brush care & storage

Care fundamentally gets down to how you use, clean and store a brush.

Advice on the best procedures varies widely across artists. I've summarized here what seem to be the consensus recommendations, modified as appropriate by my own experience.

using brushes

The brush is a tool of wood, hair, string, lacquer, metal and resin glue. Despite its simple design and lack of moving parts, it is a delicate tool that can be easily damaged.

There are obviously abusive ways to treat a watercolor brush. The most common, from the most to the least severe, are:

• using it to apply maskoid or resists

• using a watercolor brush with oil or acrylic paints

• reshaping the brush with scissors or razorblade

• leaving it sitting point down in water

• leaving it wet for extended periods

• letting it dry out with paint in the tuft, or

• forcing the brush into the paper so that the hairs are bent back against the ferrule.

If you do any of these things to your watercolor brush, you will almost certainly lose it.

The most common recommendations for using a watercolor brush include the following:

1. Use each brush for one medium only: watercolor, acrylic, resists (maskoid).

2. Never leave brushes standing on their heads in a jar or glass, wet or dry, even for a few minutes. When you are working, lay your brushes down on the table or in a brush holder.

3. Avoid submerging the tuft in paint for long periods. This encourages the capillary action that causes paint to migrate up the hairs into the ferrule, where it is difficult to get out. The brush will take a full charge of paint if it is dipped most of the way into paint.

4. Do not submerge the brush in water beyond the top of the ferrule. Water will seep into the ferrule from either end, soak the glue join between the tuft and the handle, and cause the handle to swell, crack, and loosen in the ferrule.

5. Wet a brush thoroughly before you start painting — don't pick up pigment with a dry brush. Flex and stroke the brush gently on the bottom of the water container to work out air bubbles trapped inside, then set the brush in a brush holder until you need it.

6. Once a brush is charged with paint, begin painting with it immediately; this helps to pull the paint away from the ferrule. Do not hold a charged brush with the tip pointing upwards.

7. Rinse brushes thoroughly as you work in a large container of clear water. Hold the brush straight down up to the ferrule (the lacquered handle should not enter the water). Stir the brush in the water, then agitate the tip more briskly. Wick the tuft against the edge of the water container: if you see any color in the runoff, then rinse again (or change your rinse water!).

8. Once you have rinsed a brush, shake out the excess water rather than rubbing or squeezing it out with a cloth or paper towel. Never pinch and pull on the tuft with a towel, as this will break off or pull out the hairs.

9. When you need a brush to scrub or scour the paper surface, use a discarded brush, an inexpensive brush, or a brush (such as boar's bristle) specifically purchased for the task.

10. If you use pan watercolors, do not "drill into" the cake with the tip of the brush, or splay the hairs by pushing directly into the cake. Wet the cake and pick up fresh pigment with the same movement you use to brush the paint onto paper.

11. Wash and shape the brush hairs when you finish your work session, using lukewarm water and vegetable soap (not detergent), baby shampoo, or a commercial artists' brush cleaner (see below).

12. Air dry your brushes by laying them flat. Non-resilient or especially long tufted brushes, such as squirrel mops or Japanese hakes, will dry more quickly if hung from the handle, tuft down, to encourage moisture to flow away from the handle toward the ends of the hairs.

13. Never store a damp brush in an airtight container. The dampness will cause mildew, and this destroys the brush hairs.

14. Treat synthetic brushes with the same care as natural hair brushes. (The rule never to rest a brush on its tip is even more important with synthetic brushes.)

Most of these rules come down to limiting the exposure of the brush to water, avoiding excessive wear on the tuft, and cleaning the brush after every use.

A common answer to the expensive natural hair brush is — the cheap synthetic brush. The seeming beauty is that they are inexpensive, so once they are damaged you simply throw them away.

If you do the math, however, you'll discover that a $140 kolinsky brush (which properly cared for can last 20 years or more) is still a better investment than 20 $7 synthetic brushes, each used for a whole year. And you'll still have to treat the synthetic brushes properly to make each one last a year!


using brushes

cleaning brushes

brush remedies

storing brushes

The actual tradeoff is this: if you rapidly ruin or wear out your brushes, you're spending money to make up for bad habits or very unusual painting techniques. Look at the habits and techniques you have, and decide whether they are worth the money.

cleaning brushes

Always clean a brush immediately after use, and thoroughly rinse a brush that you are going to leave unused for any period of time during work.

Wash your hands before you paint, and again when you wash your brushes, so that you don't contaminate the brush with dirt, perspiration or paint from your fingers.

Start by rinsing brushes thoroughly in tepid (not hot!) running water. Begin with a gentle stream of water against the tuft pointing downward. Once you have cleared most of the pigment residue from the brush, hold the brush horizontal and direct water up by the ferrule.

Minimize your use of soaps or cleansers with brushes, especially natural hair brushes. (All soaps are fundamentally damaging to a natural hair brush, as they remove the oils in the hairs.) Use soap only as needed to remove staining pigments such as phthalo blue or pyrrole red, or clinging pigments such as yellow ochre. If necessary, wash with a cake of vegetable brush soap, glycerin soap, or baby shampoo. Never use detergent soap or harsh cleansers.

When the brush is thoroughly rinsed, stroke the brush against the cake of soap until lather appears, or place a drop of shampoo on the tuft. Work the lather into the hairs by rubbing them against the wet palm of your hand, or by kneading the tuft with your fingertips.

Use your thumbnail to press gently on the bristles all the way around the edge of the ferrule. This will work the lather closer to the ferrule and dislodge paint that has migrated up the tuft. Do this until all discoloration or staining is removed from the visible hairs. Rinse thoroughly, again with the tuft first pointing down, then horizontally.

Large brushes or very contaminated brushes may require two or even three washings before the paint is completely removed.

Once cleaned, shake excess water from the brush: do not dry a brush by wiping the tuft with a towel. Hold the brush as you would to paint with it, then make a stabbing downward thrust and a quick snap upwards with your forearm. This will snap out most of the water and gather the tuft into a natural drying shape. (Snapping a brush with a hard flick of your wrist will skew the tuft sideways.)

If necessary, shape the brush gently against the side of your finger so that it comes to a balanced point. Wash brushes need to be shaken out more assertively, as they hold more water.

The best method I've found for drying is to set the handle of the brush in a brush holder with the tuft resting on a clean surface (right). Balance the brush so that the hairs rest lightly and hold their shape. I also rest my brushes in this position when painting, as it drains moisture away from the ferrule and keeps the tips moist for as long as possible. Resting flats in this way helps them dry to a clean, straight edge.

brush remedies

A good brush is always worth the investment. Not only is the finest quality, natural hair or bristle brush a joy to use — it can always be more easily returned to its original state, exclusive of wear.

Paint residue. The head of a brush will start to splay as pigment becomes trapped between the hairs in the ferrule. This will occur if paint is not thoroughly washed from the brush after every use, or the brush is used too aggressively to pick up or apply paint.

This problem is serious enough that some painters recommend wrapping the tuft end of the ferrule with one or two layers of masking tape, so that the edge of the tape extends about 1/8" over the tuft. This inhibits the capillary action that carries paint into the ferrule; the tape can be peeled away when the brush is washed.

If the ferrule is seriously impacted with residue paint, use a sewing needle to probe and dislodge the paint from the core of the wetted and cleaned tuft. Do this carefully, without pushing up into the ferrule (this will just wedge paint further up the tuft).

A small brush called "The Amazing Brush Comb" is available from most art retailers; this has a small plastic comb at one end and a conical nylon fiber brush at the other, designed for cleaning paint residue from the ferrule of a brush.

I prefer to avoid the problem by following the brush handling and cleaning guidelines suggested above.

Hair conditioner. As brushes are used and cleaned in normal painting, the natural oils in the hairs are worn or washed away. The usual symptoms are that the hairs will begin to look dried out or frizzled, the brush will not point as promptly when wet, and stray hairs begin to appear.

The common advice is to wet and wash the brush in warm water, apply a small amount of hair conditioner to the wet clean hairs, work it in thoroughly with your fingertips, shape the brush to a point or flat edge, and let it sit for an hour or so. Thoroughly rinse out the conditioner and shape the brush to dry, and repeat if necessary.

After washing, if the hairs or bristles are unruly, you can use gum arabic to shape a brush (most natural hair brushes come preshaped with gum arabic). A light coating of common laundry starch (without the conditioners and fragrances, if available) is a useful alternative. Dip the brush in the starch or gum arabic solution, shape with fingers, and set it down where it can rest undisturbed. Let the brush sit for as long as you don't need to use it — a week is better than a few days, a month better than a week. Rinse off the coating when you're ready to work.

Stray hairs. Just leave these alone, as long as the brush shapes to a good point and the strays do not interfere with your brushwork.

If you need to remove a nuisance hair, grip the hair carefully with thumb and finger, or a pair of tweezers near, the visible base (not the tip) of the hair shaft, pull it down and to the side against the edge of the ferrule, and snap it off at the edge, using the ferrule edge to cut it.

Do not cut stray hairs with scissors or a blade. You will not be able to trim it close to the ferrule without damaging the tuft.

Never attempt to "trim" stray hairs by holding the dry brush tuft near or against a flame. This will very likely burn off other hairs in the tuft and can invisibly blunt the tips of the hairs in the point as well.

Misshapen brushes. I devised a way to trim the edge of flats with a razor blade, and have used it successfully to fix Isabey and Yarka flats. I describe it here, but warn you that you can easily ruin the brush if you botch the job.

First completely wet the flat for one minute under lukewarm water, then shake out and shape the tuft until the hairs are in their natural "painting" alignment. This step is crucial, because after you make the cut the tuft will only show a flat edge when the hairs are in this original alignment. With your free hand, lay the edge of the tuft on an absolutely flat cutting surface. (A plastic kitchen cutting board will do but it must be absolutely flat: if the surface is uneven the blade won't cut completely through and you will ruin the brush). Hold the handle of the brush horizontal, then raise the angle of the handle until the edge of the tuft just touches the cutting surface. Position the edge of a single edge razor exactly where you want to make the cut. When the blade is in position, press down once, very firmly, to trim the edge. You only get one shot. Rock the blade side to side, if necessary to complete the cut; do not cut with a sliding motion of the blade.

Cut the fewest hairs, and the shortest length off the tips, as possible. When I do this I'm left with a barely visible row of brown dust where the tips were trimmed off. That's all you need to remove to square even a raggedy Yarka. Remember, though, that natural hairs come to a needle point, so when you trim them you've damaged them. Damage as few of the hairs in the tuft as possible.

Misshapen synthetic brushes can sometimes be restored by holding them in hot (from the faucet, not boiling) water for one or two minutes. Shape with gum arabic or starch, and let sit overnight. Rinse, and repeat if necessary.

Jason Skill reports a similar method recommended by a brush manufacturer: place the tuft in a large steel spoon, carefully dribble boiling water over the tuft until small bubbles appear, then rinse the brush in cold tap water and shake out to a point.

I don't know of any way to improve the point or shape of a round brush. If it's unusable, consign it to the maskoid jar, use it for washes, whatever is practical.

Once a brush is useless for one purpose, find something else for it to do. Treating your tools with respect is part of the whole gesture of humility you bring to painting.

Maskoid. Dried art masking fluid (maskoid) is a brutal abuse. Unless the latex can be picked off by hand, there is unfortunately no solvent for it. Never use maskoid with anything except a cheap synthetic brush.

If the brush is coated with dried oil or acrylic paint, the only remedy is to use a commercial paint stripper, followed by warm water and soap. If the brush is not totally lost, then shape the head with glycerin or starch, as described above.

storing brushes

Once you have paid $200 for a Kolinsky round or a large Isabey mop, you start taking brush storage very seriously. Insects work round the clock and out of your awareness, and your rampage of pesticide won't bring back the hairs those critters have gnawed away.

Home. Some artists prefer to store the brushes with moth balls, but I don't like the smell.

Commercial brush boxes (the kind you usually order embossed with your initials) are a convenient and safe way to store brushes for a long period. As these boxes generally run around $20 to $30 dollars, they are also a great profit center for art retailers.

I previously used them only for the most expensive sable brushes. Unfortunately, the boxes had holes drilled in the cover to permit moisture to escape, making a perfect entry for bugs. I tried stacking the boxes so that the holes were covered, or glued a piece of breathing synthetic fabric (rayon or nylon) over the holes from the inside with a synthetic glue. But I decided they weren't worth all that trouble and threw them all away.

drying brushes

use a brush holder to tilt drying brushes so that water drains away from the ferrules.

Instead I found that commercial plastic spaghetti containers, the kind available in many kitchen supply stores, make superb brush containers (shown at right is my preference, the Click Clack). Three or four cardboard cylinders (from toilet paper or paper towels) cut to the right length will hold the brushes upright, and no bug can ever get in. Pasta containers can hold almost any brush, even the leggy Winsor & Newton Series 7 #10's.

In the same way, I use flat Tupperware containers to store wash and Japanese brushes that don't fit in wooden brush boxes.

A few simple warnings: don't store brushes near heat (furnace vents, sunlit windows); never put moist brushes in a closed container (mildew will ruin the hairs); always store brushes vertically, if possible.

Travel. To carry brushes on painting trips, use a folding brush holder expressly designed for that purpose.

The fudemaki brush roll is a bamboo mat with stitching or cloth ribbing to hold brushes in place; the mat is rolled up to carry brushes, and this prevents them from rubbing against each other in transit. I do not recommend this method. The brush hairs can become caught and tear in the cracks between the bamboo stems or the stitching. The wad of brushes is not sufficiently protective of very large brushes, and small brushes have an annoying tendency to fall out.

plastic spaghetti container

a highly practical, insect proof way to store brushes that lets you find the brush without opening the container

The carrier I use in the field is the Utrecht canvas brush roll (shown at right). Nothing fancy here: it's made of cotton artist's canvas, folded and stitched to form slim brush pockets, with cotton ties at either side to hold the roll snugly together. The canvas is softer than bamboo, so the grip of the tie strings holds even small brushes in place; the canvas is absorbent, to help the brushes dry after use, but it also allows air to circulate; and there are no cracks to pinch and tear the brush hairs.

A third alternative is the Westmark brush folder, with supporting boards in the covers (shown at right). When opened, the covers fold horizontally backwards to create a brush stand. This holder will accommodate nearly any brush except very long handled rounds or very fat squirrel mops (the largest I carry in it is an Isabey #7). It's sturdy enough to protect against the jostling of airline travel and packing equipment up to a painting site. The flat panels let rinsed brushes breathe, and even the smallest brushes don't slip out. A similar, larger but less sturdy carrier is made of white canvas by Winsor & Newton.

Once home from a painting field trip, brushes should be immediately unpacked from the holders, cleaned, shaped and dried in the usual way.

Utrecht canvas brush roll