Caring for your watercolor brushes

I am often giving my students advice about what to do and not to do with their watercolor brushes so I thought I would see if I could create a list of 10 things which will damage a watercolor (watercolour)brush. It took a bit of thinking but here is my list which you may find helpful with the care of your brushes.

Do not leave watercolor brushes sitting in your water container

Figure 1: Do not leave you watercolor brushes sitting in your water container

  1. Leaving them sitting in your watercolor container while you paint or worse still all day. This will force the hairs of your watercolor brushes out of shape and also make the wood of your handle swell which could result in it loosening the ferrule (the metal bit that connects the brush hairs to the handle)with the result that the hairs can fall out or the wood could rot.
  2. Letting the paint dry on your brushes. The paint builds up down low near the ferrule which can be very hard to remove. Will cause the point on the brush to be lost.
  3. Storing wet brushes point up – this allows the water to settle in the ferrule causing the wood of your handle to swell which could result in it loosening the ferrule as in point 1 above.
  4. Storing wet brushes with the point bent. The brush will dry in this odd shape losing its point. Depending on the brush this may fix by itself when you rewet the brush but sometimes it just stays in this wrong shape. One thing that can do which sometimes fixes even this problem however is to dip the hairs of the brush in very hot water and then reestablish the point with your fingertips and let the brush dry while laying it flat – I have had success with this technique with squirrel hair brushes but may not help with others – try at own risk!
  5. Using them for acrylic or worse still oil painting. Just don’t do this. If you want to use your watercolor brushes for acrylic or oil painting then set some aside just for that. Once you use your brushes for oil or acrylic painting they will begin to lose their point. Any oil or turpentine residue on the brush will make it behave differently then you later try to use it with watercolor.
  6. Using your good watercolor brush for apply art masking liquid or frisket. This is probably the quickest way to ruin a good watercolor brush. Once the liquid latex in the masking fluid dries on your brush it is gone. Even if you use the right technique when using masking fluid in time the brush will still finally pick up the odd bit of latex which will ruin it. Save your old brushes or buy some cheap ones and use them for masking.
  7. Storing wet brushes in a sealed container. The fibers of your brush will go mouldy if you store them wet without adequate ventilation. It will also keep the wood of the handle inside the ferrule damp which can lead to rod and a loose ferulle and cracked paint on the brush handle.
  8. Don’t use a good watercolor brush for scrubbing out color. Just makes good sense, the scrubbing will break down the hairs and in time your brush will thin out. If you want them to last longer then don’t use them for this purpose.
  9. Using paint that is too dry. I find this especially when students try to paint with cheap paints that dry really hard. The extra rubbing you have to do to get color out of your dry paint will wear the brush down faster than normal. If my paints have been left to dry without a lid on my pallet for a few days (which rarely happens now days) I just give each paint well a little spray with my water spray bottle and leave them for about 15 minutes, this will make it much easier to lift out paint after that. I use Winsor and Newton tube water colors almost exclusively I find they re-liquefy very easily.

10. Trying to put the round plastic protector back on that sometimes comes with a brush. Just don’t try it! The protector that came with the brush was probably put on by a machine and if you try to do the same yourself you will most likely end up with hairs pushed out of shape permanently. I just throw the protector away once I get my new brush home.

So there you have my list of the 10 things which will damage watercolor brushes. No doubt there are others but the above are the main ones I have come across. Once you get a really nice watercolor brush it is well worth your while taking the extra effort to look after it as it should keep in good shape for many years. A good brush will help you paint your watercolors while a bad or damaged brush will hinder you.