How to Look After Your Watercolor Brushes: 21 Do’s & Don’ts

Watercolor painting is one of the most popular hobbies for people who want a creative outlet. Since it is a niche activity with different equipment and techniques than acrylic and oil painting, it can be unclear when you first get into it. How exactly do you look after your watercolor brushes? 

To look after watercolor brushes, make sure to properly clean and store them, and use proper techniques when setting up to paint and caring for damaged brushes. Proper care can include (amongst other things) using mild soap, storing them in a dry place, and never using acetone to clean them. 

The list can be endless when researching how to look after your watercolor brushes properly. There is an overwhelming amount of information available, some more accurate than others. Still, this list will cover the essential things regarding proper care techniques for your watercolor brushes, why you should take care of your brushes, clean and store your brushes, and give a few more general tips to give your brushes a lasting life. 

Table of Contents

Why Do You Need to Take Care of Your Watercolor Brushes?

Watercolor paint is naturally less thick than acrylic and oil paint, making you wonder why you should give so much time and attention to taking care of the brushes. They are all the same, aren’t they? There are actually a few different ways of taking care of watercolor brushes since they are designed differently. 

There Will Be Build-Up of Debris and Paint Deposits

Even though the paint is thinner and easier to work with, there will always be a danger of paint deposits and other waste that can build up on the brush’s hairs. This waste can include dust and debris that you can find anywhere in your house, especially drawers. 

This build-up can attach to the individual hairs and cause the brush to turn stiff. The brushes are made to be soft, so this will wreck the proper use of the brush. 

Even if you rinse your watercolor brushes regularly, there will still be build-up in certain brush places. The build-up of paint, dust, and debris is the most probable near the base of the head of the brush bristles. If you want the technical term, this area is called the ferrule

The ferrule is the metal piece that connects the brush to the handle. If you rinse this section, that still won’t stop the build-up from happening. This is not ideal since the build-up can eventually work its way into the bristles and disfigure it, amongst other things (like loosening the glue that holds the brush together). 

It Will Lengthen the Life of the Brushes

Watercolor equipment can be expensive, especially if you buy high-quality brushes. If you put the time into properly taking care of your brushes, you can lengthen the life of your equipment from months to years by preventing disfiguration of the brush hairs and protecting the glue on the ferrule. 

Even if you buy equipment that isn’t as expensive as professional brushes, you can still save money by taking care of those brushes. 

If you are thinking of getting serious about watercolor painting, buying a higher-grade brush is recommendable. Low-grade synthetic brushes work fine, but you will have a higher rate of buying brushes than you would with a higher grade if you take care of them properly. 

Overall, the cost of each balances each other out, so don’t feel bad about spending more money on brushes. 

The Do’s and Don’ts of Proper Brush Cleaning

The first step of taking care of your brushes is to clean them properly. This will prevent a few things like the build-up of debris, dust, and old paint and lengthen your watercolor brushes’ life by protecting the bristles, ferrule, and handle. 

Use a Mild Soap or Artists Soap to Clean Brushes

Since watercolor brushes are made differently from other brushes meant for oil and acrylic paint, you must take caution when deciding what soap to use. If you don’t have an artist’s soap, do not worry.

You can easily use a mild soap to clean your brushes. You have to make sure that the soap is mild and doesn’t contain too many additives. Soap with a vegetable oil base is best for cleaning your watercolor brushes if you do not have artist soap. 

You can successfully clean your brushes in six easy steps. Before you start, make sure you have an on-hand mild soap (or artist soap), dirty brushes, a cup of clean water for rinsing, a white piece of paper, and some paper towels. Let’s clean some brushes!

  1. Rinse your brush in the rinse water, making sure to run your fingers through the bristles. Pay special attention to the ferrule, wiping away any build-up of paint if you can. Remember also to be gentle when massaging the brush with your fingers. The watercolor brush hair is finer than other brushes. 
  2. Place your brush on the bar of soap (or in your hand after you saturate it with soap) and swirl it around in small circles. Make sure the hairs are completely saturated. 
  3. Massage the soap in with your fingers or with a paper towel. 
  4. Rinse the soap-saturated brush in the rinse water. Making sure to squeeze all of the soap out with your fingers (again, be gentle).
  5. With your wet, rinsed brush, ‘paint’ the white paper. Make sure there is no leftover pigment that is coming from the brush. 
  6. Repeat until all pigment is washed from the brush. Remember to pay special attention to the ferrule as well. 

Whenever it is time to wash your watercolor brushes, make sure to follow these steps for a proper and thorough clean that will last. Furthermore, if you are interested in investing in artist soap, check out General Pencil The Master’s Hand Soap.

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Clean Your Brush Every Few Months (but Rinse Every Use)

Cleaning your brushes with soap every day can get tiresome. Applying soap every time you use the brush can even be bad since overwashing is a thing. If you wash it too much, you can actually dry it out faster. 

If you make sure to rinse your brush thoroughly after each use, you will only have to wash your brushes once in a while. Every few months would be fine, depending on how much you use them. 

Reform Your Brush After Every Wash

The shape of a watercolor brush is essential when trying to create certain styles of brush strokes. An easy way to keep its form is to reshape the brush after every wash or rinse. 

Right before you place the brush to dry, take the wet bristles between your fingers and gently shape it into an almond-looking point. The brush will dry in the form when it is wet, so doing this technique will guarantee a firm point when it dries. 

Don’t Handle Your Brush Harshly

If you have synthetic brushes, it is easy not to worry about how you handle them. Even with synthetic brushes, though, rough handling can lower their life and quality. When washing, be especially gentle with the bristles, making sure not to squeeze them too hard when rinsing the soap and paint out. 

Don’t Use Strong Soap With Additives 

Especially with natural hair paintbrushes, if you use a strong soap to wash them, the soap will eventually dry out the bristles. A golden rule for cleaning paint brushes is never to use anything but a mild soap (or artist’s soap), as mentioned above since soaps other than those can damage synthetic and natural hair paintbrushes. 

VIDEO – If you want a visual example of how to clean your watercolor brushes, check out this informative video. WATCH – How to NOT Ruin Your Watercolor Brushes – How to Take Care of Your Brushes.

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The Do’s and Don’ts of Proper Storage

Another major area of care is proper storage for your watercolor brushes. If you don’t store your watercolor equipment properly, you can both damage and shorten the life of the brushes. 

Don’t Leave Your Brush on Its Head

If you have ever left a paintbrush head down in a jar, you may have noticed that it can deform your brush a bit. This can bend the bristles in unnatural ways, permanently change your brush’s shape, and damage individual hairs. Synthetic brushes are most susceptible to this. 

Don’t Leave Your Brush on Its Handle When Wet

You may be wondering why you shouldn’t leave your brush, not only on its head but also on the handle. Leaving it in a jar like this can cause different kinds of damage. Especially with watercolors, the brush will be wet after you are done painting. If you store the brush upwards in a jar, the water will travel down to the ferrule and seep into the wood and glue. 

After a few times storing the brush this way, the water can eventually break the glue down that holds the metal piece and head of the brush together. The ferrule will become loose and could eventually fall off. There is also a danger of rusting. 

Don’t Store Wet Brushes in Containers

Even though plastic containers can work as a safe and secure option to store your watercolor brushes, you will have to completely dry the brushes before placing them in a closed container. If you put wet paintbrushes in, you could have problems with mold and mildew. This would inevitably wreck the bristles of your brush. 

Make Sure to Dry Your Brushes Before Storing Them

It doesn’t matter how carefully you store your brushes. If you ever store them wet, it will always cause inevitable damage. After you are done painting, grab a paper towel and place it on the counter or table. Rinse all of your brushes thoroughly and place them side by side horizontally on the paper towel. Once they are completely dry, you can put them away safely. 

Use a Roll-Up or Fold-Up Case if Possible 

Even though plastic containers and even bags work fine for storing your brushes, you might want to consider purchasing a roll-up or fold-up case if you consider getting into watercolor painting for the long term. 

Unlike plastic containers, the roll-up bags have individual slots for each brush size and will keep them separate from each other. The material is made of fabric that will absorb any leftover moisture, which will be more likely to prevent water damage than any plastic container. 

Store Your Brushes in a Dry, Clean Area

It is not necessary to invest money into proper storage for your watercolors. You can store them in many different places if you make sure to follow the above rules. Whether it be a container or a drawer, whatever place you pick, make sure that the area isn’t full of debris or clutter. Be sure that nothing will roll over the top of the brush and damage the bristles. 

Do Not Leave Your Paint Brushes in Water

While it may be tempting to leave your paintbrush in water for various reasons, this will cause more damage than you think. Some people think it is good for the brush to be left in water since it will eventually break up the paint build-up, right? The truth is, leaving your paintbrush in water can damage the bristles, the ferrule, and even the handle. 

If you leave the brush tip-down in a cup of water, the position can deform the direction of the brush’s hairs, even if it’s wet. Furthermore, long exposure to water can slowly destroy the glue that holds the ferrule and brush together. The ferrule itself can fall off, and the brush’s hairs can start to fall out as well. Have you ever tried to pick individual paint hair from a painting? 

Lastly, leaving it in water can also affect the handle. The water can seep into the wood and cause the paint or varnish of the handle to flake. 

The Do’s and Don’ts of Watercolor Brush Care

While cleaning and storage take a lot of weight when caring for and preventing damage to your watercolor brushes, there are a few other tips to keep in mind when looking after your brushes. 

Make Sure to Premoisten Your Paints and Brush

Always make sure to premoisten both the paint in your palette and your brush before painting. Watercolor painting is a delicate task, and the equipment should be treated delicately. 

When you moisten your paints before starting, this softens the paint and makes it easier to apply it to your brush. A misting bottle is the best and easiest way to do this since it guarantees equal coverage. 

Keep Moistening the Brush As You Work

Even though you moisten the brush before you work, it is essential to remember to keep on moistening the brush as you paint. A lot of times, you will be using several watercolor paint brushes as you work. Sometimes, you will have to set one aside for a bit, but the paint will start to dry on the brush if you leave it long enough. 

Paint drying on the brush is definitely not ideal. It can attach to the individual hairs and make it very hard to wash out later. This can then lead to over-washing and dry out your brush if there is enough paint stuck to the bristles. Moistening your brush as you work will avoid all of this. Ensure to dip your brush in water or spray it every few minutes or when you notice it is drying. 

One last thing to remember is when you are getting rid of excess water before you dip it in the paint again, try to shake the water off instead of using your fingers to squeeze the water out. While it is okay to use your fingers while reshaping the brush, it is always good to use a more delicate technique whenever you can. 

Use the Proper Technique for Applying Paint to Your Brush

A fast way to ruin your brush is to dip it in the paint the wrong way. Many amateurs plow the brush in the paint with the tip, hoping to get enough paint on the brush. If you do this, it could damage the bristles and deform their shape. 

When you apply paint to your brush from a palette, think of the technique you use to paint. Do you ever dab your paper with the tip of the brush in a powerful motion? No… you lightly sweep the page while the brush is almost horizontal to the paper, not vertical. 

Do this technique when you are picking up paint. Lightly sweep your brush in the color you want. If the palette is premoistened, it will easily pick up enough paint. 

Don’t Worry About Fraying Bristles When Dry

It is quite often that your brushes (especially if they are synthetic) will dry so that they will look as if they are fraying or deformed in some manner. I would not recommend throwing the brush out right away but try first to wet the brush and reshape it with your fingers. More often than not, the brush will dry to be the perfect shape for painting. 

Use the Proper Paint for Your Brush

It is easy to look at your watercolor brush and think it is the same as an acrylic brush because they look quite similar to the length (watercolor brushes are shorter). You should be careful, though, not to use acrylic paint with watercolor brushes. 

Watercolor brushes are much softer than acrylic brushes since they work with more water than acrylic. Furthermore, acrylic paint is much thicker and could damage fine watercolor bristles if you keep using that kind of paint. 

The Do’s and Don’ts of Using Acetone – Will It Ruin Your Brushes?

Acetone is one of the main chemicals in paint thinner and nail polish remover. It is often used to clean paintbrushes, but is it okay to use watercolor brushes? 

Do Not Leave Your Brush in Acetone for Long Periods of Time 

Acetone will not ruin your brushes if you use it for short periods. To use acetone properly for paintbrushes, only immerse the head of the paintbrush for a few minutes, then take it out and rinse it. Acetone is a very harsh chemical, so if you leave a paintbrush in the chemical too long, it will damage it. (Never soak it overnight, no matter how much paint is stuck to your brush.)

Do Not Use Acetone to Clean Your Watercolor Brushes 

Acetone is commonly used to break up dried paint that has either an acrylic or oil base. Acrylic and oil-based paints are much thicker and harder to dissolve than watercolor paints, which is why acetone is commonly used on those kinds of paints. On the other hand, because watercolor paint is water-soluble, you won’t need to use harsh chemicals to break any dried paint. 

As mentioned before, the only thing needed to clean watercolor brushes is a mild soap or an artist’s soap. Acetone is meant to break down harsher chemicals than watercolor paints on sturdier brushes. If you use acetone on your watercolor brushes, it will damage them. 

Furthermore, even the hair on watercolor brushes is finer than other brushes, so that the acetone will dry the brush hair out as well. A golden rule when washing watercolor brushes is if it’s okay for your hands, then it is okay for your brushes. 

Can I Save Damaged Watercolor Brushes?

Sometimes you can try your best to follow all of the ‘rules’ of looking after your brushes, but nobody is perfect. It is normal to forget to rinse a brush or leave it standing on its bristles. Don’t worry if this happens because there are a few different techniques available to save your brushes. Let’s dive into a few. 

Save Badly Shaped Brushes With Hot Water or Gum Arabic

The major reason why people throw their brushes away is that they are disfigured. This can happen very easily by leaving it in a jar, or somewhere other items can roll on top of it. As mentioned above, the first thing you can do to save your brush is to dip the brush in hot water for a few seconds, then mold it with your fingers. This will usually fix the problem. 

If you need a stronger solution, you can also try gum arabic. Gum arabic is a substance that is made from hardened tree sap. Artists can use a powdered version for a variety of reasons. The good use of gum arabic is to add water to turn it into a liquid and then dip your disfigured brush in it for a few seconds. When you take it out, you can then shape it with your fingers.

After you shape the brush, set it aside, and leave it to dry for a few days. The gum arabic will harden the brush into the shape you molded it to. After it hardens, you can then rinse the gum arabic off the brush, and it will be good as new! If the hot water solution did not work, this technique is more likely to work. 

How to Clean Dried Paint 

Sometimes life happens, and you forget to rinse your brush after a day of painting. If you happen to leave dried paint on your brush for days, don’t throw it out quite yet. First, you can try your usual mild soap since even dried watercolor paint is not as stubborn as acrylic or oil paint. 

If that doesn’t work, you can also try The Master’s Brush Cleaner & Preserver. This product is not as harsh as acetone but is stronger than mild soap. It’s made to clean various paints, including watercolor, to damage your brush.

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General Pencil Company Inc., The Masters Brush Cleaner & Preserver 1 Oz.
  • Formulated for use with oils - acrylics and watercolors
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Last update on 2022-09-21 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

Final Words

There are a few main areas of care, including cleaning, storing, and general rules of care, that are good to remember:

  • By following proper care techniques, you can lengthen your equipment’s life and prevent the build-up of paint deposits.
  • Use a mild soap and wash your brushes every few months. 
  • Don’t leave your brush either on its handle or head (You can leave the brush on its handle when it dries). Make sure never to leave them in a cup of water either.
  • Always premoisten both your paints and brush. Make sure to use a proper technique when applying paint to avoid further damage and never use acetone to clean your watercolor brushes.

If you make sure to look after your watercolors by practicing proper cleaning, storage, and upkeep, the paint equipment will be guaranteed to last for a long time, saving you both money and time.

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Ines

Ines is a self-taught artist based in the UK. Originally from Caracas, she has dabbled in the world of arts and crafts in a diversity of ways participating in city intervention projects, sustainable practices’ open exhibitions, and her illustrations being featured in anniversary editions of literary magazines.

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