Cleaning Artist Brushes

Good art brushes can be quite expensive to buy. By properly cleaning them after each use you can extend the life of your brushes. This is a guide about cleaning artist brushes.

Paint laden art brushes in a jar.
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When you have allowed your paint brushes to harden with paint on them, you can easily soften them by placing them in hot vinegar until paint loosens and the wash them in hot soapy water.

By Sandy A. from Graettinger, IA

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As an artist I sometimes forget to rinse my brushes out well. By the time I get back to it it is completely stiff and dried with paint. The way I rescue these brushes is to fill an old plastic cup with enough Murphy's oil soap to cover the bristles and let it sit overnight. In the morning rinse well with cold water (hot water breaks down brushes faster). I do this every 6 months to all of my brushes whether they need it or not because it makes them feel like they are brand new.

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    Dirty artist brushes.Quality artists' paint brushes are an investment. It is important to wash them thoroughly at the end of every studio session or they can become permanently damaged. A proper cleaning will help maintain the shape of the tip, and extend the life of the ferrule and hairs as long as possible.

    Ten Steps to Cleaning Artists' Brushes

    • When you are done with your painting session, put on pair of rubber gloves. Use a paper towel or soft cloth to wipe off any excess paint by squeezing the brush gently from ferrule to toe.

    • Rinse the brush in a jar of lukewarm water (water-based paints) or turpentine (oil-based paints) to loosen up the remaining paint.

    • Use a paper towel or soft cloth to once again wipe off any excess paint.

    • Squeeze a nickel-sized drop of liquid hand soap or mild dishwashing soap (like Ivory), in the palm of your hand, and use the brush to work up a lather.

    • Under lukewarm running water, gently dab and swirl the brush in the palm of your hand in a circular motion.

    • Rinse and repeat until suds stay white, and brush is clean.

    • Rinse a final time until the water runs clean to remove any remaining soap residue.

    • Gently shake, squeeze, or blot the remaining water out of the brush using paper towels or a soft cloth.

    • Restore damp brush hairs to their original shape with your fingers, or by wrapping the bristles with a small piece of paper towel while they are still wet (remove the towel when dry).

    • Dry your brushes on a flat surface such as a soft hand towel.

    Additional Tips

    • Never use hot water to clean the brushes. It may expand and loosen the metal ferrule, and soften the glue, causing the hairs to fall out.

    • Keep brushes used for water-based paints separate from the brushes you use for oil. Oil repels water, which means that after you clean your brushes, any residue that remains may affect how the paint adheres to your support. It's also a good idea to use separate brushes for applying varnish, masking fluids, gesso, and other primers.

    • When painting with acrylics, clean your synthetic brushes extra well. These types of brushes are especially prone to the build-up of paint where the hairs join the ferrule. Leftover paint allowed to dry in this area will cause the hairs to splay out and the brush will be ruined.

    • Avoid leaving oil paint brushes standing in turpentine for extended periods of time. The pressure on the tip may distort and damage the hairs.

    • Always lay your brushes on a horizontal surface to dry. If you dry them vertically, with the tips up, excess water will drain backwards down and into the ferrule, which may cause it to expand or become loose. Brushes should always be completely dry before being put away to avoid the possibility of mildew.

    • Certain pigments and solvents contain well-known carcinogens. When using them, it's important to avoid unnecessary paint-to-skin contact by always wearing rubber gloves while cleaning your brushes. For more information on individual paints and drawing pigments, visit the city of Tucson's database for artist safety:

    • Over time, certain pigments will permanently tint the hairs of your brushes. This is normal and should not affect the performance of your brushes in any way.

    CommentMoreRead More...Was this helpful?Helpful? Yes

    How do I safely rinse brushes with oil paint. I used to love painting with oil paint, and still have my brushes, paints, palette, etc. I would like to start up again, but I am not willing to use mineral spirits (highly flammable and bad fumes) to rinse/clean my brushes. I also do not want to use bar soap on the brushes, letting oil paint go down the sink, without knowing what I am doing.

    Is there a way to safely use my oil paint and brushes that will still keep the brushes in good condition? How do I rinse/dispose of oil paint rags safely if I no longer have access to a paint studio? Or is this the end of my painting days?

    By davidicdancer from Spokane, WA

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    I now use mostly water-miscible oils and clean up initially with soap and water then with a squirt of "Awesome" lemon or orange cleaning liquid in the palm of my hand. (Wear gloves if doing a lot of class brushes or have sensitive skin!). I rub the bristles gently until all color is out on my paper towel wipes, then rinse thoroughly. Lastly I condition the bristles with baby oil and re-shape them between my fingers. Both cleanser and baby oil = $1.00 each for large bottle from the Dollar Tree.

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    I use acrylic paints for my yard art projects, and cleaning my brushes is an important step. I have found that if I squirt a little hand sanitizer into the palm of my hand, and work it into the bristles, it does an excellent job of removing the paint trapped in the brush.

    CommentWas this helpful?Helpful? Yes

    I am an amateur artist. I use acrylic paint.The brushes that I use are nylon bristles. These are smaller brushes, one inch is the largest size, such as the the brushes that are sold by Donna Dewberry. I have other brushes, that cost less.

    Anyway I have read suggestions people have written about brush cleaning, Murphy's Oil Soap, hot vinegar, etc. I have stronger cleaners, but would like to hear other people's ideas. Thanks.

    By Kersti from Bellevue

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    Another way to straighten crooked bristles on a brush is to stroke them on a cake of soap or add some liquid detergent. Shape them, let them dry and they will be straight again. When I am out painting, soap is always available.

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    I use Murphy Oil Soap, to clean my paint brushes. I do decoupage, and the brushes get gluey. So I will soak them overnight in the oil soap, and they are clean again.

    By Hope from Wilmington, NC

    CommentWas this helpful?Helpful? Yes

    I don't use my good oil painting brushes for acrylic. I keep them just for oils, which I clean in white spirit*. The sediment settles after a few days, and the clean spirit pours off carefully into another jar.

    For acrylics, I use cheaper brushes. These, of course, are cleaned in water.

    *Mineral spirits or paraffin based solvent.

    By auntyblod from Cwmbran, South Wales

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    Crafts PaintingOctober 20, 2011
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