Monday, March 31, 2014

How to Clean Out a Brush

Good brush care can extend the life of an oil painting brush tenfold, and save you hundreds of dollars in the long run.

In this two minute video, William Whitaker demonstrates how he cleans out an oil-painting brush.

1. Dip brush in odorless mineral spirits and wipe out solids in shop towel.
2. Wash out the brush in soap and water.
3. Using another brush, work up a lather of brush-washing soap in the palm of your hand.
4. Grasp the tips of the bristles and wiggle the lather into the bristles and work it into the area where the bristles meet the ferrule.
5. Add brush conditioner to restore the oils into the bristles, as soap and mineral spirits alone will dry out the brush.
6. Gently point the brush before putting it away.

There's a variety of brush cleaning soaps available. Some of the formulations have soap and conditioner together. If I've forgotten one that you like, let me know in the comments, and I'll add it in:
Da Vinci Brush Cleaning Soap
Trekell Coconut Oil Soap for watercolor

Don't miss the video of Bob Ross "beating the devil" out of his brush, where he whacks the odorless thinner out the brush on his easel, covering the studio with paint. "That's where you take out your hostilities and frustrations," he says. (Thanks, Daniel)

The Whitaker video is one of dozens of selected artist demo videos recently curated by the Art Renewal Center.


Steve said...

Murphy's Oil Soap seems to work well. I was able to buy the gallon size less expensively on Amazon. Natural Pigments carries a good bar soap:

Unknown said...

Great and informative video. :)

Also, here's the "hardcore"-way of brush cleaning. ;)
The giggle after each one is mandatory. ;)

sfox said...

I've been using Turpenoid Natural for years and have found it's great for dissolving any dried paint even after a long while. Seems to keep the brushes in good condition, too. I use Silver Brush Grand Prix and Bristelon brushes, mostly rounds. Probably wouldn't hurt to do the soap and water cleaning a few times a year though.

James Gurney said...

Thanks, Steve and Daniel. Great links. I've added them into the post.
SFox, Yes, I've used Turpenoid Natural, and it seems to be fairly gentle on the brushes, and I guess better on the environment.
If anyone else has a recommended method or product, let me know in the comments and I'll try to add them to the post.

Aljosa said...

Or you can skip all of the above and use only walnut oil which also acts as a balm for brush hair. More info here.

David Teter said...

Oh darn... out of brush cleaner?
In a pinch if you forgot to buy brush cleaner first wipe off oil paint with a rag or paper then dip the brush in cooking oil, work it in, then when you use soap and water it comes out cleaner than soap and water alone.

The Bob Ross video is hysterical!

Tom Hart said...

There's something about the way I paint (talking oils) that doesn't seem to require the type of brush cleaning that most folks do. I don't know why that is - except that maybe I tend to keep the paint away from the ferrule. OMS is my solvent of choice. I tend to "dip and wipe" frequently, wiping the brush quite throughly. Then I leave the brushes as-is until my next painting session. Of course I'd never leave paint drying on the brush...

That Bob Ross technique always gave me the heebie-jeebies. Atomizing all that turps (or OMS) can't have been good for his health...

Cameron said...

I use Dawn dish soap to clean my brushes. It is great at removing oils from the brush without damaging the fibers. In my opinion, it works better than turpentines and synthetic brush cleaners, plus it is easy on the environment and the fumes aren't dangerous. I think it makes sense - it is designed to remove grease and oils from a variety of products in many situations. I haven't had to buy a new brush in years.

Erik Bongers said...

How to clean out a brush.
A. You paint with acrylics:
1. Loosely rinse in water and let dry.
2. Enjoy the rest of the evening with your family.

B. You paint with oil paints.
1. Inform your wife that you won't be ably to spend the evening with the family.
2. Follow the rest of the 99 steps below...

Anna Rose Bain said...

Best brush soap I've found yet: Allback Organic Linseed Oil Soap

Keith Parker said...

Reminds me of a conversation that I over heard last IMC. I suspect it was a polite gesture to pretend to be less informed than oppose the advice of a student. :)

James Gurney said...

Keith, I know what you mean, but truly I need to improve my brush cleaning habits. I've lost too many good brushes to negligence.

Eric, you said it. Or else get the family to help with brush cleaning chores.

Thanks for the recommendations, Anna Rose, Alosja, Cameron, and Steve.

David, yes, probably any natural oil will help the bristles from drying out. Natural bristles are a lot like hair--in fact they ARE hair. Imagine what would happen if you washed your hair in mineral spirits.

Laszlo said...

I work primarily in acrylics, using thin layers/glazes with kolinsky sables, and as you know acrylic can really destroy natural brushes, esp. if it gets into the ferrule... I've had good success dissolving old acrylic using Windsor & Newton Brush Cleaner, followed by a proper brush cleaning regime afterwards:

Other brands of brush soap I've tried and liked are Grumbacher brush soap:

And most recently Escoda brush soap:

Heck, in a pinch I've even used this ;):

jeff jordan said...

When I was a signpainter we'd always have a little can of 3 in 1 oil on hand. When the quills were cleaned they'd always get a bit of conditioner with the 3 in 1--those weren't cheap brushes--and I had favorite brushes that lasted years using that method.

Roberto said...

When I first started painting, I learned the basic cleaning techniques from many different muralists and artists. Every once in a while I’d come across an old decorative house painter who oiled his brushes… and when I started working with sign-painters and pin-stripers I noticed that they all oiled their brushes, but their paint-boxes were always a dirty oily mess, and they weren’t ‘real artists’ anyway and none of them could paint a portrait or a landscape unless they were copying something, so I persisted to wash my oil brushes w soap n water. When I started working very large-scale, day-in and day-out, my brushes really took a beating. Even w the laborious cleaning, they weren’t lasting more than a month or two. When your working brush-kit consists of about 20-30 specialty brushes it can be very expensive replacing them, even when your making pretty good $. So I took a tip from the old Dinosaurs and experimented w oiling my brushes w motor oil. The oil displaces the paint in the ferrule and keeps the hairs lubricated while holding their shape. Its fast and the oil cleans out w thinner before you start the next session. I now replace my brushes when I wear them down rather than when the ferrule gets klogged. If you don’t like the motor oil (and you walk everywhere) use Baby oil, or cooking oil. I also soap my H2O brushes w Murphy’s oil soap, stashing them w the ferrule and hairs well coated w soap to hold their shape and keep out the oxidating air. I’m not religious, just cheap. -RQ

amyefoster said...

I use turpenoid natural to loosen up the paint, but the real magic comes from my bar of fels-napa laundry soap. It's a gentle on my brushes but works really well for removing oil paints and even liquin. (and a $1 bar will last me a year)! I will occasionally use fresh olive oil or natural argan oil to condition my brushes, as well.

Erik Bongers said...

A method I use for removing acrylics from the base of a brush's hairs:
Weaken the dried acrylics in very hot water and comb out with a tooth brush. The acrylics will be torn off in small flakes.

Haven't tried it with oil paint.

Christoffer Gertz Bech said...

I never use any kind of solvent for brush cleaning. Just soap. Any soap. After all, that's what soap does - remove greasy/oily stuff.

ElaineB said...

I have a background in hair and body care product formulations. (shampoo, conditioners, lotions, etc.) The structure of sable brush hair is almost identical to human hair, and sable responds to solvents, oils, and pH as does our own hair.

1. Protein fibers do not like exposure to alkaline materials. This includes most soaps and detergents that are good at getting out oil paint. The hairs weaken through repeated exposure if the pH is not neutralized after the exposure.

2. I don't know the chemistry of solvents such as mineral spirits (a bit beyond my realm of study) but I would hazard a guess that they are not as destructive as alkaline exposure. Protein fibers generally don't react chemically with oils.

3. The best thing you can do for your brushes after washing them in soap (and you do need to wash them in soap to get out the sticky traces of paint that will oxidize and harden) is to condition them with a hair care conditioner. This neutralizes the pH and helps smooth the scale structure of the hair's surface, which acts to strengthen the fiber. It doesn't have to be a fancy conditioner. Even the cheapest stuff in your drugstore will do the trick.

4. Oiling the brushes after that is fine, as long as you use a non-drying oil or will use the brushes before drying sets in. It has the same effect as using a pomade on hair that is prone to dry out.

5. Note that human and animal hair gets much weaker when it is wet. Handle your brushes with delicate efficiency when washing. I particularly liked the video guy's move to work the soap into the ferrule while gently holding the tip of the brush.

James Gurney said...

Elaine, this is great information. It's so helpful to know the different effects of mineral spirits, oil, soap, and conditioner on hair fibers. One thing to add: my wife says she uses the little conditioner bottles from hotels for reconditioning the wool fibers as a final step in washing woolens. It makes them less itchy by smoothing out the scales on the wool fibers.

Conditioner is something water media painters such as watercolorists can safely use on their brushes, where you wouldn't want to use motor oil!

One other thing to add: some paints are just hard on brushes and you can't do much about it. That's true of casein, which has ammonia in the formulation, and ammonia is brutal to natural fibers, but it's OK on synthetics.

ElaineB said...

Yes, using hair conditioner on woolens is a wonderful way to soften them and keep the wool in good shape, lessening the effects of abrasion on the garments. Also, the fabric softener used for laundry has similar chemistry to hair conditioners, although I believe formulations are tweaked to be more alkaline, as cotton prefers that pH.

In general, protein fibers prefer acidic environments, hence the old wives' prescription to rinse your hair in lemon juice when you're done washing it. Before shampoos were invented, people used soap to wash their hair, and soap is by definition alkaline. It raises the scales on each hair shaft, making them tangle easily and look dull in light. So a nice lemon or vinegar rinse restored the hair to its lovely lustrous self.

Roberto said...

Mr. Gi-
You are absolutely right, using motor oil, or any kind of oil, would NOT be advisable for use on water media brushes, (that would be a misreading of my post, sorry if I was unclear). As we all know, water and oil don’t play together well (which is a good reason to not use soap and water on oil brushes). The point is to get the paint out of the ferrule and to prevent the air from drying any residue that may remain. As you know, linseed oil and other oils used as a medium for pigments are meant to dry-out, and dry hard, that’s why oil paint is such a durable medium. Other oils, like nut oils and some vegetable oils, dry much slower and can be used in a pinch or for short periods, but oils such as Motor oil, 3in1, or baby oil will not dry and are good for indefinite storage and create a safe environment for the natural hairs. (When using motor oil however, I would recommend using the store bought stuff out of the bottle, not from a crankcase.)
The more difficult job is cleaning acrylic paint out of the ferrule without repeatedly exposing the bristles to a caustic or high alkaline environment. Denatured alcohol will breakdown dried acrylic paint so it can be washed out, but it can be abusive, like ammonia. I agree w Steve, Murphy’s Oil Soap seems to work pretty well for cleaning water media brushes (I’m not sure why its called oil soap, probably the coconut, but it is free of phosphates and rinses out pretty well). I like ElainB’s suggestion to use Shampoo and conditioner. There are some really good ideas here, thanx to you and your posse of Journey-ers. (Ask four artists the best way to do something and you’ll get six answers, and two arguments.) Your blog is a great place for an old Art-Dawg to learn new trix! -RQ

Unknown said...

I like Fels Naptha Soap.

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