Artist Handbook: Cleaning Your Brushes

How to Clean Your Brushes:

One of my goals as an artist has been to improve and learn new skills through online tutorials, classes, blogs, etc., so I have watched hours of video! While there are a ton of “how-to” or “best” art supply videos, none of them really go in depth about caring for those art supplies, specifically brushes. A good brush can be a bit of an investment. However, with proper care they can last a long time. Please note that some styles of painting and techniques are harder on your brushes and will cause them to wear out faster. The material the brush is made of will also impact how fast or slow it wears (synthetic vs. natural fibers).

A component of taking good care of your brushes is cleaning them. Now I will be the first one to admit, I don’t do this as often as I should (which is every time you paint!). The frequency of cleaning will be up to you and largely depends on how often you are using your brushes. Cleaning your brush will lengthen the life of your brush and will eliminate any chance of leaving old paint on the bristles.


Cleaning Your Brush:

To clean your brush you will need:

  1. A paper towel (or something to dry your brush on)
  2. Clean water
  3. Soap*
  4. Your brush(es)

*A Note About Soap: I would recommend using a brush cleaner for this purpose. I am currently using “The Masters” Brush Cleaner. It was only a couple of dollars at my local art store. You can also order it off, see link below. This cleaner is specifically meant for artist brushes and won’t cause any damage. In a pinch, I have also used dish soap or liquid hand soap but I do not know if this has any negative impact on the brush hairs. For my masking fluid brushes, I use a local handmade laundry bar stain removing soap, and it is the only thing I’ve found that will remove all of the masking fluid from my brushes. For you local Ohio artists, the laundry bar is made by The Tree Hugger Company.
Amazon Link: General Pencil Company The Masters Brush Cleaner & Preserver 2.5 0z.

Brush Cleaner
Open container of brush cleaner.

Step 1: Wet the brush thoroughly.

Step 2
Wet brush applied to cleaner.

Step 2: Load the brush with clean water and wet the brush cleaner.

Lathered Brush Cleaner
Brush full of cleaner.

Step 3: Gently lather the soap onto the brush, taking care to keep the bristles working in the proper direction. Be patient, it may take a moment to activate the cleaner. Also, you do not what to gouge the cleaner with the base of the ferrule. You may see some pigment leaving the brush, this means the soap is doing its job!

Step 4: Carefully work the soap through the brush with your finger tips. Very little pressure is needed. DO NOT pull on the bristles.

Step 5: Rinse your brush in clean water. This may be at the faucet or in a water container.

Step 6: Repeat until there is no more pigment leaving the brush head. For me, this generally isn’t more than twice per brush.

Step 7: Pat your brush on the paper towel and leave it to dry laying flat.

Now your brush is clean and ready for the next time you paint!

Clean Brush
Cleaned brush laying on a paper towel to dry.

General Brush Care & Tips:

  1. Allow your brushes to dry flat so that there is no water trapped in the base of the brush, or ferrule, where the bristles attach to the handle.
  2. Make sure to store your brushes in a way that the bristles will not be misshapen (I keep mine upright in a stoneware mug). If a brush is left in a bent or crimped position it may retain this shape and never return to it’s original form. This will more than likely leave the brush unusable for normal brushwork.
  3. If you are traveling with your brushes, I would strongly recommend using a case designed specifically for protecting the bristles. A normal style pencil case is not adequate.
  4. When rinsing your brush, do not mash it down on the bottom of the water container. It is okay to gently touch the brush to the bottom, but scrubbing the brush hard can bend the hairs, which causes damage or can break them.
  5. The same goes for when you’re painting. If your style involves placing a lot of pressure on the brush, and rough strokes, that is up to you, but be aware that you are going to need to replace your brushes more often.
  6. You will know a brush is worn out when it will no longer take a crisp shape when wet. If you wet a brush and then firmly tap the handle against your finger, it should make a sharp point or edge. If it does not, then it is showing some degree of wear. This is also a technique for selecting a good brush before you purchase it.
  7. Old worn out brushes often make great textures, so it may be worthwhile to hold on to a few just for this purpose. Splayed bristles make great grass and fur details, to name a few.
  8. If you know you are going to be packing your brushes away for an extended period of time, naturally it is best to make sure they are clean before hand.

There is a lot to know about brushes, so I may write more about them at a later date. Please let me know if this was helpful to you!

Happy Painting!


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