How to Properly Clean Your Oil Brushes [Bristle, Sable, and Synthetic]

Oil painting is an incredibly satisfying form of expression. 

Yet most oil artists agree that there’s one part of the process they could live without:

Cleaning dirty brushes.  

The cleanup process after oil painting is something that you have to do right away. And though it is definitely not the most pleasant aspect of painting, it’s essential to take the time to do it properly. 

There are, as you may have guessed, right and wrong ways to clean brushes. And you can’t rush the process. So if you want your brushes to last, you’ll need to make sure you’re doing it right.

From solvents to soaps, there are all sorts of things you can use to clean oil brushes. And different types of brushes can benefit from unique cleaning products and techniques. 

Whether you use bristle, sable, or synthetic brushes, here’s how to properly clean your oil brushes and extend their lifespan.

Products You Can Use to Clean Oil Brushes

There are a variety of products that you can use to clean your oil brushes, including the oil itself. 

Solvents, soaps, natural mineral oils, and natural cleaners are all options, and there is a wide variety of each that you can choose from as your key brush cleaning agent.  

Solvents

​Solvents, such as turpentine, paint thinner, and mineral spirits, are the most common brush cleaners for oil painters. 

All three options are incredibly effective, but they do have toxic properties. When using solvents to clean brushes, be sure to do so in a well-ventilated area. 

Natural Oils

Olive oil. Walnut oil. Linseed oil. Safflower oil. Baby oil …

You probably already use some of these natural oils as painting mediums. And you can use all of them to remove paint from brushes. 

Winsor & Newton Refined Safflower Oil and Winsor & Newton Refined Linseed Oil are great examples of mediums that do double duty as brush cleaners.

Natural Cleaners

Want to clean your brushes in a natural, eco-friendly manner? 

Three products are great at getting oil paint off brushes that don’t include any nasty ingredients.

Eco-Solve is a natural product that works just like a paint thinner. The best part? It’s soy-based, so it doesn’t have that nasty, paint thinner smell.

Murphy’s Oil Soap isn’t just for cleaning wood furniture and floors - it can remove oil paint. Because it contains pine oil, it works much like the other natural oils listed above.

White vinegar can clean all sorts of household items, including paintbrushes. While you should never let paint dry and cake onto a brush, white vinegar is surprisingly effective at removing hardened, dried paint.

Soaps

Having some soap on hand is a crucial tool in effectively cleaning paintbrushes.

If you remove most of the paint from your brushes, soaking your brushes in water with dish soap will help remove the remainder of the paint.

Speedball Pink soap is made specifically for cleaning paintbrushes. Not only will it clean your brushes thoroughly, but it can even help to condition and reshape them.

The Masters Brush Cleaner makes cleaning oil brushes easy (and almost fun). This cleaner feels like a hard bar of soap that lathers up to remove all remnants of paint from your bristles effectively. 

Depending on how you decide to clean your brushes, you’ll want to have a newspaper, paper towels, and a few empty brush cups or jars on hand. 

If you prefer to clean with solvents, we recommend wearing plastic gloves to protect your skin in case of accidental spills or splashes.

How to Clean Oil Paint Brushes

Oil Paintbrushes

Okay, so now that you know what to use to clean your oil brushes, let’s talk about how to clean them.

How to Clean Brushes With Solvents:

  1. The first step in cleaning brushes with solvents is to dip your wet brush into your paint thinner or mineral spirits and swish it around. 
  2. Tap your brush on the side of the jar or bottle so that you don’t drip paint thinner everywhere. 
  3. Then, wrap your brush in paper towels and pull it through to wipe off any excess solvent and remaining paint. You may have to do this two or three times to get all of the leftover paint off your brush. 
  4. When all the paint is gone, dip your brush into a bit of warm water with dish soap to restore and condition the brush hairs’ tip.

Remember: Never leave your brushes in solvent or water for too long. Always remove them promptly so they can dry immediately after washing.

How to Clean Brushes With Natural Cleaners:

When using a natural cleaner, such as Eco-Solve or Murphy’s Oil Soap, you’ll want to take a bit of extra time and care washing the product out of your brushes. 

  1. To clean your oil brushes with a natural cleaner, dip your wet brush into your natural cleanser of choice and gently splash it around. 
  2. Tap your brush on the side of the jar or bottle to remove excess moisture. 
  3. Then, wipe off any excess cleaner and remaining paint with a paper towel. Do this a few times to get all of the leftover paint off your brush. 
  4. When all the paint is gone, dip your brush into a bit of warm water with dish soap to restore and condition the brush hairs’ tip.

The steps are the same as washing with a solvent, but natural cleaners can leave residue behind. To get rid of that remaining residue, wash your brushes in a bit of dish soap and water as the final step.  

How to Clean Brushes With Natural Oils:

  1. The first step is to get all of the excess paint off your brush. Use paper towels or a rag to soak up as much of the paint on your brush as you possibly can. 
  2. Then, dip your brush into a jar or container with a small amount of your chosen oil. You don’t need to submerge the entire handle — you only need to cover the bristles up to the ferrule.
  3. In between oil dips, go back to your rag or paper towels and wipe the brush back and forth repeatedly to get all of the remaining pigment particles out. 
  4. After a few rounds of oil dips and towel wipes, the result will be clean, paint-free brushes.
  5. Once all paint is removed, clean and rinse your brushes with dish soap and water. Lather a bit of liquid soap directly into the brush hairs at the ferrule to get every bit of paint out. 
  6. Finally, rinse your brushes thoroughly and set them out to dry. 

Just be careful how you dip your brush into the oil container. You don’t want to push straight down;  you want to keep the brush hairs as flat and smooth as possible at all times.

One of the benefits of using a medium like linseed oil or safflower oil to clean your brushes is that you already have it readily available while you paint. And that’s key because sometimes you’ll need to clean brushes during your painting session.

Tips for Cleaning Bristle Brushes

Bristle brushes, such as those made from hog or boar hair, tend to retain a slight residue, mainly when used with oil paints. This is normal, so keep your oil bristle brushes separate from any bristle brushes you use with other media.

After cleaning a bristle brush, it’s best to restore the tip of the brush. You can do so simply by dipping the bristles into hot water, blotting them dry on a towel, and using your fingers to reshape the brush head. 

Tips for Cleaning Sable Brushes

After you’ve cleaned your sable brushes, take special care about where and how you store them. You should never store sable brushes in direct sunlight. Whenever possible, keep them in an airtight box.

Because sable brushes have natural bristles, it’s vital to restore the natural oils in the brush hairs from time to time. A few times per year, roll your brush in a small amount of brush conditioner and rinse it thoroughly to help restore those lost oils.

Tips for Cleaning Synthetic Brushes

Most synthetic brushes have nylon and/or polyester bristles. Because they are often less pricy than bristle and sable brushes, many artists do not feel the need to invest a lot of time cleaning them.

However, synthetic brushes can last for months when properly cleaned, stored, and cared for. Clean your brushes the right way, and you can spend money on buying new canvases or paints and not buying new brushes.  

Abuse Your Brushes on Purpose

For many artists, the oil painting process is one of constant experimentation — and that includes using different painting techniques.

Do you have old brushes that didn’t dry properly, started to fray, or dried with paint remnants down at the ferrule? Don’t throw them away just yet — you can use them to create some pretty cool effects on your canvas.

Rough, abused brushes are great for creating natural textures, such as grass and trees. If you’re a landscape painter, an abused, overworked brush just may be one of your best tools.

You can also use old brushes to create other effects, such as splatters. New, perfectly clean, and well-maintained brushes are a must for doing detail work, but splattering doesn’t even require the brush to touch the canvas, making an old brush perfect for that effect. 

Even if you find a use for your oldest, most beat-up brushes, it’s still essential to clean them. There’s very little you can do with a solid brush full of dried-up, caked-on paint.

How to Store Your Brushes After Cleaning

Storing Oil Brushes

Once your brushes are clean, it’s necessary to put them in the proper position for drying.

Never dry oil paint brushes vertically with the bristles up. As they dry, the excess moisture will run down into the brush’s ferrule, while can cause the handle of the brush to swell. Instead, lay your wet brushes horizontally. Also, wipe down the handles with a paper towel or old rag so that the wood doesn’t crack or swell.

Once your brushes are dry, store them vertically, with the bristles upright. Brush hairs can attract mold over time, so it’s best to store them in a room with proper ventilation. 

Brush Cleaning Products to Try Now

Not satisfied with the way your current cleaner is removing oil paint from your brushes? Here are a few recommended products that you may want to try in place of your existing method:

Winsor & Newton Brush Cleaner & Restorer 

Winsor & Newton Brush Cleaner & Restorer is safe for use with natural and synthetic brushes. This cleaner doesn’t just remove paint from your brush heads; it also conditions them without leaving any residue behind.

Gamblin Gamsol

Gamblin Gamsol is a mineral spirit solvent that is 100% odorless. It’s perfect for the artist looking for a highly effective way to clean their brushes without having to endure that paint thinner smell.

Mona Lisa Odorless Paint Thinner

Mona Lisa Odorless Paint Thinner is a mild solvent that can clean brushes as well as other accessories, like palette knives. It’s completely odorless (and affordable).

Bristle Magic Brush Cleaner

Bristle Magic Brush Cleaner is non-toxic, non-flammable, and eco-friendly. It can clean oil and acrylic paints from brushes and conditions them to maintain their brush heads for a more extended period.

Conclusion

As an artist, cleaning oil paint brushes probably isn’t the highlight of your day. But there’s no way to avoid it, so you may as well learn to do it the best way possible.

Be sure to gather your supplies and make sure you have the proper cleaning agent on hand before you dip your brush into the paint. If you don’t clean your brushes thoroughly after each and every use, you’ll end up with useless brushes that’ll need replacing before you can paint again. 

Need new supplies for painting or cleaning up? Shop Rileystreet for oil brush sets, cleaning agents, and oil paints now. With the right products and techniques by your side, cleaning your oil brushes won’t be such a hassle.