Oil Painting Basics: Ten Tips For Cleanliness

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I remember thumbing through my clothes in my closet as a little girl, counting the number of t-shirts and jeans that had remnants of oil paint on them. (It was exciting and saddening at the same time.) I don't remember exactly how many there were, but I'd guess more than half had paint on them. Those were in addition to my box of "painting clothes" specifically reserved for painting; those reserved painting clothes were covered in so much paint they could be works of art themselves. To be honest, my clothes weren't the only thing in my house I left my paint tracks on. The floor, chairs, rugs, my cat (he jumped on my palette occasionally,) my sister's clothes, random things in the kitchen . . . there was sure to be paint on them somewhere. The more I think about it the more grateful I am to my parents for letting me paint so young.

I'm not alone in my oil painting messes; other artists and friends wanting to paint will say to me, "I used to paint with oil, but I switched to something a little less messy," or "I would love to oil paint, but I'm just worried about the mess." It's a wild and crazy medium, but I just think it is too beautiful to not work with. After painting for a number of years, ruining too many clothes and things, and having some fabulous teachers be great examples of cleanly painting and well kept workspaces, I have discovered some helpful ways to paint with cleanliness. Often times, I now paint in my nice, day-to-day clothes with confidence that I will walk away paint free. Here are ten tips to help avoid a mess:


1. Paint in the right area. A tidy studio or painting area is a huge factor in staying clean when you paint. I rarely paint over carpet or near furniture that I don't want ruined. No matter how much I trust myself, accidents happen. If there isn't that perfect place to paint however, like my tiny, shared dorm room my freshmen year of college, I make sure to have a wipeable surface completely clear of anything but my painting supplies, and put an old sheet or drop cloth below me.

2. Keep a paper towel in your non-dominate hand at all times. I keep a paper towel in my left hand while I paint (I hold the brush with my right,) or at least sitting between my palette and painting. This helps me to not only wipe my brushes between colors, to keep the color on my painting fresh and clean, but to keep thick wet paint from getting somewhere I don't want after I am done using that brush for a moment. An old phone book with the cover torn off is another great "brush wipe area" to have right next to you. The paper is absorbent, and they you can just tear the pages off as they get too filled with paint.*



3. Use baby wipes and clean right when it gets messy. Having a pack of cheap baby wipes in my painting area is one of the best ways I keep my hands, brushes, easel, and whatever else I may be close to, clean. If I get a smidgen of paint on my hands, brush handle, or somewhere else it is not supposed to be, no matter what, I put my brush down and wipe off the paint. I always check my brush handles too, as this is where I usually pick up the paint. If I don't do this, I am absolutely sure to touch my face or clothing and leave my painting tracks. Also, don't forget to check under your nails for paint!

*With both baby wipes and paper towels, I also find it important to put them right into the trash and not just laying around. If I don't away them away immediately, later, when I pick them up, I always get paint on me.

4. Put the lids on your paint tubes. This should be a no-brainer, but it something I still manage to forget sometimes; however, keeping the lids on your paint tubes not only allows your paint to last longer, but it keeps them from leaking out onto places they shouldn't be leaking out on.

5. Never lay your brushes in your palette. I used to work solely on a glass palette that I kept on a taboret or table, but when I made the switch to a handheld palette, I was surprised to find that by not having the option to lay my brush on my palette, my brush handles, my hands, and everything else stayed cleaner. I now keep a wood block with brush slots in it or a jar for all my "in use" brushes that I need to set down.

6. Wear an apron and gloves, but don’t get in the habit of wiping your paint on it or letting your gloves stay messy. To be honest, when I first wore an apron while painting, I thought all my clothes-destroying mishaps were over; however, because I felt like I had a shield between my clothes and my paint, I would skip the paper towel and just wipe my hands or brush on my apron. It became a habit that I quickly had to break when the sleeve of my arm would touch the apron and be ruined. I've learned to wear an apron as an extra precaution. Similarly, when I started wearing gloves to paint, I realized they're great for final clean up – take the gloves off and your hands are sparkly clean (assuming they were to begin with) – but they are not great if you think the paint on your gloves won't travel the same as it would if your hands were bare. The same habits now apply to whether I am wearing gloves or not: if paint gets on my hands, bare or gloved, I stop and wipe it off.

7. Keep your paintings upright, up high, where they can stay until they are dry. I usually leave my paintings on my easel over night, and then transfer them somewhere like a fireplace mantel or my studio window sill. I keep them upright so I can see them and not place anything on top of them (like car keys) in a rush. I also make sure to put them up high so no feet or pant legs run into them. Not to mention, little ones (though I don't have any yet,) and pets could also brush past them if they're down low.

8. Keep a trash can next to you. My favorite "trash can" when painting in just a brown paper grocery bag doubled so it is sturdy. I fill them with paper towels within a few paintings, and it's easy to just take the brown bag out to the trash. Plus, I find that trash cans get very dirty in art studios no matter what. This way, my "trash can" is always very clean.

9. Clean your brushes. I'll admit it, this is one I struggle with, but cleaning your brushes after you're done painting for the day not only helps them last longer, but it means that when you come back to paint, you know exactly where the wet paint is and what you're dealing with. Plus, clean brushes are just the BEST. 

10. Don’t start until you’re ready.  I always go through a check list of my "cleanliness kit," as I am now calling it, before I start painting. Being prepared for the little messes is the best way to avoid the big messes. It's always best to have everything within arm's reach and not in a cupboard across the room, don't you think?

If you're worried about the possibility of a mess with oil paint, try using these tips and go for it! To me, there's nothing more rewarding in regards to art making than working with oil paint. I know you'll fall in love with it, even if you have to be careful not to make a mess! If you have worked in oil paint before and have any more tips on painting with cleanliness, please comment, I would love to hear them! Happy Painting! 

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