Getting your Money’s Worth: Caring For and Cleaning Oil Painting Brushes

By Rebekah Griffith, 10.14.2020

Quality oil painting brushes are not cheap, especially when dozens of them are used for one painting.  The artist Michelle Dunaway will paint with up to 200 brushes in one sitting!  When I was first learning oils in college, I would constantly buy new brushes, and would be shocked at the price of a quality brush, and even more shocked to see that brush deteriorate in just a few months.  I channeled my creative energy into developing a cleaning and storing system to extend the life of oil painting brushes, ensuring I was getting my money’s worth. 

It Starts With a Good Brush

The style of brush that will work best for you greatly depends on the style of painter you are.  I lean towards stiffer brushes that can move the paint around well.  Finding the right brand of brush requires trial and error; I certainly have tried many brands over the years including Robert Simmons, M. Grumbacher, and Rosemary.  From my experience, the brushes that hold up the best over time are the Langnickel Supremes.

Clean Them Well

When finished using a brush, place it in a glass jar with a cup or two of boiled linseed oil.  Inbetween painting sessions, dirty brushes can be stored for up to a few days in the jar.  It is important to wear gloves when working with oil paint, cleaning brushes can get especially messy!  To begin the cleaning process, swirl the brush in the linseed oil and then press it against the lip or side of the glass jar to squeeze out paint and oil.  Then, remove additional linseed oil and paint by wiping the brush on a cotton rag.

Tip:  Painters go through a lot of rags!  An inexpensive eco-friendly way to buy rags is to purchase white, 100% cotton t-shirts at the thrift store.   Look for the XL sizes and you will get even more bang for your buck!  Cut them up and they are ready to go.

The brush should be 80% clean before the second stage of cleaning.  Move to the sink, wet the brush and lather it in a soap (The Masters Brush Cleaner and Preserver, is a good one to use).  Rinse and repeat until the water is clear; take your time, this process may take longer than you think!

Shape and Support

The brush may be thoroughly clean now…but a few pesky bristles are sticking out.  Most of the time, it takes more than a brush shaper cream to put these bristles back into place.

I use small squares of paper (index cards work well)  to roll and wrap my brushes to support and encourage the bristles to lay back down in place.  First, I’ll dip the cleaned brush into a shaper liquid, and then gently wrap a piece of paper around the brush, restoring it to its original shape.

Some brushes with coarse bristles need even more support to retain their shape. The method I use only works for flat or filbert brushes.



Again, I will wrap the brush in a piece of paper making sure all the bristles are laid flat; and then secure it with a clip.  

The wrapped and clipped brushes can sit for a few hours or overnight, longer may damage the bristles.  Round brushes do not work with the technique of using a clip, because it will smash them down into a flat position, losing their round shape.  Rolling paper around and securing with tape will work best for rounds.

Store Face Down!

Brushes are all too often stored with the bristles facing upward (like in the photo); which does make sense because you certainly do not want to smash your brush by storing it face down.  In my experience, what will kill a brush the quickest is the build up of old paint at the base of the brush.  

With the help of gravity, I discourage the paint from building up at the base by storing my clean brushes face down with the bristles pointing towards the ground. 

The set up I use for storing brushes is a small end table lined with clothespins that will hold the handle of the brush.  Even though I don’t have hard evidence for the method of storing face down significantly lengthens the life of a brush,  I want to do what I can to get the most out of my brush.

Brush Restoration

Even with the most diligent cleaning habits, older brushes will still gather paint in the base of the brush, which will produce fanning and hardening of the bristles.  Soaking the brush for 1-2 days in Murphy Oil Soap can definitely help to soften and loosen dried paint and will work wonders for dried acrylic paint, oil is going to be more stubborn.  You can also let the brush sit in pure solvent, like gamsol, for a few hours up to one day.  If the brush sits for too long in solvent, even when there is still dried paint you are wanting to remove, it will burn the brush.  The bristles will get extremely brittle and frayed.  

Sometimes frayed bristles on a brush are simply a goner; they will not return to their original shape with brush shaper cream, wrapping or clipping.  Use a sharp exacto knife to cut off the individual frayed bristles, leaving you with a perfectly shaped brush again!  Frayed bristles can continue to be cut off, whittling the brush into a smaller and smaller shape.

What are your tips and tricks for cleaning and caring for oil painting brushes?

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