Coming Back To Life

Time goes by fast. This year marks ten years of painting, for me. Before then, I didn’t paint at all, but since then, I have painted reasonably consistently, despite the ups and downs that life has thrown at me. I feel very lucky to have kept going, often against the odds. It would have been very easy to quit for good, at several points. Progress is sometimes frustratingly slow and the cost has been a factor.

With so little recognition and reward for your work, you often wonder what the point of it is. When I settled on the purpose of painting being to get better at it and to immerse myself in it, to escape other pressures and stresses for a while, I felt better. Colour is it’s own reward.

I have some favourite go-to brushes which always seemed to be in my kit and fitted my hand best, whenever I was trying to paint something. These workhorses have seen some action. They’ve clocked up most of those ten years of painting. Unfortunately, they were beginning to get a bit tired.


Ten years of painting means ten years of acrylic paint buildup on my workhorse brush bristles. They were stiff and becoming difficult to paint with. It was like painting with sticks. As diligently as you try to clean your brushes, there always seems to be just enough paint left near the ferrule to dry and harden. It lurks between the bristles. Eventually, there is enough of it built up that it works its way inexorably toward the tips of your brushes. This is what causes them to lose their spring and resilience. Painting with them begins to be a chore, rather than a pleasure.

It was long past time to try to clean them deeply.

A few years ago, I bought some brush cleaner and restorer, with good intentions of using it, before the brushes became unsalvageable. Whatever the chemical is, in this brush cleaner, it deforms it’s own plastic bottle, over time. What is that noxious clear liquid?


The manufacturer’s web site says: “For dried acrylic, oil, and alkyd colour, this is a non-toxic, biodegradable, non-flammable, non-abrasive, low vapour product that safely and easily cleans both natural and synthetic brushes without damage to the brush head. It is not recommended for use on painted or varnished surfaces; contact with brush handles should be avoided. Not for use with polycarbonate or other plastic surfaces.”

Here’s the link: http://www.winsornewton.com/na/shop/oils-mediums-varnishes-and-solvents/artists-care-range/brush-cleaner-restorer-4oz-bottle-bottle-3230895

I wondered why contact with brush handles was to be avoided. That seemed to be a strange and possibly irrelevant piece of information. Surely they wouldn’t catch fire or become toxic! I filed it deeply in the back of my brain and promptly forgot about it.
I was curious to find out what could possibly sit in its own plastic container and, over time, gradually deform it. A bit more searching on the web revealed these two links:

https://uwaterloo.ca/fine-arts/sites/ca.fine-arts/files/uploads/files/windsor-newton_brush_cleaner_and_reconditioner_0306081.pdf

http://colart.s3.amazonaws.com/assetfiles/91e75e8b-d2f7-4645-b632-8cf0270489ec.pdf

The active ingredient, the solvent, seems to be mainly ethanol. Vodka may work as well, if true. I’ve not tried the vodka alternative, so I don’t know for sure and anyway, it would be a terrible waste of vodka.

It was time to give my poor old brushes a good soak. The label indicated that acrylic paint needed up to twenty four hours in the solvent, so given the extent of the paint residue on my brushes, I left them in for forty eight. That pristine clear liquid eventually turned a muddy brown. Clearly something was coming out of my brushes.


I was quite careful to put only enough solvent in the bottle to cover the bristles and part of the ferrule of my brushes. However, I also felt compelled to work the bristles into the fluid, to try to release the trapped paint.


This was probably a mistake, as while manipulating the bristles, I tipped the bottle sideways and inadvertently contaminated the base of the handles with the solvent. Again, I didn’t think too much about this at the time. The action of the solvent seemed quite slow and gentle, on the bristles. A few splashes on the handle shouldn’t be problematic, or at least that was what I thought.

So what was the result?

Well, my brush bristles are softer and cleaner, but slightly splayed. This is more than likely due to the abuse the bristles were getting as I was trying to force them to bend even a little, while applying paint to canvas. The staining of the bristles also stubbornly remained.

Here is a picture of the newly cleaned bristles. Notice anything bad?


Ah, you spotted it. The lacquer on the handles softened and came off! Completely! I was down to the bare wood. The ferrules also didn’t look too good. This may have been due to the solvent fumes, but more likely my own fault, due to accidental contamination of the handles by the solvent when I was trying to work the paint out of the bristles into the solvent. I just wasn’t careful enough to heed the warning about the solvent acting on the varnish of the handles.

You live and learn.

These sad old brushes are still usable in a pinch, but the handles now feel nasty to hold and the bristles never quite came back to the state they were in, when new, if for no other reason than ten solid years of use and wear.

Being a realist, I had an insurance policy. I was aware that restoring my old brushes may have been in vain, as they might have been too far gone. For that reason, I ordered their exact equivalents, just in case.

Compare with new brush equivalents with the worn ones. You can see that many of the bristles are worn by a good few millimetres in length. What used to be filberts are now shaggy dogs and the fine tipped point of my round brush is more like a dome, now.

My big filbert (a number 6) wasn’t too bad, but not like new:


The wear on this flat brush is obviously apparent:


A long flat has a lovely chisel edge, for making nice linear marks and edges. My old brush had lost its edge:


There’s foreshortening and then there’s just plain gone:


No wonder I couldn’t see the point, some days:


Poor old filbert:


I also bought some nice new rigger brushes, for fine line work. I didn’t have any of these before. For experimentation, I also bought a curved edge long flat brush, which is half-way between a regular long flat and a filbert. That will be fun to try out.


What did I learn? It’s worth the time it takes to keep your brushes clean. Deep clean them in brush cleaner, from time to time, but use less solvent. Don’t let it build up for years, like I did.

Also, when it says the solvent is bad for the handles, they’re not kidding.

Here’s to the next ten years of painting. Maybe.

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About tropicaltheartist

You can find out more about me here: https://michaeltopic.wordpress.com/. There aren’t many people that exist in that conjunction of art, design, science and engineering, but this is where I live. I am an artist, a musician, a designer, a creator, a scientist, a technologist, an innovator and an engineer and I have a genuine, deep passion for each field. Most importantly, I am able to see the connections and similarities between each field of intellectual endeavour and apply the lessons I learn in one discipline to my other disciplines. To me, they are all part of the same continuum of creativity. I write about what I know, through my blogs, in the hope that something I write will resonate with a reader and help them enjoy their own creative life more fully. I am, in summary, a highly creative individual, but with the ability to get things done efficiently. Not all of these skills are valued by the world at large, but I am who I am and this is me. The opinions stated here are my own and not necessarily the opinion or position of my employer.
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2 Responses to Coming Back To Life

  1. Diana felton says:

    I love the way you express yourself …you are obviously not only creative in many ways but highly intelligent yet you refrain from complicated , jargon filled descriptions and explanations .
    Whilst reading, it felt as tho you were sitting opposite me in a big old comfy chair chatting together !
    Thankyou for also using some humour , i believe it is one of our most valuable allies and can be used in practically every aspect of our lives ….good on you!
    Diana x

    • Diana, thank you so much for writing this comment. It has really warmed my heart. When I write, I never know if anybody will read it, let alone enjoy it. I try hard to speak without condescension, assuming that if you write clearly, people will understand what you’re talking about, even if it’s about some obscure subject matter or other. I loved your image of chatting while we’re sitting in big old comfy chairs. That’s a perfect scenario. Thanks for making my day. This is the first thing I saw after waking and it’s a beautiful gift. Take care, my friend.

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