Painting Keep Those Brushes Clean!


Keep Those Brushes Clean!

Two facts are constant in painting:  Artists need brushes and paints on a continuing basis and those materials can be costly.  Therefore, it makes sense to use these materials wisely.

In a creative blitz, artists often do not take the time to clean and preserve their brushes the best way possible. Sometimes it is just a lack of understanding, but it might also be a lack of attention to detail.  As a refresher for long-time artists or a guideline for beginning painters, the following paragraphs will give you some ideas for the “care and feeding” of the brushes you have already invested in and to help preserve future purchases.

Oil painters need to be especially careful with their brushes because so many of them are costly sable or high quality synthetic.  All natural-hair brushes need special attention and must also be stored in a way that prevents damage.  With costs of $35 to $75 not uncommon, sable is especially worthy of an investment of time and a bit of energy to maintain. 

Once each painting session is completed, remove all excess oil paint from the brushes.  This is best done with an old towel or T-shirt rag.  These rags do not agitate or stress the sable hairs as much as harder surfaces such as paper towels.  Once the excess paint is removed, dip the brush in clean turpentine and swish.  The swishing motion will help open the hairs of the brush and flush out remaining paint.  Many artists maintain two different turpentine sources.  One is completely fresh and new; the second is not dirty but is used for the initial dipping and swishing of wiped brushes.  The unspoiled turpentine is transferred to the initial swishing jar when traces of paint begin to show within it.  With this two-container method, less turpentine is used and the brushes are very well cleaned. 

Once the first swishing is done, gently squeeze the brush with a clean rag.  This absorbs the soiled liquid from the bristles and completes the initial cleaning stage.  Do this dipping, swishing and blotting at least two times in jar number two.  When it appears that the brush is clean, dip and swish in the pristine turpentine.  Blot well. 

Now it is time to do a sudsy wash.  There are fine quality brush cleaners and conditioners available.  It is also possible to use gentle soaps to clean any residue from the bristles.  Do this by putting a drop of liquid dish soap in the palm of your hand.  Gently rub the bristles of the brush against your palm, building up a rich lather.  The suds will work into the hairs of the brush and loosen any remaining pigments.  Repeat as necessary, rinsing with clean water after each soap application.  When complete, blot with a clean, soft cloth and reshape the brush tip.  Rounds are especially susceptible to split tips, so this shaping step is important. 

When finished, stand the brush in a jar or spring-topped brush caddy, allowing the tip to dry without misshaping.  Some artists also add a tiny drop of oil to recondition the hairs of sable brushes.  Use a fine quality oil like those used in painting to prevent any long-term storage rancidity. 

For acrylic painters the method is very similar, but you of course do not use turpentine as the cleaner.  Whether natural bristle or synthetic, use fresh water and replenish often.  The two-jar method works well here, too; just keep the water as clean as possible by changing it frequently.  When as much paint is removed as is possible, do a deep cleaning in your palm with gentle soap and water.  Repeat the soaping and squeeze dry with a clean cloth.  Reshape the tips of your brushes with a firm hand.  If allowed to dry in a split shape, the brushes will hold that split during future painting sessions.  Store upright in any method you choose.

For “ease of operation,” see your retailer for The Masters Brush Cleaner and Preserver from General Pencil Company, the world’s only total brush-care product.  This removes wet and dry oil paint, watercolor, acrylics, stains, alkyds, gouache, latex and enamel paints.  The Masters is specially formulated for synthetic and natural artist, craft and decorative paint brushes.  Also available is the Artist Survival Kit, a handy paint brush basin that holds The Masters Brush Cleaner & Preserver, The Masters Hand Soap and more.  Visit

For long-term storage or travel, you may want to explore brush-holding methods used by many professionals.  Brush caddies are generally made one of two ways.  One is similar to a mat with elastic strips.  Brushes are slid into sections of elastic that hold the upper and lower ends of the brush.  The caddy can be rolled and tied and then placed in a paint box, suitcase, backpack or other transport option.  This type of caddy is very easy to roll and go, so it is preferred by most plein air artists. 

The second style of caddy is a rigid tube with a slip-off lid.  Brushes stand in the rigid container and are protected from crushing.  The base of the caddy stands and acts as a holding jar during the painting session.  This style is very good for the long-distance traveling painter who wants to be sure his/her brushes are not damaged during the trip.  For studio use, this caddy is especially good for segregation of brush types, styles and those used for different mediums. 

You can create your own temporary caddy and storage holder with a simple woven place mat.  Lace the handles of your brushes through the weave and roll it up.  Fasten with a bit of ribbon or a rubber band and stash it away for travel or studio storage. 

Keeping your brushes clean and properly stored may seem like a lot of trouble, but it’s not.  Besides a simple matter of economics, it can also be a sense of pride for many artists to boast of brushes they have had for decades and are still using.  Whether pride or economics motivated, taking good care of your tools is always a smart idea.