How To Clean An Oil Painting: A Comprehensive Guide (+Dos And Don’ts)

How To Clean An Oil Painting At Home PortraitFlip

A guide on how to clean an oil painting must be a part of every art connoisseur’s house.

Oil paintings will last a lifetime, but only if you take care of them.

Storing them properly and cleaning the oil painting is one of the aspects of preserving the portrait.

You’ve got a portrait hanging around the house that has become dull over the years, or maybe you want to take that extra step in preserving the quality of the painting…

If you are clueless about how to clean an oil painting at home, don’tchu worry!

We’re here with a detailed guide on how to clean an oil portrait at home.

The Takeaway

Here’s what you’ll learn by the end of this article:

  1. 3 foolproof ways to clean an oil painting at home.
  2. The truth about using water for cleaning artwork
  3. 7 (un)common methods for canvas painting cleaning at home.
  4. Tips for efficient cleaning + Bonus tip.
  5. Don’t dos to avoid your painting getting spoiled.
  6. FAQs to address all your queries related to cleaning a painting.

Cleaning an oil painting without ruining it is a task.

No matter how deliberate you are in your approach, a small mistake can totally destroy the painting.

I’m sure you don’t want to spoil your treasure while attempting to clean it.

That’s why I’ve written this comprehensive guide. So stick till the end!

Now, grab the painting from the wall, gather the materials, find a comfortable place to work, put on the hand gloves, and roll out!

What Are The Signs That You Really Need To Clean An Oil Painting?

Dirty Oil Painting. How to clean oil painting PortraitFlip

Oil painting is made from one of the most versatile and commonly used mediums—Oil paints.

These paintings can last for centuries; but like everything, they’re subjected to aging.

The surface of an oil painting can accumulate dust, grime, molds and can become stained.

Below are a few signs that you should look for before cleaning oil painting:

  • A dull look of the painting.
  • Discoloration.
  • Layers of dirt or grime.
  • Molds.

If your artwork has flaking paint, cracks, or is warped; it’s a strong sign of aging.

Solution? Don’t try to clean artwork yourself. Take it to Art Conservators.

Also, evaluate the value of the painting before starting the cleaning session. If your painting is a thousand dollars worth piece or is antique, we recommend you don’t go for this DIY oil painting cleaning project.

Instead, go to the professionals!  They’ll be able to restore your painting without causing any damage to the artwork.

Now that you’ve decided to clean oil paintings at home, let’s jump right into it.

3 Foolproof Ways To Clean An Oil Painting At Home

3 Foolproof Ways To Clean An Oil Painting At Home PortraitFlip

Get ready before you start cleaning an oil painting.

  1. Gather your supplies:
    A soft brush, hand gloves, cotton swabs, lights, magnifying glass, easel (optional).
  2. If the painting is framed, you have to carefully take the painting out from the frame.
  3. Choose a flat and stable surface where you can keep the painting.
  4. Cleaning painting will take time. So choose a comfortable spot where you’ll be able to focus.
  5. Use ample lighting or use a natural source of light.

1. Dry Brushing

Dry Brushing Ho To Clean Oil Painting PortraitFlip

Dry brushing is the most preferred method to clean paintings at home.

It involves dusting the painting to get rid of dust and other particles that might have accumulated on the surface of the painting.

Follow these steps:

A. Place The Painting On A Flat And Stable Surface

There’s no problem if the painting is attached to a sturdy position like a wall, but it is beneficial when you keep it on a flat surface for cleaning.

The reason for this is that keeping the painting on a flat surface will let you see the painting from a different angle.

This will let you discover any other flaws your painting might have and will give you more scope for cleaning.

A stable surface is preferred as it will let you work efficiently. Use ample lights so that you can get a clear view of the painting.

B. Choose A Soft Brush

Choosing a soft brush is the key to effectively cleaning oil paintings. Otherwise, you risk damaging the artwork.

When you select the brush, move your fingers over the bristles to make sure that they are soft.

✔ Sable brushes are a great choice for this task.

✖ Feather brushes should be avoided as they can scratch paintings.

Also, make sure that the brush is dry.

A thumb rule: Bigger the painting is, the larger your brush should be —unless you want to spend your whole day brushing the dust off the painting!

C. Dust A Small Section Of The Painting

Now that you’ve chosen the perfect brush for cleaning an oil painting, it’s time to start the process!

Start dusting from the top corner. Work on a small section of the painting with soft up-and-down brush strokes and make sure to work on a few inches at a time.

Slowly move down until you reach the bottom of the painting.

You can use other brushing motions like left-right, circular; but we recommend you to go with up and down motion. This will ensure that dust is removed instead of being tossed around.

Pro-tip: When dusting, always work on a small part first. This will let you see the difference between a cleaned and non cleaned part.

D. Continue Dusting Deliberately

Now, complete the process!

Start cleaning in small sections until every centimeter of the painting is covered.

You can use a magnifying glass to your advantage.

Remember that soft and light strokes are essential, or else you may damage the painting.

Warning sign: if the paint flakes off, stop! It’s a sign of aging and the best you can do is take the painting to a professional art restorer. Don’t attempt to clean such an oil painting yourself, or it might get damaged.

Interested readers can take a look at our guide on oil painting for beginners.

2. Cleaning With Saliva

Cleaning With Saliva How to clean an oil painting

I know it sounds so odd, but cleaning with saliva is a safe and the best way to clean oil painting at home.

It’s weird to imagine how your saliva can be used to clean an oil painting, but professionals have been using this technique for ages.

Our saliva has enzymes that are strong enough to break down dirt and grime but are too weak for breaking down the paint.

If you’re wondering how to clean an oil painting with saliva, just read on!

A. Moisten The Cotton Tip With Your Saliva

Take a cotton swab and roll it on your tongue so that it is damp with your saliva. 

Make sure that the cotton tip is moist and not dripping with your saliva. If it is dripping, dab it with a piece of cotton.

Always choose high-quality cotton swabs as they are softer than regular cotton swabs.

Pro Tip: Avoid eating/drinking (except water) for about 20 mins before you start cleaning an oil painting with saliva as food can mess up with the enzyme activity of your saliva.

B. Do A Patch Test

It is always better to do a test on a small area before proceeding further.

Take the damped cotton swab and swipe a small portion of the painting. Wait for a few minutes to see how the painting is reacting to saliva.

You’d be able to determine if the saliva is cleaning or hurting the painting.

C. Swab In Small Sections

Once you’re assured that this method is working out, it’s time to swab the entire painting!

Work inch by inch with small gentle up-down dabs. You have to make sure that you don’t apply too much pressure.

D. Switch The Tips!

Watch out!

If the tip is worn out or dirty, switch to the other side of the swab. Because you wouldn’t want to spoil your artwork by using a dirty cotton tip.

Also, using a fuzzy cotton tip can smudge the dirt back to the surface of the painting.

Tip: Avoid using a cloth or other soft material for this method, as the cloth can be abrasive and scratch the surface.

This technique is time-consuming but is one of the best ways to clean painting at home.

3. Seek Help Of The Experts

Probably the best way to clean an oil painting— always seek the help of a professional art restorer.

The surface of the painting is delicate and there’s no margin of error when you clean a painting.

One wrong move and your precious painting is ruined forever.

That’s the reason why you should consult a professional conservator or restorer before attempting to clean old oil painting at home.

There are two ways to do it.

A. Take The Painting To Art Conservator Or Restorer

If you see flaking paint or cracks in it, it’s a strong sign of aging. What it means to you is that you should not attempt to fix or clean the oil painting by yourself.

Take the painting to experts.

Art conservators or painting conservators are the experts who understand the chemistry behind the painting and materials.

So, they are able to restore and recreate damaged or old paintings precisely.

These experts are skilled in their field. They use high-end equipments, chemicals, and follow different conservation processes for every artwork.

So, once you send your painting to an art restorer, be rest assured that your painting is in safe hands.

B. Call The Experts

So you don’t want to take the oil painting to a conservator and want to do the magic yourself?

Cool. You totally can! You can use the methods mentioned above, or you can ask the experts for help.

Here’s how it can be done:

  1. Consult an art conservator or restorer and ask them how to clean an oil painting at home. You can ask them for tips or ways on how to clean a canvas picture.
    Remember This:  Many art conservators will tell you to bring the painting to the studio to get it restored. An art conservator will be able to clean or restore your painting without damaging the piece.
  2. Many art restoration companies sell cleaning products that are specifically designed to clean paintings. You can spend a few bucks to get those products.

Suggested: 49 Different Types Of Painting Styles And Techniques.

Art Restorer Or Art Conservator— Whom Should You Choose For Cleaning Your Oil Painting?

If you look up the internet, people use both terms interchangeably.

Although they belong to the same stream, there is a thin line that separates them.

An art conservator works on slowing down the aging and preserving the quality of the painting, while an art restorer focuses on restoring the painting to its original form.

Many art conservators have formal training in restoring the painting.

So before you choose an art restorer or conservator, redefine your goal first.

Do you just want to clean an oil painting? Do you want to restore it? Or do you want to just slow down its aging?

Defining the goal will let you choose the correct professional for your painting.

Before jumping to other techniques of how to clean a canvas painting, it’s time to address a debatable question:

“Can I Use Water For Cleaning An Oil Painting?”

a person washing the oil painting with water

It’s a widely asked question. People on the internet will say that it’s okay to clean an oil painting with a solvent like water.

But let me ask you, “is the surface of your oil painting a bathroom floor?”

I know it may sound rude, but in reality, an oil painting is a precious artwork that deserves special care.

Although oil paint when dried is water-resistant, it doesn’t mean that it won’t react with water.

When you clean an oil painting with water, it can change the dimension of the fabric (canvas) and may wash out the paint if the painting is aging.

Water can be seen as a home remedy for cleaning oil paintings, but what most people are unaware of is that water can seep the dirt into the pores and stain the painting.

Your simple gesture of cleaning an oil painting at home can ruin the painting more.

Apart from using water, you’ll find many other techniques that netizens recommend for cleaning oil paintings on canvas.

7 Common (But Not Recommended) Methods Used To Clean An Oil Painting

7 Common (But Not Recommended) Methods Used To Clean An Oil Painting PortraitFlip

There’s a high chance that when you read some of the blogs on how to clean an oil painting, you would come across some fancy cleaning methods using water, lemon, bread, potato, and whatnot!

The problem with these methods is that they are unreliable.

These techniques may work and you’ll be left with a clean painting, or they won’t work and your painting will be destroyed forever.

And experts believe, latter is true.

For the sake of information, we are mentioning some common methods that may help you clean old oil painting.

If you value “quick fixes” more than your painting, then the following list is just for you.

And if the painting is precious to you, stick to dry bruising, cleaning with saliva, or consider taking the painting to experts.

Word of caution: Do it at your own risk

1. Using Water And Lemon Juice

Although it is true that mixing lemon juice and water makes a good cleaning agent, we should know that we aren’t cleaning any appliances here.

Lemon juice and water can react with oil paint and cause undesirable effects.  

2. Cleaning Oil Paintings With Potato

Cleaning an oil painting with potatoes can be the dumbest thing anybody can do.

Starchy food can leave a residue which can cause molds to grow on the painting.

3. Using Soap Water

Water, whether with soap or lemon, is not recommended for oil painting cleaning.

As said earlier, water can do more harm than good to your oil painting.

4. Cleaning With Baby Oil

Many believe that rubbing baby oil can make the painting shine and make the colors stand out.

But the problem with it is that the baby oil can make the surface sticky, which in turn can attract more dust.

5. Using Bread To Clean Oil Paintings

How to clean an oil painting with bread?

You just don’t!

Some online amateurs will tell you to wipe the surface of the painting with a loaf of bread. Don’t fall for this trap ever!

Using bread can leave tiny crumbs on the painting which can support the growth of molds (fungus).

6. Cleaning With Calcium Carbonate

Another dumb way to spoil your painting is using calcium carbonate to clean it. 

The method involves dissolving calcium carbonate crystals in water (duh!) and dabbing the painting with soaked cotton balls.

7. Using Vinegar or Alcohol For Canvas Painting Cleaning

Cleaning oil paintings with vinegar is a bad move. Using vinegar (diluted or undiluted) will react with the oil painting and spoil it.

Similarly, if you use alcohol, it will remove the oil paint from the canvas.

A Few Tips For Cleaning An Oil Painting At Home

A Few Tips For Cleaning An Oil Painting At Home PortraitFlip

Always Do A Patch Test

Before jumping right into the cleaning oil painting, make sure to do a patch test.

Perform the cleaning technique on a small part of the painting and wait for a few minutes to see how it reacts.

If there’s no reaction, then you can proceed with the technique.

Turn On The Lights!

Use ample lighting when you’re cleaning an oil painting on canvas. If possible, use the natural source of light.

Slow As A Snail!

To clean oil paintings surface, you have to be deliberate with your approach.

The surface of oil painting is delicate and using too much pressure while dry brushing can cause the paint to flake off.

Save It From The Sun

Keep the painting away from direct sunlight as sun rays can degrade the surface of the painting.

UV rays can cause discoloration, flaking, and speed up the aging of the oil painting.

If it requires you to hang the painting where there’s sunlight, you can frame the painting with UV-resistant glass.

Frame It!

One of the best ways to preserve the painting after it’s cleaned is to frame it. 

Framing the painting will safeguard it against dust, indoor pollutants, and other external factors.

Keep Away From Smoke

Smoking near the painting can permanently damage the oil painting.

Any form of smoke, whether it is from cigarettes or is coming from the kitchen, can stain the painting and change its properties.

Ask The Experts

We can’t stress this enough.

A professional art conservator or restorer would be better able to clean and restore your oil painting. 

Bonus Tip: Oil Painting Is The Way To Go

Among all the mediums, oil painting is the most versatile medium ever. No wonder why it is preferred by most artists around the world.

The oil painting shows no signs of aging. Unlike other mediums, a painting made with oil paints will last forever!

So if you’re considering getting a portrait painting, we suggest you invest in oil paintings.

Some Don’ts To Save Your Precious Painting

  1. Do not clean an oil painting with starchy food like bread, potatoes.
  2. Do not apply baby oil on the surface of the painting.
  3. Avoid cleaning with water.
  4. Do not use any commercial cleaning product for cleaning the painting.
  5. No Rubbing alcohol.
  6. No Vinegar.
  7. Do not stretch the canvas while cleaning or you risk warping the painting.

Keep this in mind:

Every painting is different and the process to clean it will be different. In spite of good intentions, you always run a chance of damaging the artwork.

So it’s always the best idea to take the painting to a professional art conservator or restorer.

How To Clean Oil Painting Meme

Hey Folks!

This was our detailed guide on how to clean an oil painting at home. Thanks for sticking till the end 🙂

I hope you found the perfect method for cleaning oil paintings.

You might have seen that we’ve mentioned some common (but not recommended) cleaning techniques that people suggest using.

Have you tried any of the mentioned techniques? How did it turn out?

Let us know down below.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Can you clean a canvas painting at home?
Yes, you can clean a canvas painting at home. All you need to do is gather the supplies, choose a canvas painting cleaning technique and start working.
2. How to clean dust off an oil painting?
To clean the dust off the oil painting, you have to use the dry brushing technique. In this technique, you slowly brush off the dust from the painting using a soft brush.
3. Can you clean oil paint with water?
You can clean an oil painting with water only if you wish to destroy the painting. Water can change the size of the fabric and remove the paint if the painting is old.
4. What is the best way to clean a painting?
Cleaning the painting with saliva is considered to be the best way to clean a painting. This technique has been used by art conservators for centuries.
5. How do you clean a painting without damaging it?
The only way to clean a painting without the risk of damaging it is to take the painting to an art conservator or restorer.
6. How do you clean old oil paintings?
Old oil paintings are easily vulnerable to damage and so you shouldn’t attempt to clean an old painting at home. Old paintings can have cracks, warps, discoloration, or flaking paints. So the best way of cleaning an old oil painting is to take it to an art restorer.
7. How to clean an oil painting with bread?
Do not attempt to clean an oil painting with bread. It will cause molds to grow on the painting. Still, if you’re a daredevil, here’s how it goes: Take a loaf of bread and gently wipe the surface of the painting (and spoil the painting forever).
8. How to clean an oil painting with saliva?
Take a cotton bud and damp it with your saliva. Now, cautiously swap the surface of the painting. Start with smaller sections and move until you’ve covered the whole painting. Keep changing the cotton buds after they become dirty. (For a detailed guide, scroll up to the section: Cleaning with saliva.)
9. How much does it cost to clean an oil painting?
A small oil painting that needs average restoration work can cost $800- $1000. For a larger painting, the cost can go from $10,000 to $15,000 if there’s a lot of restoration work involved.

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