When I was in art school, the best way to clean paintbrushes was to wipe the excess paint off the brush (and into a jar of grey paint reminiscent of Torrit Grey) and then take the brush to the brush cleaning station.
Cleaning Paintbrushes with Microbes
ECUAD describes it thus, “Each Painting Studio is equipped with a Smartwasher, providing a more sustainable studio environment for students to clean their paint brushes, preventing solvents from being introduced into the waste stream.” It uses little microbes to break downs solvents and grease, very handy and wonderful. By far, this is the best way to clean a brush, especially for oil painters.
But haven’t all we artists had a paintbrush slip underneath the canvas, hiding its dirty bristles until they hardened? At that point, it is often to late to save the brush, which is why I prefer cheap nylon brushes!
As I paint, I do my best to keep the brush wet- sitting in a glass of water, until a lull in creative motion occurs, which is when I take them all to a sink to wipe off and rinse out. This is when the greatest trouble occurs- paint embedded deep in the ferrule does not just rinse out so easily. Sometimes I end up scrubbing my brush which I know is not good for it!
Forgive yourself for those ruined paintbrushes: You can choose to care for your brushes better in the future! Here’s how:
We do not all have access to a Smartwasher. So here are the best ways I could find for you to clean your paintbrushes at home!
Mineral spirits and solvents are for oil painters, but the other tips are applicable to painters in all mediums.
Always, definitely, wipe the paint off the brush before washing it. Its lovely if you can save the excess paint, and just like my mom, I like to wipe excess paint onto a pair of painters’ jeans. Artist’s regalia.
You can get brush cleaning tools which comb out excess paint. Don’t pull the bristles out!
James Gurney recommends brush washing soaps and conditioner. Basically, mineral spirits strip the brush, and conditioner restores it.
Bob Ross recommends a combination of odorless mineral spirits followed by cheerfully beating the devil (and your frustrations) out of the brush!
Brian Santos recommends fabric softener! This is my favorite tip of the lot!
- Mix up several gallons of this magic potion in a 5-gallon bucket: For every gallon of warm water, add 1/2 cup of fabric softener. The fabric softener is a surfactant — it actually makes the water wetter, so it can more easily dissolve paint.
- Dip your brush into the mixture, swish briskly through the water, and count to 10. The paint will release from the bristles and settle to the bottom of the bucket.
Anna Mosely suggests boiling regular white vinegar, than simmering your paintbrushes for five minutes. But since heat can loosen the ferrule and cause the brushes hairs to come out, this is a last ditch effort, best saved for ruined brushes.
My paintbrushes are having a bad hair day! Best brush cleaning tips
Lori McNee of Fine Art Tips crowdsourced a variety of tips including soaking brushes in Murphy Oil Soap or Baby Oil before cleaning them. She does use dish soap, which others advise against.
How do you care for your paintbrushes?