Acrylic art painting: keeping your brushes in condition

When you start painting with acrylics, there’s no one who can prepare you for the speed which this paint dries with. A result of the short time the paint is “open” is that acrylics will stick to almost anything, including your paint brushes. That’s OK when it sticks to a €5 brush, but it becomes somewhat painful when the brush costs north of €110. Hence the need for proper brush cleaning and conditioning.

There are many “tutorials” on how to clean an art paint brush. Here is an iteration of the basics and my own experience:

  1. Use lukewarm to cold tap water. Warm water may dissolve some of the glue that holds the brush hairs together inside the ferrule. If you’re using Chinese or Japanese calligraphy brushes, it will definitely ruin your brush as these brushed tend to be glued with animal based products that are extremely delicate.
  2. If your skin is sensitive, you get eczema easily or are allergic, there’s no harm in using gloves to clean them. I prefer nitrile gloves.
  3. Let the water flow over the brush head, gently loosening the stuck paint from the brush by stroking it from the ferrule outwards towards the brush tip with your fingers.
  4. When nothing seems to come out of the brush anymore, take a little bit of good quality human hair shampoo in the palm of one hand and use your brush as if you were painting the palm of your other hand with the shampoo. It’s amazing what some brushes will hold on to in terms of residue paint.
  5. With your fingers, gently rub some of the lather into the hairs where they enter the ferrule without applying pressure. Always make sure you’re stroking or rubbing from the ferrule outwards to the tip of the hair. You may repeat this process with fresh shampoo a couple of times if the brush is really dirty.
  6. When there’s no paint coming out of the brush anymore, start rinsing. I rinse my brushes by filling a pot with plenty of water and then stirring into the pot, all the while being careful not to damage the ferrule or be too vigorous. I repeat that process until the water is clear.
  7. Dry your brush with a clean towel and hang them to dry completely with the head down. For that purpose I have a “brush laundry line” which is a rope stretched horizontally between two screws with several bulldog clamps hanging from it on equal distance from each other. The brush hangs on the handle’s end clamped by the bulldog.

Until a few weeks ago, that was all I did and after having painted with the same set of high quality brushes such as the Princeton Catalyst Polytip Series 6400 brushes for about three years now, they still look as if I bought them yesterday. Except there is one thing: I increasingly can’t get the brush hairs to cluster in a nice tip or sharp edge anymore. And that will only become worse with further use.

Three of my favourite brushes with the Princeton Polytip 6400F whopper at right and a badger hair blender from Da Vinci at left

I went looking for a solution and found some advice from artists on the web. Most of that advice came down to holding the brush head into almost boiling water for some 10 to 30 seconds, then wrap the moist head in a piece of paper towel until they’re dry. I followed that advice with some of my least expensive brushes and it works, but it goes against the crucial advice not to soak a brush’s ferrule in warm water as it may dissolve the glue that holds the hairs together.

Maybe those 10 seconds won’t cause much harm but with premium brushes I’m not prepared to take that risk more often than once or twice over the brush’s lifespan. On the other hand, I like to have well-conditioned paint brushes, so I looked further. And then I came across some advice by the Golden Artist Colors people — the ones who make what are the best acrylic paint products available to many artists.

In their “Technical Notes on Drying” sheet, they advise to use normal hair conditioner and claim it works just as well as dedicated, more expensive products. I consulted the founder of Princeton Art & Brush company to hear what he thought of the idea and that resulted in me giving it a try.

Hair conditioner for your art paint brush

I went to my local pharmacist and asked for a sample of a good quality hair conditioner. She gave me a Furterer product. Furterer is a French company specialised in hair products and it’s not exactly the cheapest but definitely one of the best. A tube of their conditioner costs €20 — given how little you need even for a nr.20 brush, it’s not as expensive as it sounds.

I first tried it on my less expensive Da Vinci Top-Acryl brushes and the results were very good. By gently and carefully working the conditioner into the hairs and then thoroughly rinsing — just as you would treat your scalp — the edge of a flat brush, for example, will be back to its original tapered state instead of its hairs going in all directions.

Even better, the Princeton Polytips regained their silky feel and the hairs got their original elasticity back. Of one Polytip brush I was particularly happy to see it had regained its original qualities. It’s a filbert brush I have abused by painting with it against the hair “implant” which has resulted in the hairs becoming really messed up. The conditioner repaired this brush beyond my expectations.

As a result, I have become a firm believer of the practice as advised by Golden and will apply conditioner to every brush I use. If you paint with acrylics too, you should really give it a shot, but if you do it differently and think your way is better, why not leave a comment and share it with the rest of us?