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How to Ruin Paint Brushes

Robie is an artist who loves sharing what she's learned about art and painting in the hope that it might help other creatives.

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

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

2. Leaving Brushes Soaking for a Long Time

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

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

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. A 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 use a bamboo roll-up case for my oil paint brushes, it fit nicely a lot of brushes, and it's tall enough for the long handled ones, which I use the most.

For my acrylic brushes, I keep the bulk of them in my studio in a tin can, standing bristles-up, as you can see from the image above. When I need them on the go, I take my "travel kit" of brushes, which is a set of brushes that came in a handy black case, but I could have bought the case on the side.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: How do I remove glue stuck to a paintbrush?

Answer: I have heard people saying that glue dissolves with acetone nail polish remover. That's an easy product to get, and it's inexpensive. You may want to give it a try.

Question: What do you do regarding oil brushes if you have to break for an hour?

Answer: After one hour the oil brush is still workable and ok to use. If the break is longer, like a few hours, then you can clean any extra paint from the brushes with a paper towel and place them in a jar with bristles resting on a paper towel saturated with safflower oil. That will keep them moist and ready to go for a longer time.

Question: How do you use tubes of paint colours?

Answer: Paint from any tube you purchase can be used as is, right out of the tube. Just apply to your painting surface with some kind of tool, most people use brushes to paint, but you can use palette knives, fingers, sponges, etc.

You can mix different hues together to obtain the color you need, as long as it's the same kind of paint, i.e., mix oils with oils, acrylic with acrylics, watercolors with watercolors, etc.

© 2012 Robie Benve

Comments

Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on September 26, 2019:

Hi Rebecca, I know a lot of very good artists that say they don't buy expensive brushes because they treat their brushes so harshly it's not worth it. That's totally ok. With all the people out there complaining they haven't found their voice and are still looking for a signature style, it's wonderful that you've had yours forever. :) I would buy inexpensive stiff bristle brushes and not worry about it. This article may help you choose https://feltmagnet.com/painting/How-to-Choose-and-...

Thanks for your comment!

Rebecca on September 25, 2019:

Great tips !!

I’m having an issue with the fact that I’m a very rough painter. Meaning when I paint I press down hard and and move quickly. It’s a habit of mine for as long as I can remember. It’s my style of painting. My problem is my expensive brushes are ruined since the bristle is being shaved away:(

Would you know which brush hair in specific can handle the pressure from my painting?

(I was investing in sable hair but it seems it’s not for me bec I ruin it in the end of the day)

Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on October 30, 2018:

Hi Hannah, that's interesting. My guess is that the instructor was more afraid of the sure damage the acrylic paint would have done if left to dry up on the bristles, than the potential damage done by keeping the brushes in water too long. It sounds like those brushes could have some stories to tell. :)

Hannah on October 29, 2018:

I recently attended a painting class and the "artist" kept putting my brushes in the cup of water. Isn't that wrong? The brushes provided were awful and I'm thinking this is partially the reason.

mike on November 15, 2017:

thank you it does

Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on November 15, 2017:

Hi Mike, how long were you thinking? I think your design is great if used while painting or shortly after. If you keep the brushes in water a long time (several hours or days) even if the ferrule is not submerged, the bristles would still absorb water, and/or water would seep up and enter the ferrule damaging it and or/the handle. I would not recommend to keep them in any amount of water for a long time. Hope this answers it. :)

mike on November 15, 2017:

thank you but you didn't answer my question with this design is it possible to keep the brushes in water for a long time or is there any additional problem ?

Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on November 14, 2017:

That design sounds (and looks) like a great idea, and I am all for creativity and original tool making.

Yay Mike!

Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on September 26, 2016:

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 on September 23, 2016:

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

Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on February 03, 2016:

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 on January 23, 2016:

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

jacksonjacob620 on April 23, 2014:

@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 jerrysartarama.com I shop there all the time. Like them better than the retail stores

Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on September 08, 2012:

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

Dan Harmon from Boise, Idaho on September 08, 2012:

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 (author) from Ohio on July 31, 2012:

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 from Planet Earth on July 28, 2012:

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

Ariana Phillips from Utah on July 18, 2012:

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.

carol stanley from Arizona on July 18, 2012:

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 on July 18, 2012:

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.