Caring For Watercolor Brushes: The Complete Do’s and Don’ts

How To Care For Watercolor Brushes

Working with watercolors offers artists a lot of benefits, and one of the main ones is the longevity of your brushes. Quality watercolor brushes should last you for a long time, provided you take care of them. Both oil and acrylic paints offer artists unique abilities, but they also tend to ruin brushes if you aren't very careful.

One of the great things about watercolors is that when you're finished painting, they clean up very quickly using plain water. As long as you don't leave a lot of watercolor paint in your brushes and store them properly when in use and when not in use, you should get many years of enjoyment out of them. This is good news for your bank account since you probably already know that quality artist paintbrushes can be quite pricey. For more ideas related to artists tools and equipment. Read my post: Basic Artists Equipment List.

Do's and Don'ts of Paint Brush Care
Do's and Don'ts of Paint Brush Care

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Watercolor Brush Do’s:

Store Your Brushes Horizontally

If you want to keep wasting your money by buying new watercolor brushes when your brushes wear out, then go ahead and store them vertically. Storing your watercolor brushes vertically when they aren't used is a great way to cause them to wear out more quickly.

How should you store them? Horizontally storing your watercolor brushes is the only way to keep them from being damaged when to in use. The best thing you can do to help your watercolor brushes last for many years is to invest in an inexpensive case and then store them horizontally when they aren't in use. This will allow you to store your watercolor brushes, keep them organized, and help get the most extended life out of them.

Always Rinse With Water After Using Them

Watercolor paint is straightforward to work with because you don't need to use any special solvents, and clean up can be done with regular water. Cleaning up watercolor brushes is also very easy because there's no need to use soap since water will rinse the paint out. Water will even remove the paint from your brushes once it has dried. While water may remove old watercolor paint, you should still never let it stay in your paintbrushes long enough to dry. If you do, the dried paint can disrupt the bristles in your paintbrushes, which can damage them.

This can cause the bristles to fall out, and it will also cause the shape of the tip of your brush to change. There's a reason that you use different types of brushes, and that's because different sizes and shapes work better for different situations. When you allow the tip of your brush to change its shape due to neglect, you impact your brush's ability to do what it was designed to do.

Watercolor Brushes

Cleaning your watercolor brushes after each use is essential, but it's also essential to keep them cleaned while working with them. Many artists have the terrible habit of letting paint stay in the bristles of their brushes as they work. This may not seem like that big of a deal since you can always rinse the paint out later, but leaving dried paint in your brushes, even for short periods, will damage them.

There's simply no reason to ever leave paint in your paintbrushes bristles when you can simply dip them in water then set them down horizontally when not in use.

If Painting With Acrylic Deep-Clean Them

Painting with acrylics using watercolor brushes isn't what they were designed for, and it subjects them to a lot of abuse. With that being said, they can be used for acrylic paints if you're careful. When you use watercolor brushes for watercolors, all you need to do to clean them is to use water and rinse them out thoroughly. But, when dealing with acrylic paint, it's going to take more diligence on your end to keep your brushes from being ruined.

When acrylic paint dries, it turns into hard plastic. This gives it exceptional longevity. In fact, many acrylic painters don't even bother varnishing their work because the finished painting is so durable. While that's great for painters, it's also extremely rough on paintbrushes. Any acrylic paint left in any type of paintbrush and allowed to dry will ruin the paintbrush. Once it's set, there's no way to get it out, so you might as well just throw out the paintbrush and go buy another one.

Deep-Clean With Soap

Rinsing out watercolor brushes when you use watercolor paints with plain water is more than enough to paint the bristles. You shouldn't let the paint sit there too long, but even if you do, you can still get it out fairly quickly with nothing more than water.

Your brush might suffer from damage from having paint left in it, so you should still avoid doing this whenever possible. Now, when you're using acrylic paints, you should always use soap and water to clean your paintbrushes. Water alone might look like it's getting all of the paint out of the bristles, but it's not. Small amounts will end up left behind, and even small amounts of paint will cause bristles to stiffen up.

While plain water is enough to clean out your watercolor brushes most of the time, it's still good to do a deep cleaning of them periodically using soap and water. Using soap and water to clean out your watercolor brushes will help them last longer by removing any traces of paint, dirt, or other contaminants that may be trapped in the bristles.

Now, don't make the mistake of thinking that deep cleaning means that you need to really scrub the brushes. There's no need to do that, and if you do, all that you're going to accomplish is damaging your paintbrushes.

Use A Mild Detergent To Gently Clean Bristles

When it is time to deep clean, your paintbrushes make sure that you use a mild detergent. You aren't trying to scrub and disinfect them, you just want to get any dirt, paint, or anything else trapped in the bristles out. Using extremely harsh detergents might get your paintbrushes extra clean, but it's probably going to damage them. That kind of defeats the purpose of cleaning them, now doesn't it?

Clean To The Ferrule

When cleaning your paintbrushes, you should focus on cleaning the bristles as well as the ferrule. What is a ferrule? It's the metallic attachment that connects the bristles of the paintbrush to the handle. The ferrule on most quality paintbrushes is made from nickel-plated brass, making it corrosive resistant.

On quality artist paintbrushes, the ferrule will fit snugly on the handle of the brush, which helps to keep paint from getting trapped in it. Unfortunately, even the best-made artist paintbrushes will get paint trapped under the ferrule at some point. When this happens, it will affect your paintbrush's shape and cause the bristles to spread outward.

Don't worry; if this happens, it doesn't mean that your paintbrush is ruined. All that it means is that you'll have to spend some time cleaning out the ferrule. It's not difficult, and it shouldn't take that much of your time either. Start out by rinsing your paintbrush under lukewarm water.

Let it rinse for several seconds while gently stroking the bristles in a downward motion to help dislodge anything trapped in the bristles. After rinsing it, use some mild detergent to gently scrub the bristles, this should remove anything that plain water alone failed to get out. Once you've cleaned the bristles as well as you can, it's time to move on to the ferrule.

This part can be tedious, but it's well worth it since it should help your brushes last longer. You'll need a small needle of some kind to clean out the ferrule. The first step is to run the paintbrush under lukewarm water again, ensuring that the bristles are thoroughly wet.

Next, you're going to take a needle and gently reach underneath the ferrule scraping it to remove any paint that you come across. Once you've done this on both sides of the ferrule. Work across the entire length of the bristles. Go ahead and rinse the brush thoroughly.

Dry With Tissue Paper

One thing you definitely do not want to do is leave the bristles on your brush wet after cleaning it. Leaving it wet will encourage the bristles to stay in whatever form they are when they are finished drying.

This won't necessarily ruin your paintbrushes the first time that it happens, but the cumulative damage caused by doing this repeatedly will definitely cause the life of your paintbrushes to decrease. How do you prevent this? You do it by drying your paintbrushes once you've finished cleaning them, and tissue paper will work exceptionally well for this.

Reshape The Tip Of The Brushes After Cleaning Them

Even if you are very gentle when cleaning your paintbrushes, you're likely to mess the bristles up as you clean them. If this happens to you, don't stress out too much about it. If you finish cleaning a paintbrush and the bristles are correctly aligned, you probably haven't done a perfect job cleaning it.

Now, if the bristles are messy, it's effortless to fix them. Simply reshape the tip of the brush while it's still wet. When a paintbrush dries, it tends to retain the last shape that it had when wet. If the bristles are a mess, then that's how they'll dry. If you spend a few seconds reshaping your paintbrush's tip after cleaning it, then your brushes will retain their shapes better, and they'll last longer.

Hang Them Upside Down

One of the best things that you can do for your paintbrushes is to store them upside down when they aren't in use. This will help the bristles to retain their shape, and it will keep them from having pressure put on them that could damage them while they're in storage.

It may seem like a little thing, but hanging your paintbrushes upside down can help them to last longer, which can save you a lot of money since you won't have to buy new brushes as often.

Watercolor Brush Care Don'ts:

Don't use Glue With A Watercolor Brush

We're not sure why you'd ever want to do it, but if you're thinking about using your watercolor brushes with glue, don't do it. If you thought that acrylic paint was rough on watercolor brushes, imagine how much worse glue it would be.

If you need to put down glue on a paper, and it has to be precise, then using a brush makes perfect sense. Just don't use an expensive watercolor brush because you'll probably ruin your brush. Even if you wash the glue out quickly, some will dry and stick to the bristles of your brush. So, if you use glue regularly, it's a good idea to have some cheap brushes lying around that you don't mind throwing out.

Masking Fluids Can Damage The Bristle

Masking fluid is something that many watercolor artists take advantage of, and if you haven't tried it, you should definitely start to experiment with it to see what it can do to enhance your artwork. Masking fluid is applied by watercolor artists to parts of the paper that they don't want the paint to get onto.

Once the painting is finished and dry, the masking fluid can be removed, leaving behind the white paper that is free of color. Using masking fluid enables artists to work more freely without worrying about watercolor paint getting where they don't' want it to. The free-flowing nature of watercolor is one of its most beloved attributes, and using masking fluid lets artists take advantage of this while still maintaining control over their painting.

While masking fluid can be a watercolor artist's best friend, it's not so kind to watercolor brushes. Masking fluid is virtually identical to rubber cement, so you can probably imagine what it will do to your expensive watercolor brushes. If you want to use masking fluid when you paint, and you really should, how can you apply it while maintaining control if you don't use your brushes? Either use a cheap brush or buy a masking fluid pen.

Never Totally Submerge The Ferrule Of The Brush As This Can Degrade It

One of the most common mistakes that people make when painting with watercolors is totally submerging their paintbrush in the water. There's no need to dip your brush up to the ferrule when you paint, but artists do it all the time. When you dip the ferrule into the water repeatedly, it can degrade it.

Since the ferrule is what holds the bristles on a paintbrush, having it degraded is obviously a problem. While it may take some time to get used to using more care when dipping your paintbrush into the water while painting, once you do get used to it, your brushes should last much longer.

Don't Leave Your Brush In The Water When Painting

When many watercolor painters are working and don't know any better, they often leave their paintbrushes in water when they aren't in use. This might seem like a good idea since it helps keep the bristles wet, it's actually a terrible idea. Do you remember how dipping your brush into the water up to the ferrule is a bad idea? Well, leaving your brush sitting in the water where it's submerged past the ferrule is far more damaging to your paintbrush.

Leaving your paintbrush sitting in the water will cause the ferrule of the brush to degrade. This is what holds your bristles onto your brush, so if it starts to fail, you'll have problems. Leaving your brush sitting in the water will also encourage the bristles to deform.

The brush will be sitting on the bristles while wet, which will cause the tip of the brush to become misshapen. The point is that while your cup of water might seem like a convenient place to keep your paintbrushes while you're working, it's not. Instead, rinse your paintbrush out, then store it horizontally when it's not in use.

Do Not Store Your Brushes Vertically

How do you store your paintbrushes between painting sessions? If you said you stored them vertically, that's great! It's great if you want your paintbrushes to wear out more quickly, that is. First of all, if you're storing your brushes vertically, you have a good chance to sit face down. This is a great way to deform the tip of your brush bristles. If you do have them with the bristles facing up, you're in a better position, but it's still far better to store them horizontally.

How To Store A Dry Watercolor Brush

Storing a dry watercolor brush is very easy, and if you do it the right way, then your brushes will thank you. The first step in storing a dry watercolor brush is to ensure that it's properly cleaned and dried before you put it away. That means cleaning your paintbrush thoroughly after each use. Do you need to use soap? Not necessarily, but using gentle soap periodically certainly won't hurt.

After thoroughly cleaning your paintbrush, make sure that you take the time to ensure that the bristles are correctly aligned. There's not much worse than getting ready to work on a new watercolor painting, getting everything set up, then figuring out that your brush is no good. Once your brush is thoroughly clean, you're going to want to dry it. Use tissue paper to gently remove any excess water. This will help to prevent your brush from stiffening up while it awaits its next use.

How To Soften A Watercolor Brush

Sometimes a watercolor brush will stiffen up after it's been used for some time. If this happens to you, don't worry, you don't necessarily have to throw out the brush. There's a good chance that you simply didn't clean the brush thoroughly enough at some point, and now there's a little bit of dried paint stuck in there.

If you've been using acrylic paint and what is stuck in there, you might be out of luck. Removing acrylic paint once it dries and hardens is very difficult. If you used only watercolor paint or gouache, you should be able to take care of a stiff paintbrush by merely washing it in lukewarm water. If you want to give it a more thorough cleaning, go ahead and use a gentle soap.

Why Are New Brushes Often Hard?

Have you ever wondered why your new paintbrushes are so stiff? If they're brand new, why would they be stiff? They're stiff because quality artist brushes have gum arabic added to them. Why is this done? It's done to help protect your paintbrush while it's shipping.

The soft, pliable bristles that artists love when painting don't hold up well when subjected to abuse. During shipping, paintbrushes could be ruined. They weren't protected. Gum Arabic plus a protective plastic sleeve over the tip of the paintbrush helps protect those delicate bristles so you can use them to create your next masterpiece.

What should you do about the stiff bristles on your new paintbrush? The good news is that fixing the problem is very simple. Gum Arabic is water-soluble, so all you have to do is rinse the brush out thoroughly under lukewarm water.

After a few seconds of gentle rinsing and scrubbing, you should remove all of the gum arabic and get your brush ready to use. If you aren't planning to use your new brush right away, make sure that you take a few seconds to straighten out and align the bristles once you're done working the gum arabic out of it. Don't forget, wet bristles tend to retain the shape they last had when they dry, so make sure that you keep the bristles straight and aligned.

Remove Starch With Water

In addition to gum arabic, another common substance used to stiffen up bristles is starch. Starch is very similar in effect to gum arabic, and it can be removed the same way. All you need is some lukewarm water and gentle scrubbing to remove it. Once again, make sure that you straighten out the bristles to ensure that they maintain the right shape. It only takes a few seconds, but these few seconds can add years to your paintbrush's life.

Remove Loose Bristles As These Can Damage Your Paintings

Have you ever been working on a watercolor painting to have a bristle come loose and end up stuck on the paper? Most artists have had this happen at one time or another, and it's very frustrating. If you're prepared, then you probably have a small pair of tweezers ready to use to try to pluck the wayward bristle out.

Even if you're very careful, removing a loose bristle from the paper is very difficult. If you try to do it while the painting is still wet, then you run the risk of disrupting the wash. If you try to remove it after the paint has dried, then you'll probably have a small area missing paint in the middle of your wash.

Now for the good news! You can prevent many instances of bristles coming loose and getting trapped in your paintings by being proactive. Instead of identifying the problem after the fact, then you're reacting to the problem. You're troubleshooting, which is always harder to do than just preventing the problem in the first place.

How can you be proactive to prevent loose bristles? By cleaning your brush before and after use, and removing any loose bristles, you encounter. Don't worry, you won't be sitting there with a magnifying glass, there's actually a much easier way to remove loose bristles. How do you do it?

Start by rinsing your brush in lukewarm water. Let it sit under the running water for several seconds. This will help to loosen up any paint or other contaminants, and it will also soften up the bristles, which is crucial for step two. In step two, you simply grip the bristles gently between your thumb and index finger, then slide your fingers aways from the brush while applying gentle pressure.

You don't want to be forcefully removing bristles, you just want to use enough pressure to capture any bristles that are already loose. It's a good idea to do this every time before you paint. It's especially important to do this when you have a new brush because new brushes almost always have at least a few bristles that are loose.


Ian Walsh is the creator and author of and an Art teacher based in Merseyside in the United Kingdom. He holds a BA in Fine Art and a PGCE in teaching Art and Design. He has been teaching Art for over 24 Years in different parts of the UK. When not teaching Ian spending his time developing this website and creating content for the improvedrawing channel.

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Caring For Watercolor Brushes_ The Complete Do’s and Don’ts