Cleaning Brushes Without Solvents

More and more these days oil painters are finding they have developed sensitivities, allergies and reactions to the solvents used in oil painting. Skin contact with solvents of the strong varieties, turpentine and mineral spirits, can cause defatting of the skin, dermatitis and skin allergies while inhalation can lead to dizziness, headaches, drowsiness, nausea, fatigue, loss of concentration and respiratory irritation. While there are odorless and low odor varieties of mineral spirits and turpentine, many find that prolonged exposure to even these weaker varieties can cause bouts of sneezing, headaches and general discomfort to the eyes, nose and throat. Many of these irritations have lead oil painters in many directions, some move to water based paints and some find that using lighter, thin bodied oils for thinning to be an acceptable alternative. Clean up, especially of brushes, is an important matter and figuring out my own method of cleaning without the use of solvents turned out to be easier than I had initially thought and really a welcome alternative. First, just for a moment think about your brushes. Many oil painting brushes are natural bristles and while they can be hardy and robust, the natural hair of the brush cannot take the constant washing with solvent over the years without drying, splitting and breaking until you are left with something reminiscent of a doormat and completely worthless as a painting tool.
My personal method to cleaning my brushes is one that I have used for years. First, brush out any excess paint. Do this onto a piece of scrap canvas or an old terrycloth towel. Take the canvas or cloth and wrap the brush and squeeze any excess starting at the ferrule and through to the tip. This will help get out large bits of paint hiding near the base of the brush hairs. Once the excess paint has been brushed out and squeezed out then get some safflower oil from the grocery store (this is cheaper than the variety you want to use for painting). Dip the brush in the oil and allow it to coat the bristles. Using your scrap canvas or towel, brush the oil soaked brush out to remove even more paint. Do this a few times until all traces of paint are gone. At this point your brush should be able to handle a soap and water washing without too much effort. I have found that dipping the brush in dishwashing soap and scrubbing the bristles on a surface to really get the soap to penetrate the brush prior to introducing water helps the washing process as the water will naturally be repelled without the addition of soap. Wash the brush several times in soap and water until it is clean. One other little suggestion I would like to offer is that every now and again you may find that your natural bristles are dry and lifeless and an occasional application of hair conditioner can help revive the brush. Doing this repeatedly can cause the brushes to splay and the bristles to separate so it is really recommended only when necessary and be sure to rinse will.

How do you clean your brushes without solvents? Please share.

Amy McKinnon

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82 thoughts on “Cleaning Brushes Without Solvents

      • Love the idea of eliminating solvents which I will try, along with your excellent suggestions. Fels Naptha, a laundry soap, which in former times was on every grocery shelf, is an excellent brush cleaner, but it seems to be available only on line now.

    • I’ve never used anything harsh with oils. I had to when I was really young for one painting and I refused to do it again. When I went to college for art my painting teacher told us to use a mixture of safflower oil, dish soap, and a little water and that is what I have used since.

      We weren’t allowed to use anything harsh on campus.

      • We haven’t but would certainly be interested in hearing what you think of it. We are quite fond of the Masters Brush Cleaner, but we are certain that there are many alternatives out there worth trying.

        • I have used the Chelsea lavender brush cleaner and it works as good as any OMS or turpentine. The only downside is that some people react to the the fumes…it’s actually a pleasant smell but it can be a bit of an irritant. I am trying out CitraSolv right now. Sometimes I feel like I need a solvent to get the brushes really clean but I would like to become solvent free if I can find a method that works. I will try some of the ideas suggested in this post.

          • Yes, definitely give some of these a try as they do allow for a completely solvent-free process. If nothing else, even if some form of solvent was used as a final rinse or on those occasions when needed, this process could still help limit your solvent use overall. As for Oil of Spike Lavender and Citric-based solvents, just keep in mind that many are attracted to them because they are touted as natural, plant-based alternatives to mineral spirits, but turpentine is just as natural and plant-based as those! So those qualities in themselves do not mean the products are not toxic or potentially harmful. It is always a matter of proper ventilation and amount of exposure. And there are some high quality odorless mineral spirits, such as Gamsol, that can be used very safely.

  1. I find that soap–regular bar soap–actually works better on natural bristles than detergent and is less harsh on both brushes and my hands. Also, especially for smaller brushes, the oil dunk-and-wipe isn’t necessary; I go straight to soap and water after a good wipe. A soak in a slightly diluted liquid castile-type soap (like Murphy’s or Dr Bronner) will eventually loosen dried paint, not that any of us _ever_ allow paint to dry in our brushes. I’m so glad to see this topic addressed; thank you, Amy. Oil painting with no or minimal solvent really isn’t that difficult; “water-miscible” not required.

    • Thanks for adding your method Joyce. The more collective knowledge we have, the better. I have never tried Murphy’s or Dr. Bronner and look forward to it.
      Thanks again,
      Amy

    • I think you have just saved my brushes! I have a lovely expensive fluffy mop brush I use for blending and it almost didn’t survive the warm water/dish soap that works well for the other brushes. And I actually have Murphy’s in the house, yay!

      And Thanks Ms. McKinnon! This is actually the first place I saw that didn’t suggest a solvent or highly expensive cleaning set.

  2. Love that y’all are doing a blog! I teach painting at Columbia College here in SC and eliminated solvent from the our studio years ago using a variation of the method you describe here. It’s so much better for the brushes not to be in solvent, as well as our lungs.
    I use a silicoil jar filled with either canola or safflower oil. Pulling the brush back and forth across the coils removes most of the paint. A bar of ivory soap and water does the rest. I used to use dish detergent but it can be a bit too harsh on hands and bristles.

    • We totally agree and is something we practice in our own studios as well. And thanks for the support of the blog. It went on hiatus unintentionally there for a little bit but am hoping to get back to regular posts.

  3. I first wipe excess paint on paper towel, then just keep lathering and rinsing into a bar soap until clean, my favorite is Ivory (the soap that floats!). The oil in paints will leave enough of itself on the bristles to keep them conditioned, unless you clean your brushes with VERY hot water, and a soap caustic enough to completely strip them:(

    I think our main problem is that we slack off, and then a paint like burnt umber or prussian blue will build up in the ferrule, ruining the brush…

    • Hi Patrick,
      The one problem with washing your brushes with very hot water would be that it causes the ferrule to expand and you could lose bristles. I think we are all guilty of slacking off and not wanting to clean our brushes in which case try to just let them soak in safflower oil until you do.

  4. GREAT info! I had an eye injury from painting when some paint thinner (Varsol) flicked up from my brush as I was mixing colour into my left eye. I was wearing a contact lens, and couldn’t feel the damage the thinner was doing to the cornea. I almost went blind in that eye as a result, and it took months to heal. Thank God that it did! This was a horribly traumatic time in my life. Ever since I have refused to use paint thinner of any kind. My solution? Baby oil! Smells nice, and it sure is safe! Great for cleaning out brushes when switching colours, (I just scrubble my brush around in my plastic brush cleaning jar and wipe on a rag) or when cleaning up for the day before using soap and water. It’s a thinner oil than linseed or walnut so I find it cleans a bit better. I also recommend wearing latex or nitrile gloves to keep any toxic paint chemicals off your skin (lead, arsenic, etc.) 😀

    • Sarah, I learned from a master printmaker that only nitrile gloves are sufficient as barriers for the potentially toxic chemicals in oil painting. Latex breathes, more or less. The problem for each of us is that we cannot know in advance how much exposure to lead or heavy metals is too much. I also recommend Winsor Newton’s Art Guard; in my climate gloves are uncomfortable much of the year.

    • Sarah, first of, am really glad your eye is alright now! Reading your story really was scarrrrry! And goes to show how bad solvents are! Whatever doubt i might have had is now out of the window, thanks to your brave story – i’m going to be COMPLETELY without solvents and thinners too as i move from using watercolours to oils for the very first time next month! Thanks again for your story and am very glad you are fine now!

    • Thanks for sharing your story with us Sarah. We hope it helps other readers not endure what you went through and expands the dialogue about studio products and safety. Unfortunately most painters are never taught of these dangers until something catastrophic happens. Best of luck and thank you for sharing your recommendations.

      • I have just started experimenting with mixed media. I enjoy working with acrylics but have wanted to try oils for years. I didn’t want to mess with the solvents. Tonight I used mineral oil to clean my brush and it only took a swish around the container straight after using the brush. I then washed it quickly with dish soap and water and it’s perfect! Should I ask you to begin a new thread Amy? I want to discuss working with water colors and acrylics, and would the oils go on the canvas first, dry and then can you use the other two on top of it? I know there are tips and I’d love to discuss them! thanks and God bless everyone here with beautiful creativity!

    • Baby oil and mineral oil never really dry and cause problems later with your paintings (I trained in restoration). Your eye story was good to share; a reminder of how dangerous our materials are. Yikes.

      • We completely agree that baby and mineral oil should be used with extreme caution and would need to be thoroughly and completely washed out prior to painting. Best to avoid unless needing to revive a brush with dried on paints, where it is sometimes helpful.

  5. Greetings from Atlanta! Love Williamsburg paint, and like cleaning up without solvents. Under the guidance of my teacher, the amazing and wonderful Steven Assael, I learned to wipe put my brushes with inexpensive linseed oil, or to stash them in Goop handcleaner until I can wash them well. My husband and I are competing perfectionists, so the next stages are washing in Murphy’s Oil Soap followed by Masters Brush Cleaner. Just last week another painter marveled how clean my brushes are!

    Another way to avoid solvents: I use cold-pressed linseed oil in first stages of building a painting. I work on panels, and in two years, no cracking!

    • Panels are the way to go Annie. Until doing testing with oils I never thought about how much canvas or linen will expand and contract with humidity and temperature changes. Paintings on panel are far more stable and would recommend them whenever possible.

  6. I really appreciate for these important information. I am newcommer at USA and I was worried about cleaning my brushes. I havnt started to painting here because at my home country we used to use petroleum to clean brushes and I didnt know how I can clean my brushes without petroleum. Today, I could bought canvases and Now I found the solution of cleaning my brushes. I am so happy and will try.

    Thanks alot.

    • Hi Sama,
      We are so glad you are no longer using petroleum to clean your brushes. Let’s keep it in the car and out of the studio.

    • Pine oil soaps work great too, thanks for your suggestion. Olive oil soaps are another great source that doesn’t dry the brush too much.

  7. Hello from Australia.

    I use alkyd gel with oil paints to speed drying time. Linseed oil sets to an impervious film and I worry that it may set in the brush. To avoid solvents, I use peanut oil to clean brushes while painting, cleaning the brush thoroughly on a rag between colours. Peanut oil seems to not dry and keeps the brushes fresh but I still wash them. I am using dish washing liquid multi times but find that my new size 18 Neef large synthetic brush, which I love, does not want to give up the peanut oil, although all the pigment is removed.

    I have painted for many years but did not have the benefit of technical training.

    Any thoughts on my method would be appreciated.

    • Hi Ron,
      I am guilty of using whatever brush is at hand in the studio and once used a good synthetic watercolor brush for glazing an oil painting. I had a similar issue and had to keep washing and washing, using a variety of soaps and cleansers. I even tried soaking the brush in white vinegar. That worked a little but it still had an overly slippery feel and as a result that became my new glazing brush and no longer for watercolors.

  8. My very first painting instructor taught me a method that I still use today.
    Buy the cheapest vegetable oil that you can in any grocery store.
    *Begin by squeezing out as much paint from the brush as you can into a paper towel starting at the ferrule and moving toward tip of brush. (do not leave oily rags around).
    *Into your palm, put a generous bit of veg oil and move the brush through the oil. You will see the paint begin to break up. Repeat. Squeeze out excess into a paper towel.
    *Next put a bit of dawn into your palm and repeat moving the brush and squeezing the dawn through the bristles. Squeeze out excess on paper towel. Repeat if needed.
    * Now rinse with water until the water becomes clear. Apply more dawn if needed.
    * Ivory soap will dry out your brushes just as it will your skin. Also, hot water is not good for the bristles, and use as little mineral spirits as you can.
    * Once in awhile I treat my brushes to a Master’s Soap wash. Really conditions them.

  9. Oh my goodness! I am terrible at not cleaning my brushes. I tend to use several, and I mix with them, which drives the paint up into the ferrule. Then to add insult to injury, I leave my expensive brushes to dry out in the dry atmosphere we have in the Wyoming. I tried rubbing next to the ferrule to remove dried paint and it worked! I’ll try the vinegar for my more tortured brushes. I promise I’m not a brush sadist, just lazy after painting for long periods. :(

    An art teacher told me to use hair conditioner if I have stray hairs on a brush to help prevent splaying. When they are dry I just flick the conditioner out from the brush with my thumb. I also wrap some brushes with a bit of paper towel like little mummies to help them retain their shape…. It really works for me.

    • Thanks for sharing Linda. We are all guilty of being lazy after long painting sessions, just soak them in safflower and deal with them later.

  10. I was exactly looking for a post on this. I have been struggling to look for an option to clean the brush easily after painting.

  11. I have been cleaning my oil brushes for 65 years and it has always seemed such a tedious chore. I am now in a small studio where smell and fumes are a real issue. I bought a gallon of odourless solvent to use as a first step in the cleaning process but before going that route tried, on a whim, a tub of “The Masters” brush cleaner. Just followed the instructions and never looked back. For me, a miracle! Six months on I now use it with all my brushes, even house-painting, and it works its magic. Just wipe off the excess paint and go directly to “The Masters” . No fuss, no muss, no smell!
    DK
    Ottawa

    • You can also try Murphy’s Oil Soap…extremely easy clean up even if you’ve left your acrylic brushes sit overnight. It just dissolves all the paint away. All biodegradable, no odor, and according to the manufacturer the paints (oil and acrylic and what ever else combination being used) are broken down in the soap and is then safe to dispose. Been using it for years now with great success. I’ll use this method then condition by brushes with the Master soap. Hope it helps.

      • Thanks for sharing your process. Murphy’s Oil Soap has been a common go-to for artists’ for decades. I personally find it a touch harsh on some brushes – not sure I would use it on a fine sable, for example – and so the vegetable oi with mild soap afterwards is always a good alternative if wanting something very mild for delicate bristles.

  12. I am interested to know how everyone disposes of their cloths, gloves and tissues that have oil paint on them, as well as your solvent. It seems to me that everyone is concerned about touching or inhaling the toxic matters in the paint and solvent. What about disposal of these toxic matters then? Do you have a special bin for such waste and do you regularly take the waste to your nearby toxic waste collection depot? I am quite concerned about this as I noticed that there is no such practice in my art school. As you know, untreated toxic waste merely goes back to the environment and poisons our water and soil in return. Can someone share a good way to deal with your art waste?

    • In the winter time I just throw rags in the fire. Renoir did this. I learned it from reading his autobiography written by his son Jean Renoir. In the spring or summer, I either dispose of the rags in a galvanized trash can kept in my garage. The debris is either then put in the trash on trash night or I burn it outside since I am often burning leaves and branches on my property.

      • I forgot to mention it is VERY important to be careful with rags that have linseed oil on them. They can (and will) spontaneously combust if they are left in piles. I have seen videos where they measured the temperature of linseed soaked rags left in a pile and exposed to oxygen. A chemical reaction happens where the temperatures rises and rises until it catches fire. Be very careful with linseed oil. I can not stress it enough.

    • We would suggest collecting anything that might contain heavy metals, especially cadmium and lead, and taking those to a hazardous waste collection site. It is also could to have fire safe waste disposal can in your studio where anything with paint and especially linseed oil-contaminated rags, can be collected. At the end of the day one can fully wet the rags with plenty of water, squeeze out any air, and tie tightly, prior to throwing away or taking to the hazardous collection site.

  13. I found a post from Alexander Art on YouTube where the guy made up a mixture of vegetable oil, soap and water. While I know this will clean the brushes quite easily, what would happen if some of this mixture got into the painting? If anyone knows I would love to know. It appeared in the video that he used the mixture while painting not just for cleaning up afterwards.

    • You definitely need to keep any non-drying kitchen oils, as well as mineral oil, away from your paints! Any contamination can prevent the paints from drying or cause issues later on. If you are using this combination at the end of the day it is fine, just make sure to thoroughly rinse your brushes out before storing them.

  14. It was a great pleasure to find this blog. With all those comments.. im a begginer in oils and always used to ruin my paint brushes .. with soap.. the idea s reay worked out !!! Thnx alot for saving my paint brushes

  15. Remember rinse, rinse and rinse the brushes again so as not to add cleaning agents into paint films. Avoid Murphy’s soap — that is for cleaning wood.

  16. The Masters soap is the best way. It is non-abrasive and gives off no fumes. It also teaches students to “feel” the brushes when they are not using them to paint with. The process of tugging the bristles forces the student to deal with the mechanics of a brush. The ferrule and how it collects paint can’t really be understood when dropping a brush in a jar and letting it sit around a while. A student needs to learn the differences between hot water and cold water. Let the fingers and hands feel the cleaning process each step of the way. The work of cleaning a brush aids in making an amateur painter into a professional painter.

    Just my opinion. Peace.

  17. I unfortunately had a pretty wicked migraine during a painting session. I am using acrylics and i left 3 good brushes with varying colors over night, they’re still stiff with paint after two soap washes. -_- and I use the worse detergent because my fiancee is allergic to liquid detergent so i cant use that on my brushes…the only oil i have is vegetable oil. any thought?

    • Dried on acrylics can be extremely difficult to revive. You can certainly try things like rubbing alcohol, acetone, or even mineral oil, to see if one or another of those approaches help. Or look to the various brush restoring products sold in commercial paint stores, or Winsor Newton has a brush cleaner/restorer that we have found effective at times. but ti is very much a case by case basis but perhaps worth trying.

  18. For disposal of oils, paints, etc. you might want to try covering them with a layer of cat litter in a bucket or cheap wastebasket, etc. The litter will soak up the oil (as it does, for example, on garage floors and driveways), then dry over time. This can be disposed of in the trash.

  19. Silicoil works and is completely re-useable (as solids settle).

    i like these suggestions but maybe someone mentioned mineral oil and i missed it? the kind you can drink… it won’t solidify on your brush like vegetable oils. use very sparingly and wipe away all the excess leaving just a bit of sheen… and do not wash natural bristle brushes with water. ever. my brushes hold up as if new for many, many years this way and deteriorate through mechanical (abrasion, etc) rather than by chemical means. this has worked for me although larger brushes (eg houspaint, varnish, etc) that have been in use all day still require a primary treatment with solvent first, whilst applying the oil afterward ensures no drying of paint solids nor bristles occur.
    not too bad for skin i think, too.

    • The one caution we would add is that you have to avoid any trace of mineral oil getting into your paints as it can cause problems with drying and adhesion. Thus we generally do recommend people wash any mineral oil, or other non-drying alternatives like canola, with soap and water. While we can appreciate the stance to never let water touch a natural bristle brush, keep in mind some of the most expensive and well cared for brushes are the kolinsky sable ones in watercolors, and those definitely can be gently washed with soap and water without causing them harm.

  20. Very interested in this as a relative newcomer to oils. I experimented with leaving my brushes in gamsol but stopped doing that when one disintegrated all over a painting! Plus, I’m not that keen on VOCs polluting the atmosphere at home, where I paint. I did start just washing the brushes every time I used them in Masters brush cleaner and preservative but that was still pretty messy. I was living in the States but am now in London, where I have discovered the large 24oz tub of Masters brush cleaner costs $60!!! Outrageous… So I will be cleaning my brushes in cheap vegetable oil from now on, and washing them. When my Masters cleaner runs out I will be trying out a large tub of solid melt and pour shampoo from Amazon for the second step. I’m hoping this will be a good Masters substitute!

    • Let us know how your new system works out. We definitely use vegetable oil here and when we do use the Masters soap, it really is just at the end, as a way to remove the last traces of any oil still in the brush.

  21. Thank-You all for the great comments and info. Me and my husband who has a great number of health issues one being a great vision impairment and seizures will love to hear of these great ideas and fixes.
    Again thank-you all so very very very much. May all of you be blessed with health and happiness.
    Sincerely Wendy C.

  22. After reading this article I started using safflower oil and DocBronners or Masters. My brushes are much softer and cleaner with this method, but there is some residual oil on the brush. Teeny tiny bit. My concern is the long term impact on the painting itself. Do you think it would affect the final product in any way?

    • A small trace amount of safflower oil will not harm the painting and you should be fine. We also like Dr. Bronner’s soap – especially the mint one! But in all seriousness, glad to hear that changing how you clean the brushes has helped.

  23. Hi I am new to using oil paints and this post was extremely useful to me as like the rest of the people here I am concerned about the use of toxic spirits to clean my brushes. I stumbled on Zest it which is a great brush cleaner but expensive so I did some research into essential oils (I am also a qualified Aromatherapist). Thanks to this great article I now use walnut oil or safflower oil mixed with sweet orange essential oil (great for de-greasing) to clean my brushes, it works a treat and smells lovely plus I get the benefits of the orange essential oils including natural mood enhancing and positive thinking – great when being creative. Thank you for the fantastic advice!

    • You can – but only for the last clean-up of the day, when you are done painting, and then you have to be sure to wash the brushes thoroughly with soap and water to remove any remaining oil as you do not want to have these non-drying oils contaminate your paints.

  24. I generally use a bit my bf’s cream degreaser/ hand-cleaner. I can’t think of the brand name but it doesn’t require water, just rub on then wipe with paper towels, that’s the hand cleaning instructions, I rinse with warm water afterwards, then dip my brushes in a cup of water that I added a splash of liquid fabric softener to, then let dry. Keeps brushes from staining, bristles are supple and makes the cleaning after the next use easier. I am curious if anyone has tried using soap-nuts? Might be worth experimenting with.

    • There are a lot of variations that one can find on discussion boards and we will admit that we have not tested most of them. In the end, we like keeping things as simple as possible, as so many other products – like fabric softener – can contain ingredients that might interfere with the ability of the oil paints to dry properly if they are not thoroughly rinsed out. But certainly, something to look into. And had never even heard of soap nuts – so will add that to the list of things to investigate.

  25. Actually, just about any plant-based oil will work. Some definitely work better than others, but you can use anything you have on hand. However, I can’t say this about coconut oil. I haven’t tried it yet, namely because all my coconut oil gets used for soap making.

    Happy painting!

    • I should also add that this method works well for most any type of paint too. Even wood stain. (I’ve had some time to experiment ever since moving out to our farm… And by some I mean A LOT!!!)

    • Thanks for sharing. Certainly, for cleaning up at the end of the day any vegetable oil could work – just need to make sure to rinse out the brushes thoroughly.

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