How not to clean your brushes

Friday 1

Cleaning oil painting brushes is the bane of my existence. I’ve tried many things, but nothing works as well as old-fashioned turpentine, now banned from shared studios. Get too aggressive and your brush fibers degenerate into woody, shapeless sticks. Don’t get aggressive enough, and you end up left with paint dried under the ferrules and hardened, shapeless sticks.

The plein air painter has the additional problem of not being near a sink when he or she cleans up. There’s nothing more pleasant than finding a brand-new brush hardened in the pocket of your backpack.

What doesn’t work:

  1. Standing your brushes in a can of solvent and promising yourself you’ll get them later.
  2. Forgetting them altogether. My personal favorite.
  3. Paint remover to soften up hardened brushes. You’ll never get the paint out of the ferrule.
  4. Brush combs. They’re sized for housepainting brushes and they hurt when you accidentally stick them into your finger.
  5. Engine degreasers. Yes, they remove paint but at the expense of completely wrecking the bristles.
  6. Parts washers. Don’t ask.
  7. Mechanical brush cleaners. I have one, and I use it when I have lots of brushes to wash, but it doesn’t get all the paint out. You still have to hand-wash at the end.
  8. Washing bristles in the palm of your hand. Pressing pigment into your skin isn’t healthy. Use a rag instead.
  9. Washing brushes in the kitchen sink. If you must do this, scrub your sink with a rag when you’re finished. Otherwise, you’re dosing your food prep area with pigment.

Friday 2

A few things that do work:

  1. Rinsing brushes with mineral spirits before washing them.
  2. A pre-treatment of coconut oil between the mineral spirits rinse and the soap. Some people use vegetable or olive oil for this, but I like the texture of coconut oil better.
  3. Fels Naptha laundry soap. This is an old fashioned, gentle degreaser, formulated to not destroy your clothes. It’s cheap and effective.
  4. Wrapping brushes and throwing them in the freezer until you can clean them. It’s not a permanent solution, but it does slow down the drying time.
Carol Douglas

About Carol Douglas

Carol L. Douglas is a painter who lives, works and teaches in Rockport, ME. Her annual workshop will again be held on the Schoodic Peninsula in beautiful Acadia National Park, from August 6-11, 2017. Visit for more information.