Learning how to clean paintbrushes properly is an important skill. Someone very wise once told me, 'If you look after your tools, your tools will look after you'. Good brushes are some of the best and sometimes most costly investments you'll make when kitting yourself out, so they deserve a bit of TLC.
How to clean paintbrushes: Quick links
The golden rule when it comes to paint brushes is keep them wet whilst in use and give them a good clean when they’re not.
There are different methods of brush care depending on the medium you're using so we'll go through the main process and then explain the variations, showing you how get the most from your investment. Let’s start with the medium with the most options, oil paint. You can skip to the other sections using the links on the right.
How to clean oil paintbrushes
There may be more steps to cleaning oil from paintbrushes than there are other types of paint, but it's still a fairly simple process.
01. Remove paint from the bristles
Remove as much paint from the bristles as possible by folding a clean cloth or paper towel around the ferrule of the brush (the bit just below the bristles) and wipe upwards – always moving the cloth from the ferrule to the end of the bristles. You don’t want paint down the ferrule as this will ruin the brush. Continue until very little paint is left showing on your cloth.
02. Ditch the white spirit
For some the go-to cleaning solution for oil paint is white spirit, but there are much better and safer alternatives, both for the user and the environment. The next best alternatives to white spirits are ‘clean' spirits like Bartoline Clean Spirit. Use this just as you would traditional white spirit, but please don't pour it down the drain afterwards. Take it to your local recycling centre, or even better, recycle it yourself. Decant the dirty 'wash' spirit into an empty clean spirit container and over time the pigment sinks to the bottom leaving reusable clean spirit above.
The best solution for cleaning oil paint off brushes is pure oil itself, but it does take a bit more work. Linseed oil dries quicker than other oils so a better alternative is walnut oil or safflower oil.
03. Place brush in pot
Next you’ll need to use your spirit or oil. Here, I’ve got my large metal brush-washer filled with Bartoline Clean Spirit (you can also use a smaller version). These brush washers make light-work of brush-cleaning and are a great investment. Holding your brush almost vertically, gently run the bristles back and forth across the perforated metal insert submerged in your spirit or oil.
This knocks off pigment from the bristles without swilling up the sediment at the bottom of the pot. The sediment can be periodically dredged and disposed of responsibly. If you’re using oil instead of clean spirit you may need to repeat this step, wiping as described in step #1 with a clean cloth each time.
04. Use a brush preserver
For a final clean I like to use The Master’s’ Brush Cleaner and Preserver. Using a little water work up a lather with your brush in the centre of the soap. As you can see, my pot is industrial-sized and very well-worn, but the soap is also available in handy 2.4oz pots.
Then work the lather through the bristles with your thumb and forefingers, always working from the ferrule out towards the ends of the bristles. Continue until no pigment can be seen in the lather. Note that some pigments will stain bristles.
05. Prepare to store
Finally, you can rinse in clean water, reshape with your fingers and allow to dry in a holder or pot. If you’re storing for a little while you can add a final dose of clean soap lather and reshape with your fingers. Leave your brush suspended to dry. Once dry, the soap will hold the shape of the bristles hard until the brush is needed again.
How to clean acrylic paintbrushes
Acrylic paint can be used thick like oils or it can be diluted with water for watercolour-like effects. For the former, use the following process, for diluted acrylics, see the method for watercolour paintbrushes below.
Cleaning undiluted acrylic paint from brushes is similar to oil paint (see above) but instead of using spirit or oils, you just use water.
01. Use a cloth to wipe clean
First clean off as much paint as you can using a clean cloth or paper towel. Wrap the cloth around the ferrule of the brush and, squeezing the cloth with your thumb and forefinger, work up towards the end of the bristles. Repeat as many times as necessary.
02. Clean paintbrushes in water
Using water in a jar or brush-washer, clean as much paint as you can from your bristles.
Use a clean cloth to make sure you’ve cleaned out the paint. Repeat if necessary.
03. Final clean and store
How to clean watercolour paintbrushes
Watercolour brushes are more delicate than brushes designed for acrylic and oils and should be treated accordingly.
01. Clean with water as you go
As a lot of watercolour paint is used in highly diluted ‘washes’, it should take less work to remove the pigment from the bristles. Instead of cleaning with a cloth, keep a vessel of water close to hand at all times, swilling the brushes between washes. I like to use a brush washer with a holder so I can suspend the bristles in water when not in use.
02. Dry with a cloth and store
Dry with a cloth or paper towel, as with acrylics, and air-dry in a pot or holder.
03. Reshape the bristles
As with oils and acrylics, use The Masters’ Cleaner & Preserver and reshape the bristles as described in the previous sections.
Dirty ‘wash’ water should be collected and disposed off responsibly. It is also possible to allow dirty wash water from watercolour and acrylic paint to settle naturally in larger containers as you can with oil paint in clean spirit. The golden rule is: never chuck it down the sink!
How to clean other paintbrushes
When it comes to using other paints for murals or other projects, all paints will fall into two basic categories: water-based and oil-based. The only exceptions are some specialised paints that are thinned using mentholated spirits, but these tend to be more for trade use. Always read the side of the tin and follow the manufacturer's cleaning instructions.
It’s best to clean brushes ASAP, but if you get caught short, a clean plastic bag can make a temporary brush-saver – just put your brushes in the bag until you can clean them properly.
Soak rollers used with water-based paints in a sink and wring with your hands to loosen off most of the paint or you’ll be there forever.