How to Clean Oil Paint Off a Paintbrush?

How to clean oil paint off of your paintbrush.

Why is oil paint so hard to clean up?

Once the painting is finished and set aside to dry, an artist usually is left with the painstaking task of cleaning. If you are new to painting with oils, you might notice how difficult it is to clean off your hands. For the same reason oil and water don’t mix, you can’t simply wash away oil paint by running water over it.

Oil paint is different from acrylic and watercolor which are more prevalent in schools and are cheaper to use for beginners. Since they are water based, dunking the brushes in water and soap, you can easily clean off the access paint when you need to change color. This simply isn’t the case with oil based paint.

As a painter, oil is my preferred medium, see what amazing things you can create with oil paint when you know the proper ways to take care of your brushes.

What is oil paint made from?

Oil paints are a mixture of pigment and binder. The composition of the binder for oil paints includes:
• Oil
• Wax solution-creates a matte finish (added only to certain pigments for fluidity)
• Natural resins (dammar, mastic) – affects the increase in brightness of colors.
• Additives that increase the resistance of the paint layer (turpentine, balsam, mastics.
When the paint is applied to the canvas, the binder hardens, forming a film on the surface that holds the particles of color pigment, preventing it from falling off from the surface.

Due to the ingredients, cleaning can be difficult without the right tools. But when you have the right cleaning products, it’s simple and easier than cleaning up water based paints.

Cleaning Your Paint Brushes

The proper handling and cleaning of your oil paint brushes makes an important difference in how long they last. If you do not wash the paintbrushes, you have a high chance of ruining them permanently! To avoid this from happening, let’s go over the best practices for cleaning oil paint from off your paint brush.

The proper handling and cleaning of your oil paint brushes makes an important difference in how long they last. If you do not wash the paintbrushes well before putting them away, you have a high chance of ruining them permanently! To avoid this from happening, let’s go over the best practices for cleaning oil paint from off your paint brush.

Step One: Washing Brushes with Thinner

Odorless paint thinners, mineral spirits, and turpentine are the three main cleaning fluids which are sold at craft or paint stores to clean up oil based paint. When used properly, it will quickly remove paint from brushes, hands, and painting pallet. It is recommended to use odorless products to prevent irritation from the otherwise heavily scented fumes. Because these thinners are toxic and flammable, you should keep them in a safe environment and use outside or in a room with ventilation and good airflow. These cleaners are inexpensive relative to other diluents that are sold.

What’s better, paint thinner, mineral spirits, or turpentine?

Every artist has their own preference regarding what works best for them. I have personally found that mineral spirits work very well and are the most cost effective. Odorless paint thiner which can be picked up at an art supply or craft store work just as well and are designed specifically for artist use. However, for the same price as a 32 oz bottle of paint thinner which is sold at the art store (roughly $14-16 US) you can get a much larger 128 oz container of mineral spirits from your hardware store for the same price. Even if professional artist paint thinner works better, the stark contrast of cost to quantity can’t be ignored.

Turpentine in my experience has the strongest odor and doesn’t work very well. As a result, I’ve had to use much more product to clean my brushes. If you are an artist on a budget, this product isn’t for you.

There is a lot more information regarding thinners and the best thing to do is to try a couple different types, products, and brands to see what works best for you and your budget. It is also worth considering brush conditioners and other cleaning soaps to preserve the bristles of your brushes. Again, compare each investment. Brushes eventually need to be replaced and while proper cleaning extends dramatically their lifespan, cheap brushes often times are more cost effective to replace than to constantly spend on specialized soaps and conditioners. As an artist you will learn to use your best judgement regarding what is right for you.

Just remember to buy at least a 16 oz bottle of paint thinner, mineral spirits, ect. before you sit down to paint. Having it on hand and ready to go will be crucial to cleaning during every project.

How to clean your brushes while painting:

Unless you have about ten of each type of brush, you are going to need to clean paint of your brush while painting. This can take time and depending on the amount of colors you are using for your painting, can be rather frustrating to deal with. A lot of new or inexperienced oil painters, myself included, spent almost twice as much time cleaning then painting. This resulted in spending almost an hour and a half on a project which should have taken less than twenty five minutes.

Here are several ways to reduce the time it takes to clean your brushes so you can enjoy your time painting instead.

Step One: Getting a container and cleaning screen

Since you won’t be using water to do the cleaning, you will want a large enough container to hold your paint thinner without risking it spilling or splashing over the edge when you dunk the brush. Getting a container large enough to hold four times the amount of chemical cleaner you will be using will help you keep this from happening.

You will want to place a raised cleaning screen at the bottom of your container. Painting screens are usually made from wire and sold at most paint supply stores. Alternatively, you could use a cleaning spring depending on your preference. This allows you to separate the paint from the brush by breaking it apart so the chemicals can strip it from off the bristles.

Place your container on a steady surface and secure it in place. The picture below is a good example of an inexpensive way to create a holder for your container while at the same time giving you a place to set down your brush.

Step Two: Set up a brush holder

Good painting is a mix of practice and knowing how to use different brushes to create different effects. It’s not always necessary to clean a brush before picking up another. I often find use for the same brush and color later. Having a place to stick your brush without getting paint all over is important. Above, I used inexpensive craft styrofoam. It’s firm but malleable which will allow you to use the end of the brush to create a perfectly fit hole which will hold the brush. If the foam is flakey (which is almost always the case) use acrylic gesso to paint over and seal it. Afterwards you will have a perfect little stand for your cleaning container and a brush holder.

Step Three: Brush beating rack and bucket

Drying off the brush quickly and efficiently to prevent the thinners from mixing with your paint is important. While thinner can be used to soften paint while working in layers, it can ruin the texture of your paint. To prevent this, setting up a bucket or large container where you can beat the brush to your hearts content is the perfect solution.

This is a quick drying method which rids your brush of unwanted thinner and you can go directly back into your paints.

Step Four: Use wiping pad, cloth, or paper-towel

When using more delicate or small bristled brushes, beating them dry is not only ineffective, but it can damage your tool. Setting aside a paper-towel, rag, cloth, or any other wiping pad, will help you clean off access thinners and chemicals.

As well, oil paint can be wiped off the brush rather than removed with cleaner every time. Having a place to wipe off your fan-brush, liner-brush, or pallet knives, will come in handy and save you a lot of time.

Make sure to use something inexpensive and disposable. Trying to wash paint from cloth, especially if you just cleaned off your pallet knife, isn’t going to be easy if even possible. I have found simple paper towels work the best, but you can always invest in more heavy duty material.

Step Five: Rinsing, Drying, and Storing

Giving your brushes a good cleaning after you are done with your painting is always the best practice. You should never store dirty brushes for long periods of time and if you have to put your project aside for more than 12 hours, it’s worth just cleaning the brushes off anyway.

Depending on the amount of brushes you used and their size, cleaning can take 10-20 minutes to do properly. Of course, everyone works at different paces, so it could take you longer. Every time you begin a project it is worth taking into account cleanup time so you never feel like you are in a rush.

To start the final cleaning, empty your container and rinse out the paint before refilling it with new thinner. Use the clean thinner on all of your brushes, starting with the least dirty and working up. This will preserve the effectiveness of the thinner so it works its best on all your brushes.

Once the larger portion of the oil paint has been cleaned off, you will still be left with color stains, residue, and the bristles will be whet with cleaner. A good dish-soap mixed in warm water will work wonders to help rid extra traces off the brush. While this is a good way to wash traces off of your brush, hands, and painting pallet, it’s not practical for washing large portions of paint, unless you want to use a whole bottle in ten minutes.

A simple trick to make the most of your soap is to pour a dime size of dish washing soap on your palm and move the brush in circular movements to wash away the paint. Rinse and repeat until all the paint and soap is gone.

Once you are done, beat the bristles of the brush on a clean surface to expel remaining water. Use a clean cloth or paper towel to pat the brush dry and smooth the hairs with your fingers and shape them. Leave them out to dry and hang them if possible to prevent water from getting trapped at the base of the bristles and in the cartridge. This can lead to hairs and bristles falling out more easily which will begin to cause problems while painting. No one likes stray hairs stuck in their paint.

Having the proper brushes and keeping them in good condition allows you to create wonderful paintings. Check out my gallery of oil art to see what can be done with a few good brushes.

Other Brush Care tips and tricks:

Storing a brush for latter:
If you finished painting the picture late at night and the forces for all these procedures are not left, then wipe the paintbrushes carefully, wrap them in a bag until tomorrow (don’t wait longer than 12-18 hours), or put them in a jar with sunflower oil; this will let you wash them tomorrow.

Delicate brushes such as your liner brush, are small enough that they should be cleaned regardless. A quick dip in thinner and a paper towel will clean off the access paint and the soft bristles or hairs will remain strong and preserved. You run the disk of permanently bending the bristles if you leave these smaller brushes upside down in oil.

10 More General Recommendations Reguarding Oil Brush Care:
1) Dry the excess paint with a cloth or soft cloth. For greater efficiency, you can gently squeeze the hairs with a cloth or fingers in the direction from the cartridge to the tips, while trying not to pull them.
2) If you painted with oil paints, wash that brush in thinner or any other oil. When using water for cleaning, warm water will be sufficient. Never use hot water. This will cause the cartridge to expand, making the fibers to drop out.
3) Absorb the brush again with a cloth, removing any remaining paint.
4) Gently rinse the brush in a weak solution of soap or dishwashing liquid. Lightly rub the lint with a bar of soap, then beat the foam on some surface or your palm, if you do not use any toxic solvents or pigments.
5) Wash the hair and repeat until the paint of any color ceases to wash out. Over time, the brush gets dirty, but do not stop rinsing it until you make sure it is clean.
6) Do not use brute force. Be patient and rinse the brush several times.
7) Wash off the remaining soap with warm water. Shake off the moisture from the brush.
8) Try to shape the hair with your fingers so it retains it’s shape. This is extremely important when working with fan and liner brushes which are primarily useful due to their shape. If necessary, wrap the wet brush in a tissue or toilet paper. As it dries, the paper will shrink, giving the bristles the desired silhouette.
9) Leave the brush to drain at the standard temperature of the room. Please note that it should not stand with the pile down; otherwise, the form will be spoiled after drying. Place the brush horizontally or vertically on the tip of the handle. Do not drain too many brushes together, so that they are not too tight.
10) If you are concerned about the toxins given by the paint used, or if it smears your hands while washing, wear gloves. You can also try the artistic liquid gloves for oil paints such as the Bob Ross Painters Glove.

10 Final Painting Tips and Tricks for Paintbrush Care
1) Always use separate brushes when working with oil and water-soluble pigments. After all, oil revokes the water. It is not advised to take for acrylic paint brushes that you have already painted with oil.
2) Also, use different brushes to work with varnish, plaster, and masking solutions. The latter is especially harmful to the brushes, so it is better to apply it with a cheap synthetic model.
3) Let’s talk about acrylic paint in more detail; because it dries very quickly unlike oil paint. Do not leave unwashed brushes in the air for a long time. When the paint dries on the bristles, it becomes water-resistant making it difficult to clean or impossible without damaging the brush. Soaking the brushes in water is also not an option. Otherwise, they will spoil. It is highly recommended to use a lightweight dish or plate in which you can dip the pile while the brush’s handle will lie on its rim. This will protect the lacquer coating of the handle from gradual cracking. This way, you can set aside brushes that are not currently used without cleaning them every time.
4) You should only use a pre-moistened brush to apply acrylic paint. This way, it will not stick to dry hair, forming a hardened lump.
5) There are special synthetic brushes that are resistant to acrylic paint. In addition, they are washed easier than natural ones. Princeton Catalyst Polytype synthetic brushes are suitable for medium and high concentration paints.
6) If you paint with a natural lint brush, you can modify it by dropping it in clean and fresh oil after washing.
7) Never hold the brushes in the glass with the hair down, especially soft ones.
8) Wash the paint thoroughly at the base of the cartridge. When it hardens, the bristles will begin to break in different directions.
9) After rinsing the brush for the last time and shaking off the water, smooth the hairs with your fingers and shape them.
10) Before storing the brush in a closed box, make sure that it is completely dry. In an airtight container, a wet brush may become moldy.