The best way to clean oil based paint brushes is to use non-water based solvents such as Citrus thinner or a product like Gamsol, Gamblin Solvent to detach the oil paint and medium from the brush bristles and then we want to follow that up a deep clean using soap, rubbed into the bristles. This is followed by a good rinse with running water as we remove both the soap and any excess solvents.
Want to know which solvents work best? Because when I was researching what worked best I realized I was using the worst method (with turpentine), which was ruining my oil based paint brushes.
The alternative methods are also some of the cheapest available.
Please note – These techniques are not recommended for cleaning acrylic based paint off brushes, for acrylic paint just use soapy water and rinse well and let air dry.
Cleaning Oil Paint Brushes
Cleaning oil paint brushes effectively involves a few key steps to ensure that your brushes remain in good condition for future use.
Here’s a general guide and it has worked for me since I was a kid and I still own many of my original brushes which are 40 years old:
- Wipe Excess Paint: Before using a thinner, it’s essential to remove as much paint as possible from the brushes. You can do this by wiping the brushes on a rag or paper towel.
- Rinsing in Solvent: Use a solvent like Gamsol or Sansodor (try to avoid turpentine or mineral spirits) to rinse out the remaining paint. Gently swirl your brush in the solvent and wipe it again with a rag. Be sure to use the solvent in a well-ventilated area and follow safety precautions, as these materials can be toxic and flammable. Sansodor and Gamsol have less odor and tend to be a bit safer.
- Washing with Soap and Water: After the majority of the paint has been removed with a solvent, wash your brushes with soap and water. Using a mild soap or a specialized brush soap, gently massage the bristles under lukewarm water until the water runs clear.
- Reshape the Bristles: Once clean, gently reshape the bristles of your brush with your fingers. This will help the brush maintain its shape as it dries.
- Drying: Lay your brushes flat on a towel to dry. Avoid standing them upright while wet, as the water can seep into the ferrule (the metal part that holds the bristles) and loosen the glue, causing bristle loss.
- Proper Storage: Once completely dry, store your brushes in a brush holder or case. This will keep them dust-free and help maintain their shape.
Remember to always handle your brushes with care, especially when cleaning, as rough handling can damage the bristles.
Regular cleaning and proper maintenance will significantly extend the life of your brushes.
How to clean oil paint off brushes without paint thinner
Some people are concerned with breathing in toxins from using Mineral Spirits to clean their brushes.
If you are painting every day, I can understand why you would not want to overexpose yourself if there is an alternative.
Two common methods used to clean brushes are using baby oil and using vegetable oil.
I will now take you through both ways.
Later in the article, I will provide a list of various cleaners that can be used on the brush you have just finished with, together with some advice on how to recover long-forgotten brushes that hardened dry are like a rock.
Cleaning oil based paint brushes with baby oil.
Baby oil is, as the name suggests, used on babies to keep their skin soft.
Adults also use it frequently for the same reason.
Since they are used on babies, they must be a mild non-abrasive and non-toxic products.
There are two types of baby oils, the first is based on mineral oils, and the second is based on vegetable oils.
Mineral Based Baby Oil
The mineral oils used in baby oil are highly purified mineral oils, liquid paraffin, and Vaseline.
Both liquid paraffin and Vaseline are highly tested to ensure they are not hydrophobic, allergenic, and contain no pesticides or herbicides.
When you think about cleaning oil paint off a brush, it might seem odd to try and do this by adding baby oil (another oil).
However, it works very well.
Think about this. The reason that you cannot just wash your brushes in water is that the oil paint repels the water.
But the oil paint will not repel oil.
This is how you do it. You start by coating the brush in baby oil.
You then use your fingers to remove the oil and paint mixture from the brush gently, use an old cloth or newspaper to wipe the brush.
Be careful not to break the bristles. You will probably need to do this two or three times.
However, baby oil is not expensive, so it is a useful method.
Cleaning oil based paint brushes with vegetable oil
The most common vegetable oil used for cleaning brushes is linseed oil.
It is available quite cheaply and can be bought in most supermarkets these days.
Like baby oil, getting linseed oil on your skin is not harmful, and it works the same way as does the baby oil, it just uses a different form of applying the oil.
Pour some linseed oil on rough textured paper. Be quite liberal with the amount used.
Then place one side of the brush on the oily paper.
After that first side is soaked with oil, turn the brush over and do the same with the other side.
Make sure that all the bristles are wet.
Next, you simply paint using the brush on scrap paper, old newspaper; just keep painting until you cannot see any color anymore, and it is just clear oil.
You may need to go through the whole process a couple of times.
Wash with soap and water
With both the baby oil and the vegetable oil methods, you should wash the brush at the end using soap and water, as you did in the mineral spirit method.
Here’s a short video showing you how
Cleaning oil based paint brushes with Citrus Thinner
Some people have a preference for a product called Citrus Thinner.
Citrus Thinner is a product made by extracting Citrus oil from the waste from the juicing industry.
The peel would otherwise be thrown away, and instead, they take the peel and extract citrus oil.
This oil is then blended with “isoparaffin” to make a fantastic grease-cutting product-a non-toxic way of cleaning brushes.
It is a pleasant smelling natural thinner that is free from synthetic solvents.
To use Citrus Thinner, simply follow the same instruction that I provided for Cleaning oil paint brushes with baby oil.
I have to admit that I just love the smell of citrus that permeates the air when using it.
Cleaning oil based paint brushes with turpentine
This is not a good idea as it isn’t the safest method but I will list the method anyway as it still is a popular method and turpentine is readily available on most garage shelves.
Turpentine is manufactured from the resin that is harvested from living trees.
This resin is then distilled and used as a solvent.
At one time, turpentine was frequently used for cleaning brushes, but its harmful effects, which include irritation to the eyes and lungs.
Damage to the renal system if swallowed, and the fact that it can be harmful by touching the skin, breathing fumes, ingesting it, meant that it was not the best product to have around the house.
White spirit replaced the product.
Cleaning oil based paint brushes between colors
Of course, it is not only at the end of the painting session that you will have to clean a brush.
You will need to clean the brush between the application of each color.
Of course, this time, you do not need to be as thorough as you do at the end of the session so that you can use a more straightforward process.
The best way is to have an open jar of paint thinner and a rag placed where you are working.
When you need to change color, simply swirl the brush around in the thinner and then using the rag to remove any remaining paint.
Of course, at the end of the session, you will do a much more thorough job.
Miscellaneous brush cleaning tips
In addition to the suggestions shown above, there are several other oil based paint brush cleaning tips.
The first one is white vinegar.
White vinegar is a versatile natural cleaning material, and if you have dirt paint-filled brushes, you can heat some white vinegar and dunk the brushed in the mixture.
Once done simply wipe the brushes with old newspaper, or cloth.
Do you have some old frayed, solidified paintbrushes laying around.
You can revive them by using hair gel and fabric softener.
Simply coat the brushes with the hair gel and then wash and soak them in fabric softener.
They will come back to life.
As we discovered at the beginning of this article, paintbrushes come in various shapes.
Once you have cleaned them, please make a point of reshaping them once you have done it.
Now that you know how to clean your brushes, keep in mind why oil paint needs more than just water.
Let’s take a look at the ingredients of oil paints to learn why we need harsher materials to clean paint brushes.
Ingredients of oil paint
If we are to understand how to clean paintbrushes fully, we need to understand the ingredients in oil paint and the terminology.
Oil paint has up to six parts:
Part 1 – a base
This is the solid matter that makes up the body.
Part 2 – a Vehicle (always an oil, typically linseed oil)
A liquid that is oily in which both the base and pigment are soluble
Part 3 – one or more coloring pigments
Part 4 – a solvent or thinner
Artists add liquid thinner to paints to increase their fluidity
Part 5 – a Drier
Driers are added to speed up the way vehicles dry.(Litharge, red lead)
Part 6 – an Inert filler
A cheaper replacement for the base used to reduce costs
Student grade oil paint v professional grade oil paint
A regular student grade oil paint will cost something like $10-$15 for a 200 ml (6 and a half ounce) tube.
To buy professional-grade, you may well have to pay $30 for a much smaller container (37 ml or 1 1/4 ounces).
There is a significant price difference but worth the price if you are looking to produce works that are meant to last a very long time.
Cheaper paints will lose their luster and the color will dull over time, and may also crack faster as the oil evaporates over the years as it hardens.
One noticeable difference in the ingredients is that all student paints use linseed oil as a vehicle.
Professional grades use linseed oil and Safflower oil, or just Safflower oil.
In student paints, it is normal to use cheaper pigments.
The best mass produced oil paints
Winsor & Newton’s Winton Oil Color is the best student grade oil paint.
The paint of choice by professionals would be Sennelier, which has been available since 1887 and was the paint preferred by Picasso, Cezanne, and Matisse.
Artist oil paints v house oil paint
Oil paint is a general term for a slow-drying paint that is made from pigments suspended in a drying oil, typically linseed oil.
A solvent is used to thin the paint, and the paint made more glossy with the addition of varnish.
Many of the original pigments were later found to be toxic.
The most toxic of these have since been discontinued.
These include discontinued pigments are Paris Green (copper), and orpiment (arsenic sulfide).
However, some poisonous pigments are still in use today.
Oil-based paint may emit fumes that contain potentially poisonous substances.
These hydrocarbons and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) offer a health risk if they are inhaled.
Household Oil Paint
Household paints used for decoration have been used in Europe since the 12th century.
Oil paint is used today to protect the wood, exposed metal structures, and on ships.
It is hard-wearing and is suitable for both indoor and outdoor use.
The time required for drying is a factor of how thick the coat is applied.
Whether using household paint or artists paint, you take care of your brushes the same way.
Don’t forget to clean your palette
Now we have cleaned the brushes, do not forget to clean your palette.
It is much easier to clean if the paint has not yet hardened.
You should use a combination of paint thinner or Citrus thinner and an old rag, and do it as early as you can so the paint is still soft.
Joseph Colella (Joe Colella) is an Editor and Writer at WastedTalentInc. As a frustrated artist with over 40 years experience making art (who moonlights as a certified Business Analyst with over 20 years of experience in tech). While Joseph holds a Diploma in Information Technology, in true wasted talent fashion he spent years applying for various Art degrees; from the Accademia di Belle Arti (Napoli), to failing to get into the Bachelor of Arts (Fine Arts) at the University of Western Sydney. While he jokes about his failures at gaining formal art qualifications, as a self-taught artist he has had a fruitful career in business, technology and the arts. His goal is to attend the Julian Ashton School of Art at The Rocks Sydney when he retires from full time work. Joseph’s art has been sold to private collectors all over the world from the USA, Europe and Australasia. He is a trusted source for reliable art advice and tutorials to copyright/fair use advice and is committed to helping his readers make informed decisions about making them a better artist.
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