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How to Clean and Reuse a Dirty Paint Brush

Updated on April 1, 2013
Keeping brushes clean is important not just for immediate reuse, but for longevity.
Keeping brushes clean is important not just for immediate reuse, but for longevity. | Source

How to Properly Clean Paintbrushes

Paint brushes can be very expensive and the costs mount up if you keep having to replace them. There is not much that can be done about general wear and tear, but you can prolong their lifespan with proper care. The best way to ensure your paint brushes last as long as possible, regardless of the medium used, is to clean them after every session, store them properly and avoid mildew and moths. Below are some tips on how to clean and reuse a dirty paintbrush.

Cleaning and Reusing Dirty Oil Paint Brushes

Things you Will Need

  • Dish soap or artists oil paint cleaner
  • A clean jar
  • Two clean rags
  • Old newspaper
  • Clean warm water

Most oil brushes are made from natural fibres. Contrary to popular belief, it is possible to get oil paint brushes nice and clean without having to use a lot of solvent and in any case, you should never use thinner to clean your brushes. The trick to getting them really clean is to first get as much paint off the bristles as possible. Use a rag or newspaper to wipe off all excess paint before even considering using anything to clean your brush. Work the rag into the ferule, so that no excess paint collects around the area. Artist brush cleaner works well, but so does dish soap. To use dish soap, once the majority of the paint has been removed from the brush, pour a little dish soap into a jar and agitate the brush in the soap. Really work the soap into the brush. Take the brush out of the jar and rub it with a clean rag, paying close attention to the bristles to ensure all paint has been removed. Once all traces of oil paint are gone, use your hands to wash the bristles with warm soapy water. Again, use a clean rag to to work the soapy water into the brush, ensuring it is properly clean. Reshape the bristles with your fingers and allow the brush to air dry so that it can be reused later. Occasionally, it may be advisable to use a bit of brush conditioner if the bristles become dry and brittle.

If you wish to clean the brush quickly so that it can be reused straight away, the above method would just take too long. In this case, wipe off the excess paint with some newspaper and then quickly rinse the brush in thinner. Use the rag to ensure all of the paint is out and rinse it again to be sure. The important thing to remember here is never to leave paintbrushes standing up in paint thinner. This damages brushes in the long term.

If you are using synthetic brushes, they can stand repeated exposure to solvents, however, acetone should be avoided. Reshape synthetic brushes by placing them in hot (but not boiling) water for a short time.

Cleaning and Reusing Dirty Water Colour Brushes

Things you Will Need

  • Water jar
  • Room temperature water
  • Ivory soap

Watercolour brushes are far easier to clean, however, care must still be taken to retain the integrity of the brushes so that they can be reused for years to come. In the first instance, water colour brushes are made from natural fibres. They are coated with natural oils which helps them to maintain their shape. For this reason, never use hot water on them, only ever clean them in room temperature water. Never allow them to dry out. Simply rinse them in room temperature water to reuse them quickly during a painting session. Sometimes it is necessary to use a cleaning aid in order to get them thoroughly clean and ready for reuse during the same session or for a later session. In this case, something like ivory soap works very well. There are specific brush conditioners which you can purchase to use occasionally which keep the natural oils in the brush fibres topped up. One of the most important things to remember is to allow the brushes to dry properly. If water colour brushes, especially large brushes, are left to dry upright, water can get trapped in the ferule, leading to mould and rotting of the brush. For this reason, it is advisable to dry watercolour brushes by hanging them so that the brush end hangs down toward the floor, allowing any water dry naturally.

Cleaning and Reusing Dirty Acrylic and Vinyl Paint Brushes

Things you will need:

  • Water jar
  • Warm water
  • Commercial brush cleaner for acrylics
  • Acetone for emergencies

Acrylic paint dries very quickly. This means that during a session, even though the tip of your brush ay be wet, the paint near the ferule end of the brush is constantly drying. If acrylic paint dries and is allowed to build up in an acrylic paint brush, it can completely ruin the brush. For this reason, it is advisable to rinse acrylic and vinyl brushes at least every 15 minutes during a painting session.

Sometimes it is difficult to keep track of time and paint brushes sometimes end up with covered in dried up paint. In these situations, some of the commercial brush cleaners for acrylic paints apparently work quite well. In emergency situations, acetone may be used to get the paint out, however, apart from being very bad for your health, acetone melts nylon brushes. Whether you use brush cleaner or acetone, rinse the brush in warm water afterwards and allow it to dry naturally. Again, there are commercial conditioners available to prolong the life of dried out brushes.


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