Watercolor brushes are pretty easy to clean and take care of, but it’s also easy to damage them, especially since they tend to be softer than other types.
They are one watercolor supply that gets used over and over again, unlike paint and paper, and with the right care they can last for a long time.
In this post, learn the best practices for taking care of your brushes so they stay in good shape!
This post contains affiliate links. Learn more.
If you’d rather watch, I made a video about watercolor brush care that you can watch below.
If you prefer to read, just keep scrolling!
How to take care of watercolor brushes
There are things you can do before, during, and after using watercolor brushes to help make sure they last. Without a bit of care, your paintbrushes won’t work as well as they did when they were new.
Common problems with paintbrushes are bent or frayed bristles, peeling and cracking handles, and dried pigment stuck in the bristles or ferrule.
To avoid unnecessary damage to these trusty painting tools, here’s how to take good care of watercolor brushes!
- Mist your paints with water before painting.
This ensures that they’re already soft and you don’t have to scrub with your brush to get enough paint.
- Use the side of the brush to pick up paint instead of the tip.
To keep paintbrush tips from getting damaged too soon, try to use the side of the brush when picking up and mixing paint.
- Avoid scrubbing.
When using paintbrushes, try not to scrub with them or make the bristles splay outward. Basically, just don’t be too rough on them!
- Lay brushes flat when not using them.
Keep paper towel or a brush rest nearby to lay your brushes on when you’re not using them, instead of leaving them in the water jar.
- Clean watercolor brushes thoroughly.
Swish/rinse each one in water and blot the brush on paper towel to make sure no pigment is remaining.
- Reshape the tips.
Once a paintbrush is clean, tap off excess water and reshape the tip with your fingers.
- Let brushes dry lying flat.
Lay paintbrushes flat or hang them with the bristles pointed downward while they dry. You could use a brush rest or holder if you have one.
- Store dry brushes so tips are not bent.
Once brushes are completely dry, store them so the bristles are not bent in any way. Use the plastic tubes that come with new brushes if you need to protect the bristles even more.
If you have brushes with pointed tips, try to keep those tips as pristine as possible. Be especially careful with tiny detail brushes.
Natural hair watercolor brushes should be treated with more care, so keep that in mind when using, cleaning, and storing them.
Make these things a habit, and your brushes will thank you!
How to clean your brushes
To clean watercolor brushes after a painting, rinse them thoroughly in water until no color remains. Make sure no pigment is left by blotting the brush on a paper towel or rag.
You can also use the paper towel/rag to wipe off any extra paint on the sides of the brush, especially if you’ve been painting with gouache.
Every so often you can give your brushes a deeper clean, using either a mild soap or a brush soap. You might be surprised at how much color comes out of the bristles even when you thought they were clean!
I recently tried a brush soap for cleaning my brushes and found it very easy to use. Just run the paintbrush under water and swirl the bristles over the soap, then rinse and repeat until clean.
Since the soap is white, you can see if any pigment was left in the bristles. It’s rather satisfying when you do see some since you know you’re cleaning the brush well! Brush soap conditions brushes, too.
Brushes can be cleaned just as well with mild soap and warm water. Swirl/rub a brush in the palm of your hand to work the soap into the bristles and rinse well. Brush soap isn’t necessary for well-cleaned watercolor brushes!
Clean especially well at the base of the bristles since pigment can gather there. It won’t ruin your brushes if they dry with a little paint left in them, but try to keep them clean.
There may be some pigment staining on brush bristles, but as long as the brush is clean it won’t affect your painting.
How often should I clean my brushes?
Watercolor brushes should be cleaned after every painting session. Every once in a while you can do a deep clean, but there’s no need to do that very frequently.
Give your watercolor brushes a thorough cleaning if you’ve used them for other mediums. Watercolor and gouache are pretty easy to clean out, but other paints require a little more effort.
If you forget to wash a watercolor brush and it dries, that’s okay! The watercolor should still come out easily with a good rinse, or you can add soap.
4 things you shouldn’t do to watercolor brushes
There are some things that will damage your paintbrushes if you do them repeatedly.
When I first started painting with watercolor, I didn’t know much about brush care. I left my brushes sitting in my water jars, often for hours (and hours). The brushes were never the same after that, and I didn’t realize why until much later.
Once I learned why my paintbrushes were getting bent and frayed and the handles peeling, I have never left a brush sitting in water since!
This brings us to the first item in a list of things you shouldn’t do to watercolor brushes:
- Never leave watercolor brushes sitting in water. The bristles will become bent, start splaying outwards, and lose any pointed tip they once had, and the wooden handles will peel and crack. It can even cause bristles or the handle to loosen and fall out over time.
- Don’t use your good brushes for scrubbing. Try to only use a designated brush for scrubbing paint pans or paper, one that you don’t care about as much. It’s hard to get paint out of small pans without being rough on a brush, so if possible, use a palette with larger pans/wells.
- Don’t store paintbrushes with bristles up while wet. If you do, water will get down inside the ferrule (metal part) of the brush and and loosen the bristles or handle over time.
- Try not to use watercolor brushes for anything other than watercolor painting. Using watercolor paintbrushes for other art mediums can age the brushes faster, especially masking fluid which damages brushes. (Gouache is okay since it’s similar to watercolor.)
Some people say you shouldn’t put your brush in water past the metal ferrule so the wooden handle doesn’t get wet at all. It’s a good idea, but I don’t usually pay attention to that while I’m painting!
I think it’s better to use up art supplies and enjoy creating than it is to keep them nice and not make anything. So while it’s best to take good care of paintbrushes, it’s really up to you how particular you want to be.
How to store watercolor paintbrushes
When a paintbrush has been cleaned and is still wet, keep it lying flat or hanging with the bristles facing down until it’s totally dry.
Once a watercolor brush is dry, you can store it any way you want. Just make sure the bristles won’t get bent or damaged. You could store them lying flat, hanging, or standing upright in a cup.
I store most of my paintbrushes in a jar. It looks nice, and I like having them all out where I can see them and find them easily.
Brush roll-up cases are a great way to store them, too, like this paintbrush roll organizer on Amazon.
Here are some ideas for where to store watercolor paintbrushes:
- Pen organizer
- Brush stand
- Brush roll
- Box or container
- Pegboard hangers
Do a search on Pinterest and you’ll see all kinds of ideas for how to store watercolor supplies!
Keep in mind that brushes will collect dust if they aren’t used very often. I would brush dust out and rinse the brush well before using if that’s the case.
If you’re traveling with paintbrushes or just want to make sure the tips are protected, use the plastic tubes the brushes came with (if you saved those).
It’s a good idea to keep the plastic sleeves on delicate detail brushes when you’re not using them to protect the tips, too.
Why new paintbrushes are hard
It’s totally normal for a new watercolor brush to have stiff bristles that are stuck together. This is because of a protective, glue-like substance applied by manufacturers to hold the shape of paintbrush bristles during shipping.
All you have to do is swish the brush in water until the bristles soften. This may take a few minutes, but once the brush is soft and flexible, it’s ready to use. You could also use your fingers to help rub the glue out to speed up the process.
Not all paintbrushes are hard when you buy them. Individual brushes found in art stores might not have anything over the bristles at all, but for the ones that do, you’ll have to wash it out before you start painting.
Watercolor brush care is pretty easy once you get into the right habits.
I’m sure we all rough up our paintbrushes at some point, but if you try to follow these tips and care for your watercolor brushes, they will last you for a long, long time.
Save this post so you can reference it later!