Why a paintbrush is like an Hershey Almond bar, and NOT a camel’s hair coat…

camel hairWhy a paint brush is like a Hershey Almond bar and NOT like a camel’s hair coat…

One of the most expensive things we painters invest in is the almighty paintbrush. We’ve been told, always, by instructors and mentors and magazines and how-to videos and brand brochures, “Buy the best brush you can afford, take good care of it and it will last you forever.”

Yeah, well, my opinion is that’s just a bunch of hooey being launched at us by people who own brush companies and want us to buy their expensive products. Sorry, I just do. I mean, look at it this way:

When I was growing up in the 50’s and 60’s we were told the same thing about clothing. Buy the best you can afford —  cashmere sweater, camel’s hair coat —  and if you take good care of it it will last forever.

Well, DUH!

Of COURSE it will. You’re not dipping cashmere or god forbid your camel’s hair coat in a mixture of minerals and oils and chemicals and then using a different mixture of minerals and oils and chemicals to clean it are you?

NO! You’re wearing that camel’s hair coat to an appropriate event where there will be lots of other camel’s hair coats. The minute you walk in your front door after said event you will retrieve a wooden hanger over which you have laid archival, non-staining tissue paper and then you will put the coat on the hanger and gently brush it, with the grain using a natural bristle boars’ hair brush before placing the now properly prepared coat into a not-too-overstuffed closet.

And that coat, I guarantee you, will last you forever. Far past the days when camel’s hair coats were in style, and it will end up in an up-scale vintage shop where some impossibly skinny girl in her 20’s will “oo” and “awe” over it, purchase it, and then dump it in the bottom of her closet along with her collection of beaded dresses and fur pieces from the forties.

But brushes? Come on, tell me the truth. How many painters do you know who give such thoughtful care to their natural boars’ hair brushes after a long day of painting? Oh yeah? Well, let me give you one word: ASSISTANT!

And let me give you one image that should serve to make my point better than any thousand-word essays I could write on the topic:


Lucien Freud’s studio.

Yeah, he’s taking seriously good care of those brushes, don’t you think?

This is just my way of saying, if you are NOT going to treat your brushes like a vintage camel’s hair coat, the price is NOT important.

What is important is that you like painting with the brush. It’s important that the brush performs the way you want it to, that it lays down great big fat juicy strokes when you want it to and allows you to roll it into a tiny little point for detail work, if that’s what you want.

The best way to find out what brush works best for you is to try out a lot of them, and you can’t do that if you’re paying $25 for a #2 round. Buy 6 $3 rounds of different brand and try them out. Better still, buy a $3 round, a $3 filbert, a $3 flat, a $3 bright, and a $3. fan brush and try them all out!

There are many types of artists’ brushes from hundreds of different manufacturers, each with a dozen different lines and a host of different levels of quality, from hand-tied natural hair brushes to cheap synthetic brushes made in huge factories.

Walking into an art supply store these days is literally like walking into a candy store for me. I NEVER, EVER leave an art store without purchasing at least one brush. Much as I never, ever leave a grocery store or Quickie Mart without a Hershey Almond bar. It’s a habit and I know it and its probably not good for me but I do it anyway.

hersheybarBut unlike the candy aisle where the Hershey bar just screams out at me “pick me! pick me!, the brush aisle at the art store is confusing as HELL.

So let me break it down for you a little.

There is a lot of great information out there on the web about artist paintbrushes and how they are made, the difference between natural and synthetic, the difference between price points, so I’m not going to try to recap that all here. I’ve had it in my brain once and it has all seeped out and so I’d just have to go look it up again and type it here, and that’s a waste of my time and yours. I’m also assuming you know your way around a handle, a ferrule, and a bristle, so if you don’t, google them, and we’ll wait right here for you to educate yourself. Ready? Good, ok, here are some links:

Art is Fun Paintbrush Guide
This is a nice little guide to paint brushes, written for acrylic but it will also explain an a no-nonsense way what makes different paintbrushes, well, different. (Note – the author also doesn’t buy expensive brushes.)

Artist Brushstrokes
Here is a chart showing you this author’s perspective on synthetic vs natural hair brushes. 

Answers.Yahoo also has a post on the subject of synthetic vs. natural bristles

Then there are sizes and shapes to consider. Size is rather self-explanatory – if you are making a small mark you need a small brush, right? (Unless you work with filberts, which I do, and about which I will be writing below.)

I am not going into all the shapes here either, because frankly, I think they are pretty self-explanatory as well, but I did find this nice chart by MisterArt that explains things a bit.

Seriously, I don’t know what all these brushes are really for, because I have found ONE shape of brush that does almost 100% of the work for me: the filbert.

The filbert is both round and flat and neither. It is wide and narrow and neither. It is, in my opinion, the most versatile brush out there. Meet Mr. Filbert:


Mr Filbert is a nicely shaped brush with a long handle and a long ferrule, making it an ideal brush for oil painters. (Oil painting brushes are traditionally long handled to enable the painter to stand back from the canvas while painting. Perhaps the manufacturers believe we oil painters have better eyesight than watercolor artists – who knows? But watercolor brushes are short-handled, and the bristles are softer, so don’t buy them for oil.)

The end of the filbert is not straight across, instead the bristles have been gathered into a subtly rounded shape with a flat area in the middle, sort of like what you get when you tell the nail artist “rounded, not square,” for your manicure. Even the cheapest artist-quality brushes don’t have bruises that are cut after being gathered – each bristle is hand-placed by the brush maker, which is why, when you cut your brush bristles to try to reshape them, it never works. Sorry.

The beauty of this brush is that because of the round edges you can pick up paint and roll this brush almost into a point, so if you are suddenly faced with having to place a narrow stroke on your painting you don’t have to go to all the trouble of choosing a different brush and loading it with paint again. You just roll the filbert and voila! A point of sorts.

Now obviously if you need a really FINE point you’re going to need to change brushes but 99 times out of ten you can get by with the filbert you have in your hand. Cool, eh?

I highly recommend trying out a few different sizes of filberts if you haven’t already.

OK, now, even cheap brushes should be cleaned on a regular basis, Lucien Freud notwithstanding. And here’s where I go all crazy and head-over-heals at the art supply industry because there is really just ONE thing you need to adequately clean brushes you use everyday (more about exotic brushes and their care in a later post).


As you know, the manufacturer’s of Ivory Soap, Proctor & Gamble (from my home town, Cincinnati Ohio) have recommended hundreds of different uses for Ivory Soap, just a few of which are listed on the wrapper.


In fact, I’ll bet the little artists in all of us had some fun using Ivory Soap back in the day.


But back to brushes. I’ll bet a lot of you have spent time swirling your dirty brushes around in this product:


Oh the money I have spent on Old Master’s Brush Cleaner over the years! I could replace my brush collection tenfold! But guess what? Ivory does the exact same thing!

So I’m about to save you a ton of money, and help you get your brushes really clean without hurting them.

First, every day, clean your brushes with OMS (odorless mineral spirits, or terpenoid, or whatever you are using as your drying medium. I will be typing OMS here). You should be using some kind of can with an insert in it, such as this: caninsertforcleaning

or a cleaner can with a built-in insert such as this:


(Although I have to say I despise the can above as it is really difficult to get the insert out of the can once you’ve used is say, 1000 times.)

Or, you can buy one of these jars made for silicone cleaner, just don’t buy the silicone cleaning fluid (it stinks to high heaven, anyway).


You could even use an old washboard in your sink – what you’re trying to achieve is a rather rough surface over which to draw your brush. Not TOO rough – a scrub brush would not be advisable. Some hardware cloth cut to fit inside a mason jar would work just fine.

After the end of each painting session swirl your brush around in OMS and draw it over the grid, or coil, or whatever, until you’ve cleaned the brush of most of the loose paint. Wipe your brush often, using a clean part of your cloth each time. Once the cloth looks clean, you can put your brushes away for another day of painting, IF you are coming back to the studio in a day or two.

This next part is important: LAY YOUR BRUSHES FLAT TO DRY. Some palettes have little built-in shelves on which to put your handle so that the bristles lay at a slight angle – doesn’t matter, just do NOT do this:


What happens if you toss your brushes bristle side up into a can to dry? Well, the liquid in your brush – OMS, oil, gel medium, whatever, will slip down into the ferrule, and stay stuck there. That’s why you end up getting those thickened ferrules that look like this:

dirtyferrulebrushSee the difference between the brush on the left and the brush on the right? The brush on the left has kept every bit of medium and paint you have allowed to drip down into it in that area just above the ferrule, rendering the brush practically useless.

Ain’t no way to fix it, friends. No can do. I’ve seen people try to separate the bristles with a knife and that’s going to do nothing but make matters worse, so throw the brush away or use it for some other purpose.

Instead, do this:


Either lay your brushes on the edge of a can or lay them flat on your palette with a soft cloth covering them and let them dry.

There’s one other thing you can do – you can hang them, like this, to dry as well. You can also use those little coils things to hang then handle side-up as well.


No matter which method you’ve used to dry them, I’m assuming that you have avoided the nasty ferrule collecting by not standing your brushes handle-side up to dry. So now it’s the end of a week’s worth of painting and you aren’t going to be in the studio for a few days so you want to give those brushes a really good cleaning. Here’s what you do.

Tale those semi-clean brushes that you’ve cared for all week over to the sink along with your bar of ivory soap and a clean cloth (I use painter’s rags – paper towels leave lint on just about everything, including brush bristles).

Hold the bar of Ivory in your hand, wet your brush with lukewarm (never hot – hot water will dissolve the glue in the ferrule) and start to swirl the brush around. Try not to dig the bristles down into the bar, just gently swirl in an circular motion. Rinse the brush under lukewarm water, and swirl again. As long as the suds you are producing have color in them your brush is not clean. Keep going until you have nice white suds, then rinse the brush again really well under lukewarm water.

Lay the brush down on the soft cloth and squeeze the water out until the brush is semi-dry, and lay it down, or hang it, to dry.

That’s it. That’s all you have to do. And I guarantee that if you do the daily cleaning (which takes about 5 minutes, if that) and then clean your brushes with ivory soap when you’re not going to using them for a while, you will preserve your brushes as well as if you were buying all the expensive brush cleaners and gadgets tat the art supply store want to sell you.

Oh, and a couple of other things I should mention.

dawnNever, ever use Dawn dish detergent (or any dish detergent, really) for cleaning your brushes. Why? well you know how Dawn does such a wonderful job of getting the grease out of your dirty pots and pans? Yep. It works like a charm.

But clean your artist’s brushes with Dawn and you are going to have a dried-out brush. Dawn attacks the natural oils in your brush bristles the same way it attacks grease on your pots and pans. Clean them with Dawn enough times and you’ll have a collection of stiff, dried out brushes that don’t flow well and certainly won’t roll to a point.

lavaAlso – never use Lava soap. Sure, Lava will get dried out paint out of your brushes, but the grit that Lava contains will also work like sandpaper to grind off your bristles. Wash your hands with Lava, your dishes with Dawn, and your brushes with Ivory Soap.

So there you have it. If you care for your brushes, really, this takes just minutes a day, you can buy the cheapest brushes you can afford and make them last just as long as the more expensive types.

Thanks for reading, and Aloha!


3 thoughts on “Why a paintbrush is like an Hershey Almond bar, and NOT a camel’s hair coat…

  1. christian harkness

    I love your take on the brushes – I think it is the same with cameras, and a whole lot of other things. That point is made to me every time I marvel at a great photo made with a pinhole or toy camera.

    By the way, I just finished reading ‘Man with A Blue Scarf’ and loved it!

    Aloha – have a great Thanksgiving!!!


  2. nancihersh

    Wowee Gini… lots of great info here. I have loved the FIlbert as well, these days it’s a flat, does wonderful swirls for my koi and such. as for cleaning, I use Dawn for cleaning my waterbased inks off my brayers, as for brushes hmmm… often what ever is at my sink, those these days I tend to go for the more gentle expensive natural dish cleaners. Will try to be a better girl in the new year! Thanks for sharing….


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