Saturday, January 26, 2013

Solvent Free Brush Cleaning...For Oil Painting?

Turpentine Is Dangerous! 

Recently an elderly artist friend of mine passed away due to upper respiratory problems most likely caused by prolonged exposure to turpentine fumes. Day in and day out, painting for countless hours while breathing the fumes from an open container of turpentine sitting just a couple of feet away. This is not good. I love to paint but I’m not prepared to give up my respiratory system...especially when there is such a simple alternative! The only time that I use turpentine is for cleaning my brush after applying a piece's final varnish. That's it...5 minutes and it's closed-up and put away until the next painting is ready for varnish.

For years I have been using walnut oil to clean my brushes with excellent results. It’s an effective brush cleaner, conditions the bristles, and best of all it’s non-toxic. In fact, it’s edible! Because it lasts a lot longer than turps, it's also cheaper. I'm amazed that the following method isn't being taught in art schools as 'the standard' approach to brush cleaning and I've yet to hear any reasonable explanations for the continued archaic misuse of turpentine.

Note: Safflower oil also works well but walnut oil is less viscous which makes it easier to wipe from brushes.

Here’s what you’ll need:

Brush Washer – I use a “Richeson Deluxe Brush Washer”. I've replaced the inner metal strainer with a small plastic spaghetti strainer because porous metal wears down bristles faster than non-porous plastic.

Walnut Oil – I've tried the more expensive "refined" artist-grade walnut oil, but standard grocery store walnut oil is perfect for brush cleaning purposes (which I purchase from my local Vons). I would not suggest using food grade oils as a painting medium. Only artist-grade oils have had the excess fats and other contaminants removed which could adversely effect the chemical properties of your paint.

Note: Because the paint settles to the bottom of the brush washer, it takes me about a year to use one 16oz. can (cost about $9.oo).

LInseed Soap - After experimenting with different popular soaps used for brush cleaning, linseed soap proved to me to be the most gentle and effective. Robert Doak's Linseed Soap has a more liquid/less waxy consistency is my personal preference, but he unfortunately has minimum order requirement. My second choice is Richeson Jack's LInseed Studio Soap.

Hair Conditioner – Any should work.

Solvent free brush cleaning process:

First, wipe away the excess on a towel.

Note: You may not need to clean you brush with oil or soap yet - wiping the brush clean should suffice unless you are moving to a lighter value, a higher chroma or drastically different hue (any of which the excess paint on your brush could muddy your color).

Dip the brush in the walnut oil filled washer, gently dragging the brush in an upward motion (following the contour of the bristles) on the strainer, then dry the brush on a towel being careful not to mash the bristles.

For overnight or long term cleaning (My 'end of the day' routine):

Safflower and Walnut oils are both great for daily brush cleaning, but if you plan to let your brushes sit for more than 24 hours the oil will begin to solidify and destroy the brush, so you'll need to clean them with linseed soap before this happens. Dip the tip of the brush in the linseed soap, then carefully dab and swirl the bristles with the soap and a little water, rinse, and repeat until there is no visible pigment in the rinse. Be careful not to over-work your brushes while cleaning. It’s very easy to hurt the natural shape of your brushes.

Finally, add a very small amount of hair conditioner to the bristles and reshape the tips with your fingers. The conditioner will harden and keep the natural form of your brushes and potentially condition and repair the bristles. The conditioner washes away cleanly when swirled in the brush washer oil.  Wipe excess oil from brush before using.


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    Dan Edmondson Says:
    May 1st, 2011 at 3:53 am

    Interesting and very informative! I like your solvent free oil painting post! Thanks for sharing this!…Daniel

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      Slade Says:
      May 1st, 2011 at 4:28 pm

      Thanks for the comment Daniel! I’m glad to know that you enjoyed the post.

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    James Bright Says:
    February 12th, 2012 at 5:59 pm

    followup…I do find it odd, that you would go to the bother of using solvent free cleaning and then use other poisonous mediums in your painting…lead dryers are deadly…It would be wise to use a barrier cream or latex gloves when using these materials. And follow a food and drink forbidden zone in the studio….just a thought. Great Blog…Thanks for sharing.

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      Slade Says:
      February 13th, 2012 at 5:47 pm

      Hi James,
      Ya, toxic materials are always a concern. From my research I’ve found many sources that say that lead cannot be absorbed by our skin. Since lead is a primary concern, I’m careful to keep my hands clean (washing them multiple times per painting session), I don’t touch my face, if I have a cut on my hands I wear gloves, and I always wash-up before eating. Because lead is too heavy to be harmful as a vapor, inhalation isn’t a concern. There are many toxic oil painting materials and we have to balance the risk with the reward. I almost never use driers, but I do use cadmiums on a daily basis, but when used with caution, most toxic supplies are manageable and safe. Although some toxins are controllable, it is very hard to reduce the risk using materials that omit harmful vapors, such as turpentine and I’ve found no benefit to using it. But when certain effects are desired it can lead you to using toxic supplies and I always urge people to read the labels, do the research, and learn how to properly handle the materials. It’s great to hear from a colleague! Thanks for the note!

  3. The only time that I use turpentine is for cleaning my brush after applying a piece's final varnish. That's it...5 minutes and it's closed-up and put away until the next painting is ready for varnish. GunCleaningSolvent

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