Washing Brushes for Oil Painting

Over time how I care for my brushes has evolved to what I feel is the most efficient while minimizing damage done to the brush. Long story short, my process is this:

  • Use a paper towel to wipe excess paint from the brush.
  • Optional: Rinse the brush in *oil* not mineral spirits or turpentine.
  • Lather-Rinse-Repeat with a simple white bar soap until all color is removed.
  • Gently squeeze excess water from brush and dry flat on a paper towel.

For those who want to know more, here's a longer explanation of each step, why I do or do not use certain products, what I do outside of cleaning to help keep brushes in good shape and prevent problems, and what you can do to try and salvage a brush with dried paint on it.

First Thing's First: Preventative Measures While Painting

One of the easiest ways to improve the longevity of your brushes is to take good care of them during the painting process. It is advisable to never use your brushes to mix paint and instead use a palette knife. However, I admittedly break this rule daily. The next best thing is to make sure you do not allow paint to creep more than half way up the hairs of your brush while painting. It is relatively easy to clean paint from the tip of your brush, but difficult to clean paint from in and around the ferrule where hairs are tightly packed together. Furthermore, paint stuck in the ferrule area causes the hairs to spread out and the brush loses its shape.

Using solvents while painting can draw pigment up into the ferrule, so I recommend only using inexpensive brushes if you decide to paint while using solvents.

If You Don't Have Time To Properly Wash Your Brushes

I don't want to be deterred from painting by thinking about how much time it takes to clean my brushes, and I want to make sure I am able to take advantage of short windows of time where I can paint. When I don't have time for a thorough cleaning at the end of a session, I follow these steps to buy some time:

  • Leave as much paint as possible on the tips of my brush AND/OR
  • Dip the brush in a slow-drying oil
  • Wrap them tightly in plastic cling wrap
  • Pop them in the freezer

While this isn't a perfect solution and it's possible the freezing process somehow causes small amounts of damage to my brushes (though I have no evidence that it does) the drying of the paint is slowed enough that I can leave them for several days before washing them or simply continuing to use them. The idea is that 1) thicker paint takes longer to dry than thin paint if I were to wipe the brushes, 2) slow drying oil can slow the drying process, 3) plastic wrap retains moisture and helps block oxygen from reaching the paint and causing the chemical "drying" process oil goes through, and 4) freezing the brushes both retains moisture and slows chemical drying.

In this situation the paint would eventually dry, but I have forgotten brushes, gone on vacation, and had minimal amounts of paint dried to the hairs of my brushes. If I hadn't frozen them, surely the brushes would be trash! Keep in mind if you do this between numerous painting sessions, that paint is curing in between freezing times, so you should try to clean them before long. Also, if you use a drying medium like an Alkyd the paint may still dry in the freezer in a day or two, so use caution.

Solvents

turpentine
oms
Gamsol

Many artists use solvents to clean their brushes, and this is a logical first choice. Solvents break down the bonds between little paint molecules which helps to rinse away paint easily. However, solvents can be harsh on brush hairs, causing drying and breakage, and possibly breaking down glue if it reaches the ferrule. Think about brushes as if you were caring for the hair on your head, and how your hair feels after being in a chlorine pool, and this will make sense. I've found this to be true of all solvents including turpentine, OMS, Gamsol, Turpenoid, and Turpenoid Natural.

In place of solvents, I like to use good old oil for rinsing my brushes.

Using Oils for Rinsing

WalnutOil
linseedoil
babyoil

My reasoning for using oils for rinsing is that oils do not dry or damage brush hairs. People have used olive oil to condition hair and hands, for example, and I see rinsing brushes in linseed oil as a similar idea. Any kind of linseed oil, safflower oil or walnut oil works perfectly. Another reason I like the idea of using these oils is that they are already a component of oil paint, so they do not become an additive if some is left on your brush when you resume painting. For example, Turpenoid Natural should only be used for cleaning and never for painting, so having any residue of it on the brush while painting can cause problems in the paint layer. This is something you don't have to worry about when using a simple oil.

Just how many artists like to keep a jar of solvent that they reuse repeatedly for rinsing, you can simply replace the solvent in the jar with an oil. When the oil becomes dirty with pigment, allow the pigment to settle to the bottom before pouring the clean oil above into a new container. Alternatively, simply rinse your brushes in oil leftover from your painting session.

Brush Soap

ivorysoap

I've tried numerous fancy brush soaps but I haven't liked any better than a plain old bar of white soap, like Ivory. Avoid anything that includes lotion or pumice, which can wear your brushes down. I like to keep a bar in a plastic travel soap container.

I used to start by lathering with my hands, but then I thought of all the pigments I must be jamming into my fingers when I do this. So, after I rinse my brushes I start the soaping process by swirling the brush in the soap under running water until the brush is almost totally clean. Certainly this speeds up how quickly I go through soap, but it's very inexpensive so I am not concerned. Once the brushes are as clean as I can get them this way, I finish the lathering and rinsing process with my fingers before squeezing excess water and laying the brushes to dry.

Lathering Techniques | Removing Paint From the Ferrule

As with painting, it is wise to avoid jamming the brush into the soap or doing anything that pushes the soap up into the ferrule. However, sometimes it's unavoidable if there's paint up there that needs to be cleaned out. Start by laying the brush flat against wet soap, applying pressure, pull the brush back while wiggling it slightly side to side. The goal is to allow soap to enter between the hairs with the wiggling motion, while continuing an "away from the ferrule" motion with the dragging. With soap now high up in the hairs, use your fingers to lather, making sure to get to the middle of the brush. Once you've lathered as much as you can, pinch the ferrule firmly with your thumb and pointer finger. Pull the brush back while continuing to pinch and rotating the brush. This action should help draw paint and suds away from the ferrule and center of the brush toward the tip where it can be easily rinsed.

Do finish up with a good rinse, aiming the brush tip down so that water is not seeping into the ferrule (which can cause loose hairs) and making sure to separate hairs to clean out what's inside.

Leaving Brushes to Dry

Squeeze or blot excess water with a paper towel before leaving brushes flat to dry. Avoid standing brushes handle down as this will cause water to enter the ferrule and loose hairs. Do not allow the brush to lean against anything as this can cause the hairs to bend and become misshapen.

Reshaping a Sad Brush

Sometimes brushes become splayed or frizzy with age, or perhaps they were dried in an awkward position previously, or they may have a couple stray hairs that are bothersome. When this happens, or to maintain the perfect shape of a favorite brush, wrap a small strip of damp paper towel tightly around a freshly washed brush. Make sure that the paper towel is holding the brush in the perfect shape, using the least amount of paper towel as possible to achieve this. The brush should maintain the shape well once dry.

Reviving a Brush With Dried Paint

Winsor & Newton makes a Brush Cleaner and Restorer, which I have to admit I have not tried, but I have heard great and incredible things about it. I've used other cleaners or solvents and even simple white soap to clean a brush with dried paint, and for all cleaners I recommend the same process:

  • Do your best to lather the tip of the brush in the cleaner (even if it's solid, try anyway!) and hopefully start getting things to move even a small amount.
  • Leave the tip of the brush in the cleaner, laying almost flat perhaps propping up the handle end of the brush so that the tip of the brush points down slightly.
  • Periodically check (don't be afraid to leave it for hours or overnight) if you are able to get more movement and continue to agitate the tip of the brush. The hope is that the cleaner or soap will weaken the paint, and the agitation and movement will open up more areas for the cleaner to "work" on.
  • You can try pulling the hairs apart with your fingers, just be aware that this could be damaging to the brush. It might still be better than having to throw a brush away! You can also scrape with your nails at the paint left on hairs to loosen it, or use an eyelash comb to help.
  • If paint is up in the ferrule, try the ideas above in "Lathering Techniques" to remove paint from this area.
  • Once you have done all you can with these steps, if the brush is usable follow the steps in "Reshaping a Sad Brush" to neaten the hairs as much as possible.

Hopefully by this point your brush will be good as new! If it is unfortunately still in rough shape, consider that it still may provide you some use. If the brush is at least more flexible than a stick, it might be a good brush to use when painting a rough layer with solvents, for dripping paint, or for scrubbing in scumbles. These techniques would damage a good brush, so it's good to hold onto your tired brushes for these jobs.