Sadie Saves the Day!


Watercolor 101: How to Take Care of Your Brushes

So you finally picked your brushes, bought them, and brought them home. Now what do you do?

This is a post in my Watercolor 101 series. If you haven't read the other posts in the series, check them out here:

  1. Watercolor 101: Everything You Need to Know about Brushes
  2. Watercolor 101: All About Natural Hair Brushes
  3. Watercolor 101: All About Synthetic Fiber Brushes
  4. Watercolor 101: How to Choose Good Brushes — Sadie Saves the Day!

What to Do When You First Get a Brush

This section mostly refers to natural hair brushes. Synthetic brushes are generally ready to go as soon as you get them.

So when you get your brush, it's probably got this little cap on it. Take that off and get rid of it. It might be tempting to put it back on to protect the brush, but this will most likely just damage the bristles and encourage mold. Do you want a moldy brush? No, I didn't think so.

OK, now the Is off. You've probably noticed that your brush is kind of hard. Don't worry, that's not a problem. That is just some gum arabic that the manufacturer has put on the brush to protect it. All you have to do is wash it out.

Don’t smash the bristles between your fingers. Get some warm water and run it into a cup or your hand and gently press the bristles until they are completely free from the gum arabic.

There, now you're ready to paint!

Brush Maintenance

So you've been painting with your brushes and having a lot of fun. What do you do now?

It's recommended that you clean your brushes after every painting session to make sure that they will last a long time. You can do this with pure water or with a brush cleaner.

Some people don't recommend cleaning natural hair brushes with soap very frequently, but I find that I have the best results from washing and conditioning my sables after each painting session.

How to Clean Your Brush

  1. Take all of your dirty brushes over to a sink with running water.

  2. Set the faucet to run either cool or warm water. Never use hot water because that can damage both natural and synthetic bristles.

  3. If you are using only water, gently stroke the brush in your hands the same way you would while painting. Do this until you don't see pigment coming out anymore.

  4. If you are using soap, take out your soap. You can either use regular hand soap, shampoo, or specialized brush soap. Hand soap is fine for synthetic brushes, but you should be careful what type of shampoo you use for natural hair brushes. Many shampoos have additives that are dangerous for the fibers. I would recommend using a specialized brush soap like this one: The Masters Brush Cleaner and Preserver - BLICK art materials

  5. Add the water to your brush and to the soap cake. Stroke the soap cake with your brush as if you are painting. Do it gently.

  6. When you have built up a foam, rinse it off in the water. Keep doing this until the foam no longer has pigment in it.

  7. If you are washing a natural hairbrush, I also coat the bristles in The Masters Brush Cleaner, which acts as a conditioning agent and keep my brushes pointed. You don't have to do this, but I find that it helps. Some people say it also helps synthetic brushes.

  8. Allow your brushes to dry either horizontally on a towel or hanging with their tips down in a special brush holder. It's best to have the brushes hanging upside down because this allows the water to drip away from the ferrule.

  9. That’s it!

Things You Shouldn't Do

  • Don't ever leave your brush standing in your water cup. That gets water and pigment into the ferrule, splayed out your bristles, and ruins the lacquer on your brush. Don't do it!

  • Don’t allow your brushes to dry with the tips pointing upwards. Remember, we're trying not to get water and pigment in the ferrule.

  • Don’t use your finely pointed brushes for scrubbing paint or rubbing pigment. That's a great way to destroy them. Use a cheap brush to mix paint and lift pigment.

  • Don't use your brushes for anything except water color paint. Some people might disagree with this one, and I certainly don't always follow this rule. But remember that other pigments can damage your brushes.

  • Please, please, please don't lick your brush. It's bad for you and your brush. Many artists work with heavy-metal pigments such as cadmium and cobalt. When you are licking your brush, you're ingesting these pigments. Also, your transferring bacteria onto your bristles that can then cause mold both on your brush and in your paints. Who wants that?


For everyday storage, I just keep my brushes in some old jars. You can get fancy brush holders, but I'd rather spend that money on the brushes themselves.

For short-term storage, brushes should be rolled in a bamboo roll, which allows them to remain dry and have air circulation.

Longer-term storage is a bit different. Brushes should be sealed up in some kind of plastic container in order to prevent insects or animals eating the fibers. (Yes, it does happen!)

When Has a Brush Outlived Its Life Span?

How do you know when it's time for a brush to go?

  • The bristles are splayed

  • It no longer comes to a point

  • It's clogged with paint and you can't get it out no matter what you do.

It seems sad to get rid of the breast, doesn't it? Well, you don't have to! You can keep these old brushes away and use them for special effects like grass, fur, and tree limbs. Old brushes are also great for applying masking fluid and for scrubbing to lift off paint.

There, now I have taught you everything that I know about brushes! But what's the point of brushes without paint? That's what we'll cover in the next section of Watercolor 101!