Breaking in and Maintaining your Brushes

If you take care of your brushes, they should last your lifetime. I still have my first serious brush I bought in college some 20, ahem, 30 years ago. Usually the only reason I buy a new brush is because I have scrubbed and worn the tip out on an old one so it doesn’t hold tiny detail any more. I try not to scrub with my good brush to prolong its life.

When you use your good pointed brush constantly to soften hard, dry paint, you wear out the tip on the brush. Some watercolorists only use fresh soft paint, but they have more money to spend on paint.

Don’t use other mediums with your good watercolor brushes. Oil and acrylic paint aren’t as gentle on brushes as watercolor pigments and will ruin watercolor brushes immediately. Likewise, keep your fingers off the hairs of your brushes. Your hands are full of oil, and your face is even worse. I actually see uninformed customers fondle new brushes and touch them to their face like a makeup brush. It takes all the finesse, patience, and diplomacy I have to not scream. Good brushes are expensive and should be respected, not fondled.

Prepping a new brush

New brushes are protected for shipping by being dipped in gum arabic, the binder in watercolor pigments, and/or covered with a tight, clear tube. When you get a new brush, discard the plastic tube. Don’t be tempted to replace it on the brush for protection. It’s too small, and you’ll end up bending back hairs and damaging the brush.

If the brush is stiff with gum arabic, dip the hairs in water and gently roll the brush on a table surface (not your good cherry dining furniture, but something you can wipe up liquid from like a kitchen countertop) until all of the gum arabic stiffener is removed. You may have to dip and roll several times until all the hardener is soft.

Washing, drying, and storing

Watercolor is pretty gentle, so you don’t need to wash brushes using soap very often, if at all. Rinsing with water is usually sufficient. Simply swirl the brush in water to rinse it, and then lay it flat to dry. Do this in between using colors. At the end of your painting session, do this really well. You want the brush to air dry, so don’t cover it with anything.

Never leave a brush standing in water. When brushes are wet, they are at their most vulnerable to damage. Prolonged exposure to water may damage the handle and loosen the ferrule. And, if you leave a brush in water for a long time, the hairs adapt to the shape of the bottom of the container. Result? Bent brush.

When dry, your brushes should be stored where they will be safe. You can  buy storage containers like brush quivers, canisters, and rolled pouches. Quivers are like an arrow quiver; they’re usually a box with a carrying strap and a hinged lid. Canisters secure the end of the brush so the hair end doesn’t touch anything. Rolled pouches can be bamboo mats (or other fabric) that hold brushes in a pocket; they can be rolled up to take less storage room. These are great for travel because they allow the brush to breathe if wet and still protect the hairs from mashing. I store my brushes in the studio in a nifty jar filled with sand. The hairs point up, and the handle end is in the sand.

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