Oil paint brushes are expensive and arguably your most important tool as a painter. This post will teach you how to clean oil paint brushes.
High-quality brushes should last for a very long time if you look after them. But you need to be rigorous with your cleaning procedures as it only takes one slip-up for your paint brushes to be permanently damaged.
First, I will run through an easy way to care for your brushes if you plan on having regular painting sessions.
Hopefully, I can help you avoid letting your paint brushes get to a state like this:
How To Clean Oil Paint Brushes - The Easy Way
Having to thoroughly clean your brushes after every session can be a real hassle, especially if you paint often.
If you plan on painting again within the next few days, then you can do the following to care for your brushes:
- Give your brushes a general wipe down to remove much of the excess paint (you do not need to remove all the excess paint for this process)
- Dip the tip of your brushes in a slow-drying oil such as Winsor & Newton Safflower Oil or an artist grade poppyseed oil. These are slower-drying than the more popular linseed oil.
- Rest the brushes on a drying rack
When it comes time to use the paint brushes again in your next session, simply give them a wipe down and they are good to go.
Do not worry much about any leftover paint from the previous session. It should not be enough to significantly change the tone of your colors (unless you are trying to paint something with a pure color straight from the tube, in which case you will probably need a thoroughly cleaned brush).
This cleaning process is only suitable if you plan on using your brushes again in the next few days after your painting session. If you do not end up painting as expected within a few days, then you will need to take the more thorough cleaning approach, as the oil on your brushes will eventually dry and harden the bristles.
How To Clean Oil Paint Brushes - The Thorough Way
If you are not going to be using your brushes again for a while, you will need to thoroughly clean them after your session.
What You Will Need
- Paper towels / newspaper
- Paint thinner (recommended - Gamblin Odorless Solvent)
- Soap (recommended - Chelsea Classical Studio Professional Artist Hand Soap)
- Some old cups or mugs (or this US Art Supply Brush Holder & Cleaner)
- Oil paint brush cleaner (recommended - Chroma Brush Cleaner, or The Masters Brush Cleaner)
- Gloves (optional)
What To Avoid:
- Paint strippers
- Wire paint combs
Step 1: Rid your paint brushes of as much excess oil paint as possible
The first step is to rid as much excess oil paint from your brushes as possible. First, put some Gamblin Odorless Solvent (or whatever paint thinner you use) in a cup or jar and rinse your brushes briefly through it. Then gently wipe them down using paper towels or newspaper (I prefer paper towels, as they seem to be gentler on the brushes).
After wiping down your brushes, give them a rinse in warm water then repeat the process until the bulk of the paint has been removed.
You do not need to remove all the paint at this stage, just the bulk of it.
Step 2: Break down the remaining oil paint
Unfortunately, many people will stop after the first step thinking they got all the paint. However, after the first step there will still be a lot of paint in your brushes, even though it may not be clearly evident.
The paint will be sitting deep in the bristles and if this dries, then the bristles will harden and become almost unusable.
First, take your brushes and rinse them again in your paint thinner. Then take the brushes and individually work them on your bar of soap (recommended - Chelsea Classical Studio Professional Artist Hand Soap). This will create a lather which will get deep into the bristles. You should see color bleed into the soap.
Make sure when you are working the brushes on the soap that you are not pushing the bristles into the soap, as this will damage them. Instead you want to work in a pulling motion.
Then rinse the brushes thoroughly in warm water and repeat this process until there is no more color bleeding into the soap.
If you have used strong colors (like burnt umber or phthalo blue) then you may need to incorporate an oil paint brush cleaner into the rotation, like Chroma Brush Cleaner, or The Masters Brush Cleaner. These specialized oil paint cleaning products are amazing at breaking down the oil paint.
Step 3: Resting the brushes
Now that your brushes are clean, you should mold the tip into a neat edge and rest the brushes inverted in a brush holder. Never rest your brushes with the bristles folded against anything, as this will cause permanent damage.
I will also mention that some of the cleaning products used are very toxic, so you may want to consider using gloves. Be sure to keep all oil painting products out of reach of children.
How To Clean Oil Paint Brushes Without Paint Thinner
If you are sensitive to paint thinner, then it is possible to clean your oil paint brushes without it.
I would basically just replace the paint thinner with linseed oil. Dip your paint brushes in the linseed oil and proceed through the steps we discussed earlier.
I would also make sure you have an oil paint brush cleaner like The Masters Brush Cleaner to help remove the stubborn oil paint.
It will take longer to clean your brushes but it is certainly possible without paint thinner. The process is basically the same, but you will just need to rinse and repeat a few more times than if you were using paint thinner.
How To Clean Oil Paint Brushes - Other Methods & Recommended Practices
- Pull don’t push your brushes into the canvas. By pushing your paint brush into the canvas, you are bending and damaging the bristles. Of course, there a times when you need to push the paintbrush to get a certain effect, however, try to avoid it when you can. Instead, try to use a pulling motion with your strokes.
- Never let your brushes sit unattended for more than a day. The paint will dry and the bristles will harden.
- If you want to paint in a rough or textured style, then use your older brushes which have already been worn down. There is no point using your newer brushes for this kind of work. Leave your highest quality brushes for the finer details in your painting.
- Sometimes it is OK to damage your paintbrush if it means creating a better painting. There is no point having perfect quality brushes if it is at the sacrifice of your own paintings.
If you follow these processes on how to clean oil paintbrushes, then your brushes will have a long and prosperous lifespan.
But remember, it only takes one slip-up and your brushes will be permanently damaged. If you forget to clean your brushes and the paint hardens, you can recover them to an extent, but they will always be somewhat damaged.
However even damaged brushes have a place on your supply list, as they can be used for more aggressive painting techniques (applying stains or thick impasto work).
I also note there are some affiliate links to Amazon in this post. This means if you purchase anything through Amazon I will receive a small commission at no additional cost to you. These funds are used to maintain and grow this website.
I hope you found this post useful. If you have any tips for how to clean oil paint brushes then please share them in the comments.
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If you are new to oil painting, you may also be interested in my Painting Academy course.