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Oil painting tips and techniques- cleaning brushes

March 31, 2012

Brush holder (made by Rende)

In the previous post I wrote about avoiding the use of solvents that could be harmful to breathe.

One area where I haven’t been able to avoid using these is in cleaning brushes. But I do have  a few tips for how to reduce the frequency of use.

First of all, I’ve learned through my own experience, that to keep colors pure and clean, I use a different brush for every color group. That means a different brush for yellow and a nother for red. But I still might use the red one for orange. And the brush for blue could be used for a medium but also a dark blue.

I might have 8-10 brushes in use for any one session. If I had to clean them all between sessions, I would have stopped long ago.

Storing paint filled brushes between sessions

What I do is leave just the bristles and metal part (ferrule) standing in water. My husband the woodworker made me two contraptions which hold the brushes in place at the right level in the water. (The design for them originally comes from my first art teacher and beloved passed mentor, Abe Weiner.) Rende and I worked on adapting it to my needs, see photo. Basically it consists of a wooden collar around a glass jar and some clothespins.

You can leave brushes this way for a week or two, but I still check them from time to time if I’m not getting to my painting, just to see that they are still soft and the water hasn’t evaporated too much.

Note: When ready to resume painting, wipe the wet brush off with a rag first.

Cleaning brushes

Note: March 2014 It is 2 years down the road since I wrote this post. I now hardly use any solvent to clean my brushes. I do keep a bottle of used Balsam Turpentine Oil or another minimally harmful brush cleaner and dip the dirty brushes in that to start with, I wipe the worst residue of paint out on newspaper, then all the rest is done with soap and warm water. Takes time, but works well.
I also periodically take a stack of newspapers and cut A-4 ( or 8 1/2 x 11 “) sheets in one go with a steel ruler and sharp matte knife. They are handy for little clean-up jobs during and after painting, like cleaning my razor scraper when I clean my glass palette.

I love my materials, this is a large part of the joy my art gives me, so I care for them pretty well. When the painting is done, or if I’m getting too many brushes in those jars, here is what I do.

I wipe the water off, then wipe the oil paint off as much as possible. I keep rags and a roll of toilet paper for this. Then I take them downstairs ( I don’t do this in my studio because I don’t want the fumes in there) and take out the Balsam Turpentine Oil.  See previous post. Or you could use any brush cleaner. There are increasingly more safe and environment friendly ones, so try to get those.

Now, I have 2 jars, one is for the first dirty wash (previously used). The second is for the clean rinse and is new and clear. Depending on the size of your brushes, each one could fill to a quarter to a third of a normal jam jar.  Long, slender jars work well too, you don’t have to use as much to get a layer that can cover the brush bristles.

I swish the brushes in the dirty wash and rub them out on layers of newspaper until there is as little paint left as possible, I repeat if needed. Then I wash them in the clear balsam turpentine oil and stroke them out again on new newspaper.  I may dry them further with toilet paper.

Then I have some special honey hand soap I wash each one separately with in hot water. I rub the brush on the soap as if it were paint, and rub it around on my palm until I”m sure all the paint is out.  Then I run under hot water and dry, then shape with my fingers, and they are all clean and happy again ready for a new painting.

The honey soap I got at a garden fair and I love treating myself and my brushes to its extremely soft texture and mild fragrance. This soap is handmade and very pure. Commercial soap is fine, but I wouldn’t suggest using one with built-in hand cream, it might leave a residue.

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8 Responses to “Oil painting tips and techniques- cleaning brushes”

  1. j.harms Says:

    Hi, This is what I do to clean brushes.
    If used for oil paint, rub them on a cloth so as to take off the paint and oil residu. Then use a bar of natural soap (I use “savon de marseille” ), brush them on that bar, rince, and brush again until the pigments come off, and the water ‘s clear. Dry with a cloth. Finally dip them in some vaseline so as to shape the “hairs” back. It will also keep them from drying. When you want to use them again just dip them in white spirit to dissolve the vaseline. I mostly use acrylic, so I skip the vaseline part. I never use turpentine to clean brushes. It’s a waste of money and it stinks.
    Good luck with your work

    • szoutewelle Says:

      Hi, thanks, I was hoping people would share their own working methods.
      I’ll try leaving out the terps, it would be great to avoid it altogether.

      I loved your site and your dog cartoons. Great style, cool humor and nice lettering.

  2. decorartuk Says:

    This is a very useful post, Sarah – I’ve seen it some time ago, but didn’t get round to leaving a comment. I must admit that I enjoy painting, but as I haven’t got a studio this means that a lot of time is wasted on preparation – getting everything out, setting everything up and the job that I hate the most is… washing brushes! When I’ve finished painting all I want to do is leave everything as it is… but I know that this won’t work as soon I would run out of brushes…

    Anyway, I think I will have to ask someone to make me such a clever brush holder and this might even encourage me to paint using oils!

    • szoutewelle Says:

      Hi Kristina, I think it would work for acrylics, too. My husband uses acrylic varnish on some of the furniture he makes, and he leaves his brushes standing in water for weeks (only not the wooden part). Seems to be ok. So you could find a corner to let your brushes stand in water until the next painting session and see how it works.

      There are also brushholders for sale with a wire coil to hold the brushes in/above a shallow water-filled dish. I have one but it doesn’t work well, the brushes keep popping out of the coil and flying all over the studio!

      I need to amend that post because I took the suggestion of one of the people who commented and I now don’t have to use any solvents to clean brushes at all. I do as she said and wipe the excess paint off on a rag, then rub them in soap and wash them in warm water, repeat until they are clean. Works fine so far. cheers,Sarah

      • decorartuk Says:

        Another suggestion for a post – your husband’s furniture, please. I’ve seen his pretty photographs, so I’d love to see what else he makes. You’re very lucky to have someone so creative by your side.

      • szoutewelle Says:

        Great idea! will do. I appreciate our dialogues. And yes, I do feel lucky. It is great to have someone in the creative fields to bounce ideas off of, to give feedback (ego says, ‘Ouch’), and understand my creative ups and downs. It is a little unfair though, he is fairly steady, so he’s got more to put up with on that front than I do.

  3. paintdancer Says:

    I love this idea. Thank you. I am now “following” you.

    Best regards


  4. That’s a very useful post, thank you


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