Every art teacher knows how painful it is to find paintbrushes with hardened paint or smashed bristles, especially when buying replacements isn’t in the plan. Teaching students how to wash paintbrushes properly can help you avoid mishaps, but what’s the best way to make these lessons stick?
We asked art teachers to share their favorite tips, including slogans, silly sayings, and more, for making sure their students take care of their supplies. Keep reading to learn some of their tricks so you can save your brushes — and your budget!
Store bristles up
- We keep brush care simple. We wash them gently with our fingers or by tapping the bottom of the sink gently under the running water and then always put them “in the cup, bristles up!” —Gina C.
- We wash with a gentle swirl in the water dish, then place in the brush container bristles up so the brush has a “good hair day.” Don’t let your brush get a headache. –Susan P.
- We always say to wash your brush like a duck swishing its tail in water. Then put them “hair in the air” to dry and store! –Natalie Rose
- Swish not smush. Hair up in the cup. The kids love washing the brushes as much as they love using them to paint. –Cheryl C.
- Don’t give your brush a bad hair day! Shampoo, rinse, and spike their hair up! –Hannah M.
- Make sure they don’t have crazy hair when finished washing! Don’t smash the brushes on your paper! –Rachel G.
- I teach them to put their brush away so that his “hair” is at the top—just like yours! You wouldn’t want hairy feet, so don’t put him hairy side down! –Beth J.
Editor’s note: To prolong the life of your paintbrushes, first dry them flat and then store them bristles up.
Give them a soak
- I fill a big coffee canister with soapy water and call it the “brush bath.” Students put their brushes in there to have a relaxing soak after using them. Then I wash them before the next class. –Melissa J.
- Create a paintbrush bubble bath bucket for students to put their paintbrushes in for easier cleanup. I’ve also spray painted the plastic ends of brushes so students see the size difference between brushes and remember to use the right size brush for the job. –Holly B.
- I teach students to give them a bath! Tickle the bottom to clean and dry with a towel when you switch colors! –Amanda M.
- They get their hair washed and then always conditioned, which brings out the extra paint kids missed in washing and leaves the brushes soft and ready to use again. I’ve also found that a soak in water with conditioner added at the end of the unit really helps to restore them. –Julie W.
- I have one sink. I have students put their brushes in a rectangular basket from the dollar store and try to get them as clean as possible in a soapy bubble bath. Then I use a bottle drying rack from when my child was yet a babe, and dry the brushes in there — saves a lot of time and the brushes do not get ruined. Also, I fill a bucket that looks like a sink and has a drain like a sink for other projects that cannot go down the drain. Not to mention having students scrape and squeeze their paint out of things so even less paint goes down the drain. –Stephanie A.
- I teach kids that no one likes bad hair days, even Mr. Brush. I say the following: “Your brush will be happy and will not frown if you store him bristles up and not pointing down.” –Bobbi F.
- Don’t leave your brush standing on its head in water — nobody drowns in art class. –Amber C.
Model, display reminders, and assess cleanup
- Repetition and modeling have proven to be the best way to teach my little artists how to maintain our cherished brushes. I start this when they are 3 years old, so by the time they are in third grade they are brush cleaning masters! (P.S. I am also a big fan of real photo examples of happy and not-so-happy brushes.) –Margaurita S.
- I do a demo for middle school kids on the procedure. Then each student gets a chance to come up to the sink, dip a brush in black paint, and show me how they should clean it and store it. It’s a test grade in the grade book. –Pam H.
- I like to use a practical approach and tell my elementary students, “Please gently swirl the brush in the palm of your hand until the water is clear. We can’t use brushes if they still have paint on or inside them or they will die and not work. If we have no brushes, we can’t paint. Please clean them well so we can paint again. I will be testing your work for a grade.” –Amber N.
- I made a short video with the “Don’t give a brush a bad hair day” slogan that demos how to take care of a brush properly. I show it in all classes every time we use a brush in class. –Kristen S.
- Of course, I demo how to clean a brush. But I also compare it to a ponytail — you want it smooth and pretty, not crazy looking. I also have a Mr. Brush poster above the sink. I have a dish drainer next to the sink and have them leave them tip up to dry so I can easily check them after class as well. –Holly P.
- I have a sign right above the sinks where they wash up with an unhappy brush and a happy brush. The happy brush is up, the other down. And I go over the procedures for cleaning and putting the brushes away to dry each day we are painting for the first week, then as necessary. –Anne N.
- I teach PreK. I have a poster with fun art brushes that show pictures beside the phrase, “Shampoo, rinse out, and spike the hair all about!” My students can remember and practice these catchy cleaning tips easily. –Lisa M.
Make it relatable
- For several years in several schools, I’ve named all of our Big Kid’s Choice brushes “Tippy the Paintbrush.” Personifying the brush has made all the difference in brush care and craftsmanship with my elementary kids! “Tippy LOVES painting with you! But he asks you to PLEASE be GENTLE with his dancing toes! He dips and dances on the paper, wipes his toes on the messy mat, then takes a bath,” etc. It’s been a great way to engage imaginations and helped me stay playful versus on a short fuse (you know what I mean, fellow teachers!). –Leslie B.
- I made Mrs. Brushes, an old paintbrush with googly eyes and painted lips. She teaches the kids the painting procedures. She also watches them and lets me know if they are doing a good job. –Nicky S.
- Don’t give your brush a bad hair day! –Marsha L.
- Treat your brush like a little puppy: Be very gentle and keep its fur nice and smooth. –Holly B.
- A paintbrush is like a ballerina — she’s always on her toes! Put her in the sink when you are finished painting so I can wash her hair. (I only have 25-minute classes at two schools, so I do the washing up.) –Amanda J.
- My students are taught to dip the tippy toes only in the paint! Never scoop like a spoon! And when we wash we lay them flat to dry. –Kelly T.
- I ask them to clean it so well that they could wipe it on their new shirt or mine. We don’t actually wipe brushes on their clothes. I do start to wipe the brush on my own shirt if I can tell that it is still gnarly and they stop me and take it back to the sink. I had a former student tell me earlier this year that has always stuck with him when I said to wash it so well that they could wipe it on their Abercrombie sweatshirt. –Dyan P.
- Lots of silly voices and comparisons. Take a dip in the water, slowly wake up the paint, soft and smooth on the paper, no porcupine brushes, and if you hear a scratchy noise on your paper that means your brush is thirsty and needs a drink! –Cailin G.
- I compare to our own showering habits. Wash, rinse, sometimes repeat, dry, and style. I have a pool noodle that they stick into holes so that I can monitor and not lose them. –Kelley S.
- “Whiskers” the brush (personified as a kitten or cat for younger students) does not like his whiskers dirty. He likes them gently washed in the water like this (I demonstrate), then he likes them nice and straight (I pull my fingers through the bristles to remove excess water from the brush). After Mr. Whiskers takes his nice bath, he is tired and likes to take a nap. I gently lay the brush flat down. I explain that when I set the brush upright the water runs into the shaft and can loosen the glue that holds the bristles, and if I leave the brush bristles down in the jar, the bristles get all crumpled. Even the older kids if I see them mistreating their brushes get a kick out of this story and laugh. –Melissa P.
- I always have my middle school students show me that their brushes are clean by swiping them across the back of their hands. If they don’t want to get a dirty hand, then they will make sure that their brushes are clean! –Pam B.
Show them what can happen
- I tell students that if they leave their brush sitting in the jar of water they will end up with something that looks like they are painting with a hockey stick instead of a nice point or flat. I also have a poster I made with sad dried-up brushes positioned by the sink to remind them how to “wash their hair.” –Lisa B.
- I teach middle school, and when we start painting, I have students draw a diagram of a paintbrush and we talk about the parts of it, what the numbers on the side mean, what kinds of marks and coverage the different types of brushes make, and why cleaning them properly and not storing them in water is important. I include examples from my “paintbrush cemetery” of acrylic dried on the brush, a brush soaked in water so the ferrule fell off, and mashed-down bristles. –Lindsey F.
- I teach high school, and they still need reminders. Murphy’s Oil Soap revives the acrylic nightmare brushes. The ones that don’t make it hang on the wall by the sink as “morbid” reminders. –Jodi
- I know it’s cheaper to share, but each student having their own brush(es) helps so much. I also demo what your brush strokes are like with a paint-ruined brush versus a well-cleaned-with-soap one. –Lisa G.