Thursday, March 29, 2012

Brush Cleaning 101

This was originally posted in the Point Hammered forum, by member . It's excellent information, and well presented. So, without further adieu:

Brush Cleaning 101

Hi All,

I have found that some people don’t know a lot about proper brush cleaning. I think it’s important as you find a brush that you like and if you don’t take care of it, it can get ruined. If you find yourself going through brushes sooner than you like, then maybe you need to take care of them better? Now, there are always tips and tricks that people learn and I am sure that there are some that I don’t know about. What do I know? Well, I do have a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Painting, Drawing, and Printing. I know at least as much as the average bear. I’m not claiming to be an expert. I figure that this thread might help some people that don’t know.

What is a brush?

Some might regard this as a silly question, but it does have relevance. A brush is a stick that holds bristles together to move paint around with. This is important with how the bristles are held by the brush. Most of the time, they are glued to the stick and encased with a metal cover (called a ferrule) to help hold it there and protect the glue. The ferrule is important to remember when cleaning. It helps keep the point.


The bristles of a brush make a big difference in the quality of a brush, as well. There are synthetic brushes and hair brushes.

Synthetic are quite cheap to get and tend to deteriorate quickly. They range in scale of quality that effect how nice the brush is. I find that they tend to lose their point faster than hair brushes. There are synthetic hair brushes, too, that are on the higher end of the scale. The main benefit of these brushes is cost.

Hair brushes vary in quality from horse hair up to the most expensive, Kolinsky sable-hair brushes. These also vary in quality, but generally, the hair repels the water better and keeps a better point. Hair brushes keep the point much better than synthetic. Kolinsky brushes are rumored to keep the best point of any brush overall, but can easily cost $10-20 per brush. If properly taken care of, these brushes can last years.

What do you mean “Keeping a point”?

Control of a brush is very important. When the bristles of a brush come to a point, you can control exactly where you want the paint to go. The point of the brush is the very tip. I’ve seen big brushes that come to such a point that you can still paint eyes with them. If you don’t take care of a brush, the bristles of the brush start to go all wonky and you end up with terrible brush control. How can you paint what you want when your tools won’t let you paint where you want to?

If you are saying, “Well, I paint with a crummy brush all the time and my minis come out fine”, then I recommend you try painting with a nice brush for once. You might be an instant convert. If you are good with a crappy brush, try a brush with a good point and you will see your painting improve!

How does a brush lose its point?

This is a very important question and the heart of taking good care of your brushes.

The most common method of ruining your brushes involves improper cleaning. What happens is that paint gets into the ferrule of a brush and dries. Overall, this messes up with the way the bristles lay. The worse it gets, the worse the brush gets. Overall, you will get split ends with your paint brush or the inability of your paint brush to form a point. This is something that can be prevented by solid brush care, though. There are numerous ways to clean your brush, but it is important to actually get into the ferrule and clean it out! Sometimes you may need to mash your bristles up to get this done, but it won’t hurt the bristles as much as not cleaning them will!

What do you use to clean your brushes?

Plain soap and water: Maybe you use only water, but please! Use some soap! This is the most basic and cheapest method of cleaning your brushes. Acrylic paint is water soluble, so water does clean it off well. Still, getting it out of the cluster of brushes near the ferrule or under the ferrule are important to keep brush integrity. Just use some soap and your finger tips to rub it into the bristles to clean it. If you have a bar of white soap, try jamming the brush in until the ferrule makes an indentation. Twirl the brush around in the soap. Pull it out and see all the paint that was stuck up in there. Do this on a regular basis. I sometimes find I do it several times in one painting session!

Liquid Acrylic Cleaners: There are a number of brands of liquid cleaners out there, but make sure you get one for acrylic. If you get one for oil paint, you might end up ruining your brushes! I have had not much success with these. The idea is that the liquid can get up in the ferrule to clean them without mashing the bristles. It works best if you have a brush holder that can hold the brush point down and in the solution without having the tip touch the cup the cleaner is in. Whatever you do, don’t just leave your brush face down in a cup! That will ruin the point in no time. You can buy these specialized things online or at fancy art stores.

The Master’s Brush Cleaner: is a specific product that can be purchased in many places online or at any art store. I list it on its own because it is such an amazing product. Every long term artist that I know uses this stuff. Even my daughter’s fine arts teacher uses it (by the bucket size, actually). This stuff is by far the best brush cleaner I have ever used! It works on synthetic and hair brushes. It works on old brushes and new brushes. It cleans off paint like nothing else. You wet the brush and rub it into the stuff. Use your fingers to really rub it into places. Then, you wash it off. You can even try to “retrain” your brush tips by rubbing on some of this stuff and then letting it dry that way. It will help the brush “relearn” it’s tip.

It’s also really cheap, too!

I’m sure there are other products that I haven’t used, too. Anyone can feel free to post their experiences.

The second biggest ways for a brush to lose its point is storage. How you store your brushes can really effect them! The absolute worst way that anyone can store a brush is bristles down in a cup or something. Why would anyone ever do that? Surely no one reading this actually does that. Maybe my 6 year old does…

Why is this a bad way to store a brush?


Well, any water or other liquid will stay on the brush and eventually move down into the ferrule of the brush. Over time, this will either weaken the glue that holds the bristles or rot the wood underneath. Both of these methods will start to ruin your point and then make the bristles fall out. In short, it ruins your brushes. Don’t do it!

What is the best way to store brushes? Well, technically you should get one of those brush stands that holds the brush upside down, but prevents the bristles from touching anything. They are expensive and kind of hard to find, actually. I don’t own one, but it’s technically the best way. Any liquid drips down the tip of the brush and won’t ruin the shape. The best way I store my brush is by just laying it on its side on a table or shelf.

So, in summary, if you clean your brushes and if you store your brushes properly, they will last longer and hold their point better. Will they last forever? No? Do I come across as a pretentious jerk? Probably. What the hell, I just want to help some people out that might not know this. If you have your own suggestions or additions, please add it.


Marco said...

Very nice post Groznit, and very helpful. I'll be using this information from now on. Also: I *think* I have a "sable brush" but if I remember correctly, it has a bit of a loose/damaged tip. Is there a way to fix this ? Thanks !

heychadwick said...

Well, loose hairs you can't do too much about. The glue is losing it's grip on the hairs and the brush is starting to go down hill. Watch how you store the brush.

If it's losing it's tip, then that's fixable. One of the things that messes up the tip is paint that dries in the ferrule and causes the hairs to point odd. So, if you clean into the ferrule, then you have a good chance of getting your point back.

The Master's Paint Brush Cleaner can also "retrain" your brush tip. So, after it's clean as you can get, you put a little bit of cleaner on the brush. You let it dry and it hardens until wet. This kind of forces the hairs to remember their original position.

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