How To Clean An Oil Painting

There can be a variety of reasons you may wish to have an oil painting cleaned. Perhaps it has been in storage, gathering dust. It may have spent decades in the home of someone who smoked or in a home with lots of pets and pet dander. It may have been displayed in an environment where oil is frequently in the air. It could possibly have been hung over a sooty fireplace, or even been exposed to a house fire.

Make an assessment of the painting

Your first step in cleaning an oil painting will be to make an overall assessment of the artwork. If the item is a vintage piece of significant value, it may well be worth the money to have it professionally cleaned. If there is any question to its value, you may wish to have it appraised. Most cleaning options contain some risk to the painting, so depending on its intrinsic or monetary value of the artwork; a professional cleaning may be your best option.

If the painting is something you’ve had in the family for a period of years, and you just want to make it more attractive, there are various cleaning approaches you can attempt on your own. What processes you use will be determined by what is soiling the painting, its age, and your ultimate goal.

Many paintings have a varnish coat applied to add a bit of sheen and to “protect” the oil paint itself. These varnishes tend to yellow and dull the look of the painting, and many varnishes crack adding fine lines throughout the painting’s varnish coat.

Image: Courtesy of Wikipedia

Removing a varnish coat

Before you attempt to remove a varnish coat from a painting, attempt to gauge how old the painting is. In newer paintings with a varnish coat, the varnish coat may actually be stronger than the paint itself. That means by removing the varnish coat you are at risk of affecting the oil paint. If the painting is at least several decades old, you are probably safe in removing the varnish coat.

There are multiple emulsifiers in liquid and gel form available on the market designed specifically for removing varnishes from oil paintings. This should be first attempted in a small corner of the painting to see the effects. Once tested, you can proceed with the rest of the painting being sure to use a variety of “tools” that would include very soft brushes, cotton swabs and rubber gloves.

Removing dust and/or pet hair

If your painting is discolored due to years of dust or the accumulation of pet hair, you may be fortunate enough to be able to clean it with small attachments to a vacuum cleaner intended for surfaces like a painting. If this vacuum cleaner attempt does not provide satisfactory results, you may then try to “dry clean” the surface of the painting using a set of very soft bristle paint brushes. Depending on the size of the painting you may wish to start in one area and work your way across the entire surface of the painting. Brush the painting with the soft bristles of the bushes in multiple directions, making an attempt to get into the original brush strokes. It is important that you keep the brushes you are using clean throughout the process.

Image: Courtesy of Wikipedia

Deeper cleaning for soot, smoke and dirt

If the painting you are attempting to clean shows signs of more significant dirt or soot, you will need to take more aggressive steps in the paintings cleaning. There are commercial products available to help deep clean these severely dirty paintings; however, there are several “home style” remedies you may try.

  • Doughy Bread. Take the inside dough from a larger, doughy piece of bread and break into about a one inch round piece. Take this piece of bread and gently roll it over a small surface area of the painting. You should be able to see the dough absorb much of the surface dirt and smoke on the painting. Repeat as necessary and use fresh pieces of the dough until no more dirt is absorbed. This can be a messy process, and you will want to thoroughly brush any of the small crumbs off of the painting surface completely. This is a critical last step in using dough to clean the surface of a painting.
  • Lemon Detergent. A light, lemony dish soap mixture with warm water can help remove dirt from paintings that are severely covered in filth. You will need to move quickly with this solution and do not allow the liquid to soak into the painting or canvas. Using a very soft sponge and working from one small area to another, you can make a dramatic difference. Upon completion, be sure to quickly go over the entire painting again to remove any soap residue. It is very important you use as minimal amount of liquid as possible.
  • Saliva. Many restoration houses across the world actually use saliva to clean paintings. Saliva apparently contains enough chemicals to clean the dirt off of the painting without harming the oil paint itself. This can obviously be a time consuming process but can be accomplished with patience and large amount of cotton swabs. Use your saliva and roll the moistened cotton swabs over the surface, section by section, until you get the desired results.

Final notes

Remember, any attempt at cleaning an oil painting can affect its value. If your artwork was purchased as an investment, treat it as such and have it cleaned professionally. There are also assortments of DIY painting cleaning kits available commercially. Your best results will likely come from taking your time, paying attention to the results as they are achieved, and by using a gentle approach.

Less is usually more when attempting to clean an oil painting. Minimize the use of pressure and fluids, and make sure anything that comes in contact with the paintings surface is soft and forgiving. “Scrubbing” is not considered a good approach when cleaning a painting’s surface, so take your time. Keep whatever you are using to remove dirt clean and changed often.


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