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Caring for Watercolour Brushes

Cleaning watercolour brushes Cleaning watercolour brushes

handmade hand painted watercolour greetings cards with a hand cut pattern edged internal page and your very own verse or message printed inside.

After a painting session it can be easy to blow off proper care of your brushes. It is a necessity with other permanent binder paints like oils and acrylics. If you don't clean the brush after your painting session, you lose it.

Watercolour is more forgiving, but over time pigment, dirt, and binder can become embedded where the hair meets the ferrule. This can cause the hairs to spread a bit and your brush point or edge will become less and less useful over time.

If your brushes are dirty but still damp you can clean them very easily using soap. You can use any soap that seems mild and organic in nature. You're working with hair here so don't condition the hair with lotion laced soaps. Special artist's brush cleaner soaps are available. Don't use any soap with abrasives like pumice.

Cleaning your watercolour brush step-by-step

  • Gather your used brushes by a sink, start some warm water running.

  • With open palm in the running water, gently dab and swirl the brush in your palm until the water runs clean.
  • Moisten bar of soap. Take your wet brush and in a gentle circular motion work some soap into the hair.

  • Wet your palm again and repeat the dabbing and swirling motion with the soap charged brush.

  • Rinse and repeat until suds stay white and brush is clean.

  • Do a final rinse to remove all the residual soap.

  • Gently shake, squeeze or dab water out of brush using towels.

  • Reform damp brush hairs to their original shape with your fingers and let them dry on a flat surface such as a dry paper hand towel.

New watercolour brushes

Brand new sable watercolour brushes have their hair sized with a gum Arabic solution and shaped to a point. The sizing fixes the final shape of the brush and protects the brush hairs during shipping and on the shelf until you buy it.

To properly break in a new brush you must dip it in your water container and swirl it around until the sizing softens up and washes away.

Don't bend the hairs while they are stiff, breakage can occur if they've been sized too heavily.

After thoroughly rinsing, daub off excess water on a paper towel and reshape hairs. Store on flat towel until dry.

Using watercolour brushes with other Mediums

Do yourself a favour and keep separate brushes for each medium you use as an artist.

Acrylic paint dries permanent and insoluble. Even one use with acrylics can alter a brush's effectiveness for watercolour if it starts to dry at the base of the ferrule while you're painting. Because you have to be a bit more aggressive in cleaning, your brush can become damaged in the process. 

Many inks contain lacquers or high strength dyes. Some can discolour your brush's hair, like hair dye. Most lacquer based inks will build up quickly within a ferrule and destroy the brushes shape and point. 

Liquid masking fluid contain latex rubber. Washing liquid masking fluid out of your brush without annoying the heck out of the hairs is extremely difficult at best. If it has dried in your brush, write that brush off as a learning experience. Always wet a brush with mildly soapy water before starting to apply masking fluid. Dedicated masking fluid applicators are now available and make a valuable purchase.

Water Bucket Do's and Don'ts

Don't let your brushes sit tip down in your water bucket for extended periods. If left soaking too long the bend gets "set" and the hairs of your brushes can begin to look like a bad case of bed head. Over time this can permanently damage the shape and functionality of your brush.

Water will find its way to the dry wood at the core of the brush handle if left in water too long, which then soaks in to the wood. The pressure of the expanding wet wood can force the metal ferrule to loosen from the handle of your brush. Over time this leads to cracks and chipping and loose, wobbly ferrules.

If You Test These At Home, Use Cheap Brushes!

Please do not indulge in conspicuous consumption by purchasing a beautiful Kolinsky Sable Watercolour brush that could last you a lifetime, particularly in those large sizes that run over $100 for a single brush, and then do any of these horrible things to it. Test whether these mistakes will really ruin good

Watercolour brushes with the kind of cheap sable, pony, synthetic and unknown fiber brushes you get at Hobby Lobby or a Dollar Store for a dollar for twenty. I'm serious. You would make serious artists all over the Internet cry in frustration if you did this to a good Kolinsky Sable when they have to make do with synthetics.

But keep some cheap ones around to take the punishment, because some of these horrible things have to be done anyway to some brush... just not your best! Many of these are good reasons to put $4 or $5 into one of those mixed bag packs of Seconds and Irregulars that Loew-Cornell and some other companies produce at very low prices.

Ten do's and Don'ts for watercolour brushes

1. Don't put it hair end down in a cup of water. Ever. For Any Reason.

It can be a good idea to soak a Watercolour brush's hairs in water to keep it wet so that paint doesn't dry in it -- especially if you're using diluted acrylics, since they dry to stiff plastic and can glue the hairs together permanently. But don't put it upside down in a cup of water to rest on the hairs. It will curl up into a "J" shape and you'll never be able to paint with it again. Period.  If you really want to keep the hairs immersed, Loew-Cornell makes a really cool plastic water container with ridges on the bottom of one of its two compartments to run the hairs over to loosen globs of paint, and the other side has angled clips of varying widths so you can clamp the brush at an angle with the hairs suspended in water.

If you buy this and use it, try to keep the water depth just below the metal part that holds the hairs onto the handle -- the ferrule. The hairs are glued into the ferrule. Repeated soaking in water up above the end of the ferrule can soften the glue and make the brush lose hairs. Usually in the middle of a smooth wash in the middle of your best painting where tweezing them out would ruin it. Leaving it to dry there and tweezing it afterward will leave a tiny light coloured mark going exactly where you don't want it -- there is no fix usually for those lost hairs things except to catch them really fast, tweeze them out, slosh the paint back over it and hope it spreads out to cover the blotch again.

Brushes last much longer if you just rinse them clean in the cup and prop them with just the hair parts in the water, or lay them sideways after pointing them with your fingers. It doesn't take much more work to swish and rinse and then set it hairs up in one of the holes around the edge of that water container either. And don't leave it in the water overnight if you're just keeping it wet while working -- don't let it soak long if you do decide to soak it.

Everything here goes for oil brushes and thinner too with one obvious exception.

2. Do Not Apply Masking Fluid To Your Paper With Your Best Brush -- Use A Cheap One Even If You Need A Fine Line.

Masking fluid is very hard on brushes. It's liquid rubber. You put it on Watercolour paper so that you can paint over it fast and then peel it up later to reveal clean, perfect white paper or the light color you painted earlier. It's very useful stuff. Use something else to apply it. This is what the Hobby Lobby cheapo pack and the Seconds and Irregulars are great for. Find the best shaped cheap one you've got and test it with the masking fluid, try different ones till you get the control you need to paint with masking fluid and still get super fine cat whiskers or that tiny dot in the iris and pupil of someone's eye. Clean that cheap brush immediately after using.

Get it wet before you dip it in the masking fluid. Rinse immediately after masking. Use a good brush cleaner/conditioner to soften and recondition the hairs. Then dip the butt end of the handle into the masking fluid and let it dry so that you'll always know that one is the Good Cheap Brush For Masking Whiskers. Use it till it dies, which even with good care will be much faster than your good Watercolour brushes, and replace with another cheap one. You may want to use scissors to trim a larger cheap brush to shape for applying masking fluid. Or test things like The Incredible NIb for applying it that aren't damaged by masking fluid at all.

I got good results on a cat painting applying masking fluid with toothpicks. I had to re-dip it for each whisker to get the fine lines from the point, but it worked and the whiskers were adequately masked. Experiment with anything disposable but never do this with your good brushes. You can sometimes get very tiny cheap brushes for hobby use, like painting miniature pewter or metal or plastic fantasy or military figures -- these are great for masking, but be aware you'll need to replace them often.

3. Don't Scrub The Brush Hairs Down To Get Stains Out! Some Colors Stain!

Do not go nuts and splay out a good Watercolour round or flat trying to scrub it clean on regular soap in order to get stains out, or clip off the stained parts. Some colors are Staining Colors. You probably got Alizarin Crimson in your first beginner Watercolour set -- it's one of the worst, it's like berry juice. Rinse until the water coming out of the brush is clean and swiping it on clean paper shows no more color on the paper. It's clean.

You can reduce the stains to a great extent by using The Masters Brush Cleaner & Conditioner or other brush cleaner/conditioner products. That's the one I bought at Blick though, and it really does the job. It's dissolved some stain out of even brushes I thought would never be anything but Phthalo Blue again, and it restores a lot of the elasticity and texture. So do use a good brush cleaner and conditioner to wash your brushes out -- and don't expect staining colours not to stain the hairs. White nylon is especially prone to it or any white hair brushes, this is why "golden taklon" is dyed a warm golden color to reduce the obviousness of the stains.

4. Don't Suck The Brush To Point It, Or Ever Chew On Watercolour Brushes or Any Art Brushes. Ever, Ever, Ever, Even If It Seems To Work So Well.

I underlined this one because it's a bad habit I had to force myself to break. Spit seems to hold the shape of a Watercolour round better than anything and sucking it pulls it right into shape like it was new, it even dries like that. The problem with this isn't a risk to the brush. It's the risk to you, the human being poisoning yourself with toxic pigments when you get tired of cheap nontoxic edible children's paints and start buying good artist grade adult paint. If you never get into the habit on student grade nontoxic Watercolour s, you will not find yourself unconsciously sucking cadmium salts and cobalt compounds.

They can kill you over time and cause brain damage along the way and do all sorts of horrible things. It's not dangerous to use them in Watercolour s if you never get them in your mouth and mucous membranes. So break that habit while you're still using Cotman colours and you can trust yourself to use the good pigments like Cadmium Red without fear.

It takes a little skill to do it. I didn't learn this for real till I bought a good set of Winsor & Newton Artist Watercolours and had a tiny genuine micro Kolinsky brush in the set, but you really can point a Watercolour round with your fingers if you hold it while it's damp and tenderly stroke it toward the tip while turning it after every stroke. It takes a long time to get it right the first time, with practice it gets easier and faster till it's as routine and unconscious as brush sucking.

It may also make the brushes last longer -- your spit has digestive juices in it that aren't exactly formulated to keep from dissolving animal hair. If anything, exactly the opposite.

5. Do Not Let Your Cat Lick Your Brush Clean, Or Your Puppy Chew It.

The same reasons of toxicity apply in terms of protecting your beloved pet, but on top of that, even if it was clean to start with, they will chew off all the hairs trying to groom it. Your puppy will also splinter the handle and get it into its gums and stomach. Bad for the animals and the brush is a lost cause. Cats who paint in Watercolour s (there are some) use nontoxic finger paints or children's paints and do so with their paws. Their hair grows back in. Your paint brush won't. Cats should never ever be trusted with cadmiums or other toxic pigments.

6. Don't Let Acrylic Paint Dry In Watercolour Brushes, Ever.

You may want to use good synthetic brushes for acrylics, when you're using those "thin it to ink consistency and emulate Watercolour " techniques. They're bold and beautiful. Rinse often. Use Watercolour brushes you can afford to lose even if the worst happens and it dries in them. The Masters Brush Cleaner & Conditioner may actually get it out and save your brush, but it might not, depends on how bad it got stuck. If you need good brushes for a serious painting, don't use the Kolinsky Sables unless you get paid so much per painting that an accident would still allow you to make a profit after replacing the brush you used.

In my experience, soft synthetic hairs are just as good with acrylics even thin. There's something about the acrylic texture that synthetic hairs seem to handle it better -- so get high quality synthetic brushes for use with acrylics and save your pure good sables and good Chinese brushes for things that re-dissolve in water.

7. Do Not Let Any Ink Dry In Watercolour Brushes, Ever. Even Chinese Brushes Don't Survive That.

Sumi-e ink sticks are made by combining various pigments or soot with fish glue. They dry waterproof. They cannot be reactivated. Let it dry in a brush and the brush is gone, unless The Masters Brush Cleaner & Conditioneraner & Conditioner cake and repeated gentle washing can separate the stained hairs again. You took forty minutes to meditate and grind the ink for your masterful painting. Surely you can take a few seconds to wash the brush and point it with your fingers and hang it from its loop point down to dry.

Incidentally, that treatment is very good for Western brushes too. If you do get one of those beautiful wood or ox horn brush racks with a pillar and spokes so that all your Chinese brushes can dry dangling point down -- try attaching loops to your good Kolinsky Sable Watercolour brushes and letting them hang next to their Asian neighbours. They too are more likely to dry into perfect shape after being pointed, gravity helps and draws all the water out the point.

I've been thinking of getting one for years. But if you don't have one, point it and lay it on its side to dry or standing on its butt end rather than putting it hairs down anywhere.

8. Do Not Use Oil Paints In Watercolour Brushes Unless You Permanently Mean To Keep That An Oil Brush From Now On.

This includes Griffin Alkyd oil paints. I don't know about the Water Mixable Oils since I don't own any, but I won't be trying it with a good brush. After you've used any brush with oil paints of any kind, the oil gets into the hairs and will ruin any Watercolour s or water media you do with that brush again. Oil and water don't mix. Mark any Kolinsky Sable brushes you use with oils -- some artists do love them for some oils effects -- and don't get them mixed up with the ones you're going to use for doing actual Watercolour s.

If you can afford to do oils with the best, go for it. They make long handled ones specifically for use with oils in exactly the same shapes and sizes. This is a good way to tell them apart because Watercolour brushes usually have short handles. Oil paintings sell for a lot of money though, so if you do use your best Watercolour brush for it by mistake, re-label it and buy a new one for use with Watercolour s.

9. Don't Cut The Brush Hairs Unless You Mean It.

I know this sounds like a no-brainer, but it really is true. If you clip off a stray hair out of a brush that has gotten one bent off to the side, the stub may well flick out or come loose at an inconvenient moment and more hairs may come out. There is one exception to not cutting up or trimming brush ends.

That's when you really do need a specialty brush and bought it for that reason, and keep your trimming to the lower half of the hairs. One cool trick is to make a "grass texture" brush for acrylics or Watercolour s or oils by buying a fan brush and then giving it a random punk cut, leaving short and long hairs jagged and irregular all the way around the curve. This can do Instant Grass like you wouldn't believe. But get another fan brush to do fan brush tricks with because you'll never get it to not be that again.

I think that some of the deer's hoof and other odd shapes came about by artist trimming small flats into specialty shapes like a double line or something, they can be very useful. Just be sure to have a spare in the original shape and if you don't get it right the first time, keep trying.

10. Don't Use Watercolour Brushes To Apply Glue Or Varnish Or Gesso Or Sanded Pastel Primers Or Anything But Watercolour based materials.

There's a reason Hobby Lobby has those cheap foam end brushes that look like kiddie toys. They rock for priming Watercolour paper with sanded pastel grounds or varnishing oil paintings or a thousand other uses where you need a smooth flat application. Do not use your one and only good Watercolour flat for it and if you do, always keep it wet and rinse it immediately before it dries. Glue can include things like wood glue, superglue, epoxy, or the weird hide glues and mediums needed for gold leafing.

Use the right tool for the job. Those cheap little children's blunt brushes that come a dime each or get left over from used-up kid Watercolour sets are fine for Elmer's and the gold leafing kit will probably explain what kind of brush to use for applying the ground. When in doubt, purchase some good synthetic Watercolour brushes at a discount price.

I actually do use a good quality Polar Flo 3/4" flat brush to apply my Colour fix primer to Watercolour paper. I got it on a Buy 1 Get 1 Free offer and it wasn't that expensive even for the one I paid for -- and it has survived because I get it thoroughly wet before going into the primer, rinse immediately, wash immediately with The Masters Brush Cleaner & Conditioner and shape it again with my fingers. It still works well for Watercolours. So there are exceptions -- the Colour fix primer is essentially acrylic with little acrylic beads of grit in it. Still, I know this brush will wear out faster than its twin from the abuse, and am prepared to replace it with another good synthetic 3/4" flat. I'd never try that with natural hairs, synthetics work better with acrylic in my experience.

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