Mistakes That Ruin Paint Brushes and How to Avoid Them

Some common mistakes can quickly ruin paint brushes. How you clean and store paint brushes has a huge impact on their life span and how they stay in shape. Great tips for beginner artists. Photo:Brush shelf in art supply store
Some common mistakes can quickly ruin paint brushes. How you clean and store paint brushes has a huge impact on their life span and how they stay in shape. Great tips for beginner artists. Photo:Brush shelf in art supply store | Source

Proper Brush Cleaning and Storage Are Key

Artists’ paint brushes can be quite expensive, and once you invest a small fortune to get all the shapes and sizes you need for your art-making, the last thing you want is to ruin your newly acquired, precious tools.

Listed here are the five main things you should avoid if you want to keep your brushes in good shape.

1. Letting Paint Dry on the Brush

It is always easier to clean paint off the brush when it’s still wet. Once dry, it becomes almost impossible to completely remove paint from the bristles.

To avoid any risks of paint drying on the brush, keep your brush moist during painting sessions, and clean it as soon as you are done.

Paint left on the brush will make hairs stiffer and the bristles will lose their shape.

When using acrylic paint keep the bristles moist with water, but don't leave brushes soaking in water for a long time (see #2). Oil paint is slower to dry, so there is no urgency to keep the brushes moist (with thinner) during the painting session, but you need to clean them properly when you are done.

If oil paint dries on the brush, try soaking the bristles in a good degreaser for a few minutes then rub them on the palm of your hand, adding soap as needed.

Caution: I recommend always using rubber gloves when handling paint. Many pigments are toxic or carcinogenic. I avoid contact with my skin as much as I can.

Anatomy of a Brush

Parts of a brush
Parts of a brush | Source

2. Leaving Brushes Soaking for a Long Time

The brush is made of different parts, kept together by glue and/or pressure.

While you don’t want to let paint dry on the brush, and it’s useful to keep the brush wet during the painting session, leaving a brush soaking in water for a long time can damage it, irreversibly. Even worse than water is a brush left soaking in thinner/oil solution.

The damages of soaking:

  • Too much moisture and the weight of the whole brush resting on the bristles cause bristles to bend and deform.
  • Liquid penetrates under the ferrule, soaks the unvarnished part of the handle, and soften the glue, possibly causing the ferrule to detach from the handle. In the long run the glue that holds the bristles and the brush together can also dissolve, causing the ferrule to come off, or hair starts shedding while you paint – and it’s so frustrating to remove hairs from the painting.
  • Fluid penetrates under the handle varnish, making it flaky. When a brush loses the varnish, the texture of the handle is different, but also pieces of varnish may peel and fall in the paint and get on your painting surface – another frustrating removal.

Store paint brushes upright
Store paint brushes upright | Source

3. Not Cleaning the Bristles Properly

Whether you use oil paint or a water based paint, not cleaning the bristles thoroughly can shorten the life of the brush.

First take the excess paint off with a cloth rag or paper, then clean and wash the hairs until no trace of paint is left.

Make sure you clean at the base of the bristles too, rubbing them between your fingers with soapy water. Buildup of old paint at the base of the brush “shortens” the hairs, making them thicker and less flexible.

4. Storing a Wet Brush Upright

After you wash your brushes carefully and rinse them well, they need to dry. The best position to dry is lying flat, in a dry environment and far from sources of heat.

Most people store their brushes in a jar or holder of some sort, bristles up; that’s great, but only after they are completely dry.

When the brush is still wet, if you keep it standing upright, the water captured in the bristles will run down under the ferrule and create problems, like loosen the grip of the ferrule on the handle, and on the hair of the brush.

5. Storing a Brush Bristle-Down

Once you have your valuable brushes clean and dry, make sure you store them in a way that does not put any pressure on the bristles. Hairs are flexible and a prolonged pressure keeping them bent or spread out will irreparably ruin the shape of your bristles.

So never, ever store your brushes standing on their hairs, always on their handles.

I have a bamboo rolling case for my oil paint brushes and a hard case with a zipper for my acrylic brushes - they actually came with a case from a company called De Dazzle.

The extra brushes I store them dry and clean in a tin can, bristles up.

How to make your own brush cleaning tool for big brushes using oil paint.

© 2012 Robie Benve

More by this Author

Comments 12 comments

Robie Benve profile image

Robie Benve 4 weeks ago from Ohio Author

You are very welcome earthechos! You are right, I have taken several classes as well, and brush care is not something that usually gets covered. Glad to hear I was able to help somehow. :)

earthechos 4 weeks ago

Thanks for the info. I've taken a lot of classes over the years and this is something rarely covered.

Robie Benve profile image

Robie Benve 8 months ago from Ohio Author

Hi Teresa, sorry it took me so long to reply, somehow I missed your comment. :( What kind of paint are you using? If it's oil paint try soaking your brushes in a grease cleaner (I use a cheap degreaser spot cleaner from the dollar store and it works) and then rub them on the palm of your hand adding some more soap as necessary.

For acrylics it gets a little trickier, because the paint dries to a plastic film and it no longer soluble. However, before giving up on the brush, try soaking it in Windex and then rub it on the palm of your hand, adding soap or more window cleaner as necessary. I have been able to save a few like that. Hope this helps. Thanks for stopping by.

Teresa 9 months ago

I wash my brushes but paint seems to stay up under the brush where it's glued. Please help .

jacksonjacob620 2 years ago

@Ariana Phillips I store my brushes in "Rockwell Brush Easel Storage Cases" as It's easy to travel and protects my largest brushes without messing up the brush hairs. I bought them online from I shop there all the time. Like them better than the retail stores

Robie Benve profile image

Robie Benve 4 years ago from Ohio Author

Gotta love little kids and their passion for art! lol Thanks a lot for stopping by and making me smile. :)

wilderness profile image

wilderness 4 years ago from Boise, Idaho

Some good tips here. My biggest problem has always been the grandkids finding my oil brushes and doing watercolor with them - it's taken a long time to convince them that no, they can't do that!

Robie Benve profile image

Robie Benve 4 years ago from Ohio Author

You are right Marcy, a single brush can cost more than a tube of paint, and a ruined brush is a pain to use. :)

Marcy Goodfleisch profile image

Marcy Goodfleisch 4 years ago from Planet Earth

Brushes are a huge investment for art - these are great tips for taking care of those important tools! Voted up and up!

Ariana Phillips profile image

Ariana Phillips 4 years ago from Utah

Nice work on this hub. You know a lot of times you really don't think about stuff like that being an issue until someone points it out, then it makes perfect sense and you can't believe you didn't think of that yourself. I know I need to change some of my bad brush cleaning habits. Thanks for breaking the cycle.

carol7777 profile image

carol7777 4 years ago from Arizona

Very clear and concise about brushes.. I think sometimes I get careless with my brushes...I liked the simple steps and ideas. This is definitely a thumbs up.

europewalker profile image

europewalker 4 years ago

Useful hub Robie. I always soak my brushes way too long, I'm too lazy to clean them right away. I've ruined a few brushes that way and the good ones aren't cheap! Thanks for the tips.

    Sign in or sign up and post using a HubPages Network account.

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No HTML is allowed in comments, but URLs will be hyperlinked. Comments are not for promoting your articles or other sites.

    Click to Rate This Article