January 24, 2009

Brush Care

I've had friends complain that their expensive brushes were great when new, but that they didn't last very long, and that they felt like they'd wasted their money for something to be so expensive and have so short a lifespan. I'd always ask to see their brushes, and they all have one thing in common: they all treat their brushes like shit.

A good, expensive brush is a marvelous tool, but for Christ's sake, THINK PEOPLE: it's made of HAIR. Soft, delicate HAIR. How many ads do you see in five minutes of television dedicated to hair care? If you got ink in your hair you'd wash it, right? You wouldn't let it crust and cake up on your scalp, would you? You wouldn't let the harsh laquers and solvents in the ink toast your hair into brittle tangles, would you? And your hair grows in for free. So what are you doing letting a tiny point of hair that you paid twenty dollars for become clogged solid with hardening black chemical piss? Are you some sort of conceptual artist performing a piece about the wanton waste of money and destruction of perfectly good tools? CLEAN YOUR BRUSH!

A brush that is used correctly and well cared for can last years and years even with very hard use. These things are made of real hair from a real animal, this one, in fact,
so have a little goddamned respect for it, will you?

Now, here's how to keep your brush going like new for years to come:

First, you need to learn a little brush anatomy. You've heard about icebergs and how the bit that sticks out is just a tiny bit of the whole thing, right? The bristles on a brush are the same way. Most of the length of the bristles goes down into the neck of the metal ferrule. The secret to virtual brush immortality rests in not letting your ink get up into that ferrule. If any ink t all manages to dry in there, it will stay there forever. If it builds up, wil will force the bristles apart, causing the brush to splay apart. Once this happens the brush is dead, unfixable. I did not know this rule when I had my first brush, a perfect Windsor and Newton #5, and It's a sad thing, because I've never had a brush as fine as it was.

Before you use a brush, ALWAYS give it a swish around in your water cup. You should always have a cup of water around when using a brush. Here's mine:
Your cup should be wide enough for you to really swish the brush around. NEVER, EVER leave the brush in the cup bristles-down. It will distort the bristles and ruin the brush. Just swish it around and set it down. It's important to have water closeby because a brush must never be allowed to dry either with ink or inky water inside it. From the time you get it wet to the time you clean it it needs to stay wet.

To start drawing, wet the brush, tap it to form the point, and then dip it in your ink.

When you dip your brush into your ink, LOOK at what you're doing, and do not dip the brush in all the way. Just enough for a good load of ink. How far is far enough? Right about here:

Any lower than this and you won't have enough ink to draw for very long, any higher and the ink might crawl up the ferrule.

If you do et ink up in the ferrule, don't freak out, just swish it in water immediately, and keep doing it until you can swish it in water and have the water stay clear. It should still be just fine. Just react immediately and you won't have damaged the brush.

Keep the brush moist even if you aren't working with it, right up until you're done. Then when you've finished drawing, you must clean it.

Enter one of the best things in the whole entire world: Old Masters Brush Soap.

Fuck the pyramids or Machu Pichu. If ANYTHING was given to humanity by aliens, it's this stuff: it smells great, is non-toxic, and it's water-soluble. It gets dried oil paint, dried varnish and dried ink out of brushes, off skin and out of clothes without damaging any of them. In fact, it acts as a brush moisturizer and preserver- essentially a brush shampoo/conditioner. You can buy it in little kars but I have a huge tub of it:

And here it is inside:
To use it, get your brush good and sopping wet, like this: Now don't just go scrubbing your bristles around in it- they're delicate! You need to make sure they don't get bent in the wrong direction, or crimped under the ferrule. So pretend you're drawing with the brush, pulling it back and forth over the cake of soap, like this:

Immediately you'll see the soap turn grey or even black with ink. If it does turn black, you aren't doing a good enough job of keeping your brush wet and rinsed while working. Draw it back and forth until you build up a good gob of soap around the base, like this:

Then, with water running over it, massage the gob of soap into the back of the brush- you want to try and push it deep into the neck of the brush, to get any ink out that may be there. Then rinse it thoroughly, and repeat. You're done when the suds on the cake come out clear with no gray.

Below on the left is my Rosemary and Co. #2 brush, and on the right is my poor, dead W&N brush. You can see that the ink caking on the base is too much even for Old Masters to get out. It will never hold a point again. What do you do with a brush like that? I'll tell you next week. You don't throw it away, I'll tell you that much.

By the way, if you're wondering how I get those photos where I'm using both of my hands, I built this rig that fits onto my face:
I made it out of a raisin box and a badge lanyard from a temp job. The camera is held securely in place by straps in the front. I can access the camera controls through holes cut in the side. I see what's in front of me using the digital camera's back display. I frame my shot, set the timer, and presto, I have a me-eye-view of my hands.


B2-kun said...

This is the best pictorial review of the top performing brush cleaner in the market with a thorough explanation and clear pictures illustrating the proper brush cleaning process.

Comic Tools said...

Holy cow, may I please use that comment when I start promoting this blog soon? That's the most articulate, pithy good review of an entry I've ever had.

Anonymous said...

Very cool idea!

Cody said...

I'm not a painter, nor a very good artist, but I do enjoy a well designed contraption. Keep up the good work! -cheers

Anonymous said...

Oh dear, you look like you've been assimilated!

Comic Tools said...

Resistance to good brush care is futile.

Chari =0) said...

Wow, Matt - what an amazing post!! Thanks! I'd been having a bit of brush cleanliness issues lately. And that contraption is just awesome!

By the way, hi. I miss you! How are you doing? I decided it was time for me to spy on ya and see whatcha been up to.

And by the way...I decided to start a blog. Today.


~Chari =0)

Comic Tools said...

Hi Chari,

Still working on my book for First Second. Or should I say again working on it?- Portland caused me a large delay. For the next year I'm basically not going to be a cartoonist as far as the public knows, and then my book will come out and I will hopefully be known for that. In the meantime I'm Comic Tools guy.

Nihil said...

The last picture made me do a double take.

Anonymous said...

Not a Bad Idea!
Wash Cloth

Unknown said...

Do you recommend doing the 'conditioning and preserving' that is described on the back of the old masters box?

"step 1 clean brushes as above
step 2 leave clear lather on bristles, shape brush, and allow to dry. Shake dry powder off bristles for next use."

I'm always wary of leaving something to dry on a brush. Plus it seems like it might be a small waste of the cleaner itself. I am curious as to how exactly it would condition and preserve the brush.

Also thank you for this tutorial (and your many others) I have bought what I hope to be a good W&N brush and would not try it out until I had some of this cleaner.