oil paintings and photography by Amber Honour

A New Sketch & Thoughts on Caring for Brushes

A New Sketch & Thoughts on Caring for Brushes

The next one is on the easel. It needs some more work on the sketch, but it’s a good start. I’m actually really happy with the mouth and left eye. The right eye and the nose especially, need more work. This painting is going to be my first color portrait of a person. I really loved the dog portraits I was doing this fall, so I thought some smaller portraits would help me hone my portrait skills.

I wanted to get more painting done this week, but my week was absolutely packed with festivities. Now that most of the hard partying is out-of-the-way, I can relax with my family for Christmas and sneak off to paint.

With Christmas approaching, I’ve been thinking about new brushes. I’ve been very hard on my brushes. Not intentionally of course, but I’ve practically destroyed several nice brushes I got for Christmas last year. I can’t for the life of me figure out where I’ve gone so wrong. Am I cleaning them wrong or am I just excessively hard on them while painting?

After every time I’m done painting I clean all of the paint out with turpentine, then wash thoroughly with soap and water and either lay them over the edge of the counter or hang bristles down to dry. Brush washing has become the bane of my existence this last year. I really wish I enjoyed washing my brushes, but there have been too many times that I avoided painting entirely because I didn’t want to wash brushes after.

When I feel unmotivated to wash brushes, I like to watch videos of other people painting. In a few videos I came across people who rarely wash their brushes. I went on to find many more people on blogs and forums that have claimed to do this successfully for years. They simply clean the paint out using turpentine or oil then dip them in a slow drying oil and they’re good to go for days. It’s recommended to wash brushes if they won’t be used for an extended period of time, but I paint every week so I would drastically reduce my brush washing with this method.

There is some debate over what oil to use and whether the oil will negatively affect the paint. It seems the top contenders are walnut oil, safflower oil, and poppy-seed oil. They’re all considered slow drying oils and have a long history of use in oil paint. However, it’s debatable whether supermarket oils are lesser than art store oils. It was suggested that rancid supermarket oil could be better for painting because the antioxidants have decomposed or that it shouldn’t be used because of preservatives (wouldn’t my paint contain rancid oil or harsh preservatives making this a moot point either way?). I had trouble finding a definitive answer on this point. Some people only used the oil for cleaning and believe it doesn’t matter because the oil will be washed out of the brushes before they’ll be used again for painting. I however wouldn’t be washing the oil out of my brushes the majority of the time so it needs to be compatible.

Does anyone have any experience with this method of caring for brushes? M. Graham offers both a walnut alkyd medium and a walnut oil medium which seems to just be plain walnut oil. Would the supermarket walnut oil be equivalent to their plain walnut oil and be acceptable to use for cleaning and short-term storage?

It’s also an intriguing idea to clean brushes with oil instead of turpentine. Like dissolves like, so I don’t see why it wouldn’t work. It’s hard to get adequate ventilation in the winter, and I would love to not freeze my butt off while cleaning brushes. If it works well enough I might even give up turpentine/OMS/mineral spirits entirely.



8 thoughts on “A New Sketch & Thoughts on Caring for Brushes”

  • Interesting post on the hassles of clean up! (My procrastination point has always been cleaning the paint off my palette.)
    I don’t have years of painting experience under my belt, but this year – in the interests of not stinking out the family home, I moved away from turps and started using Archival Oils Odourless Solvent. I tend to wipe any excess paint off my brush with a soft cloth (that is eventually thrown out) and then give it a good swirl in the solvent before wiping it off on the cloth. I repeat this till the brush wipes clean and I can get on to the next colour. Once I’ve finished painting – if I’m not going to do any more in the next day or so – I give my brushes a thorough clean out with fresh turps and then do the warm water and soap treatment. Doesn’t solve the need to clean brushes so much as it reduces the stench of turps throughout the day.
    Curious to know what you end up trying with using oil to clean up though… keep us posted!

    • Thank you. I’ve always found cleaning my palette the easiest part. It’s glass so I just transfer the paint piles to my freezer container and then scrape it clean with a paint scraper. It’s quick, easy, and oddly satisfying. I prefer to use regular turpentine because I believe the danger is in the vapors. If I can smell it, then I’m not ventilating enough and I would worry about the odorless solvents not being ventilated enough. It should be entirely possible to clean with oil since like dissolves like. Using turps is just faster. I’m going to experiment and do another post later on.

  • Interesting. This is absolutely new to me, but I wonder what olive oil would do? It is very acidic, but a natural oil.

    • I believe olive oil is a non drying oil and therefore unsuitable for painting. If it were to somehow get on your painting you could have some issues with the paint never drying. If you were going to thoroughly wash your brushes with soap and water before painting, the use of non drying oils is safer.

  • I don’t have a lot of experience with oils….I mostly use acrylics. But I also hate turps. So I ‘clean’ the brush with linseed oil or walnut oil. I put oil on it, wipe it into a cloth, repeat. And the last thing I use is soap and water. I suppose it would be a good idea to finish it all by coating with oil.
    I go to a printmaking shop where turps are banned and all cleaning of oil based materials is done with oil and then dishwashing soap. 🙂

    • Thank you for your input! I’ve been coming across more and more people that use walnut oil to clean their brushes. I like using it so far. 🙂

  • Hi Amber,
    I paint almost every day, not weekends usually. I use Gamblin’s Gamsol for a solvent. I clean off my brush after I use it with a paper towel or rag to remove as much of the paint as possible. I then rinse it around in a solvent container, either the kind with a metal ring in the bottom or an insert with holes in it. That keeps the solids to the bottom more or less. I then blot out the solvent on a towel again and paint some more.

    I’ve tried assorted plant oils and I don’t like how they leave a lot of the paint in the brush. Plus the paint doesn’t sink to the bottom of the cleaning container and it just doesn’t clean out as well as Gamsol.

    At the end of the day, I make sure all the paint is out of my brush with a towel and then with solvent. Thalo blue and green are really tough to wash out, btw. After that I take all my brushes to the sink and use Master Brush cleaner to clean them. I cut an old tennis ball in half (my dog helped to get it started on its path to recycling it, lol). I then get the brushes (one at a time) wet and rub them back and forth inside the tennis ball to sort of lather them up. You can really see the pigment coming out! I rinse and repeat until the brush is clean. With sable brushes, I use a little of my hair conditioner and dip them in it and reshape them. I barely rinse out the conditioner. Sometimes I just use a little of the Master Brush Cleaner as a conditioner and re-shaper. http://www.dickblick.com/products/the-masters-brush-cleaner-and-preserver is a link to it on Blick.com

    I find that really good brushes are worth every cent. I buy Rosemary & Co brushes. They aren’t really that expensive and some of the best brushes I have ever used. They keep their shape and clean out really nicely. https://www.rosemaryandco.com/ is the website. I like the Ultimate, Ivory and Chunking bristle types. You can always get a few artists together for an order to save on shipping. Once you try them, you’ll wonder why you ever used anything else.

    One of my friends who paints every day uses Simple Green at the end of the day to clean her brushes. She also uses Gamsol during her painting day.

    Another friend of mine who paints every day, puts her brushes in a ziplock bag at the end of the day and pops it in the freezer with her palette. She throws her brushes out and buys new ones as needed.

    I figure cleaning out your brushes at the end of each day is sort of like flossing your teeth. Some people floss their teeth, others scoff flossing. Its a personal choice. But I do it every day, even when I’m camping. I carry a small tin that used to have Altoids in it that I stuffed a few chunks of Master Brush cleaner in it and use that plus the palm of my hand.

    I also put my palette, which is glass inside a Masterson airtight box, into the freezer overnight and the oil paint stays fresh for a really long time, several weeks before it skins over. I bring it out and put it back each day.

    But I floss daily and clean my house once a week. Totally a personal choice.

    Have fun painting!
    -Cedar

    • Thank you for your comment with all of the links! I don’t know if you just posted it or if you posted it a while ago, but it was filtered out. I try to check filtered comments occasionally and found yours. So I’m sorry if my response is delayed. There is so much about art that comes down to personal choice. I’ve found that I prefer not washing my brushes every day. To me, it’s tedious and time consuming. I’ve been using walnut oil to clean my brushes in a solvent container like you describe since writing this post and I really like it. After a while the pigment does settle to the bottom, but not as much as it would in solvent. When I do wash my bushes (I still wash them occasionally) I actually see far less pigment than I would when I cleaned them with solvent. The last batch of brushes I washed with soap didn’t have any residual pigment in them at all after soaking for a couple days in oil. I essentially wash them as you described but I just use my palm instead of a tennis ball half. That’s an excellent idea though!
      I’m really on the fence about buying really nice brushes. I can’t figure out if I’m just using crappy brushes, if my cleaning habits are damaging, or if my painting method is just that hard on brushes, but I buy new brushes every year. The second set I bought was nice quality but some of the nice quality brushes are so bad they’re nearly beyond use. I decided to experiment a little and bought a new set of cheap brushes to see if maybe my new cleaning method is beneficial or not.
      As far as palettes, I actually really enjoy cleaning my palette. I transfer my piles of paint to a small piece of glass in some tupperware that I store in the freezer and scrape my palette clean with a razor. Although, I’d put my whole palette in the freezer if my freezer wasn’t so narrow.

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