How to look after your painting equipment

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These days artists use all manner of different tools to produce their artwork but traditionally many, if not most, use brushes. Keeping brushes clean and in good order will mean that their working lives will be extended, and they will in turn produce the reliable quality you need for your work.

Different media require different methods of cleaning so do make sure you are using the right methods to keep your brushes in the best condition.

Personally, I use Terpenoid in a jar to keep my brushes clean-ish while I’m painting, although I use linseed oil, too.

When I’ve finished painting, I will then use a paper towel or a rag to remove as much paint from the brush as possible. Next, I use vegetable oil to help with the cleaning of the brushes. As a print maker I use vegetable oil all the time to clean up printing plates, glass, and rollers, so I just stick to the method I am most comfortable with. I then use washing up liquid and have never had a problem so it might be a case of don’t do as I do…

But brush cleaners and soaps are also really helpful with cleaning as clearly that is what they are designed to do. Starting with brush cleaners, these are primarily designed to use with brushes you use for oil painting. Traditionally, turpentine or mineral spirits were used to clean brushes used for oils but these days solvent free products such as Bristle Magic Brush Cleaner and Restorer or Turpenoid Natural are a better option and they can also be used to remove paint which has hardened and dried on your brushes.

Having removed as much paint as you can with a brush cleaner, the recommendation is to rinse the brush with brush soap to clean off any residual paint. Brush soaps come in both liquid and block form and the choice of product is down to your personal preference, with the smell of the cleaner possibly aiding the decision.

Specialist brush soaps contain oils such as vegetable or olive oil which also help to condition the brushes as they clean them. A properly conditioned brush will hold its shape far better and in turn will last far longer, too.

A useful tool for cleaning your brushes and for working the soap into the bristles is a silicone brush egg. Here I break all the rules as I tend to use the palm of my hand to work the soap into the brush but if I remember then I will use the side of the sink as the toxins in the paint can be dangerous and you are always advised to keep paint off your skin to avoid any problems.

When using oil paints whichever method of cleaning you use, you should allow the pigment in the oil, solvent, or brush cleaner to sink to the bottom of the jar; I normally leave them for about 24 hours to settle. You can then pour off the clean, upper layer into a clean jar for reuse. The paint at the bottom of the jar can be wiped out and disposed of in your general waste but please don’t pour this down your sink. Alternatively, you could use it as a foundation layer on your next painting.

Also do remember that paper towels or rags soaked with oil, Terpenoid, vegetable oil or linseed oil can spontaneously combust if the conditions are right so they should be kept in a metal container and some people add water, too. I tend to leave the rags or paper towels out open on a surface for the mixture to evaporate and go hard before throwing them out.

For brushes used for acrylic painting, including acrylic gouache and acrylic inks, water is the best method for removal so long as the paint is still wet on the brush. I always have a couple of large pots of water on hand and I keep my brushes in these pots whilst working so that they don’t dry out. This avoids damaging your brushes in the first place. However, don’t leave the brushes standing up in water for too long otherwise you will bend the bristles. Leave brushes to dry flat and only stand them upright once they’re dried.

Should you accidentally allow acrylic paint to dry on your brushes there are a couple of options. You can try using the products as detailed above for cleaning oil brushes or you can keep them in their sorry state and use them for interesting mark making, if that’s your thing. Otherwise, if you continue to ruin brushes, buy cheap ones so that you don’t mind.

As with acrylic brushes, watercolour brushes should be cleaned up with water, but they do need to be handled more delicately. Watercolour brushes are made from sable or squirrel hair – if you have deep pockets and are willing to look after them. Alternatively, synthetic watercolour brushes are cheaper and often just as good.

You don’t need to use soap on watercolour brushes but when I was living in the USA and first learning about watercolour painting, I had the most fabulous man, Murley Wheeler, teaching me and he used to advocate the use of a hand washing soap called Fels-Naptha. Whenever I smell it, it takes me back to those classes, but I expect similar washing soap blocks can be used.

Do not leave your brushes in water as again they are likely to bend and become damaged. It is recommended that you reshape your brushes whilst they are wet as sable brushes will splay when dry. They should recover their point when wet, though.

As with oil painting the best way to dispose of the pigment left in the water used for watercolour and acrylic painting is to allow the pigment to sink to the bottom of the water. This takes a few hours but once it has settled pour off the clear water and wipe the pigment sediment out with an old rag or kitchen towel and simply dispose of the rag along with your household rubbish.

A final note. The cleaning of brushes above also applies to other art equipment you use too. This can range from twigs to old credit cards, plastic or silicone brushes, scrapers, trowels and anything else you have discovered in your local hardware store. Using the appropriate cleaning methods will keep your equipment in good condition ready for use on the next masterpiece.  

NB Just for the record, I do not get paid to endorse any of the brand I have mentioned above. These are all products that I use and genuinely believe in.

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