Scrub your hands and forearms up to the elbows in warm, soapy water for three to five minutes. Set an egg timer and sing a little song to get yourself in the zone.
2. Remove All Nail Polish.
Do you enjoy the sensation of skidding indelible, dried nail-polish marks across a 15-hour project while reaching for a fresh brush—or worse--hand brushing off eraser shavings like an amateur? You do not.
Mind your nails around works on paper.
Better yet, never have painted your nails to begin with. Remove all polish, re-wash hands, grow new nails, and never paint them again.
3. Wear Gloves.
Gloves can prevent oils from leeching from skin to paper, and protect your skin from contact with toxic chemicals like solvents, or the heavy metals in many paint pigments.
Keep half an eye on gloved hands. You may not sense when they’ve gotten messy, and risk stamping globs of paint or dust across your work.
4. Work From Top To Bottom.
Whenever possible, work from top to bottom, moving toward the direction of your dominant hand, to avoid smudging completed areas as you go.
5. Place a Paper Towel or Blank Paper Beneath Your Hand.
Place a clean, dry paper towel or blank page between your working hand and the artwork to absorb oils from your skin and soften smudging motions.
6. Coat Messy Media With a Paint Wash or Fixative.
Watercolor washes, inks, acrylics, glazes, and fixative sprays can prevent vagabond pencil and charcoal particles from drifting too far across the page.
Make sure your sealant of choice takes to your surface media and complements the piece’s tone and subject. Paint and ink washes will blur your under-shading.
7. Wash Some More.
Some of your media will inevitably transfer to your hands, so scrub and re-scrub periodically. Wash or replace any gloves in play.
8. Avoid Touching Dark Areas.
Areas of concentrated pigment are beautiful traps, pining for you to lift tone from where it belongs, and plunk it down where you want it least. Give these areas life, but do not trust them.
They may beckon your fingertips and brushes for minor tweaks the same way diaphanous grey things, disguised as desirable things, beckon gullible passers-by toward the edges of jagged coastlines. They are liars.
Do not touch dark areas with sweaty fingers. Do not touch them with dampened brushes. Do not drop water or solvent onto them from afar. Keep moving.
9. Work From Light To Dark, Transparent To Opaque, Muted to Saturated.
Work in layers, building up dark and saturated areas gradually to avoid leaving aforementioned traps on the page when much work lies ahead.
10. Erase Pencil Marks With The Tentative Care of an Archaeologist Mid-Excavation.
Pencil marks from your under-drawing should be removed with all the caution, tenderness, and patience you can muster. Eraser guards may help. (You can find these in any art supplier’s drafting section.) Breathe as you erase with the measured grace of a seasoned yogi, if at all.
Periodically clean your eraser by rubbing it over a scrap piece of paper. No smudge stings more than that of the grubby eraser turned traitor.
11. Brush Eraser Crumbs Away With Your Dedicated Eraser Crumb Brush.
This brush must never have touched charcoal dust or a wet ink wash. A humble chip brush will do, but keep it in an airtight container when not in use. A sterilized and bewitched bell jar works perfectly.
If by some unhappy accident your dedicated eraser crumb brush accumulates grime, wash and dry it thoroughly before next use. Avoid rubbing too much gross detritus from your person into the bristles. Go ahead and scrub your hands again while you’re at it.
Never. Brush. Eraser. Crumbs. By. Hand.
(Review Steps 2 & 8.)
12. Admire Your Pristine Work.
You’ve earned it.
13. Receive a Visit From The Fingerprint Poltergeist.
Walk away for like a minute.
The clone stamp tool is your friend.
Sarcasm and hyperbole aside, the low-key versions of these habits are easy to adopt, and keep your artwork tidy. I use most of these on a daily basis, though I don’t scrub down like a surgeon, my eraser brush lives out in the open on my cluttered desk, and I hate painting with gloves. (My pet media are low-toxicity. Keep the gloves on if you work with highly toxic media like oil paints.)
Presentation counts. Unless mess is a cornerstone of your aesthetic, cleanliness makes your work look more elevated and professional. If your finished work is all wrinkled, scuffed, and blorbed on the regular, this is something to work on.
That said, artists are mammals. Sometimes fingerprints and smudges happen, despite all efforts. In most cases, the end product is still salvageable, through digital edits or re-touching.
Set the best habits you can muster, but don’t stress out about them.