Cara Purita

How To: Rescue a Neglected Paintbrush

Look! Nice clean paintbrushes. You can see by the handles that I tend to get paint. . . everywhere!

Most of the time a little mineral oil and the occasional shampoo is enough to keep my brushes clean, but the truth is life gets busy and sometimes paintbrush abuse happens! More often than I’d like to admit, I think I will have time to come back to my painting later (after I make dinner, after I take the kids to their activities, after . . . life!). My brushes sometimes get left out WITH THE PAINT STILL ON THEM! Horrors. Paintbrushes can be expensive. . . I am fortunate to have had a lot of brushes passed on to me when friends or family members have realized they’re ~just not that into~ painting, but I have also spent my fair share of money on brushes that meet my needs. Therefore I have a wide variety of both synthetic and natural fiber brushes, large and small brushes, some fairly new and some that I have managed to keep since my art school days (woah! That could be a 20 year old paintbrush there!) What to do when you have gone and left oil paint to dry on those brushes? Rescue that brush!

I have tried a variety of commercial brush savers, soaps and items advertised to bring a paintbrush back to it’s former glory. It is true that once in a while a paintbrush is destined for the bin. But usually, there IS something that can be done, and most of the necessary cleaning items are already in your bathroom. As a last resort for those brushes that truly deserve saving, I keep a very small container of distilled turpentine to use (I don’t paint with it, my studio is small and the window is the only ventilation available).

Here is the method I have used to rescue neglected and abused paintbrushes;

What you’ll need:

  • odorless mineral oil
  • empty glass jar or jars
  • rags
  • shampoo and conditioner
  • a tennis ball, cut in half
  • distilled turpentine (only in case of emergency)

The method:

  1. first swish those brushes around in a glass jar with a tiny amount of the mineral oil in it– most of the time this will get most of the paint out. Use a rag to wipe brushes
  2. next, dip each paintbrush in shampoo. Usually by the time I get around to really cleaning my brushes, I have a whole bunch of them to do, so I cover each one in shampoo before I move on to the next step
  3. swirl each brush around in that half tennis ball, it’ll keep you from wearing out the palms of your hands! You should see a lot of colour coming out into the shampoo. Rinse and repeat as many times as necessary.
  4. Rinse well, pat dry with rags and apply conditioner to your brushes, shape them nicely. You can leave the conditioner on until it is time to paint again– rinse before use!
  5. It is best to lay brushes flat until they are dry, then prop them up in a container if you like. 🙂 Lovely clean brushes.
  6. What if this method wasn’t good enough? I still have some hard or sticky brushes, what do I do with them? If the above method has failed to get out all the hardened paint, I break out the distilled turpentine. Put a splash in the bottom of a clean jar, and set your brushes in it for a few minutes. Swish them around, see the colour start to come out. . .
  7. Now wipe the turpentine off your paintbrush with a rag, re-apply shampoo, and scrub in tennis ball
  8. You will probably need to use your fingernails to really scrub out all the dried paint. Bonus! Really clean fingernails. Rinse and repeat as necessary. I actually managed to get paint out of a brush that had been dried into it for years (you know, sometimes you manage to get the outsides and tips of the brush nice and clean, but there is still paint stuck on the inner fibers and near the ferrule)
  9. Repeat #4 and 5 of the list above.

Voila! Clean brushes! It works amazingly well for me almost every time. Sometimes brushes are so badly damaged they belong in the trash. Turpentine will eat away at many brushes if you leave them in for too long– you’re better off using odorless mineral oil during a painting session. Turpentine is also highly flammable, and you are not recommended to inhale it– so make sure to discard it properly and don’t leave turp rags lying around inside, your whole space will stink! I rarely use it at all, so I don’t have a special metal container to keep dirty rags/ etc in. I suppose a mason jar would work. . .

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