Saturday, 11 September 2010

Why do My Art Brushes Wear Out so Quickly?

A mere few paintings after investing in costly fine art brushes such as Kolinsky sable or horse hair, the bristles splay, become brittle or lose their springiness. How can the artist make the art brushes last longer and therefore save money on art materials?

How to Make Art Brushes Last Longer

Durable Artist Brushes
Rachel Shirley
Having to purchase art brushes frequently will add to the cost of oil painting. The causes of art brushes wearing out too quickly are due to bad painting practices, which are:
  • Constantly using a thin brush of size 6 or smaller to cover a large area of oil painting.
  • Using a fine sable to apply paint onto a rough surface such as coarse canvas, dried impasto or a montage.
  • Being heavy-handed with the fine art bristles such as when scumbling, scrubbing on paint or pressing too hard.
  • Using cheap household turps or white spirits to clean the brushes.
  • Not cleaning the paint brushes properly at the end of the painting session and allowing a residue of oil paint to dry near the ferrule (the metal collar where the bristles meet the handle) causing the bristles to splay.
  • Allowing the paint brushes to dry bristle-end down, causing the hairs to lose their shape and damage the flags (the split ends on the bristles that allow the brush to hold more paint).
  • Buying poor quality art brushes or brushes that are unsuitable for oil painting such as watercolour brushes, which are not designed for heavy paint.
How to Save Money on Oil Painting Brushes

To avoid art brushes from unnecessarily wearing out quickly, the following advice on care of the art brushes will double or even triple the life span of the bristles.
  • Never use fine sables, such as kolinsky for impasto, rough paintwork or for covering large areas of a painting such as skies or water.
  • Reserve such an art technique for hog hair brushes or similar stiff brushes. Impasto brushes need not be purchased from art shops, but DIY stores at the fraction of the price. Household brushes can be used for covering large areas of an oil painting or for glazing.
  • Use sable brushes only for what they are designed for, which is fine detail, delicate oil washes and soft blending.
  • Never use household turps to clean art brushes. Not only are the odours powerful, the brushes will lose their natural oils and become brittle. It is best to use Sansador, Turpenoid or similar artist white spirit.
  • At the end of each painting session, clean the brushes thoroughly. Massage neat washing up liquid into the ferrule and run under a warm tap until the water runs clear.
  • Once clean, massage a little Vaseline into the bristles and press the hairs back into shape; in the case of round sables or riggers, to a point. Other nourishing agents such as conditioner or olive oil can also be used.
  • Store the brushes in a jar with the bristles pointing upwards.
  • It is false economy to purchase cheap oil painting brushes. Recommended art brush manufacturers such as Daler Rowney and Winsor & Newton will last longer and are worth the investment.
Tips on Using Oil Painting Brushes


Using just one or two brushes during a painting session will force the artist to frequently clean the bristles between colour mixing, causing unnecessary wear and tear. To avoid constant washing, use several brushes in one go. Reserve one brush for pales, another for darks and others for different colours. This will dispense with the need to constantly washing the brushes.

Tips on Art Brush Care

Buying fine art brushes such as sables can be costly, but with simple care the bristles will last longer. Reserving impasto and large glazes for stiff brushes such a hog hairs will save unnecessary wear and tear on sables which should be reserved for detail and blending. The brushes’ life-span can be further increased by cleaning them properly with artist agents and nourishing the bristles with Vaseline or conditioner afterwards. Storing the brushes appropriately is also important. Using several brushes during a painting session will dispense with unnecessary washing in spirits between colour mixing.

Links Relating to Art Brushes

5 comments:

Rhen Nicey said...

Considering the variety of different types of paint brush out there it's hard to learn which kind to select. With lots of distinctive bristle kinds let alone handle materials to choose from it truly is a bit of a lottery for the novice.
The old practice is invest in the best brush you can afford, and that could be accurate to a certain degree. The bargain basement brushes can actually be a false economy, since anyone who may have gone many an hour pulling out hairs from their freshly finished walls may without doubt testify.

Harold said...

I have been using your advice for cleaning and conditioning my brushes with olive oil and it has really helped prolong their life, however I have two questions of concern.

First, should I worry about water in the brushes being transferred into the oil paint? I usually dry the brushes at least overnight, but we live in a damp climate and I worry that this will not be adequate.

Second, as I understand it olive oil is a non drying oil, so could it not transfer to the paint mixtures and cause problems with drying and such? I am pretty thorough about rinsing my brushes in thinner before I start to eliminate the vegetable oil, but it is a concern. I have thought about using walnut oil with my brushes when I am working with them day to day and only using olive if I won't be using them for awhile.

Rachel said...

Hello Harold
Thanks for your question. I'm pleased that my advice has worked in prolonging your brushes. I wouldn't worry about water getting into the oil paint, as water and oil cannot mix. However, I always dry my brushes thoroughly on a rag before painting, as I prefer my brushes to be dry before use. To be sure, I will clean any oily residue (whether olive oil, Walnut oil or Vaseline) from the bristles with a bar of soap. The exception to this is if the oil is designed for oil painting. I would not allow household oils such as olive oil to transfer to the painting. You say that you clean the residue off with artist thinners anyway. This should suffice.

Regarding the damp climate, there is little that can be done about this, but oil painting is (in my opinion) the most robust of art mediums. I paint on panel, and the oil paint will dry to a tough finish. Perhaps you could assess the house to find the room with the best ventilation. Avoid ground floor areas that are prone to flooding and keep the paintings away from extremes of temperature. This could cause stresses in the paint layer and warping of the panel. An environment that is pretty constant in conditions is more important. You could try priming the back of the painting with primer, as I have done. This will seal the back of the panel, preventing damp from getting into the wood. I'm not so sure about canvas, but will look into this for a future article. I will keep you posted.
I hope this advice helps.

Harold said...

Hi Rachel,
Thank you for your reply. You confirmed what I was thinking of regarding the cleaning and conditioning of my brushes.
The house is pretty constant in temperature, though it does cool down at night because the heat gets turned down. Not more than a few degrees though as it is pretty mild here even in winter. I will watch for that though. The main problem here is that the high humidity means things can take a very long time to dry.
I usually paint on canvas board, and have never had problems with the board swelling or causing problems with the finished painting. I have paintings done more than 30 years ago and they are solid.
I have however just primed up some masonite board (I think that is what it is called.) It is an engineered wood product, smooth on one side, rough and fibrous on the other. I will definitely put a coat of gesso on the back now as I know from years in construction that painting only one side of a board will cause it to warp from uneven moisture transfer. Thanks for pointing that out! Should've seen that myself!

Rachel said...

Hi Harold
Glad that your mind has been put to rest about your concerns with the oil paintings. Canvas board is a great surface to paint on, and the canvas has the added support of the board beneath. (I personally prefer this to stretched canvas). We don't have masonite in this country, but it appears to be very similar to hardboard or MDF. Few art surfaces are more robust than wood-based art boards primed on both sides.
Best wishes and keep painting.
R