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Best Way to Clean Dried Acrylic Paint from Brushes

Nothing ruins a brush faster than improper care. Just giving your acrylic paint brushes a swirl in water and sticking them in a jar isn’t going to keep them in good shape for long.

It’s heartbreaking to pick up your favourite brush only to find it out of shape and unusable because of dried paint.

Below are some brush cleaning tips to ensure your brushes are clean and protected for your next project and a few things you can use to get dried paint out of your brushes.

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Bristle Type Makes a Difference When Cleaning Brushes

Knowing which type of bristles are in your brush is important. While a lot of acrylic artists use synthetic bristles sometimes we also use natural fibers.

What you use to clean dried paint from these brushes will differ slightly, as you will see below. Using the wrong cleaning method can damage your brushes.

two synthetic artist brushes, one with white handle and brown bristles and one with blue handle and white bristles
Synthetic Artist Brushes
hog hair artist brush with brown handle
Natural Fiber Hog Hair Brush
two watercolor brushes with red handles and black bristles
Soft Natural Fiber Watercolor Brushes

Synthetic brushes can easily be damaged with solvents like acetone so it is more difficult to get dried paint out without ruining your brush.

This is one of the reasons I rarely purchase expensive brushes. Even though I know the steps to proper care and cleaning, I sometimes forget to clean them until the next morning. 🥴 

Natural fibers such as hog hair or sable stand up a little better to harsher cleaning but aren’t always ideal to use with acrylic paint. You need to purchase natural bristles that are not too soft, as in watercolor brushes, and not too stiff as in oil paint brushes. 

Natural fibers will hold up better to cleaning but they are a bit pricier. Synthetic brushes are perfectly fine, just remember to care for them properly.

For more information on the various types of brushes see my post on Choosing Brushes for beginners.

Brush Cleaning While You Paint

Most paints are not soluble when dry. It will be very hard to get dried paint out of a brush.

For this reason, brush cleaning actually begins while you are still painting. It’s an ongoing process to keep your brushes in shape.

When you are done with a brush for the moment or need to rinse off the wet paint, there are a couple of steps you should follow to keep the paint from drying on your brush.

  1. Wipe the excess paint off your brush with a cloth or paper towel. I use blue shop towels because they absorb better and are more like cloth.
  2. Swirl the brush in water, getting as much paint out as possible. Then wipe again with your cloth or towel.
  3. Lay the brush flat until you need it again.

Note: Some artists keep their brushes standing in a jar of water. This will be ok for a little bit, but letting brushes stand in water for a long time will fray the bristles and make a wooden handle swell over time. Laying them flat will help keep your acrylic paint brushes in good condition.

Ideally you should have two jars of water. One for cleaning and the other that holds clean water to add to your paint when needed. 

I usually use a brush basin that has two compartments, one for clean water and one for dirty water. They are cheap and easily found on Amazon.

beige artist brush basin with lid, palette and brushes
Brush Basin

The basin has the bonus of a brush rest to keep the bristle off the bottom of the container if you need to lay the brush in water for a little while.

The brush basin also has holes around the rim to stand your brushes in. I never use these since they allow water to run down into the ferrule.

The ferrule is that metal band that you see around the bristles of your brush. It secures the bristles and connects them to the handle. 

There is usually some type of glue holding this. Water can deteriorate the glue and swell the handle.  

artist brush with blue handle, gold ferrule and white bristles on a marble background
Anatomy of an artists brush.

How to Clean Your Acrylic Brush After a Paint Session

When you are finished with your painting session, wash your brushes with warm water and soap as soon as possible. Here are the steps to clean your brushes.

  1. Remove as much paint as possible from the bristles with a cloth or paper towel.
  2. Rinse your brushes under warm running water, splaying the bristles gently with your fingers.
  3. Add some soap (see below for types of soap to use).
  4. Gently lather the bristles, working out any paint you can see.
  5. Rinse again under running water until the soap is removed.
  6. Repeat until the water runs clear.
  7. Squeeze out excess water and dry with a paper towel.
  8. Reshape bristles and lay flat to dry thoroughly.
swirling an artist brush in a jar of brush cleaning soap
Swirling brush bristles in brush soap
rinsing an artists brush under running water in a sink
Rinsing brush bristles under warm running water.

Brush Cleaning Soaps

Some people use dish soap or hand soap to clean their brushes, but they can sometimes be harsh. 

The best soaps to use are ones manufactured specifically for cleaning artist brushes. They usually have some sort of conditioner in them to keep the bristles in good shape. 

My favourite is The Masters Brush Cleaner and Conditioner. It cleans really well and also has conditioners to keep your brushes in shape.

beige jar of the Masters Brush Cleaner
The Masters Brush Cleaner and Preserver

I sometimes let the Masters Brush Cleaner dry into the bristles before storing the brush to help retain the shape. Just rinse off before you use it again.

In a pinch you can use a mild shampoo or liquid hand soap if you have no cleaner available. Avoid using dishwashing liquid. It is harsher on the brushes and can damage them with prolonged use.

Getting Dried Acrylic Paint Out Of Brushes

Soap and water won’t get dried paint out of brushes. For this you need more heavy duty cleaning. I have listed several methods below starting with the least harsh.

Remember, these are last resort methods and may damage your brush, but if you are going to have to throw the brush away anyway, it’s worth giving these a try.

Murphy’s Oil Soap

Murphy’s Oil Soap is actually a kitchen cleaner made from vegetable oil. I have had success with this on brushes that aren’t too heavily gunked with dried paint.

If it doesn’t work in your particular situation, Murphy’s Oil Soap is also a really effective cleaner for kitchen cabinets and other wood.

I am not sure if it is available in countries other than Canada and the US, but if not maybe you can find something similar in your area.

Using Murphy’s Oil Soap to clean an artist brush.
  1. Pour some Murphy’s Oil Soap into a jar big enough to stand your brushes up in. You only need enough soap to cover the bristles.
  2. Attach a binder clip to the brush so the bristles don’t have to sit on the bottom of the jar.
  3. Let sit for a day or two. 
  4. Swirl the brush in the soap to loosen any dissolved paint.
  5. Rinse under warm running water, massaging the brush to loosen paint.
  6. Wipe with a paper towel or cloth.
  7. Rinse again.
  8. Lay flat to dry.

The bristles may fray a little with this method. See my tip below under Additional Brush Care Tips for restoring the shape of the bristles.

Hand Sanitizer

Hand sanitizer is a common item in most homes and studios these days. It contains a type of alcohol called ethyl alcohol that can help loosen some of the dried paint.

  1. Squirt some sanitizer gel into the palm of your hand.
  2. Swirl the brush in the gel, making sure the bristles are covered.
  3. Massage the gel into the brush for a few minutes.
  4. Wash with warm soapy water.
  5. Rinse with clear water.
  6. Lay flat to dry.
artist cleaning a brush by scrubbing with hand sanitizer in the palm of her hand
Using hand sanitizer to clean brushes

Window Cleaner

Window cleaner contains ammonia which is a harsh cleaner. It also has a strong odor so use in a ventilated area. Ammonia can also damage the finish on wooden handles so you might want to pour a little into a jar instead of spraying.

  1. Spray your bristles with a window cleaner.
  2. Work the spray into the bristles quickly. Wear gloves if your skin is sensitive.
  3. Rinse thoroughly.
  4. Wash with brush soap and water.
  5. Lay flat to dry.

Isopropyl Alcohol or Acetone

Isopropyl Alcohol can be found in most medicine cabinets and first aid kits. Use a 90% solution if you have it.

Acetone is a powerful nail polish remover that is easily found in drug stores or big box stores such as Walmart or Amazon.

Both of these chemicals are very harsh and have strong odors. Work in a well ventilated area and keep them for a very short time. These chemicals are the most likely to cause damage but are also the most effective to clean dried paint out of your brushes.

  1. Pour a small amount of alcohol or acetone into a small glass jar or dish.
  2. Swirl the brushes in the liquid for a few seconds. 
  3. Rinse under warm water.
  4. Repeat if necessary.
  5. Wash in warm soapy water.
  6. Lay flat to dry.
artist swirls a brush in a small jar of alcohol to clean the brush
Using alcohol to clean an artist brush

What Can You Do With Damaged Brushes?

If all of these methods fail and the paint just won’t come out, there may still be uses for these damaged brushes.

Some painting techniques require old, scruffy brushes to achieve a certain look. Damaged paint brushes with frayed bristles are perfect for this.

These brushes with splayed bristles are great for painting trees, adding texture to rocks, painting grass or sand or even doing a textured underpainting

You can also cut some of the bristles away and shape the brush into a dagger point or cat’s tongue shape for painting leaves or getting into very tiny areas.

If you have no use for these damaged brushes in your studio, maybe your children or grandchildren could use them in their artwork.

Frayed brushes can also be used to dust small areas like your computer keyboard or to spread glue on large areas. 

I like to repurpose used items whenever possible. 😊

four damaged artist brushes
You can recycle damaged artist brushes

Other Art Things That Need Cleaning

two painting knives with brown handles
Don’t forget to clean your painting knives

Palette and Painting Knives

Don’t forget to clean your palette and painting knives as well. Paint left to dry on a painting knife will cause ridges and bumps the next time you use it. 

A little soap and water and a gentle scrub is usually all that is needed. Make sure to dry them thoroughly before you put them away. 

Metal palette and painting knives can occasionally rust if stored while wet. This is more likely to happen in a humid environment.

Palettes

Clean the dry acrylic paint off your palette too so it will be ready for your next painting session. While dried on acrylic paint will usually peel right off, sometimes there are stubborn spots that really want to hold onto the paint.

If you have a glass palette, a glass scraper is the easiest way to get the paint off. Any residue left should just wash off with soap and water and a little scrub with a cloth.

If you have stains of pigment left on the glass you can spray it with a window cleaner. Just remember to wash it with soap and water afterwards to get rid of the ammonia which could interfere with your paint.

Don’t scrape plastic palettes because that could damage the soft plastic. Dried paint should peel right off and the rest can be removed with soap and water and a cloth. 

Plastic palettes often retain some pigment from the paint since the plastic is a little porous. This paint stain won’t interfere with future use so no need to stress over getting it all off.

artist cleaning a brush with a blue handle in a small jar of isopropyl alcohol on a marble background
Pin for later

Additional Brush Care Tips

Cleaning properly is a good way to keep your favourite brushes usable for a long time. There are a couple of additional things you can do to ensure the health of your brushes.

  1. Don’t load paint all the way up to the ferrule. Paint will get lodged in there and dry, separating the bristles and ruining the brush.
    This is especially true for small detail brushes that have short bristles. Getting paint into the ferrule of the brush will cause the bristles to fan out and you won’t get a fine point.
  1. Letting brushes sit in water is not only bad for the brushes, it can make the handle swell and crack and may loosen the glue in the ferrule, causing the bristles to fall out.
  1. If you will be storing natural bristle brushes such as hog hair or sable, for a long time, make sure they are completely dry before storage. Moisture in the bristles can lead to mold. 
  1. Lay your brushes on a flat surface to dry. This prevents water from getting into the ferrule and loosening the bristles over time. It also helps to keep the bristles in their proper shape.
  1. Gently reshape the bristles after washing and place them on a paper towel or lint free cloth. Once dry they can be stored in a jar with the bristles facing up.
    There are many ways to store brushes. There are cloth rolls with individual pockets for each brush, covered boxes, drawers or just plane recycled jars.
    As long as the bristles have room to keep their shape anything is fine.
  1. It is also a good idea to keep acrylic, watercolor and oil brushes separated to prevent contamination from solvents. 
  1. If the tips of your brushes have curled or become misshapen, you can try quickly dipping the tips into boiling water and reshaping. This can easily damage synthetic brushes, so dip them in boiling water for only a second or two.
  1. Occasionally the pigment in your paint can discolor the bristles of your brushes. This is perfectly normal and will not damage your brushes or affect their use.
  1. You can also try using a small comb or old toothbrush to gently comb the paint out of the bristles.

I hope this information was useful and helped to save a few innocent brushes and make your painting projects more enjoyable. Happy painting. 🙂

Thanks for reading.

Digital signature Marilyn with butterfly

2 thoughts on “Best Way to Clean Dried Acrylic Paint from Brushes”

  1. Pingback: Choosing Brushes for the Beginner: So Many Brushes

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