Thursday, March 14, 2013

Paintbrush care, and practical tips for easy painting cleanup

A conversation last night in a Facebook Art Teachers group has sparked this post, which I have intended to write for, like, at least a year.  So now is the time!  I've actually addressed the topic of cleanup before, but some of you may not have ever seen the older posts, and I'll give more detail here anyhow.

I'll start with some of my procedures for practical paintbrush use and care.  After spending 36 years teaching art, I feel well-qualified to address this topic, and hopefully offer you some helpful tips.  But like with a lot of other things, you will find that my procedures are often different from what is typical.  Over the years I have learned from others, and from trial and error, but in the end, I march to my own drummer and have trusted my instincts to figure out what works best, at least for me.  And lest you say "I think I've seen these images before", let me tell you that they all have appeared in prior blog posts over the almost three years I've had this blog. 

So the original question on Facebook had to do with painting procedures and water at the table.  I have seen a lot of blog posts where teachers are left with a sinkful of dirty, loaded paintbrushes at the end of the day.  Eek!!   Hopefully my suggestions will help prevent that situation.

If you look at the 4th grade paintings to the left (painted on 18"x24" white paper) from a still life setup, while studying Matisse), I think you will agree the colors are clear, not muddy. You'll notice the edges of the papers are unpainted.  More about that later.

The students set themselves up with water bowls between them, or sometimes had their own.  For my Royal Big Kid paintbrushes (which I love, but have short handles), I favor water bowls that have a wide bottom so they don't easily tip, and that are not too tall.  I don't want the brushes to fall into the water.  Also between the kids were what we fondly called our "ugly sponges".  These were shaped differently from the sponges we cleaned the tables with, so there's no confusion.  The ugly sponges have one purpose - removing extra paint from a brush.  From kindergarten up, the students were taught to "wipe, wash, wipe".  In other words, after using one color, the brush is wiped on the ugly sponge (or newspaper, or paper towel, depending on the circumstance) to remove excess paint, then washed with an up and down motion in the water bowl, touching the bottom.  We called this the washing machine.  It prevents the stirring that knocks water bowls over or causes splashing, and gets the paint off really well.  Then the brush was wiped again, to remove excess water before dipping in another color.  This really helps to prevent color contamination when painting with a new color, and helps to keep those yellow and whites pure and clean!

For this particular project, the students also each had one of those black dishes from diet TV dinners to use as a mixing palette.  A staff member donated hundreds of them to me!  A selection of paint colors (red, yellow, blue, turquoise, magenta,  and white) were placed in solo cups, on a large tray on my circular center table.  Each color had a pop stick in it.  Students would take their palettes to the paint table, use the pop stick to scoop some color, and then use their brush to mix.  Letting the students mix this way gave them a broad range of lively color choices, rather than colors straight from the bottle, and they had to figure out how to get what they needed, based, of course, on past learning.  Note that depending on the project, sometimes paints were placed at every table, but the central table was often used when students were making a lot of individual choices and I didn't want a dish of every color at every table. 

At the end of the class, students gave their brushes a final wipe/wash/wipe and they were collected in a bucket that had a couple of inches of soapy water.  Two kids took that bucket to the sink and gave the brushes a final wash (they usually were very clean at this point anyhow).

 My classes were 40 minutes long.  But  maybe yours are only a 1/2 hour.  If you use  the method I've described, I doubt you'll have time to have kids give the brushes the final wash at the end of class.  But that's OK.  With this system you are left with a bucket of almost clean brushes, rather than a sinkful of dirty ones, and that final wash will just take a few minutes at the end of your day.  Give it a try.

Now here's where I did something really different.  I'll bet you, at this point, now return the brushes to a container, with their brushes pointing up.  Of course you don't want them brush down, because we know they get a terrible case of "bed-head"!  But you don't really want them brush up, either, because the water seeps into the ferrule of the brush and eventually causes the glue to loosen and the brush to fall apart.  This has happened to you, right?  In an ideal world, you would hang the brushes so the tips dripped downward, but who has a way to do that??!  So, I covered an old cafeteria tray with a padding of newspapers, and the cleaned brushes, with their brush tips nicely shaped and smoothed, were placed on the newspaper padding to dry.  This way the tips stay nicely shaped, and the water does not seep into the ferrule.  The brushes will last longer.  If the next class is also painting, they can select brushes right off the newspaper to use.  The next day there is always a kid who wants to sort the dry brushes and put them back in the container.  Works like a charm!!

Meanwhile, those dirty palettes...  My room had a 'sloppy sink', and we collected them all in there and filled it with soapy water.  But this could also be done in a big basin, if no sink is available.  Later, there is usually a bored kid who loves to rinse them off and put them on the dish drainer (thank you, dollar store) to dry.  If we are using acrylic paints and not tempera, we simply let the paint dry in the palettes, and do NOT wash them.  The dry paint can be peeled off!  The kids fight for the chance to peel them! 

Now lets say the kids were painting with bigger bristle brushes.  My favorite water containers for these longer handled brushes, again to share with two kids, were empty Kool-Aid containers, which are pretty stable and curve inward at the top, which means drips go inside and not outside!   
The paintings above had no black in them, but I do love black paint, especially for outlining.  But one dip in a dish of black can contaminate the rest of the colors at the table.  So I taught kids that if they chose to use black, they needed to wipe the brush, then take it to the sink and give it a good shampoo before dipping in another color!  Unless, of course, everyone is using black.  Then there is a bucket for collecting just paintbrushes used for black.  Believe me, this really helps!  By the way, if we used black tempera for outlining, I usually premixed it with a little water to get it just the right consistency to outline smoothly but still maintain its blackness. 

 Sometimes, an 'alternative paintbrush' will make your life so much easier, and give the kids a fun tactile experience.  The kindergarten rainbow and pussywillow paintings above were done with fingerprints.  No brushes to wash, just hands!  The first grade lilacs were painted with long-handled Q-tips.  Disposable!

Sometimes, you can make your life easier by painting with just one, or a few colors at a time.  In the pop art paintings below, each table had only variations of one color.  No wiping and washing was needed at all!  One water bucket was placed on each table, and all the brushes started and finished class in that bucket.  The next class came in and used the same brushes, and the final wash didn't need to happen until the last class left the room.  Big time saver!!!  In the paintings below, students selected their table to paint their checkerboard and and circle (on a different piece of paper, which was cut out and glued on when dry) depending on their color preference.  The black paint was done on a different day, where everyone used just black. 


 Same thing here.  One day only warm colors were available, one color at each table, and the next class was just cool colors.  The black again was done last. 
 In the buildings below, an assortment of warm colors were placed at each table on the first painting day (students chose to paint either the sky or buildings) and the cool colors were done in another class period.  Yet again, black was added last.  In both the Andy Warhol cat painting and the Lichtenstein paintings below, all yellow was painted first, then reds, then blues.  Once a student left the yellow paint, they were not allowed to return to it!  As a result, the yellow paint remained clean.  Yeah!!  The dots on the Lichtensteins were done with those Q-tips again, and of course, the black outline was done last, and was also painted with Q-tips. 

Regarding table cleaning - to the left is a tower of my favorite water bowls.  I'm not sure what they were originally from, but you can see a Kool-Aid container and a couple of  other random containers that were found in my room.  Kids cleaning the sink area loved to create a tower at the end of class, and it helped the bowls drain and stay dry.
  •  Sponges - Kids like to clean up, and can be taught to do it well.  I'm not saying I never had to do any cleaning, but I tried to have the bulk of it completed by the kids, not me.  Starting in kindergarten, teach them how to use sponges!  Teach them that sponges must be moist, but not wet.  Show them how to use two hands to squeeze excess water in the sink before washing tables.  In case of spills on the floor, teach them to use the sponge to scoop the spill in one scoop-up stroke, and then rinse the sponge well and squeeze it out well before wiping up any leftover mess on the floor.  Repeat as needed.  I made sure kids knew that I wouldn't get angry if there was a spill, but they had to tell me and clean it up immediately, before everyone steps in it and spreads the mess!  I always had lots of sponges, so that kids could all participate in table cleanup. 
  • Placemats?  There were times we used newspapers under our work to keep tables clean, but generally, no.  I know many of you use 'placemats' but not me.  I found that paper under the artwork made spills more frequent. Plus I like big paper, and if you are painting on 18"x24" paper, you'd need mighty big placemats! I found table cleanup could be done quickly with lots of sponges and a bottle of non-toxic spray cleaner (that was used only by me).
  •  Borders?  So this wonderful, practical hint helps to minimize paint on tables.  Have kids draw a pencil or chalk border approximately 1/2" from the edges of their paper (for younger kids, I sometimes drew the border myself).  They are not to allowed to paint inside the frame.  This has several benefits:  First of all, if your paper isn't painted right to the edges, it will curl less when drying.  Yippee!  Second, it will give the artwork 'handles' - unpainted edges to make it easier to carry to the drying rack and keep hands clean! (Or in the case of big paper, sometimes we lined them up along the wall in the hallway to dry.  Unpainted edges means no paint on the hallway floor and happy custodians!) Finally, the unpainted edge gives the painting a nice white 'frame' for display, or a frame for decorating to give the artwork some pizazz!  I used this process for all large paintings, both tempera and watercolor, and often for smaller works too!  The tree paintings above, originally posted here, were painted on 12"x18" paper by 3rd graders, have an unpainted border, as do the 4th grade sunflower paintings above, and the 3rd grade "fauve fauve" paintings below.  The unpainted borders in this case, on 16"x20" paper, were made wider and were collaged with animal print tissue paper to complete the work.  To see a whole post on these paintings, look here.  
I hope I have been some help.  If you have any questions about specific materials or processes, please feel free to ask in a comment.  It took me a long time to figure out how to make big messy art with kids and keep my sanity and maintain my classroom, so I'm willing to share what worked for me.  And remember, with today's technology filled world, kids have increasingly less tactile experience.  They don't even play in the mud as much as we used to.  So it is our responsibility, as art teachers, to provide this tactile experience!!   Don't take the 'easy way out' with only markers and pencils because you are afraid of the mess.  Find a way to make the mess manageable, especially by teaching the kids to be responsible for cleanup and care of materials.  

23 comments:

  1. Wow Phyl! A wealth of experience here - thanks for for sharing : )

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  2. One more thing... You may get the idea here that there was a lot of movement in my art room - kids going back and forth to the sink to wash a paintbrush with black paint, or to the center table to get paint colors, etc - and you'd be right. As long as the kids know simple rules (no running, hands to self) and you know your kids, their movement for these things will save you running around, refilling paint, changing water, etc! But I should add, that my wipe/wash/wipe method keeps the water on the tables VERY clean, and you have less need to repeatedly dump and refill water containers. If this movement makes you uncomfortable with a large class, you can designate one kid at each table as runner, to get what anyone needs, change water, etc. I often assigned jobs for cleanup - one person at each table to put painting in the drying rack, one to collect brushes for the bucket, one to dump water, and anyone else to sponge the table.

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  3. This was fun to read after a "mess filled painting day!" I love having a full day of painting and leaving a clean room at the end of the day that is all ready for the Reading Teacher who uses the room Mondays and Tuesdays. Today was really the best because my last class of 2nd graders could hire out to be professional room cleaners!! All I had to do was a final rinse of brushes. They put away the paints, the glue cups, the pencil baskets, dumped the buckets of washing water and sponged down all the tables. I LOVE these kids!!!!

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    1. Isn't it amazing how kids love to clean?! I believe we do kids a disservice when we don't give them the responsibility of cleaning up after themselves.

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  4. I read this post the other day and enjoyed it.

    This is an aside. I left my iPad at school today and so there will be no Words with Jan this weekend. = /

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    1. I'd go crazy all weekend without my iPad! WWF withdrawal!!

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  5. Thank you for the insight. I was using paper towels but will try the ugly sponge!! I pinned this to my group teacher board too!

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  6. Hi Phyl

    This is godsend post. NOTHING flummoxes me more than painting, yet the kids love mixing those colors, and I feel it is actually important to their intellectual growth to do so. I added tempera cakes in a stack-rack - they are very easy to handle but don't lend themselves to color mixing.
    Cheryl at Teach Kids Art has a project where the kids mix 100 colors from the primaries, black and white w/o use of water. She has them mix on a paper plate, and wipe the dirty brush on the placement. The second graders LOVED this.

    Thanks again for your wise words!

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    1. Rina, check out this post of mine:
      http://plbrown.blogspot.com/2012/03/inspired-by-klee-and-sinbad-sailor.html

      It was a fun color mixing lesson, just using tints and shades of blue, and you can see exactly how it was done. Glad I could be of some help!

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  7. I have a few kool aid containers as well for water cups. The previous art teacher before me used empty containers from the powdered tempera. I recently won a $100 gift card to Blick and I'm going to buy 6 of these water bins to test out: http://www.dickblick.com/products/shiva-plastic-brush-basin/?clickTracking=true.

    When we paint with acrylic, and we're going to be doing it for a while, I use the round palettes with the covers so that it lasts longer and gets wasted less. Then we wait for the paint to dry as well...it can clog up the sinks if it gets dumped down the drain!

    I really need to start having the kids add the borders around their paintings. Never thought about that. Seems to have so many benefits! I don't use newspaper to cover the tables either with painting projects. Like you said, it leads to more spilled water and I found that the kids were even messier with the newspaper down! The paper would shift, or hang over the edge of the table and be pulled down as they reached for the paint.

    I also really like your advise about paint brushes! I have a brush holder where they stand upright, but all the paint chips off the wooden handles. I think you're way would also better help the students see if the brushes are truly clean or not.

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  8. Your post is proof positive that we can always learn something new. Thanks for sharing even with all us veteran teachers.

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    1. Thank you! That's the best kind of compliment!

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  9. Thanks for such great advice!I love the idea of the ugly sponge. I'm wondering how you store your paints? I buy the gallon size and then fill up the pint size with those colors as well. At each of my table groups I have 2 plastic shoe boxes that have milk containers filled with paint. (you know, the ones from the school cafeteria). When I need a little more paint in the milk containers, its a lot easier to squirt some from the pint sized containers than the gallon size. This allows me to pre-mix more interesting colors and have more if the students run out of that specific color at their tables. The plastic shoe boxes work great because they have lids and it helps to keep the paint moist, so I have a week or 2 before its all the way dried out. My problem is, when I add water to the milk containers, and more paint, over the course of the year, by this time, the paint is really gross and smells awful. I can't bear the thought of prepping all that paint every time we paint, but I start to avoid painting at the end of the year because of the smell. Any suggestions? (Sorry this got so long!) Thanks!

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  10. This is one terrific post!
    Though I do not work with children, I am a mixed-media artist who dislikes mess! I thought I knew how to rinse my brushes and change colors, but I think your method sounds terrific! I'm going to give it a try. And I LOVE the idea of not painting to the edges!

    Thank you for a great post!

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  11. As a homeschooling mom with no previous art experience, i just wanted to say thank you for your incredible post!!! We will definitely use most, if not ALL of your tips! Love the ugly sponge! And the paintbrush care, and the border......EVERYTHING!! Thanks so much!!!

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    1. Thank you, Lani! I love it when people find and respond to an older post, and this particular post is one that is especially meaningful to me, since it goes along with my whole philosophy that kids need (and don't get enough of) tactile, manipulative hands-on experiences in art. Please come back and visit again!

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  12. Phyl: love all these ideas, esp. the ugly sponges. Can you recommend a sponge brand or type? What size (approx.) are the sponges? And two kids share one sponge between them- is that correct? I've tried a few different sponges in the art room before and they all seem to disintegrate/crumble pretty fast... Thanks again for sharing all these great painting tips :)

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    1. Miss, I actually have 2 sizes of ugly sponges, both which were purchased in error and then found a new purpose as an ugly sponge! One batch of them are quite small, maybe 3" round, and I generally just used them for watercolors or small paintings, so small brushes. The others are more of a standard sponge size, maybe 4"x6" ovals, which were different than my rectangular table cleaning sponges, so no mix ups! They were junky sponges, no good for table washing at all. Get the cheapo ones at the dollar store for brush wiping and they will work great!

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  13. Phyl, I am not sure why I am just reading this post for the first time now, but it is great! Thanks for sharing your experiences. You have given me food for thought as I start my new year :)

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    1. Thanks, Kristyn. I think the post has gotten a new life due to Pinterest!

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  14. This is a great post for a new art teacher like me! I love the sponge idea. Does it get super dirty from that first wipe (The one before washing in water?) Do you wash sponges before the next class comes in? I'm imagining a sponge just covered in paint :)

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    1. Hi Krista, glad to know my post is helpful!

      To answer your questions - yes, certainly the sponges do get dirty. We flip them over and use every inch of them, and I had enough of them that the next class got a dry set instead of using the ones with wet paint. But we rarely wash them. Every once in a while, some kids would fill up a sink with soapy water and have fun washing them all, getting their hands all painty in the process!

      A couple of hints, though - if you are using big paintbrushes, you may want to use newspaper instead of the sponges, so you can just throw the nasty papers away. And teach the kids to just dip the end of their brush into the paint. My friend (and amazing blogger; if you haven't come across her yet, look her up NOW) Cassie Stephens tells her students that the paintbrushes are ballerinas and like to paint while dancing on their toes. Great idea! Plus only out a small amount of paint in the cups or whatever you are using, so that the kids can't dip the brush in too deep. If the ferrule stays clean, cleanup will be much easier.

      I hope this is helpful! Good luck! :)

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  15. I am teaching primary school( elementary school for you in the states) art for the first time - Inspite of being an art teacher and teaching for years. I am pretty excited about doing it but the thought of paint and an almighty mess (and protecting the very expensive brushes I just invested heavily in) had really intimidated me so I went looking for some help and and advice. Thanks to your post I found it! I really appreciate the time and effort you have put in to sharing your experience and wisdom. It helps us newbies to feel less overwhelmed and more confident. Thanks

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