HOW DO I CLEAN MY BRUSHES?
There are three types of brushes: natural hair, synthetic hair, and blends. Many blends have both natural and synthetic hair in them. Unlike natural hair, synthetic fibers can be safely washed with oil soap (Pink Soap, Murphy's, etc...) and water. They can also be washed in paint thinner or turpentine (solvent), which is required for natural hair. It is not considered best practice to allow natural hairs to come into contact with water, as it will splay or even destroy them rather quickly without proper conditioning. The procedure below is traditional and can be used to clean all brushes properly.
What you need:
- Artist Quality Odorless Mineral Spirits - also known as solvent or paint thinner (you can also use turpentine or oil of spike).
- Turpenoid Natural - a non-toxic cleaner/conditioner available from online retailers and local art stores.
- At least two or three cleaning buckets with metal screens inside. The Bob Ross line of products has a perfect option for large brushes.
- A brush beater rack - for large bristle brushes only; also available from the Bob Ross company.
- A rectangular plastic trash bin with a lid for the beater rack, such as the kind sold at Wal-Mart and Target stores.
- Paper towels, 1 trash bag, two or three 1-gallon Ziploc bags (one bag per cleaning bucket).
- A cup for dipping; small, but large enough to accommodate your biggest brush. Condiment or palette cups work well for small brushes.
Please note that the Bob Ross cleaning buckets are rather large in order to accommodate the large background and foliage brushes used in his method. If you are not using large brushes like these, the large buckets may be unnecessary. You can omit the ziplock bags and use smaller tins such as these instead: https://www.jerrysartarama.com/petite-air-tight-brush-washer
How to prep your cleaning station:
- Line your trash bin with a trash bag and place the beater rack inside. Keep the lid on it when not in use to help contain vapors.
- Place a Ziploc bag into each cleaning bucket and place the metal screens inside with the open sides down. If you are using smaller tins, you don't need to line them with bags.
- Fill the first cleaning container with turpentine or paint thinner (solvent) until the surface is approximately 1/2" to 1" above the screen. Keep the lid on the container when not in use to contain vapors and prevent your solvent from evaporating unnecessarily.
- Prepare a second cleaning container exactly as you have done the first, except fill it with Turpenoid Natural instead of turpentine or paint thinner. This bucket will serve as a cleaning/conditioning bath.
- Prepare a third bath in the third container. This one will be just like the first with turpentine or paint thinner in it and will serve as a finishing wash to remove any remaining residue.
- Finally, pour some Turpenoid Natural into the "dipping" cup. You will need enough to submerge whatever brushes you dunk into it.
Step 1 > Wipe/squeeze excess paint out onto paper towels first. This goes for all brushes. The less paint you put into the cleaning buckets, the longer your solvent will last. Spend some time getting as much paint out onto the towels as possible. Next, work the bristles gently into the dipping cup, allowing the cleaner to soak the brush and release the initial bulk of paint. Afterward you can return to the paper towels for more cleaning. Remove as much as you can and dry the bristles as much as possible before going to step 2.
Step 2 > Next, submerge the bristles into the first cleaning bucket (paint thinner). Gently scrub the bristles against the screen until most or all of the paint comes out. Usually 30 seconds to a minute will do the trick. Carefully shake the excess thinner out into the bucket to save as much as possible. It also helps to squeeze the brush up against the side of the bucket to drain more out.
Step 3 > For the large 1" and 2" flat brushes, the 1" flat oval brushes, and the large round foliage brushes only, beat the bristles on the rack inside the trash bin to "dry" them. You can towel them off after this to make sure they are as dry as possible. For smaller brushes such as filberts, fans, rounds, flats, and liners, the rack isn't needed. Proceed to step 4.
Step 4 > Wipe the hairs gently on paper towels one last time to dry them, always pulling the brush with the handle leading and the hairs trailing. Set your brushes in a place in which air can get to the hairs.
Step 5 > For a deep cleaning: instead of setting the brushes down after step 4, give them a bath in the second bucket containing the Turpenoid Natural. Get as much of the fluid out of the bristles and back into the bucket as possible, repeat steps 3 and 4, then proceed to step 6.
Step 6 > Allow the brushes to sit for a short time; just a few minutes perhaps while you clean up the rest of your station. This will allow moisture to seep into the ferrules and loosen any paint particles still left there. After they've had a chance to sit, use the third and final (clean) solvent bath to give the brushes a quick swish and remove most of the remaining residue. Repeat steps 3 and 4.
*It is not a good idea leave your brushes submerged in solvent for extended periods of time. Just wash them and allow them to dry.
This process will keep your brushes clean and usable for a very long time.
*Depending on how often you paint and how much paint you use, after about three to six months you may find it necessary to swap out your used solvent and cleaner for some clean solution fresh from the bottles. If you are using the larger containers with the bags in them, you can simply remove the screens from the bags and then seal them up. Take them to the nearest facility (such as a local landfill) that will accept hazardous waste for proper disposal. Do not flush this stuff down any drains or throw it in with the regular garbage! If you want to reuse any of the liquid before sealing the bags, just pour off the clear liquid from the top into new bags and then seal up the old ones. If you are using the smaller tins, you can do the same thing. Just obtain a second set of tins (one for each stage) and pour the clear liquid from the top of each one into the replacement tins, leaving the sediment at the bottom. Fill the new tins with the proper amount of liquid just as you did the previous time and then put the lids on them until you're ready to use them again. All that remains is to clean the sediment out of the used tins and prepare them to replace the current "in-use" tins during the next swap. Be sure to pour out anything you're not keeping, such as used solvent/cleaner and sediment, into a Ziploc bag for disposal.
*Do not use baby oil in your cleaning process if you can avoid it. Baby oil is not a drying oil, and any amount of it that unintentionally gets into your paint will interfere with the oxidation process of the drying oils (such as linseed, safflower, and walnut) that are trying to bond and form a healthy dry film. If the amount of baby oil introduced is significant enough, it can lead to premature cracking and flaking due to the lack of a proper bond. Baby oil is intended to moisturize skin and is not meant to be used as an artists' material. While it is possible to remove paint from brushes with baby oil, this is not considered "cleaning" and it is certainly not considered a best practice to follow for the aforementioned reasons. Baby oil in your painting will prevent proper drying and not allow the binder oils to form a strong and healthy film. Therefore, in the best interests of your paintings' longevity, I will not recommend its use. However, if you absolutely must use baby oil to remove paint from your brushes, be sure to thoroughly clean them in a proper solvent to remove it before painting with them again.
*There exists a myth about cleaning with oils such as safflower, linseed, and walnut. While these oils do remove pigment particles from brushes, they aren't serving as "cleaners". Cleaning involves removing all oil and loose pigment from the hairs. There will be staining, but that stain is all that should be left behind. Walnut and safflower oils are drying oils, just like linseed. They all harden over time via oxidation in a process known as "curing". As a matter of fact, many paint manufacturers use safflower and walnut oil in their paint formulations as well as linseed. So when you consider that all of these drying oils are used to make paint, it should be fairly obvious that they cannot be used to clean brushes. If not properly removed they will cure inside of the hairs over time - especially at the ferrules, causing them to become stiff and uncomfortable to paint with. In order to truly wash your brushes and get them clean, you must use a solvent of some kind to remove all traces of oil and loose pigment particles.
*One last thing: Don't fall victim to the urge to "cheap out" and buy solvents and brush cleaners from hardware stores. There is a reason why those products are cheaper than the ones made for artists. To put it simply, hardware store solvents have a much higher level of toxicity. They are not refined for daily use by artists in typical studios. The artist products have been highly refined to make them safer to use in the kinds of environments we work in. Be responsible to yourself... do your health a service and buy the right materials. I'm recommending artists' turpentine, Odorless Turpenoid, Mona Lisa Odorless Thinner, Gamsol, and the Bob Ross Odorless Thinner only. For brush cleaners, I recommend Turpenoid Natural and Chelsea Classical Studio's Citrus and Spike Lavender brush cleaners.