Caring for your Brushes

Buying a new brush or brushes is always lovely, whether it’s a nice set of synthetics or a single expensive brush you’ve been lusting after for ages. Still, most of us like to save money where we can, and that means we generally don’t like having to buy new brushes on a regular basis, which makes it incredibly frustrating when a brush ends up with its bristles all splayed and bent after only a few uses.

Think of brushes like children: you get used to them the longer you have them and they can be a source of joy for some people, but you still need to keep them clean, and you shouldn’t stand them on their head (brushes, at least; dunno about children). If you want to help your precious paint brushes last as long as possible, here are some things to keep in mind.

Clean them after use – This one’s fairly obvious and most people probably do this anyway, but it’s not good to put brushes away if they’ve still got paint in their bristles. When acrylic or oil paint dries, it can be very difficult to remove from the bristles, especially if the paint has got up into the ferrule (the usually-metal strip that holds the bristles in place). Even if you clean it after this point, the bristles will often retain the shape they were stuck in when they were covered in paint, so you want to wash them thoroughly (in water or solvent, depending on what sort of paint you’re using) to avoid this. It’s probably less of an issue with watercolour, which isn’t really that harsh on brushes, but you still don’t want to start painting and mixing colour only to find your mix contaminated by colour that was stuck in your brush from your last painting session.

Pamper them occasionally – Even if you wash your brushes out thoroughly after each painting session, you can sometimes still find them getting a bit ratty after a little while. When this happens, it might be worth giving them a good clean with some soap. You can use dedicated brush cleaners (I’ve reviewed The Master’s Brush Cleaner and Preserver on this blog, and there’s also an Escoda brush soap bar with olive oil), but to be honest, your regular hand soap or hair shampoo would be just as effective (though if you’re using a particularly strong medicated shampoo I’d suggest not using that, just to be on the safe side). I’d also suggest using the Master’s Brush Cleaner for hog bristle or synthetics, not on natural Kolinsky or squirrel hair brushes, as the abrasive in it may be a bit harsh for these brushes.

To clean the brush thoroughly, run it under water and then swish it around on the soap bar (if using a liquid soap or shampoo, squeeze a little blob into your hand and swirl the brush around in that) until it’s a nice foamy lather, and then rinse it out. Chances are the soap and water will turn whatever colour was still lurking in your brush bristles. Repeat this process until the lather remains clear when you rinse it.

Shape your brushes – Whether you’ve given them a normal wash after a painting or a proper deep clean with some soap, it’s worth taking another few seconds to shape the brush with your fingers. If it’s a flat brush, squeezing the bristles gently between your thumb and finger and then running them to the tips of the bristles will help make sure the bristles keep their ‘flat’ shape rather than forming more of a wobbly line. If it’s a round brush, close your thumb and first two fingers around the ferrule and then drag them outwards, squeezing a little tighter at the tip to help the brush form a point. Brushes that have been maintained well will usually keep their shape after being washed anyway, but if you’re washing a brush that’s been a bit neglected, shaping it can help restore it to something closer to its proper state.

Some people like to leave a tiny bit of soap in the bristles to help them shape it (it can easily be rinsed out before the next use) but this is optional. I usually just shape them with water, and they retain that shape as they dry.

Don’t let them rest on their bristles – If there was a list of Cardinal Sins in Art, this would have to be one of them. Though it can be tempting to leave your brushes in your jar of water after you’ve rinsed them out, you’re better off taking them out and resting them on a paper towel or something next to you. Leaving them in the jar with their bristles down might seem like a good way to keep them clean when they’re not in use, but it’s also a good way to end up with brushes with splayed and bent tips instead of nicely shaped points, and the longer you leave them this way, the harder it’s going to be to get them back into shape (if you can at all). Rest them either on a flat surface or in another empty jar with the bristles up while you’re painting. Once you finish painting, you may leave them in the jar or on your work table, or you may have a brush case of some sort to store them in (be careful not to cram too many brushes in, as if the bristles are squished against each other, this can also warp their shape). Some artists have a system of pegs or bulldog clips attached to a string along their shelf or wall, which they can use to hang the brushes with their bristles down but not touching anything.

Let them dry before storing them – Depending on the climate where you live, this may not be a problem, but I have heard stories of artists closing up their wet watercolour paint palettes and opening them up months later, only to discover mold growing in the pans. Mold loves dark and damp places to grow, and unfortunately this can also apply to brushes that have been put away in airtight containers while they were still wet. You should be safe if you store your brushes upright in a jar or hanging up somehow but some artists (particularly those who paint out in the field) may tend to store their brushes in a zip-up case or a lidded tube or canister. These are good to protect your brushes from getting knocked around on their journey to or from your sketching destination, but make sure that when you get home, you take the brushes out and let them dry completely.

Re-purpose old brushes – If a brush is well and truly cactus and cannot be revived with any of the above tricks, don’t be too hasty in sending it off to the great big paint palette in the sky. Give it a new lease on life (or afterlife?) as a masking fluid brush, so you can apply frisket without ruining your good brushes. Turn it into a spatter brush, loading it up with paint and flicking it to get interesting snow or star effects on your painting (after all, this doesn’t require a perfectly-shaped round or filbert to achieve). Or use it as a special effects brush; some artists are quite mean to their brushes, dabbing them onto the surface with a lot of force to create foliage and other similar rough effects. While you might not want to do this to a good or relatively new brush, you won’t feel bad about doing it to a brush that’s past its prime anyway. It may even find some other use around the household; many of my dearly departed brushes end up out in my Dad’s garage, where he uses them to touch up paint or lacquer on various woodwork projects.

Hopefully this helps your brushes live a long and happy life. Let them prosper. Keep them clean and don’t abuse them. Spoil them. Cuddle them every day and tell them you love the- Hey, where are you going?

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