Saturday, 29 September 2007

Brush Care - Questions answered by Myrmidon

Question were asked and Myrmidon answered

I have read (in more than one place I think) that you can / should "wash" your brushes after use. As in with soap.

My question is

(i) Does anyone here wash their brushes with soap (and water I assume) after a painting session, if so do you wash all your brushes?

Yes - absolutely. If not, you already know what happens if they get built up with dried pigment in the bristles.

Only the 'sable' / hair brushes and / or synthetic brushes too?

Everything gets washed - but it's not only that you wash them, but how and what you wash them with is extremely important to the life of the brush too. See the answer below...

And (ii) What kind of soap do you use? 'Normal' hand washing soap (cake or liquid?), dishwashing detergent, laundry soap?

Just so you know, I've got a Bachelors of Fine Arts degree and I graduated with a dual major in Drawing and Painting. If you've never bought professional grade Artist's water colour and oil painting brushes - especially the larger ones, then you probably aren't aware that they can cost as much as $35 - $75 plus for just a single one of the larger brushes.

Needless to say, this alone induces most artists to very quickly learn how to preserve their brushes. It used to be that the best brushes were all natural hair - whether they were the bristle brushes for oil painting, or the natural sables for oil, and water colour, etc. These days, fortunately, the synthetic brushes are much better (though not always the equal of natural hair brushes) in paint application and will stand up to a lot of abuse while costing less than the sables, etc.

That being said, you should still know a bit about caring for natural and/or synthetic brushes. Brushes take on paint through capillary action and draw pigment up into the bristles, where it's applied to your painting surface through light contact.

Obviously enough, you don't want to let paint dry in the bristles as not only will this cause them to splay out over time, it will also reduce the capillary action, and make your brush leave streaks and uneven paint application on the surface you're painting. So, it is vitally important to clean your brush as best you can to keep it in good working order as long as possible.

But, what most people don't take into account is that most brushes (pretty much all the natural hair brushes and some synthetics) have oils in the bristles. You have naturally occurring oils in your hair and skin that work to keep them healthy and preserve them. So do good paint brushes - especially natural sable.

If you use harsh cleaners like gritty hand soaps or laundry detergents, you will strip all the oils out of the bristles - which also can destroy the brush's capillary action and ability to apply paint smoothly to your painting surface. Arrgh!

So, if you want to preserve your brushes in good working order for as long as possible, here's what I'd recommend. First choice would be to visit an Artist's supply store and find some professional brush cleaner. Or find one on the net that will ship to you and order some. (I'm in the U.S. and I use a product called "The Masters Brush Cleaner and Preserver" by B & J.

It's meant for cleaning oil, acrylic, water colour, and stains from brushes.) These products are designed to clean brushes WITHOUT stripping the natural oils from them. The other beauty of a good artist's brush cleaner is that most are designed so that you can leave a little bit of the soap in the brush and then shape the bristles and allow the brush to dry - this also helps to prolong the useful life span of the brush.

2nd choice would be a mild hand soap without degreaser in it. 3rd (and not highly recommended) choice would be a mild bar form of hand soap. I would NOT recommend any product like dish detergent or laundry soap - which tend to have degreasers in them - for cleaning brushes, specially natural hair brushes.

Synthetics will take more of this type of abuse, but even they stop working well eventually when treated with harsh cleaners like this.

It should go without saying that once you've cleaned the brush you'll want to lay the brush on a flat surface or stand the brush upright with the bristles up to allow it to dry.

I do see people who leave their brushes tip down in their water buckets while painting or cleaning (Grrr!) and then wonder why they end up with splayed bristles - Duh!

I ask after seeing my millionth 'favourite brush' disintegrate after about a month of 'reasonable' usage, Oh and I do know about not 'dunking' the brush or letting paint get into the 'base' of the brush, although I will admit that I still loose far too many brushes that way.

The base of the brush is called the "ferrule" - the term derives it's origins from the old metal bracelets the Celts liked to wear around their forearms. It generally means "a ring or cap (usually) of metal put around a slender shaft (such as a hand tool) to strengthen it or prevent slipping.."

On a related note, how do you avoid letting inks/washes travel up the bristles and accumulating at the brush 'base', from my experience this has (over time) much the same effect as 'dunking' the brushes i.e.. splayed and useless bristles.

Mad Mad Propz to Richard Lobinske who wrote the following...

"It is called capillary action (check you HS physics notes). A surfactant (soap) in the wash will prevent this, or making sure the brush is wet with clean water before dipping in the wash will help. I also prefer to use long bristle brushes for this that also help avoid the problem."

Now you know why I recommended the artist's brush clear - where the soap can be left in the bristles in small amounts without harming the brush. If you don't have/can't get a good brush cleaner, then by all means use the 'wet brush in clean water first' method.

Thanks for your advice

Glad to help! And nothing teaches one to properly care for your brushes faster than seeing a College Instructor ripping another student a new orifice... "What the HELL are you doing??? That's a $50 brush you're destroying! I ought to beat you with a 2x4 full of rusty nails!"

Meanwhile every other student in the vicinity is cringing in Ahhh, the joy of college.