Why Clean Paint Brushes?

How to look after your paint brushes

There’s no point investing in a quality sable if you don’t take care of it. Here are some good brush etiquette tips and recommends for cleaning and the best cleaning products to use.


My paintbrushes and studio tools are like old friends: sometimes we lose touch, and as we grow older they lose their hair as mine turns gray, but they’re always there for me, so I give them the best care, and never leave them standing in liquid.

Like many artists, I am very attached to my brushes. I love them all individually and I’m very familiar with their individual characteristics. I can distinguish between brushes of the same make, series and size. I know their degree of spring, their shape, their balance, and, most importantly of all, the marks I can make with each of them.paintbrushes_clean

I rely on my paintbrushes to behave consistently in producing marks that are indicators of my style and individuality as a painter. My paintbrushes are precious to me and my main reason for looking after them with the utmost of care is to prolong the unique qualities of each for as long as possible.

The most frequently quoted reason for caring for your brushes is the cost of replacing them. However, I find it bizarre to pride cost over function. Finding oneself without the correct paintbrush at a critical point in a painting process is almost unendurable, especially when the reason for being without it is one’s own stupidity.

The essence of brush care is simple – don’t damage them in the first place! Artist paintbrushes don’t ruin themselves and so caring for them properly as you paint can save hours spent on rescue attempts that are usually futile in the long run.

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How to look after your paint brushes – CLEANING PRODUCTS

The best method for cleaning paint brushes depends on the medium you are using – and there are a confusing number of products on the market that all claim to help. Watercolor brushes are the easiest to clean – in my experience cold, clean water is perfectly adequate. Don’t give paint the opportunity to dry on your brushes. I swish them about vigorously in a jar of water (taking care not to bang the bristles on the sides) or under a gently running tap. Lightly touch them on to a sheet of white kitchen roll and if absolutely no color comes out, I consider them clean. I then flick them to restore the shape. As they age, I might reshape gently with my fingers, too.

When cleaning oil or acrylic brushes, begin by removing excess paint. Rub the brush on a lint free rag or sheet of kitchen roll and gently squeeze the bristles from ferrule to tip. Clean with your choice of solvent, and gently reshape with your fingers. A useful tool is a pot with a coil; these are very good for gently working the solvent into the brush hairs without risking damage.

How to look after your paint brushes – ACRYLIC BRUSHES

Acrylic brushes are fine as long as you don’t allow the paint to dry. This is easier said than done, as thin layers of paint can dry near the ferrule even while you are working.

To remove wet acrylic paint, clean water can be good enough. If you feel some help is necessary, Gerstaecker’s ‘I Love Art’ Eco-Friendly brush cleaner is excellent. I have been delighted in recent years to see improvements in eco-friendly brush cleaners and Lascaux’s 2080 Brush Cleaner is easy to use, odourless, water-soluble and leaves my brushes feeling great.

Once acrylic paint has dried on a brush, it is much harder to rescue. In the past, I have managed to return brushes to working order by soaking them in Chroma’s new Atelier Unlocking Formula, before washing the bristles with “The Masters” Brush Cleaner and Preserver to condition them.

How to look after your paint brushes – OIL BRUSHES

As far as oils are concerned, some form of solvent is a necessity. This can come in the most basic of forms: someone once suggested baby oil to me – it was partially effective, but better for babies. I have found Murphy’s Oil Soap to be the best…keep brushes soaking in this until you can clean thoroughly.

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Murphy’s Oil Soap is terrific for laying your brush in until you can clean more thoroughly.

Schmincke also produces an effective Brush Cleaner with orange terpene, which I found to be very effective for both oils and acrylics. It had a good smell too but did make my eyes water, so it is worth remembering to use in a well-ventilated room.

Used as a straight oil brush cleaner rather than just a conditioner, the apparent gentleness of “The Master’s” Brush Cleaner and Preserver belies its efficacy. Although it is a little more difficult to work into the area near the ferrule than a liquid (even using a coil), it does a very good job and has earned itself a permanent place in my studio.

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7 top tips for looking after your paint brushes

1. Always buy the best:

You really do get what you pay for – and spending more might encourage you to take better care of them!

2. Never rest on the bristles:

Remember how difficult your own hair becomes when you’ve worn a hat? The same rules apply.

3. Don’t leave them in water

Wood swells, metals rust, glue degrades and bristles bend – no part is safe!

4. Clean them immediately 

Even clean brushes during painting, if necessary. If paint dries in the ferrule it will bend the bristles, making them difficult to reshape.

5. Be gentle

Save older brushes for mixing colour to avoid prematurely aging new ones.

6. Always reshape once clean

Leave a brush to dry thoroughly before storing.

7. Never pull on the bristles

Even the best quality brushes can moult – and unlike head hair, it won’t grow back.

With thanks to Great Art for the products tested. www.greatart.co.uk