Sunday Mailbag

March 2nd, 2008 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: I just read your tutorial on inking from your blog. I just have a question regarding cleaning brushes and nibs after doing ink work. What would be an effective way to do this? What should I use? I just bought myself a brand new nib and brush, and I’m afraid of ruining them right away. I just want to make sure that they’re in good condition before I use them again.

A: Ink is a nasty thing to dip a brush into. Permanent, waterproof ink? Even with careful cleaning your brushes will only last so long, but you can make them last as long as possible with a little effort.

As far as nibs go, I abuse them so badly when I work that I go through probably 1 nib per illustration or MAD page. They are worn out and have lost their sharpness so I just toss them rather than cleaning them and keeping them. While I am working I’ll clean them if they get too much build-up on them. I just take a damp paper towel and wipe them off until I see the metal again. If they are really caked up I use an Exacto knife to scrap the ink off the upper part of the nib.

Good brushes, on the other hand, can last a decent amount of time if you take care of them. That means cleaning them thoroughly after every use. Natural hair watercolor brushes can be cleaned using simple hair shampoo. Try to find a brand that does not use heavy perfumes or conditioners. Anti-allergy shampoo is the best, as it is free of a lot of the additives other shampoos have. The alternative are those little cakes of brush soap you get at the art store. They work just fine also.

How you use your brush will make a difference in how long it lasts and how easy it is to clan. Don’t dip your brush into the ink so far that the ink touches the metal part of the brush. That soaks ink into where the brush hairs are glued into the brush handle, and the particles of ink will eventually cause your brush to expand and split at the end. Try and dip only 2/3 of the way up the hairs of your brush. That will make a big difference in how long your brush lasts.

To clean your brush, rinse it under running water and use your fingers to separate the bristles for a through rinsing. Then put a little bit of shampoo/soap in the palm of your hand, with a little water. Gently rub your brush back and forth and in circular motions on your palm, working the soap into a lather. The lather will likely be gray from the residual ink. Rinse the brush again, this time in the palm of your hand doing the same motions until all the lather is gone. Repeat. (just kidding, but it always says that on the shampoo bottles).

Now you need to “point” your brush. Half the battle of keeping a brush in good shape is to let it dry in a point, as opposed to all disheveled. With the brush good and wet, gently pull it along the inside of your wrist for a few inches while you rotate the brush in one direction. Keep the brush at just a slight angle to your wrist so you don;t bend the bristles much, but just pull them straight. That will give you a nice point. Store it upright in a cup or brush holder.

If you want to take serous care of your brushes, there is one more thing you can do. Get a small bottle of “Gum Arabic”, which is a liquid watercolor medium. Dip your clean, wet brush into the bottle before doing the pointing as described. The gum arabic is like a rubber substance that will dry hard and make your brush end solid and sharply pointed. Gum arabic dissolves instantly in water, so when you go to use your brush again, rinse it in a cup of water and it will immediately turn soft again, but it will ‘remember’ it’s point much better and sharper, and for longer, by using the gum arabic before storing.

Thanks to Patrick Dizon for the question. If you have a question you want answered for the mailbag about cartooning, illustration, MAD Magazine, caricature or similar, e-mail me and I’ll try and answer it here.


  1. eric says:

    I just picked up my first Windsor Newton Series 7 brush and I was wondering how I was going to keep it from looking like all my other brushes. Thanks for the tip, Tom, particularly the gum arabic technique.

  2. tadbarney says:

    Thanks for sharing all your photos and comments from St. Louis Tom!


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