Painting & Drawing blog


Painting in oils is little messier and more time-consuming than painting with acrylics or watercolours, largely because you cannot clean or thin oil paint with water. What’s more both the paints and the mediums you use to clean and dilute them are on the expensive side and it’s easy to waste both if you aren’t careful. But oil painting is well worth the effort so here are my favourite tricks to make the experience easier, cleaner and more economical. There are no paid links on this page, just my personal recommendations.

1. Arrange paints on your palette according to their colour

It may sound a little obsessive-compulsive but putting out my paint colours this way has saved me so much time wasted searching for the colour I want to use next! I arrange similar colours together according to the colour spectrum: reds together, greens, blues and so on. I’ll put white in the middle because I so frequently use a little of it in each colour mix that I make and I’ll also leave some space in the centre for making up those mixtures. Even if you use a very limited number of paints, arranging them in the same order each time will really help you to locate the colour you want quickly.

Paint on palette

2. Don’t squeeze too much paint out onto your palette before starting your painting

This one may seem obvious, but I still find that it’s incredibly easy to squeeze out too much paint and end up not using it all in my painting. Remember that strong colours with a high tinting strength (tinting means mixing a colour with white) like many reds and blues – particularly the modern synthetic pthalo and quinacridone colours – go an awful long way when used within any mixture. These are the colours I seem to waste the most. Put out a really small blob of paint at first, and add more as and when you need to.

3. Use coffee filter paper to strain and re-use your spirits

This is a way to make your spirits last much longer and avoid environmentally unfriendly wastage. When you finish your painting for the day keep your jar of spirits (or whatever kind of solvents you use to dilute your paint) instead of throwing it away. When you return you’ll see that the paint sediment has sunk to the bottom, leaving clear liquid on top. It may be a little yellowy, but it will be perfectly good for diluting any colour that isn’t very pale, or for rinsing brushes or cleaning your palette with.

Tipping the jar gently so that the sediment stays largely on the bottom pour the clear spirits into a jug, straining it through a coffee filter or piece of kitchen paper rolled into a funnel shape to filter it further. Clean off the paint sediment left on the bottom of your empty jar using kitchen paper, and then pour your reserved spirits back in.

Coffee filter

4. Before you wash your brushes, remember to wipe them

You’ll find that using Artists’ White Spirit (also called Mineral Spirits) to dilute your paint or rinse your brushes in between colours can get expensive. Each time you dip your brush into the jar spirits it will get more and more saturated with particles of paint pigment until it’s too muddy to be usable. It might be tempting to economize by using regular White Spirit from a DIY store and more frequently throwing it away and then refilling, but please don’t do this as cheap spirits will contain impurities that will damage your paint layers.

You can filter your spirits using the coffee filter trick above, but remember to get as much paint off your brushes as you can before immersing them in your spirits. First use a palette knife to gently scrape off as much excess paint as you can, and then wipe each brush on an old rag or piece of kitchen paper. You’ll be surprised how much difference this will make.

5. Use specialist soaps to clean your brushes and your hands

It took me a while to realize that you don’t need to use harsh white spirit to clean your hands or your brushes after you’ve been oil painting. It isn’t good for either of them, and leaves you smelling unpleasantly of spirits for the rest of the day! There are some great products such as General Pencils’ famous ‘The Master’s Soap’ (for your hands) or ‘The Master’s Brush Cleaner’ which will do the job much more gently. They are known to be vegetable oil-based although their formulas are considered proprietary information: however they are definitely non-toxic. To use them you wipe your brushes and then dip them in the paste and lather up well with water before rinsing.

Other oil based cleaning products for both brushes and hands include Jacksons’ ‘Marseille Soap Pellets’ whilst Da Vinci and Escoda also make specialist artists’ soaps. For cleaning brushes a popular product is Weber’s ‘Turpenoid’ turpentine substitute which is low odor and non toxic.

6. Dry and reshape your brushes after cleaning them

Another little bit of brush care advice here: after you’ve cleaned your brushes, be sure to dry them well because natural hog brushes can get mildew if put away damp. Dry them with a paper towel and reshape them as you do so to a point, which will help the brush maintain its ‘spring’

7. Restore your old brushes

It’s all too easy to not clean your brushes well after a painting session and takes a real effort to get it out of the ‘heal’ of the brush, which is the part where the bristles are attached to the metal ferrule. If you’ve let too much paint dry on your brushes however, it’s perfectly possible to restore them back to health. The Master’s Brush Cleaner works as a restorer as well as a cleanser.  For this you work up a lather with some hot water and let the brush sit for a while resting on their sides, before rinsing. Repeat as many times as necessary until the dried on paint is gone. To get paint off the ferrule (the metal part of the brush) leave it for several hours before rinsing off.

Another good product is Winsor & Newton’s Brush Cleaner which is another water-soluble solution. With this you soak the brushes overnight before rinsing out. Make sure you don’t leave your brush upside down in a jar and touching the bottom however, as the bristles will bend permanently out of shape! I like to clip my brush with pegs to keep the bristles safely suspended before soaking.

Suspending brushes in brush cleaner

8. Clingfilm (plastic wrap) any colours you want to keep on your palette in between painting sessions

Oil paint dries when the oil binder it contains starts to oxidize, so if you cover your paint to limit further exposure to the air you can keep most of your paint workable until the next day, unless you’ve added a lot of quick drying medium to it. Once you’ve scraped off any mixed-up colours that you don’t need any more, lay a piece of Clingfilm (plastic wrap) over your palette and gently press out any air bubbles. If you want to be more environmentally friendly you could use baking parchment, although this won’t create an airtight seal around the paint quite so effectively.

Paint that you’ve mixed together won’t last as long as paint that’s straight out of the tube because more air has already been introduced to it, and any very small amount of paint won’t last long before drying out even with film over it. But larger amounts will stay useable for several days.

Plastic wrap

9. When you’ve mixed up a large amount of a paint colour and want to keep the leftovers overnight or longer, store the mixture in a miniature jam jar with water on top

Sometimes I mix up a reasonably large batch of one particular colour: for a background perhaps. If I haven’t finished using it by the end of the day I want to keep the mixed-up paint instead of trying to make a new, matching mixture the next day.

There is a way of keeping a paint mix viable for weeks by storing it in a miniature jar – the kind of thing you get given in a hotel or on a plane. Scrape your leftover paint into the jar and then put a thin layer of water over the top. As oil paint is not soluble in water at all the water won’t mix with the paint but it will form a complete barrier that stops it from coming into any more contact with the air and oxidizing (drying) any more. When you are ready to use the paint again,  just open the lid and tip the water off.

Miniature jam jar

10. Keep dust off your painting using pizza boxes

One annoying problem I’ve  experienced with painting in oils is that dust tends to settle on a painting that’s left out to dry overnight and sticks to the paint. Even a painting that’s almost vertical on an easel will usually attract a bit of dust. I try to keep the studio dusted and vacuumed as much as possible to reduce the dust floating around in the air.

My way of keeping my painting dust free whilst it dries is to put it in a sturdy flat box. Ask your local pizza takeaway if they’ll see you some (unused) boxes. A deep-pan box should be okay for even a chunky canvas!

Pizza boxes

NEXT: Try this post on oil painting techniques









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