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 a nearby open container of turpentine. 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!

For about 16 years I have been using walnut oil to clean my brushes with excellent results. It’s an effective brush cleaner, conditions the bristles, and 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 a reasonable explanation for the continued use of turpentine.

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

What you’ll need:

Walnut Oil – I've tried the more expensive "refined" artist-grade walnut oil, but standard grocery store walnut oil is adequate for brush cleaning (which I purchase from my local grocery store). 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 affect 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).

Brush Washer – Any bowl to hold the walnut oil will work, but I like the Richeson Deluxe Brush Washer because it has a strainer allowing the paint to settle at the bottom and out of reach of the brushes. Although I did replace the stock metal strainer with a small plastic spaghetti strainer because porous metal wears down bristles faster than non-porous plastic.

Soap - A plain bar of Ivory soap works great and will wash away cleanly. Linseed soap also works well, and can be found online or art supply stores.

Solvent-free brush cleaning process:

First, wipe away any excess paint on a towel.

Dip the brush in the walnut oil, gently dabbing and swirling to release the paint, then dry the brush on a towel.

Note: If you plan to use the paint brushes the following day, you can leave your brushes in the walnut oil overnight and they will stay moist and supple.

Final cleaning:

Walnut oil is great for brush cleaning, but if you plan to let your brushes sit in the open air for more than 10 hours the oil will begin to solidify. A final cleaning with soap and water will remove the oil.

Using Ivory (or Linseed soap), carefully dab and swirl the bristles on the bar, 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.


Although walnut oil will effectively clean all oil paints that use a drying oil as a binder, for anyone interested in using this approach, I would suggest using M. Graham Oils, as they are made with walnut oil and pair nicely with this process. 

For my detailed review of M. Graham Oils --- CLICK HERE 


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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

  4. Excellent blogs. I really appreciates with your article. thanks for sharing useful tips. Cleaning Solvent


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