Thankfully, watercolor brushes are super low maintenance. With only a little care, they can last a long time. Sables and other high quality natural bristles can even last a lifetime or several lifetimes. I still have some of my grandmother's brushes that are more than 40 years old!
However, negligence can destroy a brush faster than you can say “watercolor.” And there are also a few, small things one can do (and avoid doing) to greatly extend the life of a brush.
Below I've listed 10 great tips for the proper care, feeding, and handling of watercolor brushes. These instructions may sound like a lot of work, but most of these things are nothing more than common sense. Invest a tiny amount of effort to keep your brushes happy, and I promise they'll pay you back a hundredfold!
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1. Only use a brush for its intended purpose.
Watercolor brushes are usually designed for one thing: pulling pigment across a page. Most can be used to lightly mix paint. A rare few can even be used to scrub or stipple or do other techniques. However, brushes are happiest when they are used with only one medium, and watercolor brushes would prefer that you use something else for anything other than painting.
That being said, there are a lot of things that watercolor brushes were never designed to do, like painting the trimwork in a house, being chewed on like a school pencil or used as a cat toy. And they weren’t made to be cut, trimmed, sawed, or shaved. All of these things should be common sense, but wow, I’ve seen some sadly mistreated brushes.
If you want to try your hand with pointillism or dip into some latex, I can guarantee that there’s a brush for that. Save those sables and squirrels for the good stuff.
2. Always premoisten pigments.
One of the best things you can do to extend the life of your brushes is to prewet your paints, because dipping a brush into anything less than the softest of pigments will fray ends, snap hairs, and cause the brush’s belly to lose its shape.
Starting out with premoistened paints is also better for your paintings because it produces more vibrant, consistent colors. Pack a small pocket mister for the field and keep a larger one at your desk. Your brushes will thank you.
3. Learn to properly load & use a brush.
When loading, don’t use the tip as a shovel or a drill, and when painting, don't use the tip to constantly push or dab. This is especially important with synthetics because they aren't as durable as natural hairs and the tips are more prone to splitting, splaying, and wear.
Properly loading and using a brush not only helps it last loads longer (another bad pun... sorry again), but it also results in smoother washes and prettier paintings.
I’ve mentioned how to properly load and blot a brush in my article about rigger brushes and also how to choose a palette that won't stress your brushes, but the photo above is a great example. If your watercolor pans look like you’ve been drilling holes in the middle, well, you probably have. Thankfully, it’s never too late to change.
4. Protect the ferrule.
Once the bristles inside a brush ferrule (where the bristles meet the handle and usually a metal, clasp attachment) become saturated with pigment, it’s nearly impossible to clean. Paint can enter the ferrule when wet and/or dirty brushes are stored tip up (more on this below), if a brush is dipped too deeply into paint or dirty water, or if the tip is left lying in pigment.
This is another good reason to properly load a brush, because when pigment hardens inside of a ferrule, it causes bristles to flare and break, ferrules to loosen, and finishes to flake. The belly and tip of the brush is where all the action is anyway, so keep those ferrules far away from paint.
5. Lay brushes flat to dry.
Most brush handles are wood which loves to expand and contract when exposed to moisture. If you stand a brush with its tip up when wet, any water that remains in the bristles and ferrule will be absorbed by the wooden handle behind it.
If you’ve ever had a brush’s finish flake and pop off, you’ve seen the results of this mistake. (If you haven't, a few photos in this post display this disaster well.) To keep ferrules tight and handle finishes intact, lay your brushes flat until completely dry. And please don’t leave them laying on a wet surface like your paint towel. That pretty much defeats the purpose.
6. Clean brushes well.
Throughout the process of watercolor painting, a watercolor brush is cleaned constantly… but maybe not cleaned well. After use, take the time to do a few extra water dips and towel swipes to make sure all traces of pigment are removed before storage.
Every couple of weeks, if desired, use an inexpensive, gentle brush cleaner to deep clean and condition brushes. This is a treat for natural-hair bristles and extra important if you have hard or treated water.
7. But not too well...
Solvents, hot water, exfoliant or anti-bacterial soaps and other harsh things aren’t necessary for cleaning brushes and can actually cause serious harm. I’ve seen brushes fatally damaged by folks who were trying to be too clean. (Lava soap is a no-no. Please don't.)
And shampoo is not for watercolor brushes! Brushes lack the reoccurring skin oils that human hairs are subjected to, so shampoo is much too drying for brushes. A gentle but adequate swish through clean water and a few blots to a towel is all a watercolor brush usually needs.
Bristle staining or discoloration is completely normal, especially with synthetics, and is caused by certain pigments. It has no effect on the performance or life of the brush. Learn to let it go.
8. Shape the tips.
After a final cleaning but before laying the brush flat to dry, use your fingertips or a towel to lightly reshape and repoint the tip. If this isn’t done, a brush can develop a bad case of bed hair because the bristles will dry whatever direction you leave them when wet.
Misshapen bristles can often be corrected... but not always. It's best to avoid this situation, if possible. If bristles accidentally get misshapen or bent, rewet, reshape with fingertips, and then allow to dry. Repeat several times, if necessary.
And by the way, when dry, it’s normal for natural-hair bristles to look like they spent the night in a mosh pit. No worries! After a dip or two into water, the bristles should easily reshape themselves. If not, it may be time for a new brush.
9. Never, ever soak.
Soaking is one of the quickest ways to kill a brush. It crimps and crushes bristles, loosens ferrules, and cracks handles. Water is good for painting and a quick cleaning, and that’s it. Otherwise, keep your brushes far away from water, solvents, damp sketching packs, wet towels, or any other moisture ridden things.
And never leave brushes or bristles sitting in watercolor. A quick dip is all you need to load a brush. Anything else forces pigment and water up into the ferrule, and we’ve already talked about that bad news.
10. Give brushes breathing room.
Brushes aren’t into group experiences and are highly claustrophobic. The slightest pressure can bend bristles, especially when they are wet, and this can’t always be corrected. Air is good for bristles and brushes, when drying and when in storage, so give your brushes plenty of wiggle room.
By the way, those plastic tubes that manufacturers use to protect the brush or bristles in shipping aren't made for longterm storage. If you can't keep your brushes in a brush stand or cup, at least make sure the brush is complete dry before placing into an enclosed case. This helps prevent mold and other disastrous problems.