No matter how well-protected your artwork might be, the day will come when you need to do a dreaded task… clean your oil painting.
But how? You can either hire a professional art conservator or art restorer or go the DIY route if you’re brave.
In this post, I’m going to show you how to clean your oil painting the right way… and also many wrong ways that should be avoided.
By the end of the blog, you’ll know why saliva is your new best friend (as crazy as it seems), learn how to replace dirty, aged varnish, and discover when it’s time to call a professional for cleaning oil paintings.
Why You Should Clean Your Oil Paintings?
Your oil paintings probably aren’t stored to the cleanliness standards of the Mona Lisa, and that’s perfectly fine. But that also means they’re regularly exposed to dirt, dust, mold, and in certain cases, smoke.
The longer they sit out in the open, the more gunk they can accumulate, making them look dull, faded, and downright ragged.
Fortunately, you can restore their youthful glow by cleaning them properly or hiring an art conservator to do it for you.
Some Things To Consider Before You Start The Cleaning Process
Before you start cleaning, it’s important to pause and ask yourself, “would it be wise to let a professional do this?”
It’s possible to ruin a painting permanently if cleaned incorrectly. If you’re planning to restore an old and valuable painting, it’s best to hire a professional if you’re inexperienced. Or at least consider testing a few of the cleaning methods on old oil paintings from a thrift store.
I highly recommend practicing a few methods before cleaning artwork that’s near and dear to your heart.
If you rush into the process with hopes of saving money, you might actually end up spending more later to fix a silly (and avoidable) mistake.
Another thing to consider is how old your oil painting is. Never clean a painting that’s under six months old, and if painted with the Impasto painting technique, it’s safer to wait years. Drying time varies greatly depending on many factors, but it’s best to ensure your artwork is completely dry before attempting to clean a painting’s surface.
What You Should NOT Use To Clean Your Oil Painting
You’ll find out how to clean an oil painting in a minute, but first, let’s talk about what you should NEVER use to clean oil paintings:
- Baby oil
- Bread or potatoes
- Feather dusters and stiff brushes
- Household cleaners
- Cloths that shed (paper towels)
1. Baby Oil
There are many tutorials for cleaning your paint brushes with baby oil, but it should never be used to clean an oil painting.
The myth is that baby oil will restore your art and make it more vibrant, but in reality, this method will actually leave dust-attracting residue behind.
It might look clean at first, but the baby oil will create a sticky film, and you’ll be left with an even dirtier painting as time goes on.
Cleaning oil paintings with water gets a thumbs down.
Water weakens the bonds in your paint, making it flake and peel away from the canvas. It might not happen immediately, but if you give it time the effects will show.
If the painting is varnished, water can also get trapped behind the varnish and give it the cloudy look you see on the left image below. It is possible to have it professionally restored (which you see on the right).
3. Bread And Potatoes
Let’s get to the meat and potatoes of this method… Or should I say bread and potatoes?
Some artists falsely believe dabbing bread on dirty artworks will pick up dust and grime, but this isn’t the case. It actually leaves little crumbs behind that trap moisture from the air, distorting your painting’s colors over time. Plus, they can attract unwanted mold growth, leaving you with a bigger problem.
Potatoes are also a poor choice. The idea is to use the potato’s moisture to pick up dirt, but all they do is leave a nasty, starchy film behind. You also risk denting your canvas if you apply too much pressure to the surface.
It’s best to leave the food on the table when you clean an oil painting.
4. Feather Dusters And Stiff Brushes
If you’re wondering how to clean an oil painting that’s dusty, a feather duster might seem like the obvious choice to remove it. Unfortunately, those seemingly soft, harmless feathers can do more harm than good. But you can’t see the problem without taking a closer look – check out these little microscopic hairs.
When you clean an oil painting with those little barbs, you actually scratch the surface leaving permanent damage. The same is true of using stiff brushes. Instead, always use a soft, fine-haired brush.
5. Household Detergents, Rubbing Alcohol, Lemon Juice, Vinegar
When you’re wondering how to clean an oil painting, your mind might jump to everyday household items. However, rubbing alcohol, lemon juice, household detergent, and vinegar are too powerful for cleaning oil paintings.
If you use them on your artwork, you’ll succeed at removing dirt and dust… AND removing paint from your canvas.
6. Paper Towels And Cloths That Shed
Even if you choose the right cleaning substance, the tools that you use to apply it can still make a mess of your oil paintings.
For example, using a paper towel or a cloth that sheds will leave little fibers behind, making your artwork look even dustier. Instead, it’s best to use an anti-static microfiber cloth when you clean an oil painting.
When To Hire A Professional
If you suspect that you’re in over your head, an art conservator has the training and skills to rescue a piece that’s in rough shape.
Although there’s pride in repairing your own art, it’s perfectly fine to call professional oil painting cleaners. Especially when you need a valuable painting repaired.
If your oil painting is already flaking or cracking, it’s best to hire a professional right away since the piece is extremely vulnerable to further damage.
Continuing to clean with the same technique will only do more damage. Instead, hire a professional cleaning service.
4 Ways To Properly Clean Your Paintings
Now that we’ve touched on how to clean and oil painting the wrong ways, let’s talk about the right ways. Here are 4 methods to clean an old oil painting at home, without breaking the bank.
Before you start cleaning your oil paintings, take a photo of the dirty oil artworks to compare to the finished product. This will also help you decide if they need further cleaning by a professional art restorer or conservator when you’re done.
1. Use A Soft Bristled Brush
This method doesn’t require anything fancy, just a clean, soft paintbrush like a sable brush, and gloves to protect your oil painting from oils on your fingertips.
1. Lay Down Your Parchment Paper Or Tarp
If you have an extremely dusty painting, laying down parchment paper or a tarp will catch the particles that fall away. Plus, you’ll be able to see the results of your effort more clearly.
2. Put On Your Gloves And Tilt The Canvas Toward You
At this step, make sure you’re wearing your gloves. Stand your oil painting up, then tilt it toward you so any dirt will fall down onto the parchment paper.
3. Gently Dust
Take your soft brush and start dusting with an up and down motion in the top left corner. Test a small section to see if the method is effective before dusting the entire painting. If it’s not, you may need a stronger art cleaning product. However, continue brushing across the canvas in rows from left to right if dirt starts falling away.
2. Saliva For A Spotless Piece
This cleaning technique may gross you out, but cleaning oil paintings with saliva can be very effective. You have enzymes in your mouth like amylase and lipase that breaks down dirt but don’t harm your oil paint.
You’ll have to avoid eating or drinking for 20 minutes before you begin, though. Eating certain foods can affect your saliva’s ability to clean an oil painting.
1. Put Your Gloves On And Lay The Painting Flat
Put your gloves on and lay your oil painting flat on a table in a well lit room. Choose which area you want to start with first. It’s best to work in sections based on color to avoid transferring any dirt or pigment. For example, if there’s a dark forest against a bright blue sky, don’t use the same swab to clean the dark trees as the one used to clean the light blue sky.
2. Wet The Q-Tip
Roll the swab across your tongue until it’s saturated with saliva, but not dripping. Remove some on a cloth if necessary, and then start cleaning a small area or test patch.
3. Gently Swipe
Gently swipe the swab back and forth in a small area, then let it dry to see if this cleaning method works for your painting. If you see any paint removal or discoloration, stop immediately.
If a clean oil painting is the result, get comfortable and swab until your painting is squeaky clean. This one is time-consuming but effective to clean dirty paintings without hiring someone to do the job for you.
3. Olive Oil Based Soap
If you’re wondering how to clean oil paintings with soap instead of saliva, this method is for you. Olive oil based soap is gentle enough to clean your paintings without doing damage (in most cases) and requires very few supplies.
- Olive oil based soap
- Cup or shallow dish
- Non-shedding cloth
- Cotton swabs
- Light source (optional)
1. Put On Your Gloves And Lay The Painting Flat
Put your gloves on and lay your painting completely flat. You don’t want any soapy water to run down the canvas, so ensure it’s level.
2. Water Down Your Soap
Add a bit of soap to lukewarm water and mix it together in a small dish or cup.
3. Wipe Away Dirt With A Cloth
Dip a non-shedding cloth into the soapy solution and dab, or gently wipe, a small section of your painting with the damp cloth. Let it dry completely to ensure the process doesn’t damage your oil painting. If the method is successful, you can continue cleaning the whole painting.
4. Use Picture Cleaners
Winsor & Newton has answered the question “how to clean an oil painting” with their Artists’ Picture Cleaner. However, this cleaner can only be used for varnished oil paintings. The solution removes surface dirt effectively. You’ll also need distilled turpentine to remove the picture cleaner since it can’t be left sitting on the surface.
- Artists’ Picture Cleaner
- Distilled turpentine
- Non-shedding cloth
- Glass dish
- Tarp/table cloth
- Cotton swabs
- Well ventilated space
- Light source (optional)
1. Put On Your Gloves And Lay The Painting Flat
Lay your tarp or table cloth down in a well-ventilated space, away from direct sunlight, since turpentine is flammable. You don’t want the solution to run across the canvas, so ensure your painting is on a flat surface before you begin cleaning.
2. Prep Your Cleaner
Pour a little Picture Cleaner into a glass dish, then choose your cleaning tool. I recommend cotton swabs over a cloth if your oil painting is extremely detailed. You should only clean similarly colored areas with the same cloth or cotton swab since certain pigments react differently to this cleaner.
3. Gently Brush Away Dirt
Test the cleaner on a small area. If the cleaning method interacts poorly with your painting, stop right away. If not, continue to gently remove dirt and dust by rolling your cotton swab or gently wiping with your cloth.
4. Remove The Artists’ Picture Cleaner
Once you’re satisfied with the result, clean off any leftover Picture Cleaner with distilled turpentine in a ventilated room with open and moving air.
5. Hire Professional Oil Painting Cleaners
Wondering how to clean your oil artworks by hiring a professional? You can find a conservator anywhere in the world through this online community. It lets you search by country, state, name, and even specialty.
One thing I want to mention is the difference between a conservator and restorer. Depending on your goals, you may prefer one over the other.
Both professionals know how to clean an oil painting, but their training is different. Conservators aim to clean a painting, stop further damage, and make reversible repairs. Meaning, the methods they fix a painting with can be completely undone if a better method is invented in the future. They also earn a Master’s degree from a University.
On the other hand, art restorers, like this one, learn through hands-on training. They’re not required to get a Master’s degree, and have the goal of restoring a painting to how it looked previously. Their focus isn’t making their changes reversible, and whatever modifications are made to your painting are usually permanent.
Both are typically skilled in cleaning paintings, but the results can be very different from one another. If you want your piece to be “frozen in time” as it is, you should find a conservator. If you want it to look how it did originally, an art restorer is the way to go.
How To Remove Yellow Varnish
If you’ve tried cleaning oil paintings with the above methods and your painting still appears to be dirty, it may be because of yellowing, aged varnish. Fortunately, you can remove varnish and reapply a fresh coat to bring life back to your oil painting.
Unfortunately, it’s not an easy process. Especially if you don’t know what kind of varnish was used. It can also be risky since it’s possible to remove all of the varnish and damage the pigments below.
It’s probably best to call a professional art restorer or conservator, but if you’re set on doing it yourself, you can use distilled turpentine followed by a neutralizer to get the job done. To watch a professional remove it in real-time, check out this video:
- Winsor & Newton Distilled Turpentine
- Neutralizer, like Gainsborough Products’ neutralizer
- Nitrile gloves
- Cotton swabs
- Lint-free cloth
- Tarp or parchment paper
1. Put On Your Gloves And Lay The Painting Flat
Lay down a tarp or parchment paper to cover your table surface first. Protect your painting’s surface by putting on your gloves, then lay it flat on your table covering.
2. Remove The Varnish With Turpentine
Work in a well-ventilated room, out of sunlight, since turpentine is flammable and releases toxins into the air. Dip your swab, or cloth, into the liquid and gently rub it over a small area of the oil painting. If it damages the painting, stop right away. If the varnish removal is successful, you can continue with the process.
3. Neutralize The Turpentine
Once a small area is clean, flood it with neutralizer to prevent the turpentine from damaging the exposed oil paintings’ layers.
4. Repeat The Process Until the Varnish Is Gone
Continue removing the varnish, using a different cloth section, or clean swab, as you work on different colors. Once the varnish is gone, pour a little neutralizer on a cloth, then use the damp cloth to wipe the entire surface. This will ensure all of the turpentine is neutralized.
Now, you can add a new layer of varnish to your oil painting.
Is My Oil Painting Finally Clean?
Once you’ve finished the cleaning process, snap an “after” picture and compare it to the “before.” If you’re unsatisfied with the result, it may be time to hire a professional to clean your painting.
How To Prevent A Dirty Oil Painting From The Start
It’s not always possible to control how oil paintings are stored, especially if you’re given one as a gift, or purchase an old oil painting from a thrift store. But while they’re in your care there are a few things you can do to prevent them from getting dirty.
The easiest way to keep dust from accumulating is to give it a light dusting as soon as you notice it building up. Cleaning oil paintings that are dusty is easy with a soft brush and protective gloves, and it doesn’t take much time. Refer to Method 1 for the steps to do this.
Protect Your Oil Paintings With Varnish
If your oil painting lacks a coat of varnish, adding one is an excellent way to seal an oil painting and protect your painting from UV rays, dust, and grease. There are many types you can use, like satin, matt, or gloss varnish, all of which can be used on oil, watercolor, and acrylic paintings.
Each has a slightly different look once it dries and can change the appearance of your piece:
- Matt varnish creates a flat look that lacks shine.
- Satin varnish leaves the most ‘natural’ finish.
- Gloss varnish adds the most shine, giving your highlight and shadows a finished, professional look.
For more details, you can read our review of our favorite varnish for oil paintings.
No matter which varnish you choose to apply to your oil, watercolor, or acrylic painting, do your research since the appearance may be changed. You can see an example of an artist applying gloss varnish to an oil painting in this video:
Once the varnish dries, you can clean an oil painting with the methods above.
Keep Oil Paintings Out of Direct Sunlight
Oil paintings that sit in the sun are likely to fade, even when protected by varnish. To preserve their vibrant colors, keep them in a cool, dry place away from sunlight.
Stay Away from Smoke
When you see old oil paintings from an era where smoking was the norm, the effects are readily apparent. Many have an obvious film, and some still have the smell of nicotine. It is possible to clean an oil painting that’s subjected to smoke, but it’s best to keep them away from it in the first place.
Keep Them Away From Moisture And Grease
If you don’t want to battle a greasy canvas painting, it’s best to keep your artwork out of the kitchen or dining room. Grease and moisture accumulate quickly in these rooms, especially if you cook often, and oil artworks are quick to trap them. Varnished paintings are better protected, but should still be kept at a distance.
Store Your Painting In A Frame
Many oil artworks are framed to add a finishing touch, but this can also help strengthen a piece. Wooden canvas frames can twist and warp, especially when transporting a very large piece.
When you see framed oil paintings you might notice they’re rarely stored behind glass. More often than not, the canvas is out in the open, shielded by a protective layer.
It’s uncommon to find an oil painting stored behind glass since oil paints need to breathe, and the case can trap moisture. But there are some rare cases when they are, like when they’re created on paper, or when valuable paintings in a museum are protected from vandals.
The secret to storing them properly is leaving room between the painting and the glass with a spacer. Without it, the glass will trap condensation and actually ruin the painting.
Avoid Touching Your Paintings
If you’re moving your oil paintings, wear gloves to protect them from your skin’s natural oil, lotions, or perfumes you use.
Frequently Asked Questions
How Much Does It Cost To Hire A Professional Oil Painting Cleaner?
According to this painting conservator, hiring a professional art cleaner can cost $800-$1000 for a small piece, while larger pieces can cost $10,000-$15,000 if they have more damage. However, prices vary greatly depending on who you hire.
Can You Fix A Dented Painting?
Yes, you can remove dents with water and a rag, by carefully moistening the back of the canvas. To see a detailed tutorial, click here.
Can You Leave An Oil Painting Unvarnished?
Yes, you can leave an oil painting unvarnished, however, your oil paintings will be better protected if varnished.
Should I Clean My Painting Or Hire A Professional?
We’ve covered how to clean an oil painting the right way (dusting, saliva, olive oil soaps, and Picture Cleaners).
And how to clean an oil painting the wrong way (baby oil, household cleaners, water, feather dusters, and food).
Now you have to decide whether to do it yourself or hire an experienced professional to take care of your oil artworks!
If your painting is already extremely vulnerable and requires a lot of work on your part, a professional is your best bet. But if you have the time to learn a new skill, a little patience, and intact artwork to clean, using an at-home method is a solid choice that can save you a little money.