Quick Tricks for Cleaning Oil Paint Brushes Like a Pro

how to clean a oil paint brush

Cleaning oil paint brushes doesn’t have to be tedious. Use handy household items to quickly wash brushes and restore their shape. Avoid paint buildup with fast rinses or deep cleans. Implement pro methods for faster drying, longer lasting brushes, and maintaining paint integrity. Learn to efficiently clean multiple brushes in one sitting.

Knowing how to properly clean oil paint brushes is crucial for artists. With the right approach, you can avoid frayed bristles from scrubbing. Learn quick and easy tricks to care for brushes like a pro.

The Importance of Proper Brush Care

For oil painters, brushes are the most essential tools. Like any fine art instrument, they require proper maintenance and care to keep them performing at their best. Neglecting brush cleaning leads to stiff, damaged bristles that hinder an artist’s precision and flexibility. But robust brush care need not be complicated or time consuming. With some simple techniques and products, artists can maximize the lifespan of their brushes.

Developing good brush care habits from the start prevents problems. New painters may see brushes as disposable. But quality brushes represent an investment. With the right approach, they can last for years rather than months. Being consistent about post-session cleanings greatly reduces the effort needed. It’s easier to remove fresh paint before it dries and thickens. Quick rinses and wipes get brushes paint-ready faster too.

Beyond keeping brushes usable longer, proper care preserves the unique properties that make high-end brushes special. Natural bristles like sable have unparalleled snap and spring. Synthetic blends emulate that liveliness. However, letting paint residue build up causes matting and loss of shape. A once lively round brush becomes a lifeless stub. Gentle, regular cleaning maintains that vital flexibility.

Steps for Basic Brush Care

Caring for oil paint brushes doesn’t require an elaborate process. A few key steps make all the difference:

– Rinsing in solvent after each session removes excess paint quickly. Spinning brushes can help shake out solvent before it dries in the ferrule.

– Mild soap helps break down oil paint for basic cleaning. Agitate gently to avoid damaging bristles.

– For dried on paint, brief soaking in solvent softens it for removal. Avoid harsh scrubbing.

– Use brush restorer to deep clean old brushes or those with heavy paint buildup. 

– Always fully dry brushes before storing to avoid moisture damage.

The goal is to regularly remove paint coatings before they permanently compromise the shape and flexibility of the bristles. With quick cleanings after each use, brushes stay fresh and responsive.

Understanding Oil Paint’s Impact on Brushes

To grasp why regular cleaning is so crucial for oil paint brushes, it helps to understand the nature of oil paint. Unlike water-soluble acrylics, oil paints employ true oils as a binder. This means the paint films remain flexible when dry. It also means oil paint sticks tenaciously to brush bristles.

Oil paint’s viscous consistency enables blending and texture techniques that give oil painting its distinctive richness. However, the same properties that make oil paints a joy to handle also make them stubborn to remove from brushes.

Once oil paint dries on bristle fibers, it is no longer soluble in water. Dried oils require solvents to dissolve them. If left to build up over time, layers of paint can permanently bend and distort bristles. Even dried paint hidden near the ferrule can cause bristles to separate.

By routinely cleansing away fresh paint after each session, artists prevent the accumulation of permanent paint layers. A quick post-painting wipe down removes much of the oil before it fully dries. For brushes used with multiple colors, a rinse prevents cross-contamination.

Signs Your Brushes Need Cleaning

How can you tell when your oil painting brushes need cleaning? Here are some signs:

-Paint is drying out with a thick, gummy or tacky texture. This indicates paint buildup near the ferrule.

-Bristles seem dull, stiff and lack spring. Dried paint is compromising the flexibility. 

-The brush doesn’t hold its shape. Paint residue is preventing the bristles from reforming.

-You’re seeing colors from previous sessions in new paint mixes. There is leftover paint stuck in the bristles.

-It’s becoming hard to clean out colors fully even with solvent. Excessive paint buildup makes removing fresh paint difficult.

By routinely giving brushes a quick post-session cleaning, you can avoid more stubborn issues down the line. Consistent care prolongs the life of your brushes.

Quick Cleaning After Each Session

For maximum brush longevity, a quick cleaning should follow every oil painting session. This simple routine only adds a few minutes but prevents paint residue from drying on bristles. 

Start by wiping excess paint from the brush onto a rag or paper towel. Gently pressing the bristles can help push out wet paint near the ferrule. Take care not to bend the shape.

Next, swish the brush in a jar of solvent like turpentine or brush cleaner. Gently wiggle the bristles to help the solvent cut through the oily paint. Acetone or thinner can also work for this quick rinse.

Once the solvent runs clear, firmly pinch the bristles between a towel or rag. This helps draw out the solvent so it doesn’t sit and evaporate on the brush overnight. Lay flat or stand upright to dry. 

For extra cleaning power, add a drop of mild soap to the rinse. This further breaks down paint particles. Just be sure to thoroughly rinse away all soap residue. Repeat pinching bristles dry.

With multi-color sessions, rinse between hues to avoid muddying. Spinning the brush handle while swishing can sling out more dissolved paint. A quick wipe and rinse keeps colors pure.

Criteria for Choosing a Solvent

Not all solvents are created equal when it comes to the safety of bristles. Avoid harsh solvents like lacquer thinner for anything beyond a quick rinse. Here are better options:

– Odorless mineral spirits offer mild cleaning with less odor.

– Turpentine is common but has strong odor. Work in ventilated area.

– Brush cleaners are formulated to cut through paint without damage. 

– Brand name solvents like Gamsol offer high quality and low odor.

Test unfamiliar solvents on cheaper brushes first. Strong solvents can strip the oils from natural bristles over time and leave them brittle.

When using any solvent, work in a ventilated area and exercise proper safety precautions. Never leave solvent-soaked rags crumpled up.

Removing Dried On Oil Paint

Even with quick cleanings, eventually paint will dry on bristles. Tackling small amounts of dried paint regularly keeps buildup at bay. Avoid letting it accumulate into stubborn layers.

For paint blobs clinging to bristles, start by gently scraping away excess with a dull knife. Take care not to cut into bristles. Scrape in the direction of the bristle, not across.

For paint stuck deeper in the bristles, lay the brush flat and massage a small amount of solvent into the area. Let it sit for 5-10 minutes so the solvent can penetrate. Then gently massage again before rinsing.

For brushes with extensive dried paint, a deeper soaking is needed. Use a cup or jar large enough to submerge just the bristles. Old solvent works for this, no need to waste fresh. Soak for up to an hour, gently agitating periodically. The paint will soften and begin releasing its grip. Rinse thoroughly.

Avoid aggressive scrubbing which can misshapen and tear bristles. Gently massaging and soaking does the job without ruining your brush. Change the solvent if it becomes too saturated with paint—fresh solvent works best. 

When to Use Brush Restorer


For times when dried paint just won’t budge, brush restorer solvents offer heavy duty cleaning power. These are stronger than everyday solvents but still gentler than harsh paint thinners.

Restorers are ideal for:

– Reviving old dried out brushes 

– Removing thick layers of accumulated paint

– Cleaning neglected brushes found at garage sales

Alternate soaking in restorer and a mild soap solution to break down paint. Let the brush dry thoroughly between soakings. It may take several cycles for badly neglected brushes. But be patient—a restorer can bring brushes back from the brink.

Deep Cleaning for Restoration

Over time, even responsible brush care can’t prevent some paint buildup. For occasional deep cleaning, try these techniques:

Start by massaging a brush restorer deeply into the bristles. Let it soak for up to an hour. This allows time for the solvent to fully penetrate accumulated paint. 

Next, make a warm soap solution. Ivory or Castille soaps work well. Swirl the brush to create lather, gently massaging paint away. Rinse thoroughly.

For extra stubborn buildup, repeat the restorer soak followed by soaping. Take care not to over-soak natural bristles as it can strip their oils. 

Lay brushes flat on an absorbent cloth after deep cleaning. Reshaping bristles with fingers as they dry helps restore spring.

Avoid methods that risk damaging bristles. Skip wire brush cleaners that can scrape paint but also cut bristles. Don’t boil brushes as the heat can loosen ferrules.

Patience is key with deep cleaning. Moving gradually with multiple solvent and soap cycles ensures paint is removed without harming the integrity of the brush.

Maintenance for Longevity

In addition to cleaning, certain maintenance steps promote longer brush life:

– Use brush guards on the bristles when storing upright to hold shape. Change direction of gravity periodically.

– Apply brush conditioner cream to replenish oils in natural bristles after deep cleaning.

– Avoid leaving brushes soaking for days on end. Change out solvent regularly.

– Let brushes fully dry after any water contact before storing to prevent mildew.

– Consider having brushes professionally cleaned and restored every few years for a tune up.

With proper care, high quality natural and synthetic bristle brushes can last for years or even decades rather than months. Consistent maintenance preserves their function.

Proper Brush Storage

How brushes are stored between painting sessions impacts their longevity. Follow these tips:

– Always fully dry brushes before storing to prevent moisture damage. Let hang overnight or use a hair dryer on cool setting.

– Store brushes upright in jars, cans or brush holders to maintain shape. Avoid gravity flattenign bristles.

– For horizontal storage, use felt sleeves or envelopes to cradle bristles. Rotate direction periodically. 

– Keep brushes out of direct sunlight which can fade bristles over time.

– Don’t store brushes in sealed bags or boxes. Allow ventilation to prevent moisture buildup.

– Clean studio space helps keep brushes dust-free. Cover if renovations or sanding are happening nearby.

– Organize brushes by type and size for easy identification and access when painting.

Proper storage in between painting sessions ensures brushes remain in ideal condition. Planning ahead for drying time allows brushes to be paint-ready when inspiration strikes.

Long-Term and Travel Storage

For brushes not being used regularly, take extra storage steps:

– Clean thoroughly with soap and restorer before a long break. Remove all paint residue. 

– Use brush guards on the bristles to hold shape if storing upright long-term.

– Seal in air-tight brush cases or tubes to protect from dust, bugs, and humidity. 

– Pad cases interior to prevent jostling and bending during travels.

– Label cases clearly for easy ID. Include type and size info.

– Limit light exposure by storing cases in a drawer or cabinet.

With care, brushes can rest safely for months before being called back into service. Proper storage also enables transporting brushes to painting destinations near and far.


Like any fine art tool, oil painting brushes require care and upkeep for optimal performance and longevity. But following a few simple best practices needs only add minutes to a painter’s routine. Consistency is key—frequent quick cleanings prevent the need for aggressive scrubbing later. With the right techniques and quality products, brushes can remain supple and responsive for years of creative color mixing and brushwork. Dedicate a few quiet post-session moments to care, and brushes will craft masterpieces for decades to come.

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