How To Clean Watercolor Brushes: A Guide for Beginners

The first thing to know about clean watercolor brushes is that they are made of animal hair. The two most popular types of hairs for this purpose are squirrel and Sable. One brush might be labeled as Sable Hair, the other Squirrel Hair, but both work just fine for painting with watercolors.

The second thing to know is that there are different levels of quality when it comes to these brushes. A good-quality brush will hold its shape better than a cheap one; it will also retain more pigment and paint because the bristles won’t fall out so quickly or shed so much in general use.

Synthetic watercolor brushes

Synthetic brushes are not as popular and common compared to natural hair. However, they deserve a mention for beginners because it is one of the cheapest options available in the market. Whether you choose synthetic or traditional watercolor brushes, try buying better quality brush brands like Winsor & Newton Cotman Sketchers Pocket Box Set. It is often very tempting to buy the cheapest, but it pays off in the long run if you invest a few extra bucks.

Cleaning advice: While cleaning synthetic brushes your only concern should be removing excess paint and making sure that they look and feel like new again. Because of their artificial hairs, it is easier for them to retain pigment compared.

How to clean your brushes thoroughly and properly

Cleaning watercolor brushes is an important part of maintaining your supplies. Some people believe that it isn’t necessary, but if you want to make sure they last a long time and maintain their quality, proper cleaning techniques are essential. If done incorrectly or not often enough, excess paint can build up in the bristles which can cause them to become brittle or otherwise damaged over time. Even if you only use one color at a time with clean water on top of already dried layers there’s still some left behind from previous applications- especially when working outdoors where humidity plays into the mix as well! Watercolors tend to have more oil compared to other mediums so they do require more frequent cleaning between uses.

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Why you should Clean your Watercolor Brushes

If you want your brushes to last and maintain their quality, the best way is to clean them thoroughly after each use.  When watercolor paint dries it can create a hard layer on top of dried layers which will eventually break down the bristles if they aren’t cleaned off properly.  It’s also important because excess paint can cause a layer of buildup on your palette and tools as well which can be transferred back to the paper if you re-use them.

Since watercolors have a higher oil content, they also tend to take longer for paint and thinner layers to dry. If you’re planning on using the same brush over top of already dried layers it can cause problems when trying to blend or create effects with them- especially if that particular color is one that doesn’t mix well such as a lighter hue over a darker one.

How Often to Clean Brushes

Watercolor brushes should be washed after every use. This includes the brush’s ferrule (the metal ring) and its handle.

For watercolor brushes, it is best to rinse them off in clean water after each use rather than cleaning with soap or shampoo between uses.  This will keep paint from building up over time on your tools which can create unwanted effects when painting.

Easy Way to Clean Watercolor Brushes

There are a variety of ways to clean watercolor brushes and the technique varies depending on if you want to use soap or not.

Soap Method: To begin, gather your materials. You’ll need water, a clean cup or jar to hold the soapy solution, shampoo (optional), and your dirty brushes.

Add one drop of gentle shampoo per cup of warm water if you would like to use it. If not, simply continue with plain water.

Soak the bristles of your brushes in the solution for several minutes. Rinse with clean water and reshape your brush’s bristles while wet.

Commercial Brush Cleaners

There are a variety of commercially available brush cleaners. These can be very useful for cleaning watercolor brushes and they come in little to larger bottles with spray nozzles or as solids that you wet before using them on your brushes. They also work well for oil painters who want to clean their paint from the bristles between.

How to take care of your brushes

To ensure that your watercolor brushes last a long time, proper care cannot be stressed enough.

Don’t leave your paint sitting on the bristles for extended periods of time. This can cause permanent damage to both the bristles and their shape which will ruin them as painting tools no matter how well you clean them.

After they have dried, store your brushes so that their bristles are facing down in an upright container. This will keep any moisture from entering into the ferrule which can rust metal over time leading to damage to the brush’s handle as well as its shape rendering it useless for painting purposes.

Anatomy of a Watercolor Brush

A watercolor brush has three parts: a handle, a metal ferrule, and the head. The bristles are attached to the ferrule at one end and usually have a pointed tip on their other end which is inserted into the handle when in use. The part of the bristle that attaches to the ferrule is tapered.

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How to reshape, dry, and store your brushes properly

To reshape a brush, hold it by its handle with your non-painting hand and use the thumb of that same hand to gently pull on each bristle. Be careful not to pull too hard as this can cause bristles to detach from the ferrule or snap altogether.

After you have reshaped them, lay brushes flat against a towel or drying rack so they dry in their proper shape which will help maintain their form so they keep painting well for longer periods of time without losing any bristling power.

Store watercolor brushes between uses either upright or if possible wrapped so air cannot reach them through their ferrule opening vs leaving them lying down where dust/debris accumulates more easily inside those openings.

Tips to properly treat, clean, and store your watercolor paint brushes

Do not let the paint dry on the brush before rinsing. Otherwise, you will have to use more elbow grease when trying to remove dried acrylic paints or pigments from brushes!

Dedicate a small container for cleaning watercolor paintbrushes only. Rinse with clean running water and place in this dedicated cup until ready for next use.  You can also opt to purchase one of those rubber matting pieces that are made specifically for soaking wet makeup brushes if desired. You may also be able to find these drying mats at antique stores as well if interested!

Never leave the cap off while not using your paintbrush. This allows airflow into the ferrule can cause premature bristle loss.

Don’t forget to clean your paint palette after each use! This will help keep colors from cross-contaminating one another.  Natural wood palettes can be cleaned with soap and water while plastic ones should be scrubbed gently with a soft-bristled brush, preferably reserved for this purpose only. Use rubbing alcohol or vinegar solution to disinfect the surface between uses as well if you plan on using it again soon after cleaning.

What to avoid

When cleaning your brushes never use dish soap on your watercolor paintbrushes. It is too harsh and will damage the bristles of your fine artist paints! You can purchase a specially formulated brush cleaning solution online or at most art supply stores instead.

Don’t soak wooden-handled brushes in water for more than 24 hours as they can warp easily if not allowed to dry properly after rinsing them off with clean running water (or under the faucet). Wood does expand when wet, so make sure these are fully dried before storing them back away safely.

To remove excess moisture from watercolor painting brushes right after you finish using them: wipe your hand across all bristles then press flat.

The best way to clean watercolor brushes is to use a gentle soap and warm, running water. If you’re not sure how the bristles should look after washing them, you can rinse the brush in clean water before drying it on a paper towel or cloth. Once your paintbrushes are dry, store them vertically so that they don’t become misshapen over time from being bent too much. It’s also important to take care of Synthetic watercolor brushes by removing any excess color with an old toothbrush and then rinsing with cold or lukewarm water. Finally, Sable-hair paintbrushes require more delicate treatment than other types because their hairs will break if scrubbed against hard surfaces like metal sinks.

If you do watercolors, it is very important to keep your brushes clean. Above, we described how to store and care for a set of watercolor brushes so that they will last as long as possible. Keep these tips in mind when storing and cleaning!



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