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How to Clean Up Acrylic Paints

Robie is an artist who loves sharing what she has learned about art and painting in the hope that it might help other creatives.

Acrylic paint dries fast. Clean stains while they are still wet.

Acrylic paint dries fast. Clean stains while they are still wet.

Don't Let the Paint Dry

The very qualities that make acrylic paint so special and enjoyable—like the fact that it dries quickly and is not water-soluble when dry—can become dreadful characteristics when it comes to cleaning it up.

Timing Is Key

When you are cleaning up acrylic paint from porous surfaces or from brushes, the sooner you act, the better. Don’t let the paint dry, or you may never be able to clean up completely.

If for any reason you have to delay the cleaning, make sure that you keep the spot wet. Keep the paint from drying so it remains water-soluble.

The worst thing about acrylics is that they dry fast, and the best thing about acrylics is that they dry fast.

— Debbie DeBaun

Cleaning Tips for Various Surfaces

We'll look into:

  1. How to clean your brushes
  2. How to clean your palette
  3. How to get paint off your clothes and other fabrics

1. How to Clean Acrylic Brushes

If you follow these tips you'll be able to keep your brushes in great shape and save money in the long run:

  1. Rinse your brushes well in between uses.
  2. Keep them wet during painting sessions—this does not mean keeping them soaked in water. Leaving brushes in water containers for very long will ruin them as well. Keep the bristles moist in order to avoid residual paint from drying on them.
  3. Wash your brushes with warm soapy water right after your painting session ends, rubbing them in circles on the palm of your hand. Make sure you clean between the bristles, too, especially the area close to the ferrule.
  4. Rinse well, squeeze it dry, and then re-shape the brush.
  5. Let your brush dry horizontally. If you store the brushes vertically when still wet, moisture will penetrate under the ferrule, ruining it in the long term.

Synthetic vs. Natural Brushes

No matter what kind of brushes you use, natural or synthetic, they can all get ruined pretty quickly if you let acrylic paint dry on them. It can truly ruin the bristles of your brushes, and there is not much to do to rescue them after that happens.

I prefer to use synthetic brushes, because acrylics adhere more to natural bristles, making them much harder to clean.

Since acrylic paint dries fast, it can be challenging to preserve your brushes, especially while working on a painting using different kinds of brushes at the same time.

2. How to Get Your Palette Clean

Depending on the material of your palette, there are different methods for cleaning dry acrylic paint.

Cleaning a Wooden Palette

I would not recommend the use of a wood palette for acrylic paint, because the porous surface of the wood absorbs a lot of paint and cleaning becomes a struggle. Non-porous surfaces, like plastic, glass, or ceramic are the best choices for acrylics.

If you already have a wood palette, you can consider covering it with plastic wrap or sealing it with an acrylic medium to reduce absorption. Then you can follow the cleaning tips for non-porous materials below.

Cleaning a Plastic, Glass, or Ceramic Palette

To get acrylic paint off non-porous palettes, first, wipe off the wet paint with a paper towel and throw it in the trash, then wash your palette with soapy water. If the paint dries, it forms a rubbery layer that can quite easily be peeled off and disposed of.

If you have a hard time scrubbing the paint off your palette, spray some window cleaner (e.g., Windex) on it and let it sit for a couple of minutes. This is my favorite way to clean up my palette. It's very easy.

Using a Disposable Paper Palette

Disposable paper palettes are very popular these days. You can buy pads of waterproof, tear-away paper sheets that are disposable, and you just trash them when you are done. With disposable paper palettes, you completely avoid the hassle of cleaning up your palette. Also, you eliminate all the problems of paint ending up in the waterways every time you wash your palette, causing water pollution.

I use them often, both for my acrylics and oil paints. I particularly like the light gray kind, it helps to see the true value of the mixed colors. You don't necessarily have to throw away a sheet every time you paint. Once acrylic paint dries on the palette, it becomes a plastic film and you can peel it off or mix a new color on top.

Health and Safety Tips

Paint contains a lot of chemicals that should not get into our blood system. Keeping that in mind, be aware of what you breathe in and touch. Also, avoid getting a lot of wet paint into the waterways or in contact with eating tools.

When you wash your hands or brushes in the kitchen sink, be cautious to wipe off the brushes in advance and not contaminate dishes, glasses, etc. Avoid washing big amounts of paint down the sink. Wipe off any wet paint with a paper towel and throw it into the trash can, where it will eventually dry out.

Leftover paint on your palette should never get washed down the sink drain. It is very polluting for the environment.

3. How to Get Paint off Clothes

If acrylic paint gets on your clothes, you need to wash the stain immediately while it’s still wet with soapy water, rub well, and rinse thoroughly. If the paint is hard to get off, you can add washer detergent or spray spot remover and rub it with an old toothbrush. Don’t let the paint sink into the fabric and dry, or it will be almost impossible to remove.

To avoid any stress about getting stains on your outfit, be careful about what you wear for painting. Pick something you don’t mind getting ruined, so you don’t have to worry if it gets stained. An apron can help protect clothes.

Methods to Remove Dried Acrylic Paint From Clothes

  1. Soak with rubbing alcohol and rubbing in your hands.
  2. Soak with ammonia or window cleaner and rubbing.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: What do you do if the acrylic paint has already dried on the paintbrush?

Answer: Try soaking it in windex for a couple of hours and then rubbing the bristles with your fingers.

Question: Is it ok to wash my hands and painting tools in my kitchen sink?

Answer: Paint has a lot of chemicals that are bad for the environment and should not be ingested.

Keeping that in mind, try to minimize the amount that goes into the waterways and in your food.

When I’m done painting, sometimes I do wash my hands or lightly dirty brushes in the kitchen sink, but I am cautious to wipe off the brushes in advance and not to contaminate dishes, glasses, etc.

One thing that you should carefully avoid is to wash big amounts of paint down the sink, any sink. If you have a big blob of paint left on the palette, let it dry and then peel it off and into the trash can.

Or, you could wipe it off with a paper towel when still wet and throw the paper in the trash can.

Question: If I can't wash my hands in the kitchen sink after painting with acrylics where can I wash them and how do I get rid of the water?

Answer: It's ok to wash your hands or brushes in the kitchen sink, but be cautious to wipe off the brushes in advance with a paper towel or old rag, carefully avoiding to wash big amounts of paint down the sink, any sink.

Most importantly, avoid contaminating dishes, glasses, etc.

Question: I used acrylic paint on ends of wooden spoons. Will the paint wash off? What could I seal it with?

Answer: I doubt that acrylic paint will wash off any wood surface.

Wood is porous and absorbs some of the paint. After the paint dries, you can peel it off a plastic support, but it adheres to wood much more. You may have to sand the wood to get rid of the paint layer.

(Be careful not to breathe in the sanding dust)

To isolate the wood, so it does not absorb, I would use an acrylic gel medium or an acrylic varnish.

Question: If the kitchen sink is empty, is it okay to wash your hands and painting tools?

Answer: Sure, if there are no dishes or other utensils that will get in touch with food in the kitchen sink, you can go ahead and wash your hands and brushes.

However, I recommend that you wipe off any excess paint on a towel (that will go into the garbage at one point) and try to get as little paint as possible down the drain.

Your pipes and the water supply system will thank you.

© 2012 Robie Benve


Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on September 16, 2019:

You got 300 kids passionate about acrylic pouring, that's wonderful Laura!! As they are experimenting with pouring, they might thing it's just a fun activity, but I bet for several you'll be the inspiring art teacher they thank at their first solo exhibit. :)

laura Campbell on September 15, 2019:

I teach middle school students. I really enjoyed your advise about cleaning the brushes in particular. As a teacher, I am a novice of all trades but master at none with what I teach because I want my students to get a variety of art skills instead of only one or 2. I showed my students how to do flip cup pours. They did better than me and called it satisfying. They fell in love, it got all over campus, I have 300 kids who wanna pour. LOL.

Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on March 18, 2019:

Ah, that sounds fun and a very creative and artistic way to solve the problem. I have a shirt that I really liked and now has paint spots, I might try adding more myself and see what happens. Thanks!

Jean Haller on March 18, 2019:

I could not get some acrylic stains from my jeans, so I decided to add more. I ended up with some very complimented pants, lol.

Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on December 05, 2016:

Thanks jbosh1972, I appreciate your feedback. It's always good to hear what really works for people and learn that way, instead of though our own mistakes. Mistakes can be very costly sometimes. :) Happy painting!

Jason from Indianapolis, IN. USA on November 29, 2016:

The Murphy's oil soap trick makes perfect sense. The surfactant properties causes the acrylic to loosen its adhesion and help water to wet the paint for removal.

I did write an article about 5 liquids that can clean up dried acrylic paint but cleaning up while paint is still wet is the best idea. Goes along with the saying an ounce of prevention is worth more than a pound of cure.

Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on November 22, 2016:

Great tip, thanks for sharing Glen!

Glen on November 20, 2016:

Best tip for cleaning even partially dried brushes is to soak them in Murphy's oil soap (don't dilute) overnight and then soap and water to thoroughly clean. Brings back brushes you thought were toast.

Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on October 12, 2015:

Sounds like you have a great plan of action Scribenet, best of luck to you! You may be able to share watercolor and acrylic brushes, depending on how well you are able to clean them. In doubt I'd keep them separate. Also, acrylic can use stiffer bristles too, depending on your preferences. Thanks for your feedback! Happy painitng. :)

Maggie Griess from Ontario, Canada on October 10, 2015:

I think I will use a special shirt and plastic mats underneath. I have a set of acrylics I am about to try over the winter. I think I will dedicate special brushes for it...was going to use my watercolor brushes; after reading this - I think not. I will check your articles on acrylic. Thank you.

Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on April 29, 2013:

Thanks a lot JanitorialWeb, and welcome to HubPages! :)

JanitorialWeb from Miami, Florida on April 29, 2013:

Wow excellent article, I like this.

Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on February 28, 2013:

Rod, the shirt story is too funny, you made me laugh hard, thanks for sharing! I totally understand the forgetting brushes in water and oh did I regret it (and my wallet!)

The paper plate palette sounds like a great environment-friendly solution. Though I do get bothered by the old paint stains, it gets too confusing, I doubt I could do it, but way to go for finding your way!

Thanks a lot for reading and your great comment. :)

RodneyBlaec Rainey from Louisville, KY on February 27, 2013:

I have got to be one of the worst at this. I have paint stains on nearly every shirt I own. I no longer use paper towels; I just wipe the brushes on my shirt. Also, I had to stop buying expensive brushes cause I kept leaving them upside down in a glass of water. While this keeps the paint from curing to the bristles, it compromises the shape of the brush if left too long. Live and learn.

I noticed you mentioned disposable pallets. I never tried them, but I've been using paper plates for years. What paint goes unused dries to the plate which reinforces it and makes it more watertight. So if it doesn't bother you to see old dry paint under your fresh wet paint, I highly recommend it. I've used the same paper plate for over a year now; it just keeps getting thicker and thicker. Great Hub, Thank You for sharing.

Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on May 07, 2012:

Dear Humberto, are you saying reading my posts inspired you to paint? Oh, that would be fantastic! :))

Sounds like you are ready for a new adventure, don't wait any longer; as we say in Italy "hit the iron while it's hot". Now that you broke the ice keep at it, my friend, release the creativity from within and have fun. Blessings to you too and good luck for everything.

Humberto Rivera on May 06, 2012:

Hello Robie!

I have been reading your posting for a while and I wanted to say thanks for all your advise. After 4 months, I finally painted something. A friend of mine needed to paint a Disney landscape, and he let me help. Acrylic dries faster that what I thought and cleaning the brushes often was important to keep the flow of the stroke nice and even. Thanks Robie, and look I forward to read your posting, see your paintings, and learn your teachings. Thanks my friend and God bless you and your family.

Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on April 11, 2012:

Michael, sounds like you had some experience with unusable brushes and spotty clothes, thanks to the lovely and versatile medium of acrylic paint. (guess what, me too) Not fun learning the hard way, is it? It would be great if my hub could save someone else from the trouble. :)

Thanks for reading and leaving feedback!

Michael J Rapp from United States on April 10, 2012:

Great advice! I taught art groups with seniors a few years back, and acrylic was the easiest medium for them to work in. Unfortunately, it's also a challenge to clean up if you aren't on the ball. I learned the lessons you are explaining here the hard way: clean brushes immediately after use and get it off your clothes ASAP!