How To Clean Oil Paint Brushes: Secrets To Long-Lasting Brushes

Oil paintbrushes in different sizes and styles

One of the most beautiful and time-consuming art forms is an oil painting, which requires many supplies, including oil paint brushes. How do you clean these brushes? How often should they be cleaned? How can you prolong the lifespan of your brush for use in future paintings? This article will answer all of those questions and more.

Oil paint brushes are a painter's best friend. They give the most natural painting experience, with plenty of control and detail to make any work of art come alive on canvas. We will reveal how to extend the life of your precious tools by keeping them in top condition!

What You'll Need

Step-by-Step Instructions

There are several techniques to clean your oil paintbrush but let's start with the most basic: cleaning your oil paint brushes with solvent.

1. Remove excess oil paint.

Wipe off excess oil paint on a paper towel. Fold the paper towel and use the other side to clean the remaining oil paint.

2. Prepare 3 containers.

You'll need three glass containers to clean your oil paint brushes and fill two containers with solvent and the third container with safflower oil.

3. Clean the brush with solvent.

Dip the dirty oil into the solvent and wipe off the paint on a paper towel. Repeat this step twice.

4. Rinse with clean solvent.

Pour fresh solvent into a second container, then rinse the paint brush in it. Blot the solvent on a paper towel.

5. Remove stubborn oil paint with safflower oil.

If you have stubborn oil paint near the heel of the brush, dip the brush in safflower oil. Use a piece of paper to clean out stubborn oil paint, then rinse the brush again in the second container.

6. Recondition the brush.

Squeeze a small amount of hair conditioner into your palm and wipe it with the brush until you get all the conditioner on the brush. The conditioner will keep your brush soft and protected from drying out until the next use.

Keeping Your Oil Paint Brushes Clean During Painting

Unlike watercolor brushes that you need to clean in water if you switch colors, you don't have to do that often when using oil paints.

Tap the brush on the palette

To keep your paint evenly distributed, tap your brush on the clean part of the paint palette. Tap it repeatedly so the oil paint shows on the palette. This step is beneficial when you add grass and flower details to your painting, so they don't look like a piece of huge glob on the canvas.

Wipe the brush on a paper towel

Wiping your brush on a paper towel is also an excellent way to keep it clean. Rub the brush back and forth on the paper towel until it comes out clean, so you can pick a new color without contaminating it. Some artists recommend keeping a roll of paper towel below your easel for easier access. A self-adhesive paper towel holder is a helpful tool for this.

Use a beater rack

You can also clean your brush in a beater rack. The beater rack is simply a rack that you can install in a wastebasket or any deep container you no longer use. You may also use the Silicoil brush cleaning tank, which includes a container with an aluminum coil to separate the brush from the oil pigments for better cleaning.

Dip the brush in odorless thinners, agitate the brush in the thinner, then beat it across the rack. This step will remove stubborn paints, especially when you switch from dark to light colors. Before using the brush, wipe it off on a piece of towel and squeeze off the bristles to remove the thinner to avoid getting it on your painting.

However, don't be complacent when using odorless thinners as they still emit fumes. Look for a solvent with a low evaporation rate like Gamsol or Weber Odorless Turpenoid to minimize exposure to fumes. Always work in a well-ventilated area too. 

All thinners and solvents are also combustible and fatal if swallowed. Take extra caution to keep them out of highly flammable materials and from the reach of children and pets.

Cleaning Oil Paint Brushes Without Solvents

Good vs. splayed paintbrush

Baby oil

Baby oil and linseed oil works well in cleaning your oil paint brushes. Aside from cleaning, it also conditions the brush bristles. Wipe off the excess oil paint from the brush with a paper towel or rag. To use baby oil, pour a good amount of baby oil in the container, enough to cover the length of the bristles to let you remove the paint quickly.

Use a soft cloth to wipe off more paint, from the base to the tip of the bristles. Do it slowly to avoid breaking the bristles. Change the baby oil and repeat the process until you remove all the paint. However, don't leave the baby oil on the paint brush unrinsed as it tends to form an oily residue on the brush. Always rinse your brushes with soap and water before storing them.

Linseed oil

Since most oil paints use linseed oil, you can also use it for cleaning your oil paint brushes. Add a few drops of linseed oil on a canvas paper to soak one side, then turn it over so the other side can absorb the oil. The texture of the canvas paper helps clean the brush better.

Rub the brush on the canvas paper until you get off all the pigment from the brush. Then, you can finish cleaning the brush with soap and water.

Oil soap

Oil soap will not clean the oil brush thoroughly, but you can use it for the final step of cleaning. It will effectively remove the turpentine or oils you used to clean the brush. Pour a small amount of Murphy's Oil Soap on the palette, previously cleaned with denatured alcohol to remove all traces of oil paint.

Swirl your brush on the oil soap until you remove all the residual paint. Save the oil soap in a clean container as you can use it multiple times. Rinse the brush in warm water until you remove all the soap and paint from the brush.

Aside from Murphy's, you may also try Chelsea Classical Studio Lavender & Olive Oil Soap or Jack Richeson Linseed Studio Soap. Follow the manufacturer's instructions to use these studio soaps efficiently.

Environment-Friendly Alternatives to Solvents

Winsor & Newton Brush Cleaner & Restorer

No matter what type of brush you have - natural or synthetic, Winsor & Newton Brush Cleaner and Restorer is up for the job. This all-purpose cleaner safely cleans your dried-out oil paintbrush without damaging the bristles. The cleaning solution also emits no fumes, water-soluble, non-flammable, and non-abrasive. Furthermore, it washes off oil residues well.

Real Milk Paint Co. Citrus Solvent

This citrus solvent, made of 100% natural ingredients (98% oil from citrus peels and 2% water), is an excellent alternative for a safer, thinner and cleaner. It does not have harmful fumes or foul odors and is 100% biodegradable. It is also clear as water, so it won't affect the colors of your oil paints when you use it as a thinner.

Weber Turpenoid Natural

You can clean your brushes without harsh chemicals with the Weber Turpenoid Natural. It effectively cleans and conditions your paint brushes and is easy to rinse with plain water. It is non-toxic, non-flammable, has no harmful odors, and safe enough when it comes into contact with your skin.

However, it is not for sale in California, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, New Hampshire, and Utah.

Chelsea Classical Studio Lavender Spike Oil Essence

If you need a safer natural solvent for oil painting, the Chelsea Classical Studio Lavender Spike Oil Essence is a good choice. It does not have harmful fumes or strong odors associated with petroleum-based mineral spirits.

Removing Dried Oil Paint from Brushes

An oil paint brush with dried oil paint

Oil paints take a long time to dry. However, if, for some reason, you forgot to clean your brush and had some dried oil paint on it, do not despair. You can still fix it! Fill a glass container with apple cider vinegar. The apple cider vinegar breaks down the oil binder in the paint. Leave the paint brush soaking for 24 hours.

Wipe off the jelly-like residues of the oil paint on a paper towel, then scrape off the excess oil paint with your fingernails. Repeat dipping the oil paint brush in apple cider vinegar and use a spoolie or old mascara wand to remove the leftovers paint. Rinse the oil paint brush in clean solvent. Recondition the brush with a hair conditioner and reshape the brush with spoolies.

Safe Way of Disposing Used Solvents

Disposing of your used solvents brings a lot of contention among artists because it can contaminate the soil and water. Flushing it in your toilet is also a no-no, though some have attempted to do it.

The good news is that solvents can last a long time as long as you keep them sealed in a glass container. Place a wire mesh at the bottom of the container to separate the pigments from the solvent. 

When the oil looks like sludge, drain the solvent with a coffee filter to transfer it to a new container. Label and seal the container for subsequent use. Transfer the sludge into a leak-free container so you can dispose of it in the hazardous waste collection.

Soak the paper towel and rags you used to clean the oil paint brushes in water and keep them in red biohazard bags to throw in a fire-safe trash can. Pack all other paint residuals like palette scrapings in a paper towel or rag and dispose of them in the same hazardous waste facility.

Cleaning Oil Paint Brushes FAQ

Can you use vinegar to clean oil paint brushes?

Yes. The acid in vinegar breaks up the oil molecules, so you can use it to clean your oil paint brushes. You can even clean dried-up paint brushes by soaking them in vinegar overnight.

Other artists suggest soaking the brush in vinegar for an hour, then letting it simmer in more vinegar for a few minutes. However, if you're using brushes with synthetic bristles, we don't recommend heating them.

Can you use vinegar as paint thinner?

While you can use vinegar to thin oil-based paints for house painting jobs, we don't recommend it for your artwork. We don't know its long-term effect on the canvas and the paint, and since we want to eliminate the acid as much as possible, it is not plausible to add it to the oil paint.

Instead, use vegetable oil or baby oil as cheap alternatives to linseed oil, walnut oil, safflower oil, and other oils you usually use as a medium.

Can you rinse oil paint down the drain?

It is tempting to wash your oil paint brushes in your kitchen or bathroom sink, but it's a big no-no for safety and environmental reasons. Oil paints will clog your kitchen or bathroom sink and damage your septic tank. Some states even declare it illegal, especially if you're using a public sewage system.

Instead, use a small basin or container to hold some warm water to rinse your oil paint brush. Limit the amount of water, so you can dispose of this water in a waste bag to throw in a hazardous waste bin.


Knowing how to clean oil paint brushes is necessary to keep your expensive brushes for a long time. It prevents the bristles from getting hard, crusty, and splayed, rendering them useless for future use. What challenges do you usually encounter when cleaning your brushes? Share with us your challenges and how you countered them so you can continue painting with oils.

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