Cleanup and prep are my least favorite parts of art...probably to no one's surprise. We just want to do the art! However, a good cleanup regimen is going to set you up for success and help your supplies live a long life. So, it's a good idea to get into even if it's just because you want to save some $$$.
There is good news, with watercolor, it's far more simple than many other mediums!
To start off with you have an option, if you're a messy painter like me who dips between colors and contaminates them with other colors, you can choose to at the end of a painting session wash the pans out. When I do this, I just take a damp brush and as gently as possible lift of that top layer where I have contaminated it with other colors.
The next mess you'll see is the colors you've mixed up in the wells. You have a few options for this as well. If you like to come back to clean wells, you can take your rag or paper towel you were using for painting and just wipe them out like below.
Or you can leave them like I did in the image below. The next time you paint, you can refresh the color and you won't waste any paint!
OK, great, your paints are cleaned up...or not, it's totally up to you. The next part is more crucial to the longevity of your paints. Let these dry open before you close them up!
If you live in a humid climate or a climate prone to mold, closing them while they are wet can make them more susceptible to getting mold! Once paint has mold, it's hard to recover.
What about your rags or paper towels?
As long as they don't have any large glops of paint that would be easily reactivated with water, you can let these dry out and use them over again! I find that most of the time my paper towels can be reused about 3 or 4 times before they really need to be tossed.
On to the brush.
This is the most important and if you are only going to takeaway one thing from this, let this be the one.
Starting off wash it with some fresh water.
Make sure you spread the bristles to get in between them and really clean it out!
Once it's clean on your rag or paper towel dry it by rolling it and pulling it, reforming that super nice tip!
Then let it dry flat, without the tip touching anything else! If you have a way to let it dry bristles down without them being squashed that is also a great option!
If you do this for your brush you will save it's shape. The brush below is dry and has been treated the same way, it's been in daily use for about 7 months and is still in great shape!
Finally, what about the dirty water? This is a tricky one... the short answer is toss it, the long answer is, if you know it contains things that might be hurtful to the water supply, dumping it down the drain isn't a good idea. There are tons of different ways to do this. One way is to let the water evaporate and then just clean the sludge with a paper towel you were going to throw away anyways.
I hope this helps!
Prefer to see me do it? Here's a vide that will show all these steps.