Understanding Brushes:

A Guide to Brush Care & Storage

With proper care, your brushes will last for for decades. Use a travel holder when transporting your brushes. You never want to toss them loosely into your bag or box which will ruin them permanently.


Natural hair brushes, especially expensive watercolor brushes, have to be protected from moths that will lay their eggs on the brush. The hair will then be food for the larvae when they hatch. Never place a brush in a plastic bag and put it in the dark. This may keep the moths off the brush, but you will be providing a fertile ground for mildew and rot.


Bamboo mats used as brush holders can cut hairs from your brushes and are too rough to use. Go with a soft canvas wrap with a folder over flap for oil brushes and a stiff canvas carrier that folds for your watercolor brushes.


Never store or stand brushes on the brush tip, or in a container so small that the tip is pushed against one of the sides. This will bend and split them and ruin them. This also means don’t just drop your acrylic or watercolor brush into water and leave it sitting bristle side down in the water.


Brushes left buried ferrule deep (the metal part) in water or cleaning solution will cause the glue that holds the bristles to break down and the ferrule to separate from the handle.


Dried paint in the ferrule will also loosen the handle from the brush as well as cause your brush to split. Splitting occurs when the brush no longer returns to its original shape.


I’ve also seen brushes become unusable because my students have left them in a hot car for a week between lessons. I can repair most brushes but it’s very difficult to bring back the spring and shape when a brush has been subjected to intense heat for a prolonged time.

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Just Stow-It Brush Case

 

Made of durable black nylon with a Velcro closure, this hard-cover brush holder protects small brushes and tools from damage. An adjustable drawstring cord secures the case so it stands upright, and a stitched elastic band holds brushes in place for easy access.


The standard size holds brushes up to 13″ (33 cm) long with handles up to 5/8″ (1.5 cm) diameter and folds flat to a convenient 6″ × 13-3/4″ (15 cm × 35 cm) size.


The large size holds brushes up to 15″ (38 cm) long with handles up to 3/4″ (2 cm) diameter and folds flat to a 7-1/4″ × 16″ (18.5 cm × 41 cm) size.

Testing the Quality of a Watercolor Brush

A good watercolor brush will hold plenty of water and maintain a fine point or sharp edge. Dip the brush in water and swish it around. Remove the brush and give it a quick snap or flick Check the edge. If it’s split or has hairs sticking out then the brush is either damaged or of poor quality. If it comes to a nice point (round brush) or chisel (flat brush), then you have a good brush.

Your Brand New Brush – and what to expect

Sizing in the Bristles

Most brushes come from the manufacturer treated with a water-soluble sizing to protect the hairs. Remove this sizing by swishing in cool water before you begin to paint. Don’t crack or try to break it out of your brush.

A Simple Trick for Choosing a Good Watercolor Brush – and it's fun to do!

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What to do with Those Pesky Little Plastic Sleeves

Often brushes come with a plastic sleeve that covers the tip of the brush. This sleeve is meant to protect the brush for shipping.

 

Once you remove this plastic sleeve, THROW IT AWAY! Trying to put this back on your brush will result in bent hairs and bent hairs will only end up ruining your stroke work and annoying the heck out of you!

Testing the Ferrule

Wait! What's a ferrule?

This is the metal collar that grips the hairs tightly together and clamps the bristles on to the handle.  The base of the hairs should be stitched and held firm with glue and the ferrule acts as an additional clamp on the hairs.  On cheap brushes the ferrule may break off easily from the handle, or there may be no glue holding the hairs, so the occasional hair will pull out when painting,

which can spoil the finish.


You want to make sure that the ferrule is not loose on your new brush.

Check your brush by tugging or twisting the ferrule gently before buying to check if it is tightly clamped onto the handle. Over time, using a brush, washing it, and leaving it in water or solvent can loosen the ferrule’s grip on the handle, or loosen the hairs in the ferrule. So look for tightly clamped ferrules.


Cheaper brushes will have ferrules made of tin or aluminum. Better quality ferrules are brass or copper alloy  that are nickel or chrome plated. These ferrules have the best adhesion to wooden handles, and an adhesion that is double or triple crimped to the wooden handle provides even more sturdiness.

To keep your ferrules in good condition, wash brushes properly after use and dry thoroughly, preferably lay them flat or hang by the handle with the brush tip pointing down to keep the water from settling down in the hairs against the ferrule. This will keep the tuft solidly in the ferrule and the ferrule solidly attached to the handle.

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How to Clean Your Brushes

Care and Cleaning of WATERCOLOR Brushes

  • Swish in clean water until all paint is removed.

  • Gentle squeeze out excess water

  • Reshape

  • Lay FLAT until dry with the brush tip hanging out over the edge of the table to keep the bristles from drying bent.

Care and Cleaning of ACRYLIC Brushes

 

  • IMPORTANT! Rinse acrylic out of your brushes OFTEN while you paint

  • Swish in clean water until all paint is removed

  • Rinse your brush under cool running water and gently squeeze the bristles to dislodge any left over paint

  • If you have dried paint in the brush, use a brush cleaner formulated for acrylics (Jack's Studio Soap is the BEST - see below for more info)

  • Reshape

  • Lay FLAT until dry with the brush tip hanging out over the edge of the table


NOTE: White synthetic bristles can become stained by pigments and remain stained even when clean. This will not harm the brush.

Care and Cleaning of OIL Brushes

  • Gently wipe off excess paint on a paper towel or cotton cloth

  • I prefer Odorless Turpenoid Natural as a brush cleaner for my oil painting brushes. It’s a highly effective cleaner and conditioner that’s organic, non-toxic and non-flammable. Gently twizzel the brush against the side of the jar at a 45 degree angle. Don’t scrub the brush on the bottom of the jar – it bends the bristles and you’ll be rubbing the brush in residue from previous cleanings. Wipe again on paper towel or cloth.

  • Finish cleaning with Jack's Linseed Studio Soap – I’ve found that this cleaner works extremely well to loosen the final traces of paint from oil brushes. This can also be used to clean your hands, tools and work surfaces. Miracle of miracles, with a little effort it will remove dried paint from your brushes. They won’t be as in great of shape as new, but they often turn out well. Work a small amount into the bristles and watch how much paint will come out of what you thought was a clean brush!

  • Wash with soap and cool water

  • Reshape

  • Lay FLAT until dry with the brush tip hanging out over the edge of the table.

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How to Clean Dried Oil and Acrylic Paint out of Your Good Brushes

I’ve found that Jack’s Linseed Studio Soap is the perfect solution for reviving old brushes.

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Jack’s Linseed Studio Soap completely cleans dried acrylics, oils, and alkyds with no damage to the brush head or loss of fibers. It can be used on natural or synthetic brushes.

How To get DRIED paint out of a brush:


Dip the offending brush into the Jack’s and work it into the bristles as much as possible. Wrap the brush in plastic wrap and let it sit for an hour or more. Check the brush to see how pliable it has become. Let it sit overnight if it’s still too hard to massage the bristles.


Once the brush becomes pliable, massage the soap into it thoroughly, then wipe it out. Work more Jack’s into the bristles, wipe out and continue until brush comes clean. Once clean, wash with cool water and mild soap. Squeegee the water out with your fingers, shape and lay flat to dry.


If you find you can work the brush but it still has dried paint; work out what you can, add more Jack’s and let sit overnight. This might take a few days but you should have a fairly good brush again.


I’ve also discovered that this great cleaner can remove dried paint from clothes, off furniture and anything else you’ve managed to splatter. The paint may leave a stain if on walls even though you’ve removed the actual dried paint.

This water soluble cleaner is non-toxic, biodegradable, non-flammable and comes in a plastic bottle.
 

How to Keep Your Brushes from Falling Apart

Always lay brushes flat to dry or hang brushes tuft down and let them drain and dry, so the water runs away from the ferrule. Then store them upright.


HELP! I’ve Ruined My Brush! Can I Repair It?


How to Reshape a Damaged Synthetic Brush

So you have a bent brush. Perhaps it got stored bristles down or it ended up jammed into your travel bag and now it’s bent and pretty much useless, right? Maybe not!


I’ve had a lot of success with this method of restoring a damaged synthetic brush. Please do NOT try this with your sable brushes.


Do this carefully. Test with just a short dip first.

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  • Boil some water and pour a few inches into an old glass or ceramic container

  • Dip the bristles into the hot water and hold for a moment or two

  • REMOVE the brush and carefully shape it by squeezing between several layers of cloth or paper towel

  • Dip again if necessary and reshape

  • If the brush is stubborn, you can hold it in the hot water for a little longer

  • Once the brush holds its shape, lay it where it won't be touched and let it cool and dry

Warning: When you pull your brush out of the water, it will be HOT so wrap in several layers of towel to shape carefully or you could burn yourself. If you’re under 18, have an adult help you.

Common Questions on Brushes

Send me your questions and I'll add them here!

Can I shorten the Hairs of a brush?

Not a good idea. The hair of a brush is not uniform and usually tapers to a fine point or chisel. If you cut the brush you will be removing the delicate ends and completely change the characteristics of the brush.

Can I cut away stray hairs?

Yes but you'll need to trim them down near the ferrule. Otherwise they'll still stick out and cause stray lines of paint. Be careful of trimming away too many as the the brush may lose its springiness and no longer hold a fine point or sharp edge.

Can I use the same brushes for oils , acrylics and watercolors?

It's recommended that you use separate brushes for each medium. Acrylics require sturdier synthetic brushes. Watercolors need a short handle, soft brushes with good form. Oils are better applied with long handle brushes with lots of spring or snap. You can ruin a good watercolor or oil brush by using them for acrylics and you can contaminate your watercolors by using a brush previously used for oils.

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One Very Important Thing

Choose the best brushes you can afford. While there is no magic brush that will instantly make you into a painting genius, a bad brush will definitely make it difficult for you to create decent work.

I've often watched a new student struggle with a cheap brush, believing that they "just can't paint" When I hand them a good brush and when they see how much easier it is to use, they turn and dump their junk brush into the nearest garbage can.