I’ve ruined a number of paintbrushes in my career as an artist. I’m guilty of violating every guideline that I list below. Over the years I slowly figured out what was destroying my brushes and changed my habits. You may not be able to follow all of these guidelines, but your brushes should last longer if you implement even just a few of these tips.
The key points to making your brushes last a long time are listed below in detail. Click on the links in the Table of Contents to jump to a particular section.
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- Be Picky About the Brushes You Buy
- Don’t Leave Your Brushes Standing in Water
- Don’t Overfill Your Water Bucket
- Clean Your Brushes Properly After Every Use
- Let the Brushes Dry Flat
- Shape the Bristles Before They Dry
- Don’t Use Harsh Solvents to Remove Dried Paint
- Store Paintbrushes in a Brush Case When Traveling
- Mix Colors with a Palette Knife Instead of the Brush
- Use Old or Inexpensive Brushes to Paint on Coarse Surfaces
- Use Your Brushes for the Medium They’re Designed For
- Wet the Bristles Before You Begin Painting
Be Picky About the Brushes You Buy
If you buy poorly made brushes, there’s not much you can do to make them last longer. This doesn’t mean that you have to buy expensive brushes. Inexpensive brushes can be well made too. The low cost may be a reflection of the type of materials it uses. Synthetic bristles are cheaper than the natural animal hair that’s used in the more expensive brushes.
When you’re shopping for paintbrushes take the time to examine them in the store. Gently pull on the bristles a little to see if any of them come loose. If they do, then don’t buy it. There’s nothing worse than picking the loose bristles out of your painting.
Generally speaking, if the bristles are coming out in your hand in the store, it’s not going to get any better in the future. Brushes typically get worse with use.
Some manufacturers apply a sizing to the bristles of the brush to protect them in the store. If that’s the case you may not be able to test them for loose bristles. Check the return policy before purchasing them. If you buy it and the bristles start falling out on the first use, then return it.
Another thing to lookout for is a loose ferrule. The ferrule is the metal part above the bristles. If that’s loose then the brush may come apart at the handle. I’ve had this happen to a few of my brushes. Sometimes it’s possible to glue it back on and get more use out of it. Otherwise you’ll have to replace it.
Don’t Leave Your Brushes Standing in Water
It’s a common practice to use more than one paintbrush at once. There are many reasons for this. Maybe you want to have a brush for each color so you don’t have to wash them as often.
There are also different brush shapes that are useful in different parts of the painting. You may need a rigger for painting fine lines and a flat for blocking in the larger shapes. That’s okay, but you don’t want leave your brushes sitting in water for hours as you paint.
When you leave a brush sitting in water, the entire weight of the brush is on the bristles. Given enough time the bristles can start to bend under the weight. Soft haired brushes are more susceptible to this kind of damage than brushes with stiff bristles.
It may be possible to straighten them out, but in most cases the bend is permanent. If that’s the case then the brush is probably ruined. It’s difficult to paint with a brush that has bristles shaped like a hockey stick.
Water is a “universal solvent” because it has a way of breaking down materials over time. If you leave your brushes in water for 3 hours per week then that would equal 156 hours per year.
Rust can begin to form on the metal ferrule. The adhesives inside of the ferrule can also weaken. It’s the ferrule and the glue inside of it that keeps the bristles in place. Once the adhesive has been compromised, that’s when the bristles start coming loose.
Don’t Overfill Your Water Bucket
Another issue with using paintbrushes is overfilling your water bucket. You really only need enough water to submerge bristles. I suppose if you were careful enough not to leave your brushes sitting in the water while you paint, then it may not matter. You could swish your brushes around in a bucket that’s filled to the brim and it won’t affect your brushes very much.
Why Is the Paint Peeling off My Paintbrush Handles?
But I know from experience that it’s easy to get caught up in the moment when painting and forget about a brush sitting in the water bucket. If you overfill your water bucket, then it will eventually affect the handles on your brushes. The water will find a way to penetrate the paint and soak into the wood. It’s only a matter of time before the paint starts to crack and peel off.
It’s possible to use a brush that has the paint peeling off from the handle. However, it’s not the best painting experience to have bits of paint flaking off while you use it. The bare wood is also exposed to water every time you paint.
Check your brushes for peeling paint. If any of them have paint that’s flaking off then you’re letting them sit in water for too long, and you’re probably overfilling the water bucket.
If you like having a lot of water in your container, then don’t leave your brushes sitting in it for extended periods. Sometimes I rest the brushes I’m not using across the top of the water bucket. I attach clothespins to the rim of the bucket to keep them from rolling off.
Another idea is to place them on a rag next to the bucket. Think of it as a designated area for brushes that are in use.
When using acrylics you have to mindful of how long the brushes are exposed to the air. You may have to dunk them in the water occasionally to keep the paint from drying on them.
Clean Your Brushes Properly After Every Use
This is an obvious tip, but it’s probably the most important. Allowing paint to dry in the bristles of your brushes is the quickest way to ruin them.
Paint has a way of building up near the metal ferrule. When this happens that part of the bristles gets thicker, causing the bristle to splay outwards. The bristles will also lose some of their flexibility because the dried paint acts like a glue. Too much dried paint in the bristles will ruin the brush. Make sure that you wash the bristles thoroughly.
Sometimes the brush will appear to be clean but there’s still some paint left between the bristles. Make sure you clean in those areas otherwise the bristles will dry stiff.
Sometimes you can restore a paintbrush by using a good brush cleaner, but it will never be the same as when it was new. I like to use EZ Air acrylic brush cleaner because it’s non toxic and doesn’t have any obnoxious odors.
If you follow the directions on the bottle, you can use it to remove dried paint from old brushes. You can soak them overnight in the solution but it’s best to set it up so the brushes are suspended in the solution without resting on the bristles. While you can remove the dried paint, the bristles may be stained by the color.
Let the Brushes Dry Flat, Then Store them with the Bristles Facing Up
When you’re done cleaning your brushes, don’t just chuck them into a container with the bristles facing up. Paintbrushes, especially watercolor brushes, are designed to hold a lot of water.
If you store them in a container with the bristles facing then you’re allowing the water to drain into the ferrule. This won’t destroy a brush immediately but if you want your brushes to last years, it’s best not to do this.
I let my brushes dry while they’re laying flat on my table. I put them on a rag to absorb any extra water.
When they’re dry I place them in a container with the bristles facing up. You don’t want to store them with the bristles facing down. This is because the weight of the brush may cause the bristles to become misshapen.
Shape the Bristles Before They Dry
If you were to dry your hair off with a towel and not comb it afterwards, would you be surprised if it dried with a disheveled appearance? The same thing will happen with your paintbrushes if you don’t shape them after you clean them.
Make it a habit to reshape the bristles on your brushes while they’re wet. Don’t just dry them off and let them dry with misshapen bristles. Use your fingers to shape the brush into a point after you’re finished cleaning them with soap and water.
Watercolor brushes often have a nice point on the end of the bristles, which is important to maintain. Once it doesn’t hold a point any more, it’s not as effective for painting details. It can still be used for other purposes, but it won’t be as versatile.
Flats should also be shaped to a chisel point when they’re still wet. Flats that have splayed bristles won’t create strokes with crisp and clean edges. Use your fingers to create a nice chisel point at the end of it.
Don’t Use Harsh Solvents to Remove Dried Paint
I’ve known artists who use harsh chemicals to clean old brushes. I don’t recommend doing this for the following reasons.
Solvents such as nail polish remover (acetone), lacquer thinner, and isopropyl alcohol are hazardous. They’re flammable and the fumes are harmful to your health.
Aside from the health concerns, these solvents can damage your brushes. They may dissolve the dry paint on the bristles but they can also remove the paint from the handles too. The solvents can affect adhesives in the ferrule or even the bristles themselves.
Try using the ez air acrylic brush cleaner that I mentioned above. If that doesn’t work then you might be able to use the brush for other purposes. Old brushes are good for painting textures such as leaves and grasses in landscape paintings.
Store Paintbrushes in a Brush Case When Traveling
It’s easy to throw your brushes into a backpack or in a drawer of a French easel when your packing for a painting trip. When you pack your brushes loosely into a container, they’ll move around as you travel.
Other pieces of luggage may get stacked on top of them. You don’t want the bristles to end up distorted and under pressure for extended periods. I’ve found that an inexpensive brush holder can protect paintbrushes from damage.
A variety of brush cases are available. There are fabric brush cases that roll up for transporting. They lay flat when you’re working and each brush has it’s own fabric pocket. When it’s time to pack up, the entire carrier rolls up and ties shut.
Rigid cases are available for more rugged types of travel. These are great for plein aire painters, especially if fly to locations to paint. They’re about the same price as the fabric variety, and yet offer more protection.
Mix Colors with a Palette Knife Instead of the Brush
For many artists, mixing colors with a paintbrush is an intuitive way to work. Unfortunately, it adds more miles to your brushes. Mixing paint with a brush is different than applying paint to a canvas or paper. Mashing the paint up with the brush is rough on the bristles, especially if the paint is thick.
Ideally, you want to use a palette knife for mixing colors. A palette knife can last a long time and withstand plenty of mixing. If you can adjust your working methods to use your palette knife for mixing, then your paintbrushes should last longer.
If you work with watercolors, then it’s not practical to use a palette knife for mixing. However, I do have a tip for painting with dried pans of watercolor.
Dry pans of watercolor paint has to be moistened with water before you can use it. Instead of scrubbing the paint with a wet paintbrush, mist it with water at the beginning of your painting session to soften the paint a little. I try to remember to do this before I start the drawing. Moistening the paint with water should reduce or eliminate the amount of scrubbing that you’ll have to do with the brush.
Use Old or Inexpensive Brushes to Paint on Coarse Surfaces
Contemporary artists like to paint on a variety of surfaces. Aside from painting murals on exterior walls, sand or pumice can be added to acrylic gels and mediums to create textures.
These textures are interesting, but they’re rough on your paintbrushes. When you add sand or pumice to acrylic gels, it dries to a surface that acts very much like sandpaper. Dragging the bristles of your brushes over such a surface will wear them out faster.
You may notice after completing a number of paintings that the bristles on your brushes are slightly shorter or the ends are worn down. It’s not your imagination.
If you love painting on rough textures, then you may want to use cheaper paint brushes. Synthetic brushes have come a long way in recent years. Not only are they less expensive than natural bristles, but they’re also more durable.
It doesn’t make sense to use your expensive paintbrushes on rough surfaces. Find a cheaper alternative and just accept the fact you’ll have to replace your brushes a little sooner than usual.
Use Your Brushes for the Medium They’re Designed For
There are paintbrushes for every medium. That’s because thicker mediums like oils usually require stiffer bristles to move the thick paint around.
Watercolor brushes have softer bristles because the paint is much more fluid like and easy to move around. They’re also designed to hold a lot of water.
There’s nothing to stop you from using a watercolor brush for oil painting but it may take a toll on the bristles.
Another issue with using a brush for a medium that it wasn’t designed for is that it can affect the bristles. I’ve noticed that brushes that use hog hair bristles don’t hold their shape very well when used with water-based media such as acrylics. The hog bristles absorb water and tend to splay outwards. Nylon bristles are more suitable for acrylics.
Wet the Bristles Before You Begin Painting
I like to wet the bristles of the brush before I start painting with water media such as acrylics, gouache, or watercolors. I haven’t painted in oils in a long time but I would probably dip them in a painting medium before starting a painting.
The idea is to get the bristles wet as a way to prevent the paint from drying on them. Paint dries slower on wet surfaces than on dry surfaces.
It may be unrealistic to be able to implement all of these tips, but even following a few of them should extend the life of your brushes. If you have any other suggestions, please feel free to add them to the comments below. Have fun with your painting!