Marker, Copic Ciao Marker, Pentel Aquash Waterbrush - Medium - Compact Body, Copic Various Ink Marker Refill - Colorless Blender, Stillman & Birn Premium Sketchbook - Epsilon, Sakura Decorese Gel Ink Pen - Pastel White

What Should You Not Fill a Water Brush With?

Most mediums contain large particles or are too thick to use in a water brush. Some of the materials we tested destroyed our water brushes completely. We do not recommend filling a water brush with acrylic inks, such as the Speedball Calligraphy ink, white inks, or metallic and other dip pen inks.

Ink Type Compatible with a Water Brush
Fountain Pen Inks Yes
Drawing Inks Yes
Copic Refills Yes
Acrylic Inks No
White and Opaque Inks No
Dip Pen Inks No
Glitter and Metallic Inks No

Water brushes have not only changed when and where artists can paint, they have changed how artists use many materials. People are coming up with new ways to use water brushes all the time, and new products are being created based on these experiments. How do you use water brushes? What would you like to see us try in one? Feel free to share in the comments below!

Water Brushes at JetPens
Brand Brush Sizes Body Lengths Filling Style Paint Sets
Holbein Medium, Large Long Pour No
Kuretake* Fine, Medium, Large, Flat Long, Compact, Mini Squeeze Yes
Pentel Fine, Medium, Large Long, Compact Pour No
Sakura Fine #2, Medium #6, Large #8 Compact Pour Yes
Yatsumoto* Fine, Medium, Large, Flat Long, Compact Squeeze No
* The Yatsumoto and Kuretake brushes are identical.

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