Artist's Oil Paints & Simple Non Toxic Cleaning Up

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Non toxic cleaning of artists oil paints using vegetable cooking oil
Photo by dugspr — Home for Good
It has been a boon of a discovery to me to stumble across a cheap, simple and non toxic way of cleaning up my brushes and palette after a session of oil painting. I swear, I wasn't even looking, and when I did come across this, I could not believe just how straightforward this is. It's so simple you may laugh in amazement and wonder why, just as I did, we are all taught to use turps, mineral spirits or OMS (odourless mineral spirits) to remove residual oil paint, when in fact, it's plain daft to be using these substances.

Let me explain.

The aim is to remove the oil paint from brushes and the palette.  Using OMS and its cousins, paint is stripped away. As far as cleaning goes, it does work. But there are numerous problems with these substances. Stripping the paint also dries out and can eventually crack your palette. It also 'eats' the synthetic brush bristles or dries out the natural bristles making then brittle and less flexible. Either way, over time it destroys your brushes. Then there is the problem of OMS being a carcinogen that enters your body through inhalation or when you get it all over your skin. And it's a nonrenewable petroleum product. And it's an environmental hazard. Suffice to say, it's pretty bad stuff.

The other way to remove the oil paint from brushes and the palette is not to strip it off, but to dilute it and wash it away. So what other substances dilute oil paint? The answer is other oils. Um, like supermarket variety vegetable cooking oil.

Yes, bog standard vegetable cooking oil. Unlike OMS and it's cousins, vegetable oil is kind to your palette, effectively moisturises or conditions your brushes, is not a carcinogen (actually not harmful at all, you eat it), is a renewable plant resource and not harmful to the environment. It's one huge win all round. 

So how do you use vegetable oil to clean your brushes? Easy peasy. Like this:


  • Wipe off as much excess paint onto a rag or paper towel as possible.
  • Swirl the brushes in a jar filled with vegetable oil to remove as much paint as you can. 
  • Wipe the brushes cleanish on a rag or paper towel.
  • Give the brushes a final swirling, one at a time, in a second jar only partly filled with vegetable oil. When this jar's oil has become too filthy I decant this oil into another big jar. Then I put in another small amount - about an inch - of fresh oil into the second jar for the final swirling of the next few brushes.
  •  Then I wash the brushes in soap or dishwashing liquid and warm water, and carefully dry and shape them. (update - I have also discovered Disolv non toxic oil clean up for professional artists for this step and it is truly a wonder product made from waxes and detergents. It's an Australian made product too!)
Now they are as clean as they would be using OMS, as well as lovely and soft. My hands don't stink or have skin flaking off them and my head doesn't pound from the fumes that hang about for hours even with all the windows open. Win win win.

And what happens with the used oil? It gets tipped into a big jar and left alone to let the paint settle to the bottom. Then the usable oil is tipped out and reused, and the sludge at the bottom is disposed of.

Oh by the way, another little tip. When soaping up the brushes, it's wise to not use your palm to work the soap into the brush. If you do, trace amounts of pigment enter your body via the skin and over time these build up and some of them are quite nasty. I always work the soap into the brush against the bottom of the sink or in another jar or I wear a glove. It's also why I use (environmentally friendly) dishwashing liquid as it gets into the bristles and removes the oil a lot more easily than hard soap.

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6 thoughts

  1. This is quite brilliant... I wonder if this will work for high gloss oil based paints used for painting doors etc.

  2. That's amazing, and so simple! Mum was an artist, and she had a special metal container with a piece of mesh in it to work the paint out of her brushes (after using turps first). The pot now sits by my wood stove with matches and other bits and pieces in it!

  3. It really is remarkably simple isn't it?

    ooseven, I don't see why it wouldn't work for gloss house paints. It's certainly worth a try. The worst that can happen is that it fails and it's back to turps.

    SuzieC, I like the idea of a piece of mesh to work the paint out of the brushes. I just might give that a go. Ta!

  4. I was going to try this. For years I used cooking oil to remove chain oil from my leg after bicycling. Later I used cooking oil to clean up my hands whenever I had tough to remove oil based products on them. Works incredibly well.

  5. Nice discussion! I think I found the product you called Disolve--I assume you meant Orange Sol "De-Solv-it Houehold Cleaner? At amazon:

  6. Hi Sherry, no I didn't mean the product you found and I've edited the post to contain more detail. The Disolv I'm referring to is available at the link below, among other places online, and may not be available outside of Australia as it's a local product. I'm sure it's not the only great non toxic brush cleaner out there, but it's one I've found and been thrilled with.


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