If there is one thing that many artists despise doing is cleaning up after a huge art project, especially a painting palette, which looks like a literal battle field of color (but it is so damn pretty to look at!). The cleaning process after an art project can feel boring, but it’s a necessary part of keeping all your supplies clean and ready for many future paintings.
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So when it comes to cleaning excess paint off your palette, there are several ways to do it:
- Wipe off any excess wet paint with a paper towel and clean with soap and water
- Soak any dried paint in warm water and remove once it “puckers”
- Manually peel any thickly gathered dried paint globs
- Use acrylic mediums to effectively peel your acrylic paint off the palette
- Use paint thinners like acetone to remove any stubborn dried paint
- Scrap off any remaining dry paint
Depending on your palette and the state of your paint, there are different cleaning techniques you can use to get both wet and dry acrylics off your palette. So let’s dive into each method into further detail.
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Method 1: Cleaning wet acrylic from your paint palette
The best way to effectively clean your paint palette (whether it is made of plastic, polystyrene, glass or wood) is to do it while your paint is still nice and wet. It’s a heck of a lot easier to wipe off paint than to do any additional work like scraping or scrubbing, right?
To start cleaning, remove any excess paint using a palette knife and wipe it onto a cloth or paper towel; then using a fresh cloth with a little soap and hot water, scrub off any remaining paint traces on your palette. Since acrylics are still water soluble when wet, a simple wet cloth scrub should clear off any remaining paint.
I do want to point out how important it is to not wash down globs of acrylic paint down the sink since it runs the risk of contaminating the water supply and/or food-safe items. So whenever you are finished with your cloths, be sure to throw them into the trash.
I even made a quick video showing you how to effectively clean your plastic paint palette using this technique.
Now what if your acrylics have dried on your palette? What can you do then?
Cleaning dried acrylic off your paint palette
Although cleaning dried acrylic paint may not be as “cut-and-dry” (heh puns) as cleaning wet paint off a palette, there are still several ways to do this effectively without wanting to tear your hair out.
Note: I recently learned that palettes made of polystyrene (PS) are not truly intended for acrylic paint and can therefore be a really big pain to clean when the paint has dried. If you’re using a PS palette (turn your palette around and look for the recycling logo and a “PS” or “6” inside it), I would seriously consider trying another palette option.
Mind you, the following cleaning techniques can still work on this kind of palette, but you’ll have a much harder time getting all the paint off.
Method 2: Peel off the paint globs
This one is a fairly simple concept.
Since acrylic paint does dry into a hard acrylic resin, there is an option to peel it straight off the palette. I have noticed that the thicker the dried paint glob is, the easier it is to grab the edge and pull the paint off the palette, especially if you’re dealing with either a plastic or glass palette. You might have a harder time doing this with a wood palette, but it’s worth a try.
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Method 3: Apply acrylic medium gel on top of the dried paint
This one is by far the most satisfying when it comes to dry paint removal.
Simply using an acrylic medium, like this clear tar gel from Golden, brush on a thin layer onto the entirety of your canvas, wait for it to completely dry, and then take one corner and start peeling. The dried medium and the paint underneath should effectively come off.
Of course, this works best with glass, ceramic, or plastic palettes but may not be as effective with polystyrene or wooden palettes. I included a video demonstrating this in action.
Method 4: Use acetone
Acetone is not just an effective nail polish remover (which is also made of…you guessed it…acrylics!), it can also be used to thin out and remove dried acrylic paint.
Although it’s not my favorite cleaning method, especially since the smell is really strong, I do like using acetone (especially ones like this) in a pinch to remove really stubborn areas of paint that just refuse to budge. Simply dip a cloth or cotton swap in acetone and gently rub the palette surface until all the acrylic paint comes off. Easy peasy.
Read more: How to easily thin out acrylic paint
Method 5: Soak in warm water
This technique only works if you have a palette that can effectively hold water without spilling over, like ceramic paint palettes or plastic palettes with wells. But if your flat palette is small enough, you can simply place it inside another container and place a weight on top of the palette to keep it submerged in the water.
To lift off dried acrylic paint, simply pour warm or hot water over the areas of dried paint until completely submerged and set aside to soak. Once you notice the dried paint begin to wrinkle and “pucker up” (which usually takes anywhere between 10 minutes to an hour), it is ready to be removed, either by hand or using a putty knife. The dried paint should easily slide off without too much trouble.
Method 6: Scrape off the paint
My least favorite cleaning strategy of them all – scraping dry acrylic paint off the palette.
It’s the most involved in terms of cleaning and requires you to use some sort of putty knife to scrape off any stubborn films of acrylic paint. I have found combining this technique with water or acetone makes this much easier to do.
All you need to do is grab a sharp edged tool like a putty knife or a straight razor and apply a light even pressure on the paint glob to scrape it off the palette entirely. Do this until all your paint has been removed.
This 2″ flexible putty knife is a great option for scraping off residual paint off your paint palette, and it’s a great bang for the buck.
A note on wooden palettes: In the event you are using a wooden palette for any of these cleaning techniques, you will want to recondition the wood periodically with linseed oil post clean-up to help preserve the wood integrity and longevity. Although they are great for oil painting, I do not suggest using wooden palettes for acrylics. There is a lot of maintenance that goes into it and if you’re not quite ready to handle that, I would suggest going with a plastic, glass or ceramic palette.
Other easy-clean up palette alternatives
Many of the techniques I showed you involve cleaning acrylics off of reusable palettes; however, there are other types of palettes or palette hacks that are disposable and therefore does not require you to do any massive clean-up, my favorite being disposable palettes
Use Palette Paper
Palette paper has a smooth, poly-coated surface to allow for easy mixing without pilling or color absorption (and some have finger holes to better grip and balance your palette).
This palette paper from Arteza comes in a 2-pack and has a thumb hole for easy holding while paint slapping away. Plus, it’s a fan favorite among many artists 🙂
Once you are done with your painting project, you can simply tear off your palette paper and throw it out! No mess. No cleanup.
Use Plastic Wrap
This is a great cleaning hack and doesn’t require any extra fancy materials (besides just a bit of plastic wrap). All you need to do is grab a sheet of plastic wrap that can cover your entire palette and lay it atop your palette surface. From there, you can add paint and start creating.
Once you’re finished, simply remove the plastic wrap and throw it away. Simple.
You can read more about these palettes and other great palette options for acrylic paintings in my post here.
Use Disposable Paper Palettes
Although not my ultimate favorite option, paper palettes are a quick, low-cost solution for a palette.
The one caveat is the structural integrity of paper palettes is pretty questionable – since the paper surface will quickly pill and disintegrate when adding paint or moving things around with your paint brush. #yuck
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What are your thoughts about my palette cleaning tips? Comment and share below!
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