Tutorial on Maintaining Oil Paint Brushes

A painter's oil paint brushes are among his or her most valuable resources. How to properly care for oil paint brushes is covered here.  

If properly cared for, a high-quality brush can last for years. However, you must be very careful when cleaning your paint brushes, as a single mistake can ruin them forever.  

Let me start by explaining the simplest way to maintain your brushes if you intend to engage in frequent artistic endeavors.  

I'm here to help you avoid this sad fate for your paint brushes.

How To Clean Your Oil Paintbrushes

The Quick and Simple Way to Clean Oil Paint Brushes

If you paint frequently, you may find it inconvenient to have to thoroughly clean your brushes after each session.

The following are some brush care tips to keep in mind if you intend to return to painting within the next few days:

  • In order to get rid of most of the paint on your brushes (you won't need to get rid of it all), just give them a quick wipe down.
  • Use a slow-drying oil, like Winsor & Newton Safflower Oil or artist-grade poppyseed oil, to coat the tips of your brushes. This alternative to linseed oil takes longer to dry.  
  • Let the brushes air dry on a rack.

Just a quick rinse between uses will get the brushes ready for the next painting session.

You shouldn't worry too much if there's paint left over from the last session. It shouldn't be enough to noticeably alter the hues you've painted with (unless you're attempting to paint with a pure color straight from the tube, in which case you'll want to start with a clean brush).

You should only use this method to clean your brushes if you intend to use them again within a few days of your painting session. If you don't get to painting as planned within a few days, the oil on your brushes will dry and harden the bristles, necessitating a more thorough cleaning approach.

Step-by-Step Instructions on Properly Cleaning Oil Paint Brushes

Brushes need to be thoroughly cleaned after each use, especially if you won't be using them for a while.

Getting Ready: What You'll Need

Ignore These:

  • Detergent
  • De-painting tools
  • Combs made of wire for painting with

Method 1: Squeeze out as much oil paint as you can from the paint brushes.

Step one is to clean your brushes thoroughly, removing as much oil paint as possible. First, get a cup or jar of Gamblin Odorless Solvent (or your preferred paint thinner) and briefly run your brushes through it. Then, wipe them down with some newspaper or paper towels (I prefer paper towels because they don't seem to damage the brushes as much).

Once you've wiped down your brushes, rinse them in warm water and do it again until most of the paint is gone.

At this point, you need not strip away every last bit of paint.

Second, you need to sever the remaining oil paint.

It's unfortunate that many people will give up after the first stage, mistakenly believing they have covered all the paint. You may not notice it at first, but there will still be quite a bit of paint left in your brushes after the first stage.

Brush bristles that have been saturated with paint and allowed to dry will become stiff and nearly useless.

To begin, dip your brushes once more into the paint thinner and clean them. Now, use each brush on a separate piece of soap (we recommend Chelsea Classical Studio's Professional Artist Hand Soap). The resulting lather will effectively clean between the bristles. The soap's color should seep into it.

Brushes can be used to work on soap, but care must be taken to avoid damaging the bristles by forcing them into the soap. You should instead employ a pulling motion in your labors.

The brushes should be washed in warm water until there is no longer any color bleed into the soap, and then the process can be repeated.

Use an oil paint brush cleaner like Chroma Brush Cleaner or The Masters Brush Cleaner after working with intense colors like burnt umber or phthalo blue. You can't find a better oil paint remover than one of these specialized products.

How To Clean Oil Paint Brushes

Thirdly, put down the brushes for a minute of rest.

Since they are now spotless, you should shape the ends into sharp points and store them upside down in a brush holder. The bristles will be permanently damaged if you ever let your brushes rest with their folded against anything.

I should also warn you that some of the cleaning products in use are extremely poisonous; therefore, you should probably wear gloves. All oil painting supplies should be kept securely out of the reach of children.

What to Do With Out-Of-Date Paint Thinner When Cleaning Oil Paint Brushes

You can avoid using paint thinner to clean your oil paint brushes if you are allergic to it.

Simply put, I would use linseed oil instead of paint thinner. Prepare your brushes with linseed oil and continue with the process we covered in the previous section.

The Masters Brush Cleaner is a great oil paint brush cleaner that will help you get rid of any dried paint that refuses to come off your brushes.

Brush cleanup without paint thinner is possible, though it will take longer. It's the same principle as using paint thinner, but you'll need to rinse and repeat a few more times.

(Details on what I use and recommend can be found on the materials page. )

Alternative Techniques and Best Practices for Cleaning Oil Paint Brushes

  • Brushes should be pulled, not pushed, onto the canvas. You can ruin your paintbrush's bristles by forcing it into the canvas. There will be times when you need to force the paintbrush to achieve a certain effect, but you should refrain from doing so if at all possible. You should instead aim to pull the ball back with your strokes.  
  • Don't leave your brushes untouched for more than a day. Paint dries and bristles harden.  
  • Use your older, more worn-down brushes if you want to achieve a rough or textured look when painting. Do not waste your expensive new brushes on this project. Use your lesser brushes for the larger areas, and save the best for the details.
  • If it means you'll end up with a better painting, you can break your paintbrush on occasion. Having the best brushes in the world won't help your art if you can't trust yourself to use them.

If you adhere to these steps for cleaning oil paint brushes, you can expect your brushes to serve you well for many years to come.

Remember, though, that it only takes one misstep to ruin your brushes for good. You can salvage some usable brush hairs if you forget to wash them before the paint dries and hardens, but the bristles will always be compromised.

For more aggressive painting techniques, such as staining or thick impasto work, however, even damaged brushes have a place in your supply list.

I should also mention that this post contains Amazon affiliate links. This means that at no extra cost to you, I will earn a small commission from any purchases you make through Amazon. These funds are used for the upkeep and expansion of this site.

It is my sincere wish that you have found this article instructive. Please share any methods you've found effective for keeping oil paintbrushes clean below.

Other things you could look into:

The Complete Oil Painting Tutorial for Novices

Guidelines for Learning to Paint with Oils

Catalog of Oil Painting Materials

Painting with Acrylics vs. Oil

Curiosity to Find Out More

Taking my Painting Academy class might be something you're interested in. I'll teach you the tried-and-true basics of painting. To put it simply, it's ideal for anyone from a complete novice to an intermediate painter.

We Appreciate Your Time

Thank you for taking the time to read this, and I sincerely hope you found the information contained herein useful. Please feel free to forward it to your friends.

The best of luck with your artwork

Dan Scott

Learning to Draw and Paint Institution

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