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Brush Care and Maintenance

Greetings one and all. A long time ago, in a blog far, far away (hence the odd watermarks), I was having one of my maintenance days and wisely decided to take some pictures. Thus allowing me to share my tips for protecting one of the most expensive consumables we use. Brushes. Eight years later, we figured it was time to revisit this topic and update it for our older and wiser selves.

Same brush, top and bottom, one of my old ratty ones to show just how effective it is.

So in true infomercial style: do your brushes look like this? Good paint brushes are really quite expensive, each of my lovely, lovely Series 7 brushes (more on brush choice later) costs a minimum of £10. If you abuse them you'll buy them again, and again, and again. Care for them a bit and they'll last you a fair while. No brush lasts forever, (I describe them as consumables for a reason) most of us downgrade from 'A'-grade to 'B' when they lose the fine point. B-graders are for base coating and rough work. Once even these die I wind up using them for glue or sacrificing them for improvised tool holders. Until then though they get the following treatment.

After the conclusion of any project I give my 'A'-brushes a quick clean in brush soap. Truthfully, any old soap will do but the stuff in the picture above is actually designed for brushes and won't leave them smelling funny or loaded with moisturiser or what the hell ever else they put in hand soap. Treat them a bit rough at this point (but never scrub a brush forwards, the ferrule - the metal bit - will cut the bristles), really work the soap up into the bristles near the ferrule. Rinse in clean water and wipe on kitchen paper trying to spread the bristles as you go to loosen any dried paint at the heart of the brush. Good brushes form a large reserviour and it is hidden in the middle. Dry paint hides there too.

Those are nice large lumps of old paint coming out of what looks like a clean brush. It's worth doing this folks. Repeat the process a couple of times to be sure of getting everything. Finally, repoint the wet brush into a nice perfect brush shape and leave to dry naturally. It'll be like you bought them new. I also do this process if I have been using any of the paints with a slightly more tenacious pigment - looking at you Mephiston Red. But what if you haven't been doing this? What if this is the first time in a long time or you got distracted by a particularly engaging squirrel and forgot to clean your brush properly one time?

for the curious: 2 steel rulers being clamped together

 The Heath-Robinson contraption in the picture above is holding my bristles submerged-without-pressing-into-the-base in the Turpinoid brush cleaner and restorer you see next to it. There are tons of different brands for this and in addition to being a nifty paint stripper it works kind of like conditioner. Brushes are made of hair and need to be softened and smoothed once in a while just like your hair. The Turpinoid does this. a word of caution, the paint stripping effect is potent, I had it pull the coating from the handles one time, only have the bristles and ferrule dipped. I usually leave them soaking for an hour or so and then comb the bristles:

"Comb the brush?" you ask, "have you gone nuts?". Relax friends, just run the Turpinoid laden brush through the bristles of a toothbrush, a nail brush or something similar. It combs off any lingering paint that might be clinging to the bristles. Once you have cleaned it in the restorer you need to wash it with the soap like usual to finish off. I used to do this process roughly once a quarter but that's when I was painting a minimum of eight hours a day for clients. I only do this now when I've taken dumb pills and let paint build up. I know of painters who literally use hair conditioner to, well, condition their brushes but I don't trust that cosmetic conditioners won't leave weird residues on my precious bristles. My hair is free, it grows back (sorry Charlie) but brushes cost money.

And there it is. A slightly over exposed photo of four perfectly clean brushes. The 0-size brush (second from bottom) is nearing the end of its life - the point is rounding off. They are however perfectly clean! These were about a year old now, not that old, but with my being a commercial painter at that point a year old meant about two thousand hours of painting time and they look clean as when I bought them. Do this process and you'll have more money for buying models. Why? Because you won't be buying paint brushes all the damn time! Actually, that's a good point, I sometimes hear arguments about how long a brush is "supposed" to last couched in years. Well, that's not a helpful measurement. Charlie's brushes last longer than mine. Why? Because I paint a hell of a lot more models than he does. Every brush stroke is inflicting a miniscule friction insult to the bristles. They build up over time. My brushes last a few years though even with my ludicrous output. Hope this helps someone, there are other methods out there (and I'd love to hear them in the comments). This is just kind of the amalgamated method cribbed from the bits of best practice I've found out there.

But hey, while we're here... why not talk about the brushes themselves? Paint brush choice is as individual as the painter themselves. Everyone has their favourites (and will frequently defend them to the death online). Truth is, you're going to need to experiment a bit to find The One. I used to swear by Raphael 8404 Kolinsky sable. There isn't room to go into the whole "how a paint brush is made" or the differences between red sable and Kolinsky (tl;dr: different tips of different animal tail hair). But it's fair to say that sable is the high end choice. I would love to hear from vegan painters who have actually found a nylon alternative that actually works as well. I haven't encountered one yet and tbh, in such a plastic heavy hobby I'm kinda glad my paint brushes biodegrade.

Hmm, got a bit distracted there. Like I say, I used to use 8404 for all my painting. Then I was staying at the Beard Bunker and ruined a brush (sneaky bit of superglue that really should have been long dry). The local art shop didn't have the Raphaels. But it did have a brush that Charlie had been raving about. The Winsor & Newton Series 7. After having a mild heart attack at the mark-up from my Raphaels I grumpily bought it and found out that I was a better painter than I thought I was. They really are superb. Don't be confused by the Series 7 Miniature. They are for miniature paintings not miniature painting. The regular Series 7 has a better belly and thus holds more paint. Even having found my new favourite I needed to experiment a bit to find the size I liked. You see, there's no standardisation in paint brushes. A size 0 will be different from manufacturer to manufacturer. Our female painters are used to this with clothing being the same idiocy. I found a size 0 and a 1 satisfied my needs just fine. But lets here some other opinions!

Jeff asked us other Bunker dwellers to pitch in with any additional info that may help.  I don't have much to add as I'd definitely still consider myself somewhat of a novice with all this, but here goes:

 - unintentionally, on the vegan front, I happened to pick up a brush soap from Broken Toad that is supposedly vegan so that is an option for those looking along that route.

 - if you can help it, don't order your brushes online.  While I can agree that the W&N series 7 appear to be fantastic brushes, my experience with them hasn't been great having picked one up early in lockdown.  It appeared fine on first inspection and use, but the brush quickly developed problems with the tip splitting repeatedly despite numerous attempts to "fix" it using many of the techniques above.  Seems mine was made with bristles that were kinked/defective and that means the body of the brush cannot maintain itself.  I might not have picked it up buying in person, but its the first brush I've bought online and I've always inspected the tips in person otherwise so I can't help human nature making me feel wary for future purchases.

 - A brush that works for one person may not work for another.  While I agree with all the good points Jeff makes about the properties of W&N, I think I'll be returning to the Raphael 8404s in future.  I think my painting style works better with the shorter bristles of the 8404s.

 - When you think you know what size brush you want, go a size bigger.  This harks back to what Jeff was saying about the larger belly of the W&Ns holding more paint.  Its the same for a larger brush.  You'll be amazed how much detail you can paint with a good brush with a good point even if it is large, but the extra volume will mean you spend longer painting for each dip into the paint and can achieve more.

I absolutely agree with Andy's point about brush sizes. Back when Citadel brushes were of reasonable quality I used to get the vast majority of my painting done with their Large Brush as it had a decent point and a good-sized belly. These days I tend to do my basecoats with a Windsor & Newton Series 7 size 3. Detailing is done with a size 2, and micro-details like lettering and eyes are done with a size 1. Pretty much all of this lieutenant was painted with a size 2:

I find anything smaller than that dries out frustratingly quickly. That said, I don't necessarily recommend my preferred sizes for everyone; Jeff considers me a lunatic for doing detailed highlights with a size 2. I find, though, that the actual tip is the same size, and if your palette and brush control is solid, it almost doesn't matter how big the rest of the brush is - you just get longer to work with it.

Even if using an oversized brush isn't your thing, I recommend trying it as an exercise in refining your use of the palette to control the volume and consistency of paint on your brush.

I've also heard good things about the Artis Opus brushes, which sell for comparable amounts versus W&N, so if anyone's tried those I'd be keen to hear your thoughts on them in the comments section.