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How to keep your brushes clean!

Updated: Sep 13, 2021

Oil paint brushes are expensive and arguably your most important tool as a painter. This post will teach you how to clean oil paint brushes.

High-quality brushes should last for a very long time if you look after them. But you need to be rigorous with your cleaning procedures as it only takes one slip-up for your paint brushes to be permanently damaged.

First, I will run through an easy way to care for your brushes if you plan on having regular painting sessions.

Hopefully, I can help you avoid letting your paint brushes get to a state like this:

1.1 Remove excess paint.

Use your cleaning ragsor similar material. Wrap it around the metal where the bristles connect with the brush (known as a “ferrule”). Squeeze with moderate pressure so the paint is pushed out of bristles at end of stroke/bristles, and try roughly to mimic the shape of the brush at the end of wiping the excess paint off. Point the tip of the brush over your drop cloth (or whatever you’re using to protect your surfaces) to catch the paint as you remove it. Then:

Pinch the base of the brush’s bristles through your cleaning rag.

Drag your fingers over the bristles from their base to the tip while maintaining pressure.

Repeat as needed with clean sections of your rag until no more paint drips off the tip.

1.2 Thin the remaining paint. First, pour either paint thinner (my favorite is Gamsol Odorless Mineral Spirits Fill the bottom until it is deep enough to submerge the brush’s head. Dunk the bristles into the liquid. Then:

Brush the bottom of the container to dislodge paint.

Remove the bristles from the liquid.

Squeeze out more excess paint as before. You can gently push the brush on the side of the jar if it doesn't seem that the spirits saturated it, but don't swish too much.

Be cautious as you clean, since excess paint will now be runnier. Try to keep the spirits transparent when wetting the

1.3 Repeat if desired. To be as thorough as can be, set up two more containers. Fill their bottoms with more thinning agent. Thin your brush’s paint in the second container and squeeze it clean as before. Then repeat with the third container. Note that the liquid in each container should appear less clouded by paint than the one before, with the third appearing relatively clear.

Be aware that your brush will still appear stained by the paint afterward. This is normal.

1.4 Wash the brush with soap. First, put soap into one palm. (my favorite is The Masters brush soap)Hold the brush by your other hand. Dip the bristles into the soap and brush them back and forth across your palm. Then:

This is where you can submerge the brush. Notice that this is water, however, and not a harsh, chemical solvent. Also, be careful at how hot the water is in this stage as this can warm up the glue holding the bristles together inside the ferrule, which can deteriorate it as well.

Continue brushing until a lather forms.

Stop once the lather turns the same color as your paint.

Rinse the brush and your hand under warm water.

Repeat until the lather no longer turns color.

Part2 Finishing

2.1 Squeeze the bristles again. As before, use a clean rag or similar materials. Wrap it around the ferrule and push out any remaining soap or paint. If the bristles still seem to hold a lot of soap, rinse them more thoroughly and repeat. If they hold any paint, wash and rinse again.

The bristles may still appear stained, even after cleaning. This is to be expected and does not mean they’re still dirty.

2.2 Dry your brush. Dry the brush on its side on a flat surface without any pressure on the end of the bristle. If it is a flat or fan brush, the flat side should be down, parallel to the floor. If the brush isn't huge or heavy and has some memory to its bristles, let it hang off of the edge of a flat surface just at the ferrule. .

Drying your brush thoroughly will prevent mildew from growing. A few wipes is usually all that's needed, unless it's a thick watercolor brush. Most often, however, if you've purchased a $70 number 7 sable watercolor brush, you will get a lot more life out of it if you stick to watercolors with it. This leads to optional step 7.

If you're in a hurry, aim a fan at the bristles. They should be dry unless they're any bigger than an inch and a half. Continue pressing and blotting the bristles with clean rags or similar material as before to remove all moisture. Use new sections of rag or new rags each time so you can tell how wet they are afterward. Continue until the rag remains dry after use.

2.3 Reshape your brush. Use your fingers to gently press the bristles at their base. Sculpt back into their original shape.Always work from the base to the tip to avoid squashing your bristles.

2.4 Condition the bristles if necessary. If your brush is old, gauge how dry and coarse the bristles have become as you reshape them. If they feel brittle, wet them again. Then use your fingers to rub in a tiny dab of conditioner(ma favorite pink soap. Rinse, dry, and reshape your brush afterward.

Apply this technique sparingly, only when necessary. Applying conditioner each and every time you wash your brush will cause the bristles to grow misshapen.

If you need your brushes to be dry and not oily (or waxy-feeling) upon returning to the studio, you may want to skip this step. However, conditioning your brushes should extend their lifespan.

You can also condition with mineral oil, or a product from an art-supply store. Don't trust the brush-restorers at hardware stores, as they'll eat brushes nearly down to the ferrule; they're made for contractors' commercial paintbrushes, not yours. Your brush will never be restored to store-bought quality, but the process can still help.

2.5 Store your brush properly.

If possible, use a container with a lid to keep moths out. Stand the brush upright with the bristles on top to preserve their shape. When storing several brushes in one container, be sure that you can reach the handle of each one without disturbing the bristles of any surrounding brushes. Use more than one container to ensure this if necessary.

2.6 Save your used thinning agent. Seal the container and let the liquid rest overnight. Wait for the paint to settle to the bottom. Then pour the clear liquid on top into a second container. Seal and label both containers. Store them in a safe place out of reach of children or pets. Be aware that paint thinner is flammable, so keep it away from flames, heat sources, and excessive heat.

For future projects, dump your dirty thinner into the container with the paint remnants.

Allow them separate and then transfer the clean liquid back into your thinner’s container.

Repeat until the container holding the separated paint is full.

2.7 Dispose of materials properly. Contact your local government. Find out if and when they collect hazardous materials such as solvents and paint with curbside pickup. If they will not pick it up, ask where drop-offs are accepted. Do not dispose of such chemicals down a house drain, sewer, or into the ground, since they are toxic.

Safflower oil (a cooking oil that is safe to dispose down the sink) makes a great substitute for paint thinner if disposing of hazardous chemicals correctly is too burdensome.

Part3 Ensuring a Quick and Thorough Cleaning 3.1 Don’t wait. Plan to clean your oil brush as soon as you are done using it. Do so even if you intend on coming back to your painting project in the near future. Always clean your brush promptly to ensure a thorough job with minimum damage to the bristles.

If you are going to resume painting shortly, don’t soak your brush in paint thinner in the meantime as a substitute for cleaning. Over time, paint thinner will eat away at the glue that binds the bristles to the handle.

Although oil paints dry at a slower rate than other types, it is still easier to clean your brush before they have a chance to dry at all.

3.2 Protect yourself and your surroundings. Set up your cleaning station before you begin painting. Have a pair of cleaning gloves and protective eyewear ready to protect yourself from chemicals. Lay out newspaper, old towels, or drop cloths to keep surfaces clean. 3.3 Set up your cleaning supplies. Assemble them before you begin your project. Make sure you have what is needed before you really need it. Guarantee a quick and easy clean-up without having to search for this or that while the paint dries in your brush. At the very least, you will need:

Cleaning rags, newspaper sheets, paper towels, or similar materials

One sealable container with a lid.

Paint thinner (mineral spirits or turpentine, depending on your medium) or safflower oil

Soap (preferably designed specifically for paint brushes; if not, dish-washing soap or shampoo is acceptable)

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