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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When is Long too Long a Time? On Van Dyke Brown and the Art of Drying

It never dries. Or at least it can seem that way, if you ever worked with genuine Van Dyke Brown, a bituminous earth designated as Natural Brown 8 by the Color Index. Week after week can go by, and even the lightest touch of a finger on the thinnest of films can come away with a wet smudge of a deep dark blackish brown. It’s enough to push many a painter’s patience to the brink, and is a quality that has been bound to this pigment for as long as it has found a place on the artists’ palette, stretching back to the 17th century.

When confronted with this problem, a paintmaker only has a few options at their disposal. Certainly you can leave the paint as it is, although in many ways you are simply pushing the problem downstream and forcing artists to wrestle with the disparity of a paint that might take months to dry in a thicker application. Another possibility would be to abandon the pigment all together; to convert it to a mix of synthetic or natural earths blended with black. But to do so is to turn one’s back on a unique material that has threaded itself through so much of art history, and appeared in such a wide range of paintings forming the backdrop of our craft. Or you might try ramping up the addition of metallic driers in the hopes of coaxing the color into line. However, you soon find there is a limit to the improvements you can achieve before equally increasing the risk of cracking and surface defects. Not an option we would entertain.

In the end we went in another direction altogether, using a solution that has a long history of its own going back to at least Rembrandt’s day: namely, to leverage the powerful drying action that certain pigments are known to have – in particular the umbers. Start with a pure Van Dyke Brown and add 10% Raw Umber, and the initial film that never dried for weeks will now be locked down in a couple of days. Along the way, however, the masstone and tint are clearly impacted and its not clear if the gains are worth it. Slowly reduce that blend to a mere 2%, and the film will dry in a fairly reasonable 6-10 days with barely a perceptible change in color or handling. Reduce it even further to 1%, and the drying time starts to lengthen out again and even a paper-thin film can easily take a couple of weeks or more to set-up. Which gets you right back on that edge of a judgement call – when is long too long a time?

So it’s a balancing act, and a good lesson along the way in just how reactive and powerful a catalyst some pigments can be. If you look at the dry time chart at the end of our recent article Weighing in on the Drying of Oils ( you can see that a thin film of our Van Dyke Brown should dry in 5-14 days depending on conditions – approximately the same rate as our Cadmium Reds. We feel that makes sense and is in keeping with the traditional way painters dealt with this problem in the past. But if you ever have a desire or need for a Van Dyke Brown that takes longer to dry, or contains no Raw Umber whatsoever, just let us know! We regularly make custom paints for those in search of unique colors or formulations.

For more information about this or anything else, give us a call (800-293-9399 / 607-847-8843) or drop us an email

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Mix and Match

Even from the earliest days our Cinnabar Green Light was a simple blend of two pigments: Ultramarine Blue (PB 29) and Permanent Yellow Light (PY 3). Straightforward. Uncomplicated. About as easy a mix as you will ever find. But while we can control most of the variables in a recipe, a change in the pigment from our suppliers is rarely one of them.  Tweak either of the underlying colors a little warmer this way, a little cooler that, and all of a sudden you might find that no possible ratio of the two pigments at your disposal will ever create a perfect match.

Recently we had to confront just this situation when a cooler version of PY 3, which had been used in Cinnabar Green Light, was completely discontinued and no alternative supplier could be found. In seeking a way forward, we took a close look at the history of the color, including a tube from 2009, just before Williamsburg joined Golden Artist Colors, and another from 1998. Having these wet samples to use in color matching was critical, as color swatches, no matter how well preserved, can change over time. Despite the limitations of photos and computer monitors, you can hopefully see how the color already existed within a range, from a bluer, higher chroma position more than a decade ago to something that was slightly lighter, yellower and less saturated in more recent times. .

Williamsburg Cinnabar Green Light

While we found it impossible to match either of these poles with the new pigment, we felt we could easily achieve something in-between. Deciding to hold onto as much vibrancy as possible, we opted for the increased clarity of the older batch, but with just a touch more yellow to pull it slightly closer to its more recent incarnation. We believe the result (seen on the far right in the photo above) brings the best qualities of both versions together and hopefully represents a blend that can act as a new master standard for many more years to come.

Let us know what you think.

Sarah Sands

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Ground Breaking Temperatures

It’s cold out there – or at least out here, in upstate NY.  And with the arrival of colder days comes concerns about lower temperatures and how these might affect paintings being stored or shipped in unheated conditions. For oils, the danger of dropping temperatures is focused mainly on the increased brittleness of paint films and the grounds they rest on. In a recent study by conservation scientists¹ on the impact of cold temperatures on various grounds, issues were raised about all the usual suspects.  But while it was long known that acrylic gessoes grew stiffer and more brittle in low temperatures, the degree this affected traditional oil and more modern alkyd-based grounds might come as a surprise.  At 68F/20C a traditional lead ground could only flex 1.6% before cracking, but by 50F/10C that was cut in half to .8%. As you fall even further down. to 32F/0C, that percentage was halved yet again, to just .4%, while alkyd-based grounds fared just slightly better, hovering around 1% or less. Just how little give and take does that represent? A 25” x 30” painting would only need to be keyed out or stretched a scant 1/16” to suffer a 1% strain in the corners and a .5% strain in the center of the canvas. So, for this example at least, an increased risk for cracking would exist even at the relatively mild temperature of 50F/10C. And of course, in all these cases, the older the oil painting becomes, the less flexible it will be.

So, what is a painter to do? Obviously the best solution is to keep your work in as moderate an environment as possible, and to avoid stressing or stretching any painting that might be colder than the typical, warmer room temperatures you find in a gallery or museum. If you can, try not to ship paintings during colder months, but if that becomes necessary, look for ways to dampen and minimize any flexing the canvas might undergo. And certainly by painting on panel, or mounting a canvas to panel, one greatly lessens these concerns altogether. Lastly, this is a great excuse to relocate to warmer climates – assuming you have been looking for an excuse in the first place.

Feel free to leave a comment and make sure to subscribe to get our next entry. And for more tips or advice, or just to chat about any of your questions concerning our paints, give us a call (800-293-9399 / 607-847-8843) or drop us an email

Sarah Sands

¹Young, Christina, and Eric Hagan. 2008. Cold Temperatures Effects on Modern Paint used for Priming Flexible Supports. In Preparation for Painting: The Artist’s Choice and Its Consequences, ed. Joyce H. Townsend, Tiarna Doherty, Gunnar Heydenreich, and Jacqueline Ridge, 172-179. London: Archetype

See also “Using Oils with Acrylics“, Just Paint 24, Golden Artist Colors


An Invitation to a Dialog

From the beginning Williamsburg was always known as a ‘painter’s paint.’ Partly it was because the founder of the company, Carl Plansky, was first and foremost a painter by both temperament and training. Everything he made was infused with a painter’s sense of touch and passion for color. The hours spent over a mill or mixer were in constant dialog with the hours spent in the studio. As any painter knows, at the end of the day the paint always has to ‘work’, the color has to be beautiful, the overall sense…..well, sensuous. And those criteria never came from cold concepts or rigid recipes, but from the lived experience of the paint being pushed and attended to in the studio. As the company grew, the dialog continued to expand far beyond Carl’s own paintings and practice to include the constant conversations and feedback painters provided when calling or visiting the factory and eventually to the thousands of emails and other contacts with artists that Williamsburg has had over the years.

The launching of this blog is another step in that ongoing tradition – an invitation to a dialog and discussion about the deep traditions and new discoveries that inform our craft and underlie our shared love for the materials of painting. Let us know what you think and what you are thinking about. And if you are ever in upstate New York, please visit our factory where the same mills and mixers that made Carl’s paints many decades ago are still in operation. We are always eager to hear your thoughts over a cup of coffee or, better yet, while pushing around some paint in our applications area. In the meantime, however, we want to invite you into this new space as well and to let those conversations begin to take shape.