How To Clean Oil Paint Brushes The Right Way

how to clean oil paint brushes

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As an oil painter, you know the feeling of coming out of a painting stupor, realizing you still have to clean your dirty brushes.

Leaving them for the next day is tempting. But you’ll quickly learn that cleaning brushes properly prevents the devastation of throwing away young, ruined brushes too soon.

To save you from experiencing crispy, unusable brushes, below you’ll find out how to clean oil paint brushes the right way.

how to clean brushes

We’ll kick things off with the supplies you need to take care of your sable, bristle, and synthetic brushes. Then you’ll find outl whether or not it’s possible to bring your crunchy, dried bristles back from the grave. Finally, ending with how you can safely store solvents that release toxic fumes.

What You’ll Need To Clean Oil Paint Brushes

No matter which method you use to clean your brushes, you’ll need:

  1. A paper towel or newspaper
  2. Dish soap and warm water
  3. Container for your solvent
  4. Well-ventilated space (if using toxic solvents like turpentine)

how to clean oil based paint brushes

You can use many materials to break down paint, like solvents, linseed oil, and commercial brush cleaners.

We’ll discuss the pros and cons of these options later, but if you choose to use turpentine or mineral spirits, it’s crucial to work in a well-ventilated area since these solvents release toxic fumes into the air.

Preparing The Brushes

No matter what kind of bristles you have, before swishing your brush in an emulsifier (something that breaks down paint) it’s important to get rid of excess paint first. For example, I like to wipe excess paint onto paper towels, and then swirl my oil brushes in linseed oil.

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You can use paper towels, old newspapers, or a clean rag to wipe away as much of the remaining paint as possible. Take your time to do thorough work – being lazy at this step leads to wasted brush cleaners and a shortened brush lifespan.

After the excess paint is removed, it’s time to carefully remove what’s hiding between those bristles. Since different brushes require slightly different care, let’s talk about sable vs bristle vs synthetic brushes and how you can best care for yours.

Cleaning Sable Brushes

Sable brushes are the “neediest” brushes and require greater cleaning care than most. The highest quality bristles are soft and fine, made from the tail hair of male Siberian Weasels, but you can find cheaper varieties that come from squirrel, ox, goat, or badger hairs.

These bristles can be cleaned with solvents, soaps, natural oils or cleaners. Much like your own hair they are prone to drying out and can become brittle, but this can be taken care of with a brush conditioner, or linseed oil, that you massage into the bristles a few times each year.

To make them last even longer, store them in an airtight box away from direct sunlight to make them last even longer.

paint brush cleaner

Cleaning Bristle Brushes

Bristle brushes are made from hairs on a hog’s back and are hardier than sable. They can also be cleaned with solvents, soaps, natural cleaners, or oils. Despite your best efforts to clean them, oil paint can be stubborn and leave a residue behind.

For this reason, if you use bristle brushes for oil paints, reserve them for your oil paints only to avoid contaminating your acrylic or watercolor masterpieces.

Though they’re tougher, they’re still made of animal hair and must be conditioned 2-3 times each year to ensure longevity. After conditioning with a brush conditioner or linseed oil, rinse it off and use paper towels to reshape the hairs.

how to clean oil paint off brushes

Cleaning Synthetic Brushes

Synthetic oil painting brushes are made of polyester or nylon and don’t have the natural oils that bristle brushes or sable brushes do. They’re generally cheaper, but that doesn’t mean you should neglect them after a painting session.

To take care of these oil paint brushes, remove oil paint with an emulsifier of your choice and wash it away. Don’t leave these brushes resting on their bristles in the emulsifier for long. Synthetic bristles bend and warp more easily than other oil painting brushes and will be damaged permanently if left resting on the tip.

If you’re looking for affordable, yet professional brushes to buy check out this guide to get an overview of sable, bristle, and synthetic brushes.

how to clean oil paint off brushes without paint thinner

Cleaning Oil Paint Brushes With Different Emulsifiers

There are many emulsifiers that you can use to break down oil paints, like turpentine, citrus solvent, or baby oil. While some artists believe the myth that you must use toxic solvents, there are many ways you can clean your paint brushes without exposing yourself to any harmful chemicals.

Let’s discuss your options.

How To Clean Oil Paint Brushes With Solvents

Solvents are powerful paint thinners that are very useful during the cleaning process. Some of them are toxic when inhaled or ingested, like mineral spirits, white spirits, or turpentine. But there are other options, like citrus solvent, which are non toxic.

how to wash oil paint brushes

How to clean oil paint brushes with solvents:

  1. Pour solvent into a glass jar
  2. Swirl the bristles in the paint thinner to coat them fully.
  3. Wipe the excess solvent on the edge of the jar or cup to avoid dripping it in your studio.
  4. Gently wipe all the paint onto paper towels, newspapers, or clean rags.
  5. Dip the brush back into the solvent and repeat the process.
  6. Once there’s absolutely no tint, or very little, wash the solvent off with dish soap and warm water.

To see a video of cleaning your brushes with solvents, check out this tutorial.

How To Clean Oil Paint Brushes With Soap

Did you know you can ditch the solvents entirely and just use soap to clean your brushes? Some, like Masters Brush Cleaner are designed as brush soap, while others like Murphy’s oil soap, ivory soap, or dish soap will also remove paint remnants.

how do you clean oil paint brushes
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How to clean oil paint brushes with bar soap:

  1. Wet the bar of soap.
  2. Drag your paintbrush back and forth across the bar without pushing down forcefully.
  3. As lather forms, rinse the brush, gently rubbing it between your fingers.
  4. Repeat steps 2 and 3 until the paint is gone.

How to clean oil paint brushes with liquid soap:

  1. Pour a little liquid soap into a dish or cup.
  2. Swirl the bristles in the soap and gently massage it into the bristles without pushing them up toward the ferrule.
  3. As bubbles form, rinse away the paint.
  4. Repeat steps 2 and 3 until the paint is gone.

To watch a professional artist demonstrate this technique, watch this video.

How To Clean Oil Paint Brushes With Natural Cleaners

If you’re looking for a natural cleaner, white vinegar or Eco-solve may be your solution. Both are non-toxic and eco-friendly options.

How to clean oil paint brushes with natural cleaners:

  1. Pour your emulsifier of choice into a cup or bowl and swish your oil paint brush in the solution.
  2. Wipe the excess cleaner on the edge of the container.
  3. Run the bristles back and forth over paper towels, a cloth, or a newspaper.
  4. Repeat steps 1-3 until the Eco-solve or vinegar runs clear.
  5. Wash the liquid off with dish soap and warm water.

You can follow along with an artist in this video as she cleans her oil brushes with Eco-solve.

How To Clean Oil Paint Brushes With Natural Oils

Lastly, you can use natural oils to remove stubborn oil paint from your bristles. These include linseed oil, safflower oil, walnut oil, olive oil, vegetable oil, and spike of lavender oil.

How to clean oil paint brushes with natural oils:

  1. Swirl your dirty oil paint brush into the oil up to the ferrule.
  2. Wipe the excess paint off of the oil brushes with a paper towel, cloth, or newspaper.
  3. Continue this process until the oil is free of pigment.
  4. Repeat steps 1-3 until the oil runs clear.
  5. Wash it away with a little dish soap and warm water.

To see how to clean your brushes with walnut oil step by step, check out this video.

How Do I Know When My Brushes Are Clean?

You will know your brushes are clean when the emulsifier contains absolutely no tint, and your brush strokes come up clean when you wipe it on a paper towel, as you can see in the images below.

oil paint cleaner
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How To Clean Dried Oil Paint Brushes

We’ve all forgotten to clean a brush or two and ended up with crispy unusable brushes, but fortunately, there’s a way to remove some of the paint.

How Do I Revive Old And Hard Brushes?

You can revive old hard brushes with Winsor & Newton Brush Cleaner and Restorer. The liquid removes most of the paint from dried paint brushes simply by dipping them in a small amount of the solution.

Watch it work its magic in this video!

Your brush won’t bounce back to its fresh-out-of-the-package state, but it does a decent job of removing oil paint that’s clinging on. After you use the oil paint brush cleaner, a few bristles might stick out in different directions. Just give them a quick trim and get back to painting.

Other Common Issues When Cleaning Brushes

You’ll undoubtedly run into bent bristles at some point. If only a few are askew you can trim the unruly ones. But if the entire brush head is out of whack you can bring a pot of water to a boil, dip the brush in and rapidly remove it, shaping the bristles with your fingers before it cools.

By restoring the brush’s original shape, you’ll save yourself the headache of wrestling with untamed bristles that stick out in different directions. If you’ve tried to paint with worn-out brushes, you know how badly they interfere with your beautiful brush strokes.

clean oil paint brushes

Drying And Storing The Brushes

After working hard to clean oil paintbrushes, the last thing you want to do is ruin them by storing them incorrectly.

How Do I Store My Brushes After Cleaning To Ensure Their Longevity?

To ensure your brush’s longevity, you should store a wet brush horizontally until dry. If you don’t, you risk moisture running down to the handle, making it swell and crack.

When your oil painting brushes are totally dry, you can store them vertically, resting on the handles, NOT the bristles.

How Do I Remove The Smell Of Mineral Spirits From My Brushes?

Remove the smell of mineral spirits from brushes with dish soap and warm water.

Storing And Disposing Of Dirty Solvents, Cleaners, And Oils

After all the paint is gone from your brushes, you might have clean unused emulsifiers and contaminated solvents, natural cleaners, or oils. So what do you do with them?

how to clean oil based paint

Storing Your Brush Cleaners

If you don’t store unused solvents with a tight seal, they’ll literally vanish into thin air, evaporating away. To avoid this, ensure your brush cleaners are sealed tightly and stored in a cool, dry place, especially if the emulsifier is flammable.

Disposing Of Used Solvents, Cleaners, And Oils

What about dirty solvents, cleaners, and oils? What do you do with them?

To dispose of solvents, you can let the liquid evaporate away, far from people and in a ventilated room. Once the liquid is gone, you can place it in a sealed container and throw it in the trash. If you don’t want to evaporate the paint thinner, you can also take it to a hazardous waste facility.

To dispose of natural cleaners full of paint, let the paint sediment sink to the bottom, pour off the “clean” liquid, and wipe out the paint sediment with a paper towel. The natural cleaner can be poured down the drain, or reused, and the paint can then be tossed in the trash.

To get rid of dirty oils, you can follow the same process as natural cleaners. Except when using linseed oil, which should be taken to a hazardous waste facility since it’s a flammable oil.

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Frequently Asked Questions

How Often Should I Clean My Oil Paint Brushes?

You should clean your oil paint brushes after every painting session. If they’re left in paint thinner for too long, they’ll fray and become unusable.

Can I Use White Spirits Instead Of Mineral Spirits To Clean My Brushes?

Yes, you can use Artist’s white spirits to clean brushes if you did not use natural resins. White spirits will not break down dammar, mastic, or copal.

Can I Use Dish Soap To Clean My Oil Paint Brushes?

Yes, you can use dish soap to clean your oil paint brushes. Try to avoid highly fragrant soaps as these have added chemicals.

Can I Use Baby Oil To Clean My Brushes?

Yes, you can use baby oil to clean your brushes. Baby oil is also safe to pour down the drain once the oil paint remnants have sunk to the bottom of the container.

Can I Clean My Brushes With Paint Thinner?

Yes, you can clean your brushes with paint thinner, but do so in a well-ventilated room to avoid inhaling the toxic fumes.

Can I Wash My Oil Paint Brushes With Water?

No, you can not clean your oil paint brushes with water. Water will not break down oil paints on its own.

how to clean brushes with oil paint

Can I Use Vinegar To Clean My Brushes?

Yes, you can use vinegar to clean your brushes. Vinegar is a natural cleaner that works well on wet oil paint and can also remove dried oil paint from bristles.

Can I Use a Hair Conditioner To Clean My Brushes?

Yes, you can use hair conditioner to clean your brushes. This also hydrates the bristles to keep them from cracking.

Is It Safe To Clean My Brushes With Turpentine?

Yes, it is safe to clean your brushes with turpentine if done in a well-ventilated room.

The Importance Of Keeping Your Brushes Clean

The hassle of cleaning oil paint brushes is worth the reward of creating a beautiful oil painting. Although leaving your brushes soaking overnight is easy, it won’t serve you well in the long run.

If your supplies are in tip-top shape, you’ll have fewer frustrations when you sit down to paint, save money on buying new supplies, and create higher-quality pieces.

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