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Cleaning your paintbrushes effectively

by V. Marie Bridgeforth

Painting a masterpiece, or even a house, goes only as smoothly as the quality of the tools allow. Quality brushes make the task easier, but are often a costly investment. Once you have spent several hard-earned dollars on a quality brush, how do you keep the brush clean and properly maintained?

First of all, there are specific types of brushes for different paints.

An artist will use a different brush for watercolor paints, for acrylic paints, and an even different brush for oil paints. Bristle types vary according to usage. A house painter needs specific types of brushes for his craft, also. Maintaining a brush and keeping it in tip top shape is a necessary task to avoid throwing money away on a brush with spent bristles or dried up paint.

Any paint that is water based is very easy to remove from brushes, but just as the properties of water based paints differ, so does the maintenance needs differ for proper brush clean up. Some water based paints are never permanent when they dry, and others, while being water soluble while wet, become permanent once they dry.

There are many different types of bristles for brushes. Lets start with watercolor brushes. Natural bristles are made from animals such as squirrel, goat, ox, pony or a blend of several different animal hairs. A brush called a Kolinsky Sable is made up of hairs from the tail of a Siberian Mink, and is considered to be the finest and most expensive brush in the world. Other Sable brushes are made from the hairs of different types of weasels.

Brushes best suited for acrylics are generally made from the bristles off a hog. Mongoose hair is also used commonly in acrylic brushes. Some acrylic brushes are also good to use with oil paints. Badger hair, along with Sable, weasel, and squirrel most often make up an oil brush. Often brushes are made up of a mixture of different hair types to make them more durable and more affordable.

A brush with Synthetic bristles "are man-made of either nylon or polyester filaments. They can be tapered, tipped, flagged, abraded or etched to increase color carrying ability. Often, synthetic filaments are dyed and baked to make them softer and more absorbent. The common name for this filament is "Taklon". Advantages of synthetic brushes are: 1) They are less prone to damage from solvents, insects or paints. 2) They are easier to keep clean than animal hair brushes because the filaments don't have animal scale structures to trap paint. 3) They are less prone to breakage and are durable on many different surfaces. 4) They are better suited for painting with acrylics because a synthetic filament will withstand the caustic nature of acrylic paints with less damage." (http://www.dickblick.com/info /brushhair/)

Household brushes are also as varied in bristle and price as artist brushes. With all the variety of bristle types, how does a person know how to clean and maintain each bristle type?

No matter which media you are using, or which bristle type your brush is, the very first step is to wipe as much of the paint out of your brush with a soft cloth or tissue as possible.

Water Based Paints

If you are cleaning a water based paint such as watercolor, tempera, or acrylic, make sure to rinse the brush in clear running water until there is no color left in the brush. Once the water runs clear, take either a bar soap or a liquid soap and put a small amount in the palm of your hand. Rewet your rinsed brush under running water, and work up a lather with the brush in your soap-filled palm, making sure to coat every part of the bristles with the soap, all the way down to the metal ferrule. Once the brush has been soaped thoroughly, rinse it under the running water again, and then repeat the action in your still-soapy palm. Continue the process until there is no hint of color left in the lather in your palm.

Next, make sure to rinse the brush thoroughly, removing all traces of soap. Shake the excess water from the brush. Use a clean, soft, dry cloth to gently absorb some of the water in the brush, using a gentle squeezing motion. Make sure not to use a scrubbing or rubbing motion, as this will most likely break off some of the bristles.

Once the excess water has been absorbed, shape the bristle back to its natural point by running it gently through your fingers. Stand the brush upright to dry, making sure the bristles are shaped correctly, and are not touching anything.

Oil Based Paints

After removing as much paint as possible with a soft cloth or tissue, rinse the oil paint brush in a container holding a solvent such as linseed oil, paint thinner, turpentine, or mineral spirits. Having a covered container is helpful as the pigment settles to the bottom. and the solvent can be reused. Once all traces of the color has been removed, follow the steps of washing the brush with soap, and reshaping, as outlined for water based brushes. A final application of a drop of oil used to reshape the brush will help keep the hair in good condition. Use denatured alcohol for shellac, varnish, and enamels. Always follow paint manufacturer's guidelines to know what solvent goes with what paint type.

What to Avoid

Never leave a brush standing in water or solvent. This will cause the wood to expand, which in turn, causes the metal ferrule to open up and will cause the bristles to eventually come out of the brush.

The bristles will become bent if they are left resting against any surface. Always store your brushes flat with the bristles not touching, or standing upright in a container.

Always get all of the paint out of your brush after each painting session. If paint is left to build up or dry, it will cause your brush to ruin.

Never put a brush away wet or dirty. Always allow the brush to dry thoroughly before storing it away.

Tips for Brushes with Dried Paint or Splayed Bristles

If your synthetic paintbrush bristles have become misshapen, you can reshape them by dipping them very quickly into boiling hot water, rinsing them in cold to reset them, and reshaping them to dry as mentioned above.

If acrylic or oil has been allowed to dry in the bristle, there are products available that help dissolve old paint such as Old Masters Brush Soap (available at most art stores and online) or Krud Kutter (available at Lowes).

Good Practices

Use shampoo as a last step on natural bristle brushes to keep them in tip top shape. Make sure to rinse and reshape afterwards.

Use gloves when using solvents as a cleaner, and be careful to wear eye protection to not splash solvent in your eyes.

Always wash your hands carefully after cleaning your brushes. Most paints are no longer toxic today, but a lot of the solvents will cause irritation if left on the skin.

After cleaning a brush thoroughly, lather up the bristles with a good soap made specifically for brushes, and reshape the point. Leave the brush soap to dry in the bristles until next use. Rinse all the brush soap thoroughly before use. This will help maintain the point, and reshape any wayward bristles.

If you have a stray hair that will not go back into place no matter what you do, that one stray hair can be snipped off carefully, being careful not to cut any of the other hairs.

If a brush is damaged beyond repair, keep it around to use for special effects.

Always use separate brushes for water based paint and oil paint.

In conclusion, with a little care and some extra time, your investment in a good brush is well worth it. A good quality brush can last you for 15 years or more.

 

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