Art materials can be expensive, so it’s important to invest a bit of time into the cleaning process to keep your brushes from losing their spring. It’s possible to keep your acrylic painting supplies looking and performing like new for years at a time.
Discover how to clean acrylic paint from your brushes and other materials to keep them in perfect condition. All you need to do is follow these tips…
Tip 1: Wash the brushes straight after using them
Acrylic paint dries fast and after it dries, it’s not resoluble. Dry acrylic paint is a hassle to remove from brushes. So prevent the paint from drying and sticking to your bristles by washing them with water right after you’ve finished using that colour.
Just dipping the paint brushes in water won’t clean them effectively. Get a paper towel and wipe the paint brush after swilling it around in the water. Paint is removed from the brushes with the friction of wiping. Do this twice to ensure all the paint has been removed.
If there is any particularly stubborn paint stuck near the ferrule of the brush (the metal clamp), you can remove it by pulling it away with your fingers. You can use gloves, or a paper towel to protect your hands.
If you get into the habit of doing this, it will keep your brushes squeaky clean and save them long term.
If you like helpful gadgets, with this paint scrubber you can create a lather with some brush soap, to quickly and effectively remove all of the paint. It really takes the headache out of cleaning.
Tip 2: Remove dried paint from acrylic brushes
Never throw an old brush away. It’s worth trying to salvage it first.
It is possible to remove dried acrylic from brushes—even if the bristles are completely stiff with thick paint. You can rectify your old and beloved brushes using one of the following solutions.
Pour some rubbing alcohol into a jar and let your brushes sit in it for five minutes (make sure your room is properly ventilated as the smell can be strong). After five minutes have passed, take the brush out and with gloves on, you will be able to pull the dried paint from the bristles. Another good way to quickly remove the paint is by using a fingernail brush—lay the brushes down on some kitchen towel and scrub from the ferrule to the tip. Rubbing alcohol isn’t too harsh on natural hair brushes, but the solvent can ruin synthetic hairs. For this reason, I recommend using Winsor & Newton’s brush cleaner with synthetic bristles.
This brush restoring liquid from Winsor & Newton will remove dried paint from bristles too. This is a great option as it is biodegradable, has a weaker odour and it won’t destroy synthetic bristles like rubbing alcohol can. The liquid is strong, however so take care when using it.
Whether you choose to use rubbing alcohol or Winsor & Newton’s formula, I would recommend conditioning your brushes after soaking them in harsh solvent, this will give them their spring back.
Tip 3: Condition brushes regularly
How do you ensure all paint residue is removed from your brushes, whilst simultaneously preserving the softness and spring of the bristles?
Use a brush conditioner. A conditioner will save you from having to regularly replace your brushes, as it keeps them working like they did when you first got them. A regular condition will help your brushes hold more colour. You can use ordinary hair conditioner to keep brushes soft, however several art supply manufacturers have designed their own brush soaps, to condition, preserve and restore bristles.
The best brush conditioner I’ve found yet is The Masters Brush Cleaner made by General Pencil. It actively prevents build up of acrylic paint near the ferrule. You can even leave a clear lather to dry in the bristles to reshape them.
Tip 4: Store paint brushes to keep the bristles from splaying
The way you store your brushes, both whilst you are cleaning them and when they are not in use, can affect their longevity.
It’s important to note that you shouldn’t leave your paint brushes lying upside down in your brush washer or jar of water. This can cause the bristles to splay. After washing the brush, lay it out flat to dry on a piece of kitchen towel. This way your bristles will hold their shape.
Tip 5: Choose your brushes carefully
Synthetic bristles are easy to clean when the paint is still wet, they are also resistant to the chemicals in acrylic binder. The binder in acrylic paint is an alkali, which can harm and break down natural fibres.
Natural brushes like hog or sable are much more difficult to clean when the paint is wet, as the acrylic emulsion sticks to the hairs. With a synthetic brush, the wet paint could be wiped straight off.
Synthetic brushes go hand in hand with acrylic painting, not just because they’re easy to clean. The bristles are much more springy and flexible than natural hair brushes, meaning they can move thick acrylic paint around a canvas with ease.
Stiffer synthetics that have been designed to emulate the working properties of hog bristles work perfectly when soaked in water. Whereas hog bristles don’t perform well with paint that has been mixed in water. Synthetics are also cheaper—making them the perfect choice.
The only instance that natural bristles can outperform synthetic bristles with acrylic paint, is if you were to accidentally let paint dry on the brush. Using rubbing alcohol to loosen the paint can destroy synthetic bristles, whereas natural hairs are less affected by the solvent. Nevertheless, synthetic brushes still come out tops.
If you’re interested in learning more about which acrylic paint brushes are best, read our acrylic paint brush guide.
Tip 6: How to clean acrylic paint from your palette
The best palettes for acrylic paint are those that are easiest to clean at the end of the session.
I would advise against using wood as a palette, as acrylic binds to wood, making it near impossible to remove.
It doesn’t matter if the paint dries on a tempered glass palette, as the acrylic paint can be peeled off. To do this quickly, get a razor scraper and scrape away until all the paint is gone. To get a clean and polished look, spray a little bit of window cleaning solution over the glass and wipe clean.
Avoid using a razor scraper to remove dried paint from plastic or ceramic palettes, as it could ruin them. Instead spray some of the window cleaning solution on the palette, let it sit, then rub the paint off with an abrasive sponge. Acrylic paint is a little trickier to remove from plastic or ceramic palettes, especially if they are not flat and have colour wells in them. If you find yourself getting frustrated with the cleaning process—if it’s taking too long—then switching to a glass palette or a disposable palette could make cleaning up feel much easier.
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