Studio Fu: Brush Up on Brush Care | Jen Dixon | Skillshare

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Studio Fu: Brush Up on Brush Care

teacher avatar Jen Dixon, Abstract & figurative artist, educator

Watch this class and thousands more

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

    • 1.



    • 2.



    • 3.



    • 4.

      Ink: Indian and Acrylic


    • 5.

      Gouache: Traditional and Acrylic


    • 6.



    • 7.

      Oil, Water Mixable Oil, and Additional Tips


    • 8.

      Final Thoughts


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About This Class

Welcome to Studio Fu: Brush Up on Brush Care.

Studio Fu is my take on Kung Fu, which literally means “time spent at skilful work.” Studio Fu classes are short, and will help you make the most of your time, tools, and techniques as an artist.

This class is about cleaning and caring for your brushes, whether you use watercolour, gouache, ink, acrylic, or oil paints. I will show you how to clean fresh and dried paints in ways that won’t have you using harsh chemicals. Even if you only use one or two of the mediums I mention, each chapter has helpful information and tips for caring for your brushes so that your tools last and are always ready for your next creative project.

Join me in my laundry room, which is where I do my studio clean up, and let’s Brush Up on Brush Care.

Meet Your Teacher

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Jen Dixon

Abstract & figurative artist, educator

Top Teacher

Whether you want to learn new skills or brush up on rusty ones, I would love to help. I have been a selling artist for around 35 years. In my own practice I use pen & ink, pastels, oils, acrylics, and watercolours regularly. My work hangs in private collections around the world.
I love what I do, and I teach what I love. We can do good things together here, so let's get started...

About me:
I'm an Ameri-Brit (dual citizen), living on the North Cornwall coast of the UK. I've been here nearly two decades, but have lived in Indiana, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Berkshire (UK). I am studying Spanish daily with an aim for becoming bilingual. Hola, artistas.

My work covers everything from graffiti-influenced illustration & mixed media abstracts, to more traditional painti... See full profile

Level: Beginner

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1. Introduction: Welcome to Studio Fu, Brush up on Brush Care. Studio Fu is my take on Kung Fu, which literally means time spent at skillful work. Studio Fu classes are short, and will help you to make the most of your time, tools, and techniques as an artist. This class is about cleaning and caring for your brushes, whether you use watercolor, gouache, ink, acrylic, or oil paints. I will show you how to clean fresh and a dried paints in ways that won't have you using harsh chemicals. Even if you only use one or two of the mediums I mentioned, each chapter has helpful information and tips for caring for your brushes so that your tools last and are ready for your next creative project. Join me in my laundry room, which is where I do my studio clean up, and let's Brush up on Brush Care. 2. Materials: For this class, you will see me using a variety of paint brushes. Some of them with paint dried on and some of them with fresh paint. Now, we're going to go through a variety of types of paint and we're going to use different types of soap. So everything from proper brush cleaners to alternatives that you can use. One thing that you're not going to see is you're not going to see a lot of harsh chemicals because I don't like using them and I'm going to show you ways to clean without them. These little things are brush eggs. They are typically made for cleaning and cosmetic brushes, but obviously that's going to work fine for your paint brushes to. They're cheap and easy to get online. I'm also going to use combs and I'm going to use one that's just for normal hair and then this one from a DIY place for cleaning brushes. You'll also see me using paper towels as well as this paper. This is packaging paper that comes with my deliveries and I save it because it's really absorbent. 3. Watercolour: Watercolor brushes are the easiest to clean, and only rarely require a deep clean using soap. During a painting session, I keep at least two, but often four jars of clean water to rinse as I go. I tried to use one for warm colors, one for cool, and then it clean jar is a secondary rinse and maybe a spare one just in case I use metallic pigments. I'm a firm believer that a brush is a tool and you should be able to be a little bit rough with it. I often gently match my brush at the bottom of the jar when cleaning to spread the bristles. That might make you cringe a little, if you spend lots of money on fine sable brushes. I tend to buy my brushes in a mid-price range, so I'm not so precious. But here's a super tip I came up with for helping to clean my watercolor brushes. That won't make you cringe. Put a washed, clean seashell in the bottom of your rinsed jar. Then you can gently rub the bristles across the ridges to more efficiently clean your brush. If you're not near a beach, you can get shells from craft stores or eBay. You notice when I am shaping my brushes, it looks like I'm pulling the bristles but I promise I'm not. I'm just very delicately, sort of training the bristles with my fingertips. Do you only need water for watercolor brushes? No. Some paints can stain and depending on the binder used, cling in tiny amounts to the hairs. I suggest that after every painting session you use a bit of mild soap. Here, I'm using Dr. Bronner's castile soap. I use it to wash my face every night and it makes a great gentle brush soap for washing watercolor and traditional gouache. A little goes a long way too. I washed my face with only a couple of drops of it, so that much or less, we'll do nicely for your brushes too. Then gently rinse your brush; spreading the bristles to get the soap and any last bits of paint out. Never pulling on the bristles. Then you can pat and squeeze dry again, not pooling and then reshape the bristles for use next time. Masters brush soap is a versatile, purpose-built brush cleaner. A little goes a long way. You just swish your wet brush in the tub and then gently rub it around in the palm of your hand. You can build up a bit of a lather. Rinse with warm or cool water, never hot or boiling because that can damage your bristles, whether they're synthetic or natural hair. Then of course, reshaped the bristles after padding and pressing dry, never tugging and you're done. Lastly, quality shampoo. This is great, especially for natural fiber because shampoo is designed to clean hair. I had a spare bottle of shampoo in the cupboard, and so now I use it as a brush cleaner. It smells good and won't harm hair or skin. It also lasts a really long time. Great for water colors and gouache but not as effective for ink or anything thicker. Also, don't use one with a conditioner because you don't want to leave residue in your brush. As with brush soap, just pat and press to dry, reshape and you're done. If you want to reshape your brushes back to nearly new condition, that hard stuff that you usually have to rinse out when you first get a brush is typically gum arabic. It doesn't take much but if you massage a bit of that into the damp bristles and reshape it, the gum arabic will begin to harden right there in your fingertips. Before you know it, you'll have a stiff-like new brush again. Now of course you'll have to rinse that out before you start using the brush but it's great for storing brushes for longer periods of time and to help protect the bristles when you're traveling. Never use dish soap. Dish soap is a detergent, so think of it this way; dish soap is meant to degrees pots and pans. Your brush doesn't need that kind of muscle. It's best to stick with one of the milder soaps or a quality brush soap like masters. 4. Ink: Indian and Acrylic: There are loads of different formulas of ink. You can get calligraphy ink, acrylic ink, Indian ink. Well, I'm going to clean Indian ink and acrylic ink for you in this particular video. First one is Indian ink, and this is wet ink. I'm just using water to do my best to clean it up. Now, Indian ink often has a shellac base, so it will stick to your bristles. So you are going to have to use soap. There's nothing more disappointing than using the same brushes that you use with ink as you do with watercolor, and you find that all you did was rinse your ink and then it discolors the watercolor when you use it next. Always use a bit of soap with your ink brushes. Here, I'm using the PBO soap. It's got olive oil in it. It's really lovely for your brushes. Not a harsh chemical at all. You can immediately see, even just after rinsing, how black the soap is becoming with the leftover Indian ink. A lot of that stuff still stays stuck in the bristles. I'm just working it up into a nice lather. Some more rinsing back and forth. It doesn't take much. But sometimes with Indian ink, it's worth doing a clean cycle twice on your brush just to make sure it all comes out. Especially, these big moppy soft brushes. I'm just going to use that brush egg, which gives just that little bit of gentle friction. Ink is always like about a million times messier than it should be, I always think, for clean up. But there we go. Nice and clean, ready to be reshaped and set aside. Now, this is acrylic ink and this is fresh acrylic ink, so it has not been left to dry. You can clean it up just like you would the acrylic gloss when that's fresh. I'm going to use a little bit of that PBO soap that I still have on the palette knife because it shouldn't take much. Here we go, work it up into a little lather. Swirl it around in some clean water, looking good. I'm just going to give it a proper rinse under the tap, and that one's back in action. If you do leave it to dry, just follow the same steps like you would the acrylic gloss. It will come clean. Here's a brush that I've let dry with the Indian ink in it. Get it nice and wet. Try and get a little bit of water inside those bristles. Just pressing to really work some water in between. I'll use a little bit of that leftover soap that's already got Indian ink in it. It may look dirty, but it'll still work. You would have never known it, but they are not black bristles at all. A couple of cleanings and even the dried Indian ink which had shellac in it, even that stuff comes easily clean. 5. Gouache: Traditional and Acrylic: Gouache comes in a couple of different formulas, a traditional formula, and there's a formula that incorporates an acrylic binder, so acrylic gouache. Both of them can be used with water while they're wet. The difference being the acrylic gouache will dry and won't be able to be reactivated with water, so you can paint over it and not disturb the previous layer. When gouache is wet, it's really easy to clean up. So I've just wet this brush, used a little Castile soap, that's the traditional gouache and it cleans up just like watercolor. The acrylic gouache takes a little bit more effort, but not much, because it's a little stickier without acrylic binder in it. But again, just give it a rinse, use a little bit of the Castile soap and then rinse with water being really gentle, pat dry, and it back in business. If you accidentally leave gouache to dry on your brush, the traditional is much easier to clean up although the acrylics not that hard either, but with the traditional, because it is still soluble water activatable, if you will, you can use a little dish and just gently work that paint right out. Then it's just a matter of using the Castile soap again, looking good, give it a rinse and it's back in business. And you notice there's a little bit of cracking on the wood of that brush right above the ferrule, that's what happens if you leave your brushes to soak in water, so try not to be forgetful. I've left mine overnight before and this is what happens, the wood swells and then it cracks the protective enamel or paint or whatever's on the wood of your brush, it cracks that and it just peels off like bad nail polish. Here's a brush with dried acrylic gouache. The acrylic binder does make it a little bit more plasticky. But it's not as difficult as true acrylics to wash, so get a little bit wet and then your jar of water and you'll just massage the bristles a little bit, really getting that water inside and that's going to help the soap do its job. Masters brush soap is brilliant for cleaning dried paint and the acrylic gouache is not even a challenge for it. So get a generous amount on your brush and I'm just going to massage it into the bristles. So being really careful and I'm not tugging, just gently working with it and you can see that it's already reactivating the paint. So my fingertips are turning lavender, softening up nicely. So it just takes a little bit of time, this is like your punishment for accidentally letting your brushes dry so take your time. Now I'm going to use this comb, it's just a normal hair comb, but I'm using it like a little tiny washboard. It's similar to the idea of having the seashell in the bottom of your rinse jars but it just makes it a little bit easier to clean. So I'm not actually combing it because I don't want any of that acrylic binder to be stuck in the bristles and tug on them, because I don't want to pull out any of the bristles or losing them. I'm just using it like a little washboard and it's coming along nicely and almost clean. So even though that paint had been left to dry on that brush for days, it's still coming out really easily with just a little bit of water, a little bit of effort, and the master's brush soap and the brush is pretty much good as new. I do apologize as you're watching this class, I do have a really dripping faucet and it may drive you crazy during the actual videos themselves. But I promise that I always have to crank it really hard to make sure it doesn't drip and I just can't do that while I'm on camera, but I don't waste water, I promise. 6. Acrylic: Now let's talk about acrylics. Fresh acrylic paint is easy to clean. First, go ahead and wipe off gently any extra paint. I'm just using a paper towel, it's absorbent, does the job. Gently spreading the bristles that way I can get a little bit of that extra stuff from in between. But again, I'm never tugging the bristles. Then you can do a quick rinse, this is just water in the jar, of course. That does the majority of the work for you. As you can see, most of it is already out of the brush and then a little bit more rinsing just with water just to make sure that I'm getting as much out as I can before I even begin to use a soap. I'm just going to use the master's brush soap here. It works for just about everything I've found and get a little bit on the brush, work it into a lather. You can see a little bit more blue color coming out in the lather itself. I'm not being overly precious or gentle with it, but I'm still not pulling the bristles, give it a good swirl. I think that's come out pretty well. I'll just give it another swirl with some clean water in a jar just to make sure that I don't see any discoloration and the dirt. Time to blot it dry and reshape. Then I'm going to let it dry lying flat. Looks good. When acrylic is left to dry in a brush, it can be a little bit trickier to clean. Here's a brush that I've let dry. I think it's a hard bristle brush. I'm just wetting it in some water, giving it a press. I'm squeezing on it just so that I know I'm getting water on the inside of the bristles as best as I can. I'm not actually bending it around or crunching on it or anything. I'm going to dig it around in some masters brush soap, and masters is really good for this. I've brought back a lot of really awful brushes back from the dead. All I'm doing is I'm mashing and pressing that soap into the brush as best as I can. I can really squeeze it in there. I'm using the thumbnail a little bit to part some of the bristles without doing any damage. All right, scooping up all that soap so there's excess soap in this. This is way more soap than I would normally use on a brush. Then I'm going to put it in a little plastic bag. Now you can use cling film for this or a sandwich bag, whatever. I just happen to have some of these tiny ziplock bags because I save bags from everything that get shipped to me or comes in. I'm going to set that aside. Here's another one with acrylic paint. This is one of my nicer brushes and I've let it really harden. It's almost like it's just been dipped into some plastic and just left to harden, which is what acrylic paint is. I'm going to try the pebeo brush cleaner in this case. Now I've never used the pebeo on hardened brushes before. This is a little bit of an experiment for myself because I'm new to this black soap from pebeo. I'm going to do the same thing in principle that I did with the master's brush-up on the previous brush. That's just work it in as best as I can. There's no way I can get it in-between anything because it is just caked on there that paint. But I'm going to do my best, something I love about these soaps there completely harmless to your skin. You don't have to worry about them being a harsh chemical as you're really pushing it around with your fingertips. Again, another little ziplock, which, this one was a little tricky because my fingers were slippery and in it goes. Now I'm going to bind these both together with a rubber band. You notice that I'm keeping the binding and the bag and all the moisture down the feral so it's only affecting the bristles, so not any of the wooden handle. These are going to take a day or two of this process before they're going to come back to life. You're not going to see it in this video, but I promise it does work. 7. Oil, Water Mixable Oil, and Additional Tips: Now let's talk a little bit about oil paints. Here is just a traditional oil paint and this is wet. First thing to do is just blot any excess paint off using paper towels or that absorbent paper. Then I'm going to use Zest-it. I love Zest-it. Zest-it is an effective, powerful, and efficient solvent for use with oil paint, an alternative to white spirit and turpentine with a pleasant citrus orange smell for diluting oil color and cleaning brushes. I buy this stuff in five liter buckets like you can see here. Then I decant a little bit into squeezy bottles and here I'm just going to add a little bit of this Zest-it to a metal dish. Swirl around your oily brush and you can see that color just coming off really easily. Looking good. Oil paint really isn't that difficult to clean up and you don't need harsh chemicals. I switched to Zest-it because I have asthma, and so harsh chemicals can sometimes trigger an asthma attack for me. Here we are just blotting and now it's time for a bit of Master Soap. Just massage that into the bristles a little bit, and a little bit of water, build up a little bit of a lather. Just going to move my jars so I didn't get Zest-it in there, and look at that paint just coming right off. Now you can repeat this procedure as much as you need to, but honestly, I think that cleaned it really well, so rinsed and I'm happy with that. You can use a comb now that the paint's out. You can use a comb just to help straighten any bristles on your longer haired brushes. It's just a nice way to neaten things and make sure you don't have any that are kinked over inside. Now it's good to go. This is my painting container for while I'm painting with oils. It's got a little bit of a screen in the bottom and it's full Zest-it. Now it looks really sludgy. But the good thing about Zest-it is even though it's expensive, you can filter it through a paper coffee–filter or a paper towel into a new container. It takes all the sludge out and you've still got nice clean Zest-it to use, so it's pretty economical. Now what about dried oil paint? Now this has been on for weeks and is pretty rigid. Same thing, go back to your Zest-it, so I'm just using the same Zest-it I used for the first brush. It doesn't take long before it starts dissolving the oil paint, even dried oil paint. You can begin to see a color change and now it's just a matter of wiping with the paper towel and it'll get a little bit gritty but it's not so bad. Just wipe away any oil that you can. I made a little rack. This is a drying and soaking rack and it allows my brushes to be bristle side down. Without resting on the bristles, I can hold a brush in place and allow it to soak. That's what I'm going to have to do with this brush several times over. I'm not going to show you the entire process, but basically it's a rinse and repeat things. Do the Zest-it, do the Master Soap, rinse, and then if it's still not clean enough, you can go back and soak it a little bit longer in the Zest-it. You can see it's coming cleaner still. Do that as much as you need to do. Zest-it is perfectly safe. You can leave your brushes in there for a while, Zest-it will evaporate eventually though, so you want to keep it covered when not in use. Let's talk a little bit about water mixable oil color, also known as water-soluble. It's really easy to clean up. Just like you would any other oil paint, blot off the excess, but then you can swirl it in water. Here I'm just using a little bit of the Pbo Soap, so you've already got most of it off with blotting and water, look how clean it is already. Just using a little bit of soap now. Just like you would anything else, lather it up. Give that bubble a rinse, and look at that. Water mixable oils are a great alternative. Now, if you want to keep your chemicals, like your Zest-it, which I said can evaporate. If you want to keep them in an airtight container. This is a great one. It is also a brush wash, so it's got a seal, it's got a little grate in the bottom and a reservoir so they can hold extra Zest-it or solvent of your choice, and then you can seal it up. Really good solution. Now these brush tubs, I've had this one forever, but you can see how mucky it is inside. I find them really difficult to keep clean and so I really don't like using them. I just prefer to use jars, so you may enjoy using those, but they're not really something I use. Protecting your brushes is not that difficult. A lot of them come with these little plastic tubes like a straw that's meant to protect them bristles in transit. Now, it is recommended that you just throw that away because trying to slip it back onto the bristles, you're never going get it on without bending something. Sometimes when you buy a big brush like this big mama jama, it comes with a plastic sleeve that you can replace over again and keep your brushes nice and safe and keep the bristles from bending. Now, I usually keep these in a drawer where they lie flat and they are well protected. But some brushes don't come with anything, so what do you do then? Take some of that paper that you've saved or any paper that you've got and place your brush in, fold over, careful not to bend any of the bristles while you do it and leave some overhang. That way, you know that your bristles aren't going to come in contact with anything. Just tape it on and your brush is safe and now you can keep it in the drawer with your other ones. You notice that we didn't use any harsh chemicals. Obviously I have used them because my bottles are partially empty. But mostly I use them for DIY stuff, never for my art brushes. An exception would be something by an art manufacturer like this from Pbo. But yeah, this stuff is nasty. Look at the warnings on the back. I mean, it's got a dead fish on it. You don't want to use that. Goodness knows, you don't want to breathe it or get it on your skin so best to avoid those, and you saw we were able to clean everything with very common non-harmful, safer soap 8. Final Thoughts: Thank you for joining me for Studio Fu: Brush Up on Brush Care. We've covered a lot of information in a short amount of time, but I know what you've learned will serve you well in your creative practice. If you ever need a refresher, just come on back and review the chapters. With proper brush care, you'll extend the life of your brushes and save money over time. I used to treat my brushes terribly, but I've revived a lot of them over the years using the techniques you've seen, and I treat my newer brushes with the respect they deserve. It's like any other tool. Keep it clean, sharp, and ready for work. If you've enjoyed what you've seen today, I'd love it if you'd give it a good review, and don't forget to upload your before and after pictures of any brushes you revive. Also, if you've got any tips and tricks, I'd love it if you'd add them to the discussion. Thank you for joining me today, and I'll see you in a new class soon. Have a great day.