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.



detail of 'Yellow jars'

I thought I’d share some of my discoveries as I journey further with oil painting. Maybe they will spare others having to invent everything from scratch as I’ve had to do. These posts will be filed under the new category ‘Tips & Techniques’.

I’ve been drawing and painting on and off in various media for most of my artistic life (since around the age of 6, please don’t ask how many years that is 🙂 ).  But in the last year I’ve have been working most intensively with oils.

I’ve worked with oils before, and one of the things that always stopped me from progresssing with this delicious medium was that I didn’t want to be constantly breathing in dangerous vapors from turpentine and other solvents. (Water soluble oil paints were also not an option because I really do prefer how oils handle.)

Brush cleaning breakthrough

A real breakthrough was the discovery that oil dissolves oil paints. For awhile I simply used cooking oil and then hot water and soap to clean my brushes. But that was really messy and not that effective.
This problem was solved with Balsam Turpentine Oil. It is a natural product, I can’t tell you more because the label is in German. But it smells a bit milder than normal turpentine. The company that sells it is AMI- Art Material international. I have no idea if they are on the web or even still in business.

I used to use this as a thinner to improve the flow of paint,but it still has fumes so now I use it exclusively for cleaning my brushes. And I do this in a well ventillated place far from my studio. More on the procedure later.

Medium for thinning your paints breakthrough

Then I discovered Zest-it Clear Painting medium, praised be! (no they aren’t paying me, though they should!!)! Their motto is ‘Safe solutions for artists’.

OK, Zest-it is made in the UK, and has solved all my problems of fumes while painting. It is based on lemon oil and also contains linseed oil.
(I don’t use straight linseed oil because I find it gets sticky and the paint dries too slowly.) Zest-it is gorgeous to use and also speeds up drying. I understand they have a brush cleaner too, but I think that could get fairly expensive in use.

I pour out a tablespoon in a tiny glass bowl and dip into it while painting. It doesn’t smell at all, well only faintly of lemon. Yum. A little goes a long way- I’ve been doing well with a 250 ml, around 10 euros, for at least a half year- still have half a bottle left.

So I paint in oils without having any harmful solvents in the studio at all.

More about cleaning brushes in another post