How to Clean Oil Painting Brushes

How exactly should you clean your oil painting brushes once you finish working for the day? It depends on who you ask.

clean oil painting brushes
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Some artists detest cleaning oil painting brushes so much that they simply wrap them with plastic wrap and place them in the freezer in between sessions. The cold temperature of the freezer helps paint to dry slowly enough that the brushes remain pliable. If you are planning to get back to it the next day, this is the quickest way to deal with your brushes at the end of a painting session.

That being said, this method only works if you paint most days. The paint will eventually dry on your brushes and ruin them, albeit more slowly in the frozen freezer tundra. Overall, it should be noted that long vacations in the freezer are not ideal for brushes and will eventually ruin them.

But, if you hate cleaning brushes you might be willing to sacrifice a few here and there to the freezer monster out of convenience.

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Actually Washing Them

If you are not the type of heathen that willingly sacrifices your brushes, you will want to actually wash them.

Step 1

The first thing you should do is wipe as much paint off of them as possible. I recommend using these automotive paper towels for this purpose. They are specifically designed to capture oil and are less likely to allow the oil paint from your brush to soak through to your hands or other unwanted places.

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Step 2

Next, you will want to dip your brushes in a brush cleaner or little bit of Gamsol (the ONLY solvent of any kind that I recommend to anyone. It is the only mostly odorless “mineral spirit” I have used and is REQUIRED in most ateliers to keep fumes down that other options inevitably create.)

Dipping your brushes in either brush cleaner or Gamsol dissolves the remaining paint on your brush. In my experience, brush cleaner yields the best results.

You may also want to consider this paint brush washing canister. You can pour Gamsol or brush cleaner until it covers the coil. By rubbing your brush along the coil, it helps release any paint caught between the bristles of the brush.


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Step 3

Wash brushes with soap and water. You read that correctly. Soap attaches to oil and removes it from your brush. They have fancy brush soaps out there but any soap will work for cleaning your oil painting brushes.

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Step 4

Lay brushes flat to dry. DO NOT STORE YOUR BRUSHES UPRIGHT TO DRY. Laying your brushes flat keeps any remaining paint particles from dripping into the ferrule of the brush. If paint gets into this part of the brush and dries, it will splay the bristles of your brush which will ruin it.

Additional Notes

Notes from noted Atelier Artist Michael John Angel:

“The best soap to use is a block of Marsiglia soap—it’s pure soap: no perfume. Failing that, dishwashing soap works like a charm; it’s designed to cut grease.
You might not be aware that Gamblin products, excellent though they are, are not available in Italy (and possibly the rest of Europe).”

I hope this post helps to take some of the mystery out of cleaning up after oil painting. Make sure to join our newsletter for more great art tips and tricks.

What do you think? What is your process for washing brushes? Let me know in the comments below.

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  1. I have a friend who uses hand lotion to clean his brushes. I haven’t tried it myself so don’t know if it works but he swears by it.

  2. I have used Avon’s Skin So Soft to remove dried paint, and clean my oil brushes and my hands. It works well and smells wonderful.

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