Every time I am talking with a new group of students, maintenance of materials comes up, and invariably everyone will ask what soap is best for brush washing. I have avoided writing this blog post for about two years. That said, as this question keeps coming up over and over again in workshops (it did last week in the Gottlieb class) and finally I figured I should just put it here so it’s searchable.
In the US here are the winners for brush maintenance…. these are the two I keep at the sink:
Fels Naptha was the historic choice of brush washing soap of the Boston School painters- as Tom Dunlay recounted on Facebook, Ives Gammell used it, as did his teachers, teacher’s teachers and so on. It’s a laundry soap, not in with the hand soap in the supermarket. What’s unique about Fels-Naptha is that unlike many other major soap brands, they have not changed formula and become a detergent product, it’s still glycerin soap. It is hard to find glycerin soap these days in America. John Carlson recommends in his guide to landscape painting to wash brushes after cleaning in kerosene, and clean the surface of dirty paintings with Ivory Soap. Ivory of course still exists, but I would strongly recommend not cleaning your brushes or painting with it, it’s a detergent/lotion blend product now and will leave crazy residue in your brushes- and I shudder to think what it would do to the surface of a painting.
The other brush washing soap I use in the studio is Lava. Lava is a heavy duty cleaning soap with pumice blended into it, so if there’s old paint in the ferrule, or the brush really needs a good cleaning, Lava is what I’ll use. That said, sink washing is the most aggressive thing you ever do to a brush, so I try to use Lava on a brush infrequently. It’s great for cleaning but will probably wear down the hairs with time if you use it daily.
The Masters Brush Cleaner- this is wicked nice brush washing soap, it’s what it’s designed to do, and also has pumice for tough-to-wash brushes. That said, like all art materials, it comes at an added premium. If you have a trust fund, or if you like literally pouring money down the sink, I would recommend that you use this stuff. In my experience though, there is nothing that this soap does that the above two can’t do. I haven’t bought it for years, and like other ‘branded’ artist materials (cough cough GAMSOL cough cough cough) it is essentially exactly the same product you buy in the hardware store or supermarket, just 5-10 times more expensive.
Murphy’s Oil Soap is an amazing product, it has many uses (I often clean my wood floors at home with it, but also my friend Rob Bodem uses it when he’s making casts of his sculptures), I know some love it for washing brushes. It’s never worked for me for washing brushes, and it’s also terribly expensive. Some folks like it though- maybe I just can’t get used to a liquid soap for cleaning brushes. Still, deserves a mention here.
Come to think of it, there is one other soap worth mentioning:
This is the soap I used for years in Italy, SOLE (yellow type only, the white one has some lotion or something which remains in your brushes). It is probably the Italian version of Fels-Naptha, another bar laundry soap (though I do not think it has the addition of naphtha, or like Fels is recommended for treating poison ivy, especially since they don’t have poison ivy in the mediterranean). Like Fels Naptha, it’s dirt cheap and in the supermarket, not the art store. I only now, writing this post realized that they are probably analogues.
Feel free to argue with me in the comments about what brush soap you like, but be forewarned, you are probably wrong.
*whew* silly blog post on brush washing over with