How to Clean Oil Paintings Correctly

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You can take all of the necessary steps to protect your oil paintings, but they are still going to need to be cleaned once in a while. The question is, how do you clean an oil painting?

If you have a painting that is valuable or holds sentimental value, you might want to have it cleaned by a professional. Otherwise, there are methods you can use to clean oil paintings without having to spend a lot of money by having someone else do it for you.

In this post, I am going to discuss a few of the methods I have used to clean oil paintings. I will also talk about some of the things that you should never do.

Keep reading to learn all about how to clean oil paintings yourself safely at home.

Why Do You Need to Clean Oil Paintings?

You don’t live in a museum, so chances are your paintings aren’t stored or cared for as regularly as they would be in a museum. Over time, they are going to get dirty.

If there are any smokers in the home, paintings could get dirty and even turn yellow after a while. You also have to think about dust, dirt, and mold.

The longer a painting is in the open, the dirtier it is going to get. After a while paintings can end up looking dull.

Cleaning your oil paintings will restore them to their original appearance so they look great again.

Before You Start Cleaning

Before you start to clean a painting you need to decide if it is something you should do yourself or hire a professional to do. If there is any chance that you will damage your painting, it is best to get someone who knows what they are doing to take care of the cleaning.

I always recommend practicing a few different cleaning methods before you clean a piece of art that you love. The more you learn about cleaning paintings and the more experience you have, the better your paintings are going to look, and they won’t be damaged.

You should also think about the age of the painting. If it is less than six months old, don’t even think about trying to clean it because it takes at least this long for oil paints to completely dry. If the impasto technique has been used, it could even take years for the painting to dry.

What Not to Do

Before we get into how to clean your painting, we should talk about what not to do. There are more do nots than do’s when it comes to cleaning oil paintings.

#1. Never Use Baby Oil

You have probably seen tutorials that show you how to clean oil paintings with baby oil. Ignore them!

Baby oil may make your paintings look clean, but it will leave a sticky residue. Over time your painting will end up looking even dirtier.

#2. Don’t Clean Oil Paintings with Water

Water should never be used to clean an oil painting. It can weaken the bonds in the oil paint, eventually causing the paint to flake off the canvas.

In the case of a painting that has been varnished, water can get trapped beneath the varnish. This will cause the painting to have a cloudy appearance.

#3. Bread and Potatoes are Not a Good Idea

Some tutorials will tell you to use bread or potatoes to clean oil paintings on canvas. This is never a good idea.

Bread will leave crumbs behind. Potatoes can leave water behind, as well as a starchy film. Food should be eaten and not used to clean oil paintings.

#4. Feather Dusters are Bad for Oil Paintings

If you use a feather duster to clean an oil painting, small fibers are likely going to be left behind. These fibers will scratch the surface of the paint.

You will end up with a painting that is damaged beyond repair. As well as not using a feather duster, you should also avoid using stiff brushes.

#5. Avoid Using Household Detergents and other Liquids

Some people may tell you that you can use rubbing alcohol, lemon juice, vinegar, and even household detergents or a home remedy to clean oil paintings. Don’t listen to them!

These solutions are great for getting rid of dirt and dust. But, they are also great for removing paint from the canvas and destroying a painting.

What You Should Do

There are certain tools that you should use to clean oil paintings. You should have a soft brush, a pair of gloves, cotton swabs, and a magnifying glass.

If the painting is in a frame you will first need to remove it from the frame and then place it on a flat surface. Be sure to work in a quiet area where you can concentrate on what you are doing, and make sure there is plenty of light to work with.

Here’s how you can clean a painting without damaging it:

#1. Dry Brushing

The most common method of cleaning oil paintings is dry brushing. This will allow you to get rid of dust and other particles that have built up on the surface of the painting.

Use a soft brush that will not damage the painting. A sable brush is ideal for this purpose. Avoid using feather brushes that can scratch a painting.

The brush should be dry. It should also reflect the size of the painting. The larger the painting, the bigger the brush you will need.

#2. Clean Oil Paintings with Saliva

This may sound kind of gross, but one of the best ways to clean an oil painting is by cleaning it with saliva. There are enzymes in saliva that can break down dirt but not so strong that they will break down the paint.

All you need to do is moisten a cotton swab with saliva, making sure that it is damp but not dripping wet. I also recommend that you do not eat or drink for at least 20 minutes before cleaning a painting with saliva. Food in your mouth can affect how the saliva enzymes work.

Always do a patch test on a small section of the painting before cleaning the entire thing with saliva. Then, clean the painting in small sections using up and down dabs without using a lot of pressure. Switch to clean swabs often as you are working.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do you take care of old oil paintings?

Oil paintings can hold up for many centuries as long as they are properly cared for. Paintings should be dusted about twice a year with a soft brush (do not use a feather duster)/ Make sure that you are dusting small sections at a time. If the painting isn’t being displayed, it should be stored in a dry room and wrapped with tissue paper. There should be plenty of air circulation in the room. If the painting is valuable, I suggest hiring a professional to clean it properly.

How Do You Clean a 100-Year-Old Painting?

An old oil painting can be cleaned in the same way as a newer one. It should be dusted with a soft brush before cleaning. If there is any dirt on the painting, clean it with saliva. Put a cotton swab on the end of your tongue to dampen it (do not soak the cotton swab). Dab the swab onto a small section of the painting to test it and make sure it will work. Then, continue dabbing until you have removed all of the dirt. Again, if this is a valuable painting or one that means a lot to you, let a professional clean it.

How Do You Remove Varnish From Old Oil Paintings?

When it comes to removing varnish from old oil paintings, I advise letting a professional do it. But, if you feel you can do it yourself, you can use a solvent such as distilled turpentine. Dip a lint-free cloth into the turpentine and gently rub the cloth on the surface of the painting. Start at one corner and work your way along the rest of the painting.

How Do You Clean a Dirty Antique Oil Painting?

Again, I can’t stress enough how important it is to be careful with oil paintings. If an antique oil painting is dirty, use the same method that I talked about in cleaning a 100-year-old painting. If you are worried that you may damage the painting, you should contact an art gallery or a museum to find someone who has experience and can do it for you. It will be worth the expense in the long run if you truly wish to preserve the painting.

What is the Lifespan of an Oil Painting?

The lifespan of an oil painting largely depends on how well you take care of it. It also depends on the quality of the paints and the quality of the canvas it is painted on. An oil painting that has been painted on a canvas can have a lifespan of hundreds of years. Varnishing an oil painting will help to increase its lifespan.

Can You Use Vinegar to Clean an Oil Painting?

You may have been told that you can use vinegar to clean an oil painting. Any professional will tell you that this is not something you should ever do. Vinegar is just far too strong to use on an oil painting. Sure, it will get rid of the dirt but you are also at risk of removing some of the paint as well.

Final Thoughts

As long as you are careful, it is relatively easy to clean most oil paintings. It is even easier when you take steps to keep them from getting too dirty in the first place.

If you have any concerns about cleaning oil paintings yourself, it is a good idea to have an expert do it for you. They will be able to ensure that your painting looks great and that no damage is done during the cleaning process.

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