How to Take Care of Your Oil Painting Brushes

How to Take Care of Your Oil Painting Brushes

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Inevitably, brushes you use for oil painting will become dried out, discoloured and the tips of the bristles may even start to splay.

Oil painting involves using some pretty harsh chemicals (such as turpentine) that you can use to strip oil from the brushes to clean them, but will damage the brushes in the process.

It’s frustrating because good brushes for oil painting don’t come cheap—it almost seems like they’re not worth buying if they only last a few painting sessions.

You’ll be glad to hear that there are extra steps you can take to revive your worn out brushes and prevent new brushes from becoming misshapen and nasty.

Implement these simple tricks and your brushes will maintain their springiness, hold larger amounts of colour in the bristles and you’ll get much more use out of them in general (it’ll save you from having to buy new brushes every few months!).

Tip #1: Bring your old brushes back to life

First things first, how do you go about reviving old brushes that are seemingly past the point of no return? I bet you have a few of these lying around. Don’t throw them away!

There is a way to rectify old brushes that are stiff, dry, splayed and discoloured. You’ll even be able to get the ones that are completely unmovable and petrified back to a usable state.

So there is a secret formula to use when doing this.

You’ll need the Master’s Brush Cleaner and Preserver. Find the product here. This stuff is a holy grail for professional artists.

It’s a cleaner, preserver and conditioner.

Here’s how you use it to soften brushes and shape them to a point:

  1. First, rinse your brush in warm water.
  2. Then swirl it around in the tub of Master’s Brush Cleaner, making sure that you work it into a lather.
  3. Massage the soap into the bristles—get right into the ferrule—you can use your hand to work up a lather here (just put on rubber gloves if you don’t want to get messy).
  4. Repeat this step until the dried up paint has loosened and the bristles start to feel light and springy. It should take a few minutes of lathering to get to this point, by the way.
  5. Lather a bit of fresh soap into the bristles and don’t rinse it yet, as you’ll want it to set with the soap in.
  6. Then wrap the bristles in a paper towel to dry—leave it to absorb the moisture. This way the bristles will dry in formation. You want the bristles to dry in the shape that they were originally bought in, so this might require a few layers of paper towel and some masking tape to hold it in place. Leave this to set for a short period, then resume the lather process and rinse when you’re happy.

The gummed up paint should be completely removed from the ferrule and the brush should be back to its regular shape.

If what you’re trying to do is restore a pointed brush like a liner or round tip, and you want to retain its sharp point, there is an extra step you can take to achieve this:

Dip the brush in Gum Arabic, then mould the point of the brush with your fingertips. Hang it upside down for a few days to dry, then soak in water. You should find that you’ve restored your brush to a sharp point.

As a last resort, if you still have some stubborn splayed bristles, just cut them off with scissors.

Tip #2: Get a proper brush washer

A good brush washer is a useful piece of kit to have around the studio.

You know that if you leave a brush upside-down in solvent, the bristles become splayed. You need to immerse the brush in solvent to remove most of the initial build up of paint, between colours and post painting.

I recommend this brush washer.

It has a spring at the top which allows you to suspend your brushes in solvent, which will get rid of the bulk of oil on your brush and prevent the brushes from touching the bottom of the container.

The washer also keeps your solvent cleaner for longer, as the paint sediment filters through the holes at the bottom of the washer.

Having a lid for the solvent keeps your space free of harmful fumes when you’re not using it too!

Tip #3: Prevent misshapen bristles

Bristles become misshapen when paint gets stuck in the bristles of the brush near the ferrule.

Anatomy of a paintbrush

Build up of paint in this way is pretty much unavoidable if you’re only cleaning with solvent and paper towels. Brushes will become rock solid and splayed.

To prevent your brush becoming splayed dry and solid, clean it like this:

  1. If you have a brush washer, suspend the brushes in the solvent. This will loosen the paint from the brush making it easier to clean. It’s not good practice to leave your brushes upside down in a jar of solvent as this can cause brushes to splay. Instead, hold the brushes in there for a few seconds.
  2. Swill your brushes in the solvent. I recommend using either turpentine or odourless mineral spirit (OMS) for clean up. Turpentine is slightly more effective as a paint thinner, but OMS is usually cheaper and emits fewer harmful fumes, making it much more studio friendly. Get low odour solvent here. Oil of spike lavender is even more effective as a thinner than turpentine and it is non-toxic, meaning the fumes are not harmful. However, it’s more expensive.
  3. Use a silicone brush cleaner—you can use the grooves in the pad to get right up to the ferrule and remove that stubborn oil paint from the brush. The pad also protects your hand from coming into contact with the solvent.
  4. Wipe the brush on a paper towel—the friction will remove any excess paint.
  5. Then rinse the brush in warm water, and lather it with the Master’s Brush Cleaner. Regular conditioning will keep your brush painting like it’s new for years on end.
  6. Rinse thoroughly to get the soap out and wrap the tip in paper towel. Let the bristles dry in formation to retain their shape.

Tip #4: Clean up straight after a session

I’ve made the mistake before of leaving my brushes out for several days after painting and coming back to find the oil completely hardened in the bristles. It’s much more difficult to clean all the paint off when it has dried, so keep on top of the cleaning and be quite disciplined about it—your brushes will thank you for it later.

Tip #5: You don’t have to use solvents to clean oil paint!

It’s fast and effective to clean brushes with solvent, but solvent is corrosive. So you can cut it out completely.

There are quite a few negative aspects of using solvent. Some artists choose not to have any in their studio.

Some reasons might be that they don’t have adequate space or ventilation to work with solvents safely. Or it might be due to the fact that they have children or pets around. They may be concerned about their own health and how breathing in the fumes could affect them.

I’ve personally made the transition to cut solvent out of my cleaning process. This is how I clean instead:

Throughout the painting session, I use safflower oil to clean my brushes. All I do is dip in the oil and then wipe on a paper towel before I switch a colour I’m using on a single brush. Oil cleans oil, and safflower oil is relatively inexpensive, clear and fluid. Plus, it doesn’t smell of anything. Keep it in a lidded jar and put it in the fridge between painting sessions to prevent it from forming a skin. The safflower oil won’t thoroughly clean brushes, it’s important to use a soap for this…

I use the Master’s Brush cleaner that I mentioned before, it cleans brushes really effectively. If you use the silicone brush cleaner too, it speeds up the solvent-free cleaning process (and makes it less messy!). Use it to create a lather with the soap and brush. The grooves on the pad helps to release the paint from the bristles.

It might take a little longer to remove all the paint than if you use solvent, but the specially made brush soap is so much kinder to brush fibres than turpentine. It’s much better for your health to clean up this way too, as you won’t be breathing in harmful fumes that solvents emit.

Tip #6: It helps to have some good quality brushes

Brushes that are well made with quality fibres that are much more durable than the cheaper alternatives. They’re usually more expensive at first, but they’ll last longer, and you’ll enjoy using them more!

I’ve made a list of the best brushes for oil painting—in this post I give a rundown of the most suitable brushes for the medium, what each type is best used for and some quality product recommendations.

Finally 

If you’re just beginning on your oil painting journey and you’re not quite sure what supplies to get, start with this beginner’s guide. It’ll teach you about all the tools and materials you need to start oil painting and give you valuable advice on how to use the materials to get the best results.

Check out our art shop to stock up on oil painting supplies.

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