Lo, many years ago, in the beginning days of Tole and Decorative Painting, one of the first lessons we were taught was what brushes to use and next was how to care of your brushes.
The only brushes suitable at that time for use in oil paints and the detail and soft blending techniques you use in that type of detailed work were sable brushes. Most of the ones available to us were Kolinsky sable, made from the tail hairs of the Kolinsky (actually a weasel) rather than an actual sable. They are often called red sable and were (and still are) quite expensive in comparison with other brushes, but we had little choice.
Natural hair brushes like this need to be cared for so they will last. Red sable brushes will remain servicable for many years when fed properly.
The first step is to clean them thoroughly in clean turpentine or other oil paint solvent. At first, this meant regular turpentine which smelled something like tar or worse, or one brand which made a clean grapefruit scented "turp". Unfortunately, the grapefruit scent was very strong and not a natural grapefruit and it made me ill. But happily, a couple of companies soon came out with completely odorless brush cleaner for oils and several of these are readily available today.
When they look clean, the brushes should be stroked back and forth gently across a bar of Ivory soap or have something like Pink Soap (a brand name) worked thoroughly into the bristles. You will be surprised at how much additional paint will come out of them. Dirty soap may be washed out with water and the brush stroked across the bar of soap again (or worked with Pink Soap), repeating until no more color comes out. When the brush is very clean, the bristles can be shaped up like they were when you bought them and stood up on their handles with the bristles upward until they are dry and stiff.
When you are ready to paint again, simply rinse the dried soap our with your brush cleaner, dry on a clean cloth or paper towel and paint! On thing to remember is that Kolinsky red sable or regular sable brushes are natural hair and should not be used in water-based paints. They will be damaged by them6.. If you forget, be sure to wash in clean water and then feed with soap as above.
Eventually a wonderful thing happened! Someone invented imitation sable brushes. These could be used with oils or acrylics. In the beginning, they tended to "splay" out rather quickly, ending up looking somewhat like a rooster's comb.
But today the imitation sables stand up rather well. They require less care and feeding. As long as you wash them out as soon as you are finished, yo won't have to feed them unless they really start to lose their shape.
One thing you can do if they start to get fuzzy is to hold the handle to the side so you don't get a burn, hold the bristles under hot running water for a few seconds then carefully work the bristles into shape if necessary. Be careful NOT to touch the metal ferrule. It will be hot & could cause a burn!
If all else fails, use them to scrub backgounds in or on barn boards and get new ones for your fine work. After all, they are very reasonably priced.
If you have questions, comments or a request for an article, please email me or join the discussion on our forum. Lots of people stop by and may have ideas or questions of their own!
If you would like to get a very good basic book about Tole and Decorative Painting written by Priscilla Hauser, I would recommend this one found on Amazon:
Priscilla Hauser's Book of Decorative Painting
And if you are wanting to get started marketing your artwork, you should definitely read this one:Art Marketing E-Book