Learn How to Clean Oil Paint Brushes Without Paint Thinner

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Today, we focus on how to avoid a huge problem which is common among artists using oil paint brushes.

Oil paints can be notoriously different to get back to brand-new condition, and paint thinner is one of the best ways to get the job done.

However, sometimes it may happen that, despite your best intentions, you might not be able to get your hands on paint thinner.

In that situation, what you read today will prove to be hugely beneficial in terms of getting yourself out of this situation.

We go into some depth about what it is that cleans the brushes on a chemical level, and which alternatives you have at hand which can suffice for the absence of paint thinner.

Now that we’ve outlined what’s to come, let’s begin with today’s discussion!

How to Clean Oil Paint Brushes Without Paint Thinner

How to Clean Oil Paint Brushes Without Paint Thinner

What does a paint thinner really do?

Happens to the best of us. Fret not, however. We begin this discussion by understanding what paint thinner really does.

When an odorless mineral spirit or any other solvent such as turpentine is added to an oil-based medium, it will break up (i.e. dissolve) the binding agent. There are two major components when it comes to oil paint:

In short, when you consider what a thinner does, all it does is it separates the pigment from the oil carrier it has.

In practical terms, when you dip a brush into a solvent, the oil and pigment are able to get away from the ferrule in a much better manner when it comes to separation. In case you don’t know it, the ferrule is the meeting point between the brush bristles and the wooden body.

There are three basic advantages to this process:

  1. The bristles get cleaned up and give us great performance while painting.
  2. In another context, there are no leftover colors which may get mixed up with our intended paints.
  3. Also, adding thinner is the best way to introduce solvents into your work.

In case you’re wondering what to do with the information we unloaded earlier, hopefully, the next few paragraphs should make things just a bit clearer.

Dish soap is your unlikely way out

Indeed, out of all the things that you could use from your household, you might be wondering why we chose dish soap. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding. Dish soap gives you the same effect that paint thinner has on pigments and oils – it effectively separates the two, just like it does with the grime that gets settled on dirty utensils.

However, they aren’t exactly the same processes. The above paragraph only suffices to draw parallels between the two processes. Now, we come to the major differences.

First off, the dish soaps contain surfactants and no solvents. Those of you who are more scientifically inclined may recall that surfactants function to lower the tension with water in order for the detergent to function properly.

To take an example right out of the kitchen, whenever you’re sautéing boiled vegetables, you will very likely observe that the oil that you add into the pan breaks up into small droplets while cooking. This happens because of the oil-water interaction – the water from the boiled vegetables leaves due to heat.

Whenever you apply dish soap to get rid of this oil, the surfactant allowed you to remove these drops by lowering the surface tension at the oil-water surface.

How to Clean Oil Paint Brushes Without Paint Thinner Easy

This is exactly what it does for your dirty paintbrushes as well 

When you use dish soap to get the sticky oil paint particles off from the bristles and perhaps the ferrule as well (we talk about this later), the oil paint comes off very easily due to the lowered tension between oil paints and the water.

The area around the ferrule is far more difficult to clean even with thinner, so the soap falls flat in this case.

There are a few things you should take care or while using dish soap to clean the bristles as well. Firstly, do not overdo the scrubbing of the bristles. This can cause splaying of the bristles on the short term. In the long term, there could be knot formation and ultimately you could lose the paintbrush for good if the damage is deep.

With this, we move on to the other alternatives you can use.

Long term alternatives to paint thinner

If you want to avoid prolonged and long term contact with paint thinner, the market has a number of options for you. The most popular (and well liked) ones are linseed studio soap and oil of spike lavender. Both of them give you the cleaning benefits of paint thinner but avoid the safety issues you might observe with thinner.

Linseed studio soap

It uses pretty much the same oil composition you’re likely to find in oil paints. It has the surfactant we discussed earlier on but gives you the safety of cleaning via environmentally sustainable means. What that means here is, people who do not use synthetic brushes will be particularly fond of its cleaning action.

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Though it comes in at a premium when compared to your store-variety paint thinner, you’re unlikely to get a splayed brush. You’re also saved from a brush getting ruined because of the fundamentally incompatible chemistry of the thinner and the bristles [natural bristles].

Linseed studio soap is available at a number of online and offline stores – make sure you survey properly before going in for the purchase. Some dealers tend to charge a heavy premium because it’s a relatively “rare” product, so to speak.

Oil of spike lavender

Among the many reasons why you should go in for spike lavender oil, this oil will go down the sink the same way any organic material does. Hence, there are no issues on that side as far as this oil is concerned.

The spike lavender oil is extracted from the lavender plant, and this oil acts as in a very similar way when compared to turpentine, odorless mineral spirits, and other solvents which can dissolve the oil content in themselves.

This makes spike lavender oil brilliant not just for cleaning up after you’re done painting, but also for a number of other applications during the painting process. These applications include applying thinner and heavier layers of paint, underpaintings, a number of washes, etc. Now, since you’re effectively using a solvent, you get very short drying times for paint as well!

A brief history of the Spike Lavender Oil

The oil, strangely, is not a new invention. The solvent properties of spike lavender oil have been known to us for the better part of the last five centuries. In fact, texts from the late 1500s reveal that spike lavender was in fact used where we use thinner. For varnish making and brush cleaning, even Leonardo Da Vinci is claimed to have grown lavender and extracted this oil.

There are a number of other accounts which re-affirm this assumption, mostly coming in from the early to mid-1600s. The point is, it’s been around for a long time, but due to certain factors such as the appearance of cheaper chemicals like varnish and thinner – it has all but disappeared from the market. The bottom line is that it was too expensive compared to thinner.

Is it still as expensive?

While that is debatable, the current prices are quite high too. Online resellers have a single bottle up for a few times of the price of regular paint thinner by the gallon. Hence, it only makes sense for professionals to go in for spike lavender oil as a daily staple into their painting process, although it is a much more environmentally safe and soothing option.

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Concluding Words

Today, we’ve seen a number of alternatives to your regular paint thinner. We saw how in emergency situations, regular paint thinner can be swapped for simple dish soap. Further, we saw which varieties of natural or nature-derived cleaners are available on the market, in particular, linseed soap for studios as well as oil of spike lavender.

We hope this information lets you get out of situations where you just can’t use paint thinner and expands your knowledge about paint thinner alternatives on the market. Happy painting!

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Sudarshan Kar

Sudarshan Kar

As Lead Editor of Homesthetics for almost a decade now, Sudarshan knows the website inside-out. His journalistic experience shaped the editorial and integrity guidelines that define the platform today.

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