Brush cleaning isn’t glamorous but if you want to keep your brushes in good condition it’s got to be done – so it’s good to have an efficient system for the chore, then you can spend more time painting. Acrylic painters know that leaving their brushes in water until they come back to paint again can ruin them, so it is best to leave a little time at the end of the day and wash your brushes. Oil painters have to get all the oil out of their brushes so they can spend a lot of time washing brushes at the end of the painting day and using a lot of soap. For both oil and acrylic painters our new Jackson’s Marseille Soap can help – it is good value, convenient and cleans brushes well.
Jackson’s Marseille Soap Pellets
Jackson’s Marseille Soap is made by the famous Kremer pigment company with pure vegetable oils so in addition to cleaning it restores natural fats to skin and bristles.
The soap comes as dry pellets that look a lot like ‘hundreds and thousands’ confectionery sprinkles. This format of soap can be called soap flakes, soap needles or soap pellets. A kilo is about 1.7 litres and we package it in a 2.5 litre plastic bucket, so the bucket isn’t completely full. When I measured the 1.7 litres it was about 170 tablespoon scoops. If you are making soap brush gel with a 1:1 ratio of soap pellets to water, then a kilo of soap flakes will make about 2.7 kilos of ready to use soap.
Adding water makes the soap pellets into usable soap. The pellets do not dissolve instantly since they are solid soap, not soap powder. You can alter the consistency by adjusting the amount of water you add and the temperature of the water you use. If you mix one part soap flakes with one part water you will get a creamy gel that is great for brush cleaning. If you make up a cm or two in a jam jar its about the right amount to clean a batch of brushes – that’s a tablespoon scoop of soap and the same amount of hot water.
Every artist probably has an opinion about brush cleaning and a procedure that works best for them. Here is one method for oils and one for acrylic.
One Oil Brush Cleaning Procedure
If paint is left trapped in the base of the bristles the hairs will get stiff there and only bend in the top half, so your brush is no longer responsive. If any oil is left in the hairs when the oil dries the hairs will be gummed together and the brush will be clumpy instead of silky smooth and your brush marks will be streaky. The goal is to get your brush as close to the state it was in when you bought it.
Start with either a container of solvent (a low-odour solvent like Shellsol T or Gamsol is really good) or of safflower oil (because it is slower drying than linseed oil so won’t dry/harden in a covered container for many months) to rinse as much oil colour out of the brush as you can. I like the JAS Deluxe Large Brush Washer as it gives you a perforated platform to rub the brush on and the colour falls through to under the platform leaving the liquid above cleaner – you aren’t just rubbing your brush around in gunk that makes it dirtier.
Next squeeze out what you can with a cloth or paper. Some brushes are nearly clean of paint at this point. Brushes that have dried a bit or have drying mediums in them might be still quite full of paint. Also thick brushes, large brushes or brushes with very soft hairs will hang onto paint. So it might be worth repeating the two steps as needed, until the brush is as clean as you can get it.
You will probably still need to spend some time washing out the last of the oil colour or safflower oil with soap. Work soap into the base of the bristles and rinse under the tap. Using a Brush Egg instead of your palm will save your skin and gives a good surface to rub the bristles against. Repeat until when you bend the bristles the soap foam is white (with white paint you will have to guess). If your brushes are freshly used (paint not starting to dry in them), or small sizes or used carefully you might be able to use a bit of washing up liquid and get them clean enough. For artists who paint in long sessions, use a lot of brushes in each session, use fast-drying mediums, paint vigorously so the paint is driven up into the ferrule or try to put off cleaning brushes for a few days so they are starting to dry – you probably go through a lot of brush soap, because washing up liquid will only get them halfway clean. You will need a final brush soap to get the fibres/bristles back to their original state. Brush soap costs can add up – so we are very pleased with our new Jackson’s Marseille Soap Pellets. Since you just mix a spoonful with water to create a brush cleaning jelly, a bucket of soap pellets will go a long way.
One Acrylic Brush Cleaning Procedure
If paint is left trapped in the base of the bristles the hairs will get stiff there and only bend in the top half, so your brush is no longer responsive. The fibres may stick together in places if paint dries in the brush, so you get streaks instead of a smooth brushstroke. If an acrylic brush has started to dry it is hard to clean and the base of a soft brush where it meets the ferrule can be difficult to remove acrylic paint from. The goal of brush cleaning is to get your brush as close to the state it was in when you bought it.
Your brushes have probably been in water so that they wouldn’t dry with paint in them. Give them a brisk dipping and squeeze out as much colour as you can with a cloth or paper. This can remove a lot and save you time and soap as much of the paint will be removed with this process. But another consideration is that this way the paint will dry on your cloth or paper so can be disposed of as a solid and not go into the water system, where some pigments will be undesirable.
Rub the brush under the tap first then work soap into the base of the bristles. Using a Brush Egg instead of your palm will save your skin and gives a good surface to rub the bristles against. Repeat until when you bend the bristles the soap comes out without any colour (with white paint you have to guess). You can go through a lot of brush soap in this process which is where our new Jackson’s Marseille Soap Pellets come in handy. Since you just mix a spoonful with water to create a brush cleaning jelly, a jar of soap pellets will go a long way.
If you have let acrylic paint dry in the bristles and worry that your brush is ruined you might want to try Zest-it Acrylic Brush Cleaner, a very powerful solvent that will soften even completely dried acrylic paint if you let your hard brush soak in it for a few minutes, after which the paint will peel off of the brush fibres. (A warning: it will soften the paint on the handle, so only soak as much of the brush as you need to.)
Jackson’s Marseille Soap Pellets are available on the Jackson’s Art website
Available in an economical 1 kg bucket Jackson’s Marseille Soap Pellets can be purchased on the jacksonsart.com website.
Postage on orders shipped standard to mainland UK addresses is free for orders of £39.
*NB-Some artists use the method of brush dipping, to end the need for daily brush washing, so they don’t need to soap their brushes as often. But after using the method for a year I found that although I paint four to five days per week, there were times when I didn’t get my brushes dipped and the oil dried in them making them very hard to restore. The biggest reason the method didn’t work for me was that I didn’t use the same 10 brushes with the same colours over and over again, as I grabbed others I kept adding brushes to the dipping group until it was quite a large group of dirty brushes I had to dip each week and I finally had to admit that it doesn’t work well for the way that I work. But I do plan to write an article about brush dipping as it works really well for some painters.