How to Restore Dried Out Paints

It happens to the best of us; every now and again, we forget to fully tighten the lid on a paint bottle.

Then, the next time you go to use it, you have to pry the lid off only to find it’s separated into a crusty mess, and, of course, it’s late at night, all of the stores are closed, and you need that exact color so you can finish the last of your figures.

Don’t give up yet! Save that paint from being tossed in the trash!

So, how do you restore dried out paints? Add a thinning medium to the dried paint and mix. Thinning mediums for acrylic paint include water, thinner medium, and flow improver. You can stir the paint and medium together or add an agitator to the paint container and shake it.

But what exactly is a thinning medium? How much do I need? How do I know if this paint can be saved?

If your head is swirling with all of these questions and more, keep reading. I’ll have you dipping your brush in that perfectly flowing paint in no time. 

What’s a Thinning Medium?

This is the simple part of the equation. A thinning medium is a gel-like substance that’s mixed with paints to give them a more fluid consistency.

Different projects require different paint consistencies, so the thinning medium is a way to achieve a thinner form of paint, just like the name suggests. 

If you’re a frequent painter or crafter, keeping a thinning medium on hand is always a great idea. It’s an inexpensive way to ensure you’re going to be able to maximize the paint that you have.

These are a few fan favorites from hobbyists and crafters alike:

Thinning medium is the best choice for restoring dried paint because of its chemical makeup.

It’s possible to use just plain old water to restore water-based paints that are on their way to being dried up, but this can lead to the watered-down paint drying up even faster.

A thinning medium is specifically designed with the proper chemicals to mix with paint without drying. 

How to Tell if the Paint Can Be Salvaged

There are two kinds of dried-out paint – the kind that you can still save and bring back to life, and the ones that are destined for the trash can.

Before you waste any time and thinning medium, it’s important to determine which kind of paint you’re working with.

If the paint you’re hoping to use has completely separated into pigment and liquid, there’s still hope.

As long as there’s a little bit of liquid and the paint is not fully dried out, you very likely can restore it for use right away. 

It might not last too much longer, but you’ll at least be able to finish your current project.

However, if you have to pry the lid off the paint and all that’s left is a pigment with no liquid remnants, then it’s probably a lost cause.

The amount of time and thinning medium you’d have to use is not worth it.

It’s also very likely that you would have to use a lot of thinning medium, and it still would not be able to be restored to a working paint anyway. Don’t waste your time and valuable medium.

How to Restore Dried-Out Paints with Thinning Medium

Again, keeping a bottle of thinning medium on hand is key if you’re using paints frequently.

Even if you’re really diligent about putting the lids tightly back on each bottle, faulty lids and seals can sneak up on you. Nobody’s safe from a sneaky bottle of dried-out paint. 

In addition to the thinning medium, there are a few more items you might want to keep handy for those times when you find yourself needing to restore some life into a bottle of paint.

  • Craft sticks or drink stirrers for mixing.
  • Cover for workspace.
  • A palette knife or an Exacto blade.

1. Cover Your Workspace

There’s going to be a little fallout involved with opening a bottle of dried out paint.

Use a tablecloth or even a smaller rag to cover the tabletop where you’ll be working to prevent any stains or scratches during the process.

2. Carefully Open the Paint

When you open the paint, you’ll be able to decide whether or not this particular bottle can be salvaged.

If you do decide to go ahead with restoring it, use a palette knife to carefully peel away any of the crusty bits surrounding the cap and bottleneck area.

This will prevent them from falling back into the bottle and help ensure proper closure when you replace the lid. 

3. Add Thinning Medium

Proceed slowly! It’s easy to add more thinning medium, but once it’s in there, it can’t be taken out.

Add just a few drops of thinning medium at a time, then stir with the craft sticks or drink stirrers, whichever will fit into your bottle opening. Make sure that the stir stick isn’t sharp, or it will damage the bottle. 

4. Stir, Stir, Stir

Once the thinning medium has been fully incorporated and mixed in, add just a little bit more. Continue stirring and adding until your paint has reached a working consistency.

If you want a thinner paint to cover more area, more thinning medium will help you get there. 

It might seem like using your paintbrush is an easy tool for stirring, but it’s not advised. This could damage your brush bristles and even cause them to fall off in the paint. 

You certainly don’t want to return to your project to find paintbrush bristles have dried into your finished product.

An exception would be if you’re using your brush as the source of the paint instead of an actual bottle, but more on that later. 

5. Replace the Lid

Make sure to put the cap back on the bottle as tightly as possible. If you need to scrape off anymore of the dried up paint or use a damp cloth to wipe it clean, do that before replacing the lid.

If you do have to wipe it, make sure it’s completely dried before putting the lid on so it doesn’t get stuck.

Using Agitators

An agitator is also sometimes called a mixing ball.  It’s typically a small ball bearing that you can put in a jar of paint. 

The ball will help mix up all the dried and thick paint clinging to the sides and bottom of the jar. You still should add some kind of thinning medium to the paint.

Stainless Steel agitators are the most common, and I have heard good things about the Army Painter agitators. Poor quality ones can potentially rust. I prefer glass agitators.  

Using Brush Leftovers

If you’re not able to salvage enough from a bottle, don’t get discouraged yet.

It’s possible that if you’ve recently used this color, there might be just enough left on your brush to reconstitute the leftovers.

Just a tiny amount of paint that’s not completely dried out might be just the right amount to cover what you need, once it’s been mixed with the thinning medium.

This doesn’t happen often, but if you’re like me, maybe you don’t wash your brushes right after you use them, so restoring the dried paint from a brush isn’t that far-fetched.

Simply add a drop or two of the thinning medium to a smooth surface that you’d usually use for paint, and gently swipe the brush back and forth to mix it with the paint on the brush. 

What About Other Kinds of Paint?

Restoring dried up paint usually works best with acrylic paints, the ones that are used by hobbyists and crafters.

Latex paint can’t be restored, so if you have a dried-up can of that, it should be properly disposed of. 

Water-based paint can be restored with water, and again, acrylic paint can be reconstituted with water, but this should only be done if you’re in a pinch. It’s not a great long-term solution. 

Oil paints have an entirely different way of being restored if they’re dried out, although it can be done. This is typically done with turpentine, so we’ll save that topic for a different day. 

Still hungry for more? Try heading over to my guide on thinning and diluting acrylics.