Saturday, January 22, 2011

Cleaning brushes

On the last painting trip I took, discussion turned to "how best to clean brushes?" One of the women on the trip suggested that Murphy oil soap was the best way. So I tried it when I returned home. It does seem to work really well, it cleans them quickly and leaves them soft, it doesn't seem to dry them out so they will become brittle.

I am murder on brushes, I don't often wash them, I scrub with them and abuse them with my paper towel. I only use a few. Some day when I am really rich and famous I will just throw them away at the end of every painting day. I do like them sharp and when they lose their edge, out they go.

When paint dries in my brushes, I use professional house painters brush cleaner, but that has to be done outdoors as it is nasty stuff. I used to use Ivory bar soap until I was turned on to the Murphy"s soap.

The procedure is this:
  • Pour a dot of the Murphy soap directly onto the brush from the bottle.
  • Run it around and around on the palm of your hand ( I wear gloves most of the time and it would seem like a good idea for this too, I was taught to do it barehanded years ago, but it is probably smarter not to grind pigments into the skin of your palms.
  • Keep that going until the lather comes out white, indicating no pigment is left in the brush, try to get the paint out of the ferule too (that's the shiny part between the hair and the wood).
  • Shape the brush when you have finished so it will dry into a shape that it is supposed to be. NEVER point a brush with your mouth, or hold a brush in your mouth either. Even the little residue of paint in your brush is toxic.
  • Often in workshops I have students whose brushes are totally worn out. They are useless, when your brushes get worn, replace them. A brush needs to be able to make a clean mark not a fuzzy one. The cost of painting is your time and education, not the materials or brushes. Go ski for a day if you disagree, then get back to me.


Kevin Mizner said...

Hi Stape, When I'm out in my studio and need to clean a dirty brush, I use a gob of GoJo along with turpentine. It does a good job in between more thorough washings. I too wish I could throw brushes away after each painting, because I HATE washing them!

Richard J. Luschek II said...

Rather than throw them out, if I could afford it, I would just have my servant clean them for me. I like the idea of having a servant better than being wasteful with your brushes. It just seems more 'green'.

Murphys Oil is good. I use Fels Naptha bar soap. Anyone else ever try it?
It is powerful soap, cheap, and claims to cure foot rot, cure poison ivy, and will also get out some wicked stains.

Sandra Galda said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Judy P. said...

I am terrible at letting the oil paint dry on my nice brushes, but soaking them overnight in Turpenoid Natural (the green can) saves the day. It's expensive stuff, but I've been painting probably 2 years now,and am only halfway through a quart- it'll still clean even if it's murky with old paint residue. Plus it smells great and is 'green' too.
After I soak it I wipe the brush over a bit on a Fels-Naptha soap, which is indeed strong and $1 for a big bar. If I don't let the paint dry I just use the Fels-Naptha. But I never thought to shape the bristles after cleaning- got to add that step!

Barbara said...

The care and cleaning of brushes might be what discourages me most from using oils. Is it okay to clean brushes in the sink and run the paint residue down the drain? I do it, but I think I'm not supposed to. What would be the alternative? How toxic is paint on your skin? I probably only have fifty more years to live at best.

Deb said...

I have used fels naptha, and think it does a great job, and also ivory soap (I put chunks of it in a glass jar and add enough water to make "goo" and let really bad brushes sit in it overnight) Both work. But I love the way Murphy's Oil Soap smells, so any excuse to use it is good enough for me.
Now if they would just get rid of cat hair......

jeff said...

I use linseed oil soap of which there is a fair amount in Murphy's.

I buy it from this company

I use to use olive oil soap which worked well. The linseed is the best in my opinion. Makes sense as well as you're painting with linseed oil.

Sandra Galda said...

Ok so the turpentine fumes made me poorly construct the first comment I made:) I will try again:

I love using Murphy's Oil soap too--- When I am done washing I shape the bristles and roll the brush down the sticky side of a strip of scotch or masking tape over and over (the end of the bristles will be open to airflow). I leave the bristles taped till next use. This forces the bristles to dry into shape (I mostly use flats and brights, so this method preserves the sharp edges longer. Probably good for any brush shape).

Martha said...

I've used Mona Lisa pink soap, turpentine and Turpenoid, Fels Naptha bars and more recently Dawn dishwashing detergent, on the theory that it if worked on the birds in the oil spill, it was probably OK to use on brushes. It works really well, but I think the bristles get kind of dry. I will definitely try Murphy's Oil Soap. Love the smell.

I used the nitrile gloves I buy at Costco for household chores to clean brushes. They are relatively inexpensive, come in a big box, and you can feel what you're doing through them. I haven't been all that worried about grinding the pigment into my hands (never get it near my mouth or breathe the dust), but I was worried about absorbing the turpentine, etc., through my skin. I take the point about skin contact with pigment and will be more careful about that. Makes sense.

I try to squeeze as much pigment out of the brushes onto a paper towel before I start washing the brushes. I figure that minimizes what goes down the drain. I throw the dried paper towels in the trash, but worry that that is not good for the landfill. Should I take them to the toxic household waste recycling center?

I still wonder if there is a better method for cleaning my brushes, since most municipal waster water systems aren't designed to handle toxic chemicals, which many pigments are. I'm hoping the very small quantity mitigates it. As someone once told me, the solution to pollution is dilution.

Sandra, does the tape stick to the bristles of the brush? I'm not completely clear on how this works. Thanks.

Bernie's Art said...

This is a very interesting article. I immediately looked up Murphy's Oil Soap, and it does not seem possible to buy it in the UK. Could import it at a price through e-bay.

However Linseed Oil Soap is available over here. Does it work as well, and do you use it in the same way ? said...

I hate cleaning brushes! That's one of the reasons I use my pallet knives 95% of the time. But Stapleton introduced me to "liner"? brushes and they are just great for making my ellipses. But you all knew that.

Anyway...I use good old, unsung, old fashion Lestoil because I have it around the house to clean paint off where it shouldn't be, on my clothes and walls. And then if I need to set the point of a brush, I use hair gel.

Bought my chemical hand warmers! And some extra for us Snow Campers.Get ready...get cold..get painting!

Allison said...

I have been using Murphy's for a while now. I fill up a soap dispenser just for that so I can "pump" right onto my brush.

Simone said...

I would go ski for the day but the water is pretty cold right now. In the high 50's. I use the Fels Naptha but the Murphy's sounds like it would work well, too. Gonna try it. Thanks.

Now go ride a board for the day!

Pam Holnback said...

I also use Murphy's. For brushes that I forgot to clean,
which have become so hard that I think nothing will help, I put them into a small container of Murphy's overnight and they come out soft and ready to use. Almost like new.

billspaintingmn said...

I will have to try murphys oil. I've used ivory and other dish soaps.
If you soak your brushes in oil,(olive, vegtable, motor oil) you can just swish them in thinner and start painting.
Eventually they need to get washed.

Debra Norton said...

I use Dove shampoo/conditioner combo. When I was in school and asked about cleaning brushes they said to use the same thing you'd use on your skin or hair. So I started with Dove bar soap and eventually switched to the shampoo/conditioner combo. I really like it. I keep it in a pump dispenser by my studio sink. I wipe them on paper towels (Viva of course!) then swish them in turpenoid. When I was in school I religiously washed them every day. I've kind of slacked off and wash them once every few days now.

I called our local landfill and asked about disposal of the paper towels and was shocked when they said to put them in with the regular trash as long as they're dry. So I store them in a fireproof container until it's full and then out they go. I wish there was a better way.

willek said...

I am not very good about brushes, but I took your advice at Snowcamp last winter and started using Goop to clean my hands after painting.. It worked so well at getting the paint off and left.the skin pliable, too. I put these factors together and decided to try it on my brushes. It works great. You can also leave a little extra in the bristles to shape them for the next time.

JulieU said...

Hi Stape. Do you have any words of wisdom on traveling with oil painting supplies? I'm flying to CA from MA next week for a workshop and plan to check all gear in a separate suitcase. I'm leaving all flammables behind, but am still a little worried that a young TSA agent will pull a nutty at the gate and confiscate my paints.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Hi Kevin:
I use GOJO for that too.But the Murphy soap and water gets em cleaner.

Stapleton Kearns said...

You are a bloated plutocrat,servants are a holdover of running dog imperialist class exploitation.Shame on you!

Stapleton Kearns said...

My experience has been that turpenoid natural doesn't get brushes very clean. It is better to be clean than green.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Clean your brushes out in your mineral spirits or turps first, wipe them on a paper towel. Then wash them. Not much should go down the drain then. Better to die young with clean brushes than to live forever with stiff bristles.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Murphy soap used to be used on tack and saddles. It makes me think of riding when I was a kid. You cannot wash the cat with it, at least I don't think so.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I have never tried that one

Stapleton Kearns said...

You can put little cardboard scabbards on the too.

Stapleton Kearns said...

If you have cleaned your brushes first at your palette, not much goes down the drain. It is a broken world.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I would try the linseed oil soap.Aty least you have Northumbria over there.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I might be a little cautious about that hair gel. It is a non drying oil, if it gets into your paint film it MIGHT cause a problem, I don't know.

Stapleton Kearns said...

That's a great idea I will adopt!

Stapleton Kearns said...

Water skiing is NOT skiing.Neither is cross country (country western).

Stapleton Kearns said...

But don't stand them on their bristles when you do that!

Stapleton Kearns said...

I am leery of getting non drying oils into my paint, maybe it is OK? I don't know.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Rather than provide us a better way, the state will eventually make our materials illegal. It will happen in New Hampshire last.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I am excited to be at snowcamp again. Bring your goop and lots of warm clothes.

Stapleton Kearns said...

They will look at naked pictures of you on their scanners. If you protest they will take away your dignity. Paint is the least of your problems.

Philip Koch said...

I for years spent a ton of time cleaning my brushes first with solvent and then with hand soap (never tired the Murphy's Oil stuff though it does sound good).

A month ago I tried the suggestion of another painter to leave the dirty brushes in bristles down in a can of regular cheap vegetable oil when not in use. It seems to work great at preventing the remaining paint residue from drying out. And it seems to loosen the residue as well.

Before I paint with them again I squeeze out the remaining pigment and oil with a Bounty towel and Gamsol solvent ( I don't think the vegetable oil would be good to get into one's painting.) Does anyone else do this? It seems like a real time saver.

Plein Air Gal said...

I've tried Murphy's and GoJo and others, but find Lestoil gets my brushes cleanest ... and can get out residue left behind by the others. If you've left your pochade in the back of the car for a week or so and the brushes look hopeless, just an hour or so standing in Lestoil will clean them.
When a brush is getting old and needs coaxing back to shape, I find dipping in Tres Semme hair spray ($.99 trial size bottle) and then squeezing out the excess in a paper towel (and reshaping at the same time) works great. Stand the brushes upright (on their handles) overnight, then flick them to soften them in the morning. The remaining hairspray is gone with your first dip into your turp.
I have also hear the "whatever you use on your own hair" and have also heard many times to always use soap and NEVER detergent. Made that mistake with sable WC color brushes once - dish detergentg sucked the life & bounce right out of them in a single washing and there was nothing to do but replace them.

n. rhodes harper said...

I use fels naptha soap bar cost $1.00 takes dried paint out too. Olive oil is great too.

Creativity Clubhouse said...

Does anybody have anything to say about B&J Masters Brush Cleaner? I use the big tub which costs about 24 dollars. It lasts me for a year of almost daily painting. It smells so nice and gets the paint off of my finger tips too.

Bernie's Art said...

Fels Naphtha contains an ingredient called Stoddard Solvent. This is also sometimes known as white spirits. It is a type of solvent known as a naphtha. Napthas are a byproduct of the petroleum industry. Only a small amount of the napthas are used as solvents. The addition of Stoddard Solvent to Fels Naptha makes it an effective laundry soap, but there are health concerns with Stoddard Solvent. According the the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, Stoddard Solvent has not been proven to cause cancer, but there have been studies showing that inhaling it can cause seizures and dizziness. There are not enough studies about its effect on skin. According to the Material Data Safety Sheet for Fels Naptha, there is some evidence that repeated use may cause dermatitis because of the defatting action of the soap. The overall health rating on the MSDS is a 1. This means there are slight health issues related to Fels Naptha. It is safe to use as a laundry soap, but may be too harsh as a skin soap.

Read more: Homemade Laundry Soap With Fels Naptha |

Alphonse Daigle said...

I’ve been using vinegar to clean my paint brushes for a long time. I soak the bristles in it to soften them up. Boiling the vinegar while the brushes are soaked in it loosens up the paint as well. Well, perhaps it’s about time to try a new approach, and I’ll try this idea. Thanks! :]

- Alphonse Daigle