Using your brushes so that they last a lifetime.
We all know that we need to care for our brushes, but after seeing some things recently, I have come to understand that there are a lot of people who don't know how to just that yet. So here are my guidelines for how to care for your brushes, and what to do if you don't sometimes...
These are guidelines, not rules to live by. We all have habits, some bad and some good. These are really just things to think about was you use your brushes. I would, however, say things in the ‘never’ list you really should try to avoid doing.
o Use a brush for one medium only. Don’t use the same brushes for oil paints (or oil washes) and then acrylics. The stuff used to clean oil brushes is pretty harsh (mineral spirits) and will really wear a brush out.
o Always wet a brush before you start painting. Don't pick up paint with a dry brush.Unless you're dry-brushing, of course.
o Once a brush is charged with paint, begin painting with it immediately. This will pull the paint away from the ferrule.
o 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 or pull out the hairs.
o Wash and shape the brush hairs when you finish your work session, using lukewarm water and a commercial artists' brush cleaner (links below)
o Treat synthetic brushes with the same care as natural hair brushes. The rule to never rest a brush on its tip is even more important with synthetic brushes since they tend to retain any shape they get into.
o Dip out and mix paints with an old brush or stick, never your best brushes. If you’re mixing on a palette using your good brushes, just be sure not to get paint up in the ferrule.
o ‘Reshape’ a brush with scissors or X-Acto blade. Trimming the ends of a natural hair brush leaves them in a 'broken' state and they will never get back to 'normal'.
o Never hold a loaded brush with the tip pointing upwards. The paint will ‘wick’ towards the ferrule and make it harder to clean.
o Leave a brush sitting point down in water
o Leave a brush wet with paint for extended periods
o Let it dry out with paint on it especially in the tuft (or ferrule)
o Clean or rinse a brush in hot water. Hot water can affect the glue up in the ferrule and allow the hairs to pull out or get misshaped.
o 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.
o Do not submerge the brush in water beyond the top of the ferrule. Water will seep into the ferrule from either end. This could cause the handle to swell, crack, and loosen in the ferrule.
Cleaning brushes correctly
Cleaning is really straightforward, but if you’re not doing it right, you can really ruin brushes fast. The cheaper the brushes, the more they get affected by bad practices.
• Never use hot water! (see above)
• Use a purpose-made brush soap (Masters or Jentastic Goop), baby shampoo or something super gentle. Never use hand soap or harsh cleansers.
o Get the brush good and wet with water, swirl it in the soap until it lathers up a bit, then brush it in the palm of your hand to ‘scrub’ the bristles. Never jab it or move it in a motion that would go against the ‘grain’ of the hairs. Always be ‘pulling’ it toward the natural lay of the hairs.
o Rinse the soap out carefully in water, swirling it around for a while.
o Once cleaned, shake excess water from the brush. Don’t dry a brush by wiping the tuft with a towel. 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.
o If you’re crazy like me, now is the time to dip it into some hair conditioner (you’re wife’s bottle is probably in the shower, go grab a small squeeze of it in a small seal-able cup. She won’t mind.) Seriously, brushes are just animal hairs, and they dry out. Conditioner helps them
Remedies - When you don't follow the 'guidelines'
A good brush is always worth the investment. Not only is the finest quality, natural hair brush a joy to use, it can always be returned to its original state no matter how bad you treat it. Cheap ‘box store’ brushes are not so forgiving. Everyone I have met who swears by cheap brushes changes their tune when they start using quality brushes.
That said, poor care and use of brushes can lead to them getting really hard to use. Most often, the head of a brush will start to splay as pigment becomes trapped between the hairs in the ferrule. This is what normally keeps them from holding a good point. 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. There are ways to fix this though!
Winsor & Newton sells a brush restorer chemical that is designed to ‘gently’ eat the paint that has dried in the ferrule. I have used this stuff with great success on even some of the most abused brushes (Elric!). All you need to do is put the brush into the bottle of cleaner (or a separate container, see the photo.) up to and a little past the ferrule. This will let the cleaner fluid work the dried acrylic out of the brush. They recommend soaking the brush for hours or even overnight if need be.
Once it has soaked for a decent period of time, run through the cleaning cycle. Use clean water, brush soap and gentle scrubbing.
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. Some folks will use brush soap and actually leave it in the bristles without washing it out. Let it dry them in an hour or so, rinse it thoroughly. Most times that will work to recondition the brush.
You can also wet and wash the brush in lukewarm water and then 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.
Brush shaper or Gum arabic.
After washing, if the hairs or bristles are still crazy splayed out, you can use gum arabic or brush shaper to shape the brush back to a point (most natural hair brushes come preshaped with gum Arabic on them and need to be cleaned before use). Dip the brush in the brush shaper or gum arabic solution, shape with your fingers, and set it down where it can rest undisturbed to dry. The longer it sits, the better the result will be. Keep in mind though, if there is dried paint in the ferrule, it will not stay pointed for long after this treatment. Go back to the remedy section.
Almost always, 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. Try not to ‘pull it out’ from the ferrule, as it will leave a tiny bit of a hole in the glue and allow gunk to build up. Don’t try to cut stray hairs with scissors or a blade, you won’t 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.
o Never store a wet brush upright, the liquid will just wick up into the ferrule and that’s never good. Leave the brush horizontal or face down (not resting on the hairs) to dry, then store them upright.
o Never store a damp brush in an airtight container. The dampness will cause mildew, and that will destroy the brush hairs. Baaad!
o Don't store brushes near heat (furnace vents, sunlit windows). Heat is not a brush’s friend.
Traveling with brushes
o To carry brushes on trips, use a brush roll holder or something expressly designed for that purpose. Lots of companies sell roll up or zippered pocketed holders for brushes. Tossing them into a box may not always be the best answer, they take a lot of abuse banging around like that.
o Once home, brushes should be immediately unpacked from the holders, cleaned, shaped and dried in the usual way. (Unless you already did it on your trip…)
Always remember, once a brush is useless for one purpose, find something else for it to do. Maybe it becomes the brush you use to pull paints out of a pot, or mix on your palette? Maybe it becomes a new drybrush?
So there you have it, just an average painters ideas about taking care of your brushes. Do you have to follow this like law? Hell no, nobody would, but if I manage to change one bad habit, my work here will be done!