How to Clean Oil Paintings

Cleaning oil paintings is a specialized field, requiring a vast knowledge of canvas, oil paints, and cleaners. However, the adventurous do-it-yourselfer can carefully clean paintings made after the 1940s. Paintings older than the 1940s, those with yellowed or cracking varnish, and those with emotional or financial value should only be cleaned by a professional. In the wrong hands, valuable old paintings can be seriously damaged.

If a painting is looking yellowed or is cracking, this is due to the varnish, which many oil paintings are coated in in an effort to protect the original work. While removing this varnish yourself is not recommended, it can be done. However, a do-it-yourselfer should beware: paintings can easily be ruined and when it comes to varnish, leave it to the professionals!

Most importantly, do not try to use water or water-based cleaning solutions to clean oil paintings! This will make the paint crack and chip.

Materials include large q-tips, cotton swabs, neutralizer, emulsion cleaner, protective gloves, and paper or plastic to lay the painting on. Make sure the cleaning solution is for oil paintings, and be sure to follow the directions carefully! Emulsion cleaner removes dirt and soot from paintings.

Be sure to take before and after photos, as well as one picture when halfway though the cleaning process. This will show the progress made and can help determine whether there was any smearing or damage done to the painting during cleaning

Carefully remove the painting from its frame (if there is one) and lay the painting on a large piece of plastic or paper in a well-ventilated area. Be sure to wear protective gloves and try to stay out of direct sunlight. Although the sunlight should not damage the painting, it can impair judgment. Take out a bottle of neutralizer and gently wipe it on the painting with a soft cloth or cotton swab. Neutralizer will prevent the cleanser from washing paint off the canvas.

Be sure to dab and not rub the painting. Rubbing can remove paint or stretch the canvas!

To test the emulsion cleaner, gently dab a small amount of the cleaner with a cotton swab on a corner of the painting. If it cleans the painting without removing any pigment, dab the area with neutralizer and prepare for cleaning. Be sure to work in small areas and wipe neutralizer over the cleaned area when finished. Remember, this will prevent the emulsion cleaner from cleaning paint off the canvas.

Do not dip your cotton swab back into the cleaner. This can cause the paint to smear or can force dirt on the swab back onto the painting. After cleaning, one final sweep of neutralizer over the painting ensures that all the cleaner has been removed.

To help prevent dust and dirt buildup on the painting, the painting can be framed behind glass or regularly dusted using a soft brush.

Another method people recommend is to buy a couple loaves of doughy bread and a soft brush. Slice the bread in half and gently rub it against the painting. The bread attracts the dirt to itself, and once the end is gray or black from dirt, simply slice off that piece and keep working. Once most of the dirt has been removed, take a soft brush to dust off any breadcrumbs that were left on the painting.


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