Mixed-Media Collage: The Care and Feeding of Paintbrushes

12 Nov 2012

When I tell people my husband is a painter, they usually ask if he's an artist or a house painter. And I usually tell them, "Both." Because while he does paint houses, he does it with the care and precision of a fine artist.

Whether you paint, collage, or mix your media, brush maintenance is essential.
One of the things he is very particular about is caring for his brushes. Not only do well-maintained paintbrushes last longer, they also work better. This is true of all bristle brushed, whether you use them for home maintenance or mixed-media collage art.

Proper cleaning and care is essential if you want your brushes to maintain their shape and not leave loose hairs or debris from leftover paint on your artwork.

In the interactive eMag Collage in Color II, Barbara Delaney reviews the different kind of paintbrushes available to artists and how they are used. Plus she offers these tips for maintaining your brushes so they'll last for years and do your art proud.

Cleaning and Care of Paintbrushes

1. Remove the excess paint from the paintbrush by wiping it onto (or with) a cloth or paper towel. Gently squeezing the bristles from the ferrule to the tip helps to remove the paint, but avoid pulling on the bristles.

2. Rinse the brush in lukewarm to cool water if you painted with a water-based medium. Use turpentine or a paintbrush cleaner specifically for oil-based products to remove oil paint. Never use hot water; it can cause the bristles/hairs to fall out.

3. Wipe the brush on the cloth again to remove any paint that remains. Once all of the excess paint is removed, wash the brush gently with mild soap. Rinse and repeat until there is no trace of paint or soap.

4. Shake the water from the paintbrush and then gently shape the brush head into its correct shape with your fingers.

5. Stand the paintbrush, handle-side down, in a container and allow the brush to air-dry at room temperature. Never rest the paintbrush on its head to dry as the bristles will lose their shape.

Of course, paintbrushes can come in very handy for applying glue, gel medium, and other sticky substances to your mixed-media collage art. For that, I recommend using foam brushes or cheap chip brushes.

If you must use a good quality paintbrush to apply glue, be sure to wash it immediately after use, or the bristles will bond together. I know this from experience, which is why my husband doesn't let me anywhere near his paintbrushes!

But, I've learned my lesson. Promptly and properly cleaning your paintbrushes before leaving the studio is like taking off your make-up before you go to bed. It's a pain, but the effort leads to more beautiful results.

For more information on paintbrushes, plus interactive tips and techniques for collage, get Collage in Color II, available for PC, Mac, and iPad.

P.S. What's your least favorite art-related chore? Leave your answer below.

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Collage in Color Volume 2 eMag for PC and Mac

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Take an interactive look at adding color and texture to your collage work with the Collage in Color Volume 2 eMag.


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on 12 Nov 2012 9:18 AM

I discovered that I could remove dried acrylic paint from my brushes by soaking them in rubbing alcohol.  I taught a high school acrylic painting course and my students didn't always clean their brushes or desktops.  I could remove dried acrylic paint with the inexpensive rubbing alcohol that I purchased at the grocery store (in the pharmacy section).  If a student accidentally got paint on his or her clothing, we often could get paint out by dabbing off the excess paint, and then soaking the area in rubbing alcohol and finally rinsing with cold water.  

tammy olson wrote
on 12 Nov 2012 9:23 AM

Not cleaning my paintbrushes is definitely my bad habit when it comes to my art.  Many times I leave them in the water jar thinking I will be right back but not return until the next day, getting distracted by family.  A lot of my brushes have bent tips from leaving them in the jar this way.  

bellesouth wrote
on 12 Nov 2012 9:50 AM

If i find a brush I have overlooked and it has dried acrylic paint on it, I soak it in Murphy's Oil Soap, and it's a miracle cleaner! Even if it's been days, a good soak and it's clean! I love that stuff.

Cindy1080 wrote
on 12 Nov 2012 10:19 AM

I paint on ceramics and try to buy plastic handle brushes but I have several with wooden handles that I like.  The paint on the handles chips off immediately.  Is there any paint I can use to repaint these brush handles.  The wood on brushes is really cheap and porous.  Would rubber base paint be too tacky?  Any advice?


on 12 Nov 2012 11:07 AM

An excellent and timely post! Very good advice. It's all too easy to get carried away with the creative flow, and forget the drudgery of brush maintenance that makes it all possible. One thing I do - rather than wiping paint off on a cloth or whatever, I work on a large sheet of paper or card, and wipe off on that. I also do the same with rubber stamps, stamping repeatedly until they are clean. This way, you create the most wonderful random backgrounds that can be used for other things, and not a speck of paint is wasted! (Not my own idea - I give full credit to Jennibellie - google her - I've voted her the Queen of Recycling and she's such FUN, too!!)


on 12 Nov 2012 1:30 PM

I had a favorite paintbrush that I had not cleaned properly and it had acrylic paint dried into the bristles. I followed a tip and soaked it for 24 hours in straight Murphy's Oil Soap and then rinsed it and air dried upright. It's now as good as new!

LL Howard wrote
on 12 Nov 2012 4:16 PM

My least favorite chore happens when I've been interrupted in the middle of a project, then after a long time, coming back to try and figure out where I was and where I was going. It's a "chore" to me, trying to find the same inspiration, the same beauty I was trying to recreate from my minds' eye.

floozette wrote
on 12 Nov 2012 9:21 PM

I don't mind cleaning my brushes since I have learned through bitter experience the importance of looking after them.  However one thing I never do is turn them brush side up to dry - the water runs back down into the ferrule, can rust it out and rot the wood of the handle (bitter experience again).  So leave them flat to dry then store them brush side up.  

Ruth Hotchin wrote
on 13 Nov 2012 12:16 AM

Yes, like you others I am a bit tardy with brushes.  But one thing I thought you might like is:

the cloth that you use to wipe your brushes, keep using it, you end up with some lovely colours and textures.  I have many clean up cloths that I keep and use in fabric collage.

Just a thought


theartinbeth wrote
on 15 Nov 2012 4:28 PM

Thanks for the great tips.  I keep a bar of Ivory soap in a jar of water at all times in the studio.  Drop a brush in there that has hardened paint on it and it will clean and condition the brush.  Seriously.  It ends up being an ugly gray jar of gooey goop that works miracles!  Best brush tip I ever got.

on 18 Nov 2012 12:35 AM

I had just bought a paintbrush and the paint on the handle chipped off because it got wet and sat in my brush holder too long without drying off. My teacher suggested nail polish. I bought a matching color (that's the artist in me) and painted my handle with the blue sparkly nail polish. It is smoother and better than ever. Give it a try. Doesn't have to be expensive polish either. And now my brush won't be mistaken for anyone else's brush as it has sparkles.

Pat Megraw wrote
on 18 Nov 2012 7:38 PM

Linda soap is great for cleaning brushes that have been forgotten about. It is great for getting acrylics off clothes and carpets too.