How to Clean an Oil Painting (Research-Backed Ways)

a cover photo of how to clean an oil painting

You already know the benefits of cleaning an oil painting!

It simply brings back the lost vibrancy and charm of an oil painting. 

It even extends the shelf life of your art, meaning your oil painting will remain alive and stunning for the longest time.

Cleaning an oil painting is not a waste of money but an investment in something that really matters to you and inspires you in many ways.

That’s why hundreds of people seek professional help to learn how to clean an oil painting.

When you consider cleaning an oil art piece, the first place you visit is the Internet. However, some succeed in removing dirt, while others end up ruining their art due to misinformation or the wrong techniques suggested by so-called experts.

The thought of having your art ruined by yourself is scary. Perhaps that prevents novices and beginners like you from taking any action.

mona lisa ad of reproduction

But don’t worry!

You will succeed in cleaning an oil painting if you follow the right instructions and use appropriate picture cleaners.

In this blog, we’ll share some of the best and most proven methods that teach you how to clean an oil painting at home.

Family painting from different photos

Whether you own a custom painting, family art, pet portrait, or any of the replicas of famous paintings, you can have its dirt removed properly.

5 Signs That You Need To Clean Your Oil Paintings

Mona Lisa before and after removing the mold and dirt
Image: Wikipedia

You can skip this part and jump straight to “how to clean an oil painting yourself” if you’ve already made your decision.

But I’d suggest that you go through this.

At least once! 😀

There won’t be an issue if you have stored your oil painting inside fire-proof transparent glass. 

But if your art is mounted on the wall, laid against the shelf, or kept in the corner, then it’d certainly require some dusting.

Here are common signs that suggest you clean an oil painting now:

  • Formation of several layers of grime
  • Detection of mold
  • Yellowed varnish
  • Cracks and flaking
  • Dullness

The occurrence of these signs is a result of aging. Another reason can be insufficient storage or inappropriate surroundings. 

If you feel your art is stored under such conditions or shows these signs, then you must immediately act on it.

There are numerous home remedies for cleaning oil paintings, which you will see in the following sections.

How to Clean an Oil Painting (Possible Challenges)

You can’t pick up a brush and swipe the canvas off in the hope that your oil painting will clean up.

There are various challenges you’ll face when you clean an oil painting, regardless of its painting techniques

Before you pick up a soft bristle brush and start wiping the edges and surface of your oil painting, learn what challenges you’ll face while doing it.

The biggest challenge you’ll ever come across is learning how to remove the yellowed varnish from the oil painting.

The Starry Night painting before and after removing the coating of varnish
Image: Wikipedia

Varnish helps preserve the painting, but with time it yellows, making the appearance dull and uninteresting. 

The next difficulty you’ll face is knowing the right oil painting cleaners to have your art’s dirt wiped out completely. The wrong cleaners can result in the unintended removal of pigments.

A painting featuring a boy with a hat and in casuals
Image: PortraitFlip

Other oil painting cleaning challenges include dampening the swab, rolling it across the canvas, and smudging the cotton cloth.

Now that you know what challenges you face when cleaning an old oil painting, let’s learn how to preserve its charm and essence.

How to Clean an Oil Painting at Home (4 Proven Ways)

1. How to Clean an Oil Painting With Soft Bristle Brushes

a brush and a pair of protective gloves
Image: Envato Elements

Whether you have digital art or traditional painting, it’s going to catch airborne dust and dirt. 

That’s why removing dust particles from  oil paintings is mandatory, and that’s when this oil painting cleaning technique comes into the picture.

Using a soft bristles brush to wipe the dust off the canvas is the traditional and best way to clean an oil painting. 

All you have to do is lay your oil artwork on a flat surface and grab a soft brush. 

First things first, you need to keep your art in such a way that it receives enough light so that each of its minuscule details becomes visible.

The next step is to get a brush with soft bristles that won’t cut the paint off.

Well, you can perform this activity on a mounted painting, but you won’t get a 360 degree view. Plus, the dust from the top of the artwork may fall to the bottom, ending up creating a new layer of dirt itself. 

In order to remove the dust, it is recommended to use a medium or larger bristle brush. 

Though it won’t remove the dirt or residue settled inside the varnish layer. It can certainly wipe the dust off. 

While cleaning, if you see any flaking or cracks, then you must immediately pause the process and look for other alternatives—that could be seeking professional help or art conservator tips. 

Because that indicates that there is something wrong on the technique front, or maybe the art is too old to have its dust and dirt removed by you.

(Suggested: Six Amazing Oil Painting Tips)

2. How To Clean an Oil Painting with Saliva

a lady dampening the swab
Image: ABC News

It may sound absurd and disgusting to a novice, but it actually helps as the saliva contains enzymes (α-amylase) which can act as a cleaning agent, especially to remove dirt and grime, keeping the paint as it is.

It is one of the safest and best DIY oil painting cleaning methods. 

All you need is a bunch of quality swabs with a soft tip. Why? Because regular ones tend to bend easily. Plus, their quality of cotton is even cheaper.

The first step in this oil painting cleaning process is rolling the swab across the tongue until it gets damp with saliva.

But you must ensure that it doesn’t drip with saliva or show leakage.

The tip of the swab should be moist enough to pick up grime and dirt. 

And it is suggested not to eat or drink anything before you use the saliva for cleaning an oil painting, as it lessens the effectiveness of the enzymes.

Before jumping to the main surface of the oil painting, first try it out on the smaller sections, where you see the work of the dampened swab.

As you roll the swab from one point to another, you’ll see its reaction on an oil painting on canvas. 

When you are certain that a dampened cotton swab has begun working, you can diligently roll it across the art and turn the canvas towards you to remove its dirt.

It is suggested not to use any rag or cotton cloth to smudge the canvas in order to clean the dirty part.

If you make use of them, this will work against you, as it can leave some threads on the canvas itself that will gradually attract airborne dirt.

Although it’s a time consuming solution, it’s the most reliable way to clean an oil painting guide.

(Also Read: Acrylic Painting Tips For Beginners)

3. How to Clean an Oil Painting with Picture Cleaners

bunch of cotton swab, cotton, picture cleaners and solvents to clean an oil painting
Image: Natural Pigments

Cleaning your oil painting with picture cleaners demands time, effort, and concentration, as a silly error can lead to substantial damage. 

Like the previous two techniques, you will have to lay your oil painting on the ground. Why? 

This will allow you to see the oil painting while cleaning it. Also, your painting will be protected from dripping or spillage of picture cleaners throughout the process.

It is suggested that you create a soft and firm support underneath the canvas so that while applying the cleaners, it creates a strong grip and does not slide, damaging the canvas. 

I believe that grime has accumulated solidly and requires enough effort to have it removed from the canvas. 

So pour the picture cleaner in a jar; it could be Winsor & Newton Artists’ Picture Cleaner.

Then dip the swab and dampen it until the edge turns liquid, though it shouldn’t be dripping. 

Start rolling the swab across the canvas; do it slowly, but firmly.

Repeat the process, but make sure you don’t overdo as much as it takes to take the dirt off the canvas.

Grab a cotton pad, pour some distilled turpentine on it, and gently rub over the cleaned area. Make sure the pigment doesn’t smudge or the paint doesn’t come out.

Run it from one part to another, and make sure you use a different cotton pad once it becomes dirty.

Don’t be in a rush. It takes time and can’t be finished in one sitting. 

If you want to take pictures of your progress or perhaps use those images to remind yourself of the work that is left, you can.

Once it is done, if you want, you can compare it with its older version and proceed with hanging an oil painting on the wall.

There will be days when painting cleaners may disappoint as they can’t remove the grime situated beneath the yellowed varnish layers. 

Your heirloom might have had a coating of varnish, and it must have made the canvas yellow and dull. 

In such a scenario, rolling a swab dampened with painting cleaners won’t help, nor can it remove a bit of grime.

In such a scenario, you will have to consider removing yellowed varnish with solvents and oil painting cleaning materials.

Yellowed varnish can be the reason behind the loss of vibrancy in your oil paintings. Removing it can be tricky, but with proper care, you can remove and reapply a coating of varnish all by yourself.

Let’s see how you can remove varnish from an oil painting.

(Read: Oil Painting Vs Acrylic Painting)

4. How To Clean a Yellowed Painting

The reason behind oil painting’s dull and faded appearance is the aging of the varnish applied to them.

The best way to remove varnish is by using solvents. Though it is risky as it can remove the dirt or create irreplaceable damage. 

creation of adam reproduction

You need to be confident and knowledgeable enough to initiate this process, as the wrong product or incorrect use can jeopardize the work. 

You must know what type of varnish has been used to pick up the solvents that you are going to use. Because the wrong solvent can react negatively and abruptly smudge the paint.

If you or your friend have created the artwork, then you can easily identify the varnish applied to it. If it is not, then you have to roll up your sleeves and figure out what Varnish was used. 

It is suggested that you use a mild artist’s solvent, for example, Winsor and Newton Distilled Turpentine.

If not, you can consider a few different solvents that are made for different varnish types. 

These are the steps to remove varnish from an old oil painting

  • Lay your painting down
  • Create some support underneath the art 
  • Wear your surgical gloves
  • Apply some solvents to a cotton pad
  • Roll the swab across the painting
  • Repeat the process until varnish comes out
  • Add neutralizer to those areas where solvents are added more

Boom! It has been removed.

You can now apply a thin coat of oil painting medium 

Make sure you dispose it and rehang the painting on its desired location

By following the above shared techniques, you can clean your oil paintings without breaking the bank. 

These are tried and tested methods for how to clean an oil painting; most art owners and painters implement these techniques to remove the grime, dust, or yellowishness from the art.

DIY oil painting cleaning techniques teach you a lot about canvas, paint, and other paint stuff. Basically, you must understand the nature of each product because a slight change in cleaning technique may cause a serious problem.

The steps to have your oil painting cleaned are similar and include applying, dampening, smudging, and dabbing. 

But sometimes the products that so-called professionals recommend are the wrong ones that are supposed to remove dirt, but end up damaging the color or distorting the picture.

The unexpected reaction can put your art at serious risk, and here’s a list of products you need to avoid when cleaning an oil painting.

(Suggestion: 15+ Best Watercolor Tips For Beginners)

What To Never Use To Clean An Oil Painting

Paper Towels

a couple of paper towel
Image: Greenily

Sometimes it is not about intentions or techniques but about the product that you use to clean an oil painting.

They don’t work in your favor because they were never meant to act like that. 

One such oil painting cleaning product, which was promoted oftentimes, was paper towels.

Paper towels tend to take a significant amount of paint off your canvas if not used properly. 

The scenario can be different if you gently use it across the surface to catch the dust. 

Oftentimes, it is used to take out dirt that has formed on the colored part, and in order to wipe it out, we press the paper towels harder against the surface. 

Instead of picking up dust and dirt, it leaves its own pieces, forming grains on the surface of the oil painting. This attempt rips off any textures and certainly pulls some of the paint away.

girl with pearl earring replica

Feathers or Stiff Brushes

a lady brushing the dust off the painting with soft colorful bristles brush
Image: Fluid Painting

Feathers and stiff brushes are considered great products for oil painting dusting, but they have barbs, which can create an issue. 

What if the barbs strike the painting, especially on those parts covered with dark hues? The chances are very high that it may take some paint off because of its sharpness.

Only an unprofessional or novice can use them for dusting, as they don’t help in any way.

You can either pick up soft bristles, dusters with no features or fluffy ones that can dust your oil paintings.

Water solution

spraying the art
Image: Artsper

Water or any water based solution can’t be used for cleaning an oil painting. 

It can negatively react to it, and its effect can be detrimental—you should avoid using it at any cost.

If used, it can reduce the intensity of colors and make the art lifeless.

If overused, it can seep from one part of the canvas to another and peel the color off. 

Flake the pigments and perhaps lose its grip on the wooden canvas.

The common issue that can occur is that it can shrink and separate the color and create a wet section, spreading the color across the canvas.

Vinegar, Lemon Juice, Alcohol or Household Detergents

Vinegar, Lemon Juice, Alcohol or Household Detergents
Image: Skin Care News

In most DIY oil painting cleaning projects, these products are commonly endorsed but, in reality, have drastic negative effects. 

Pouring or rubbing some of these can smear the paint or peel the paint off.  

These are acidic in nature, which has immediate effect on any color of oil pigment and professionals recommend because they are easily available at any home

You can instead use saliva but avoid these cleaners

Baby Oil

baby oil a good picture cleaner
Image: Wikihow

Baby oil can produce a sticky layer on the surface where it is applied. It is seen as adding a shiny look, making the color look more vibrant and prominent.

It does make it look brighter and glossy, but as time goes on,  it catches dirt and dust faster.

Baby oil is never used to get grime off the canvas; perhaps dust can be removed to some extent, but eventually it tends to catch more dust or airborne dirt.


A loaf of bread
Image: Huffpost

Bread is often used to dab on the surface with the intention of getting unwanted dust removed from the oil painting

Although some dust gets off, it leaves some minuscule pieces of itself. This can also leave crumbs on the surface if not brushed off properly, and while reapplying the coating of varnish, it can create its own layers by mixing up with the existing pigments.

It results in the distortion of colors and textures and with time, it attracts airborne particles and contributes to mold growth

These are products you need to avoid when cleaning an oil painting.

When To Seek Professionals To Clean An Oil Painting

two art conservators working on a traditional art
Image: CPR News

It is suggested that you seek professionals or art restorers when in doubt. 

You can’t start cleaning your oil painting right away. You need to consider a few things and plan your approach.

Whether it is flaking, cracking, or has yellowed varnish, you can have it removed on your own.

As an art owner, you must ensure that whatever you plan does not go overboard, as a slight change or incorrect technique may cause irreparable damage.

It is suggested that you carry the right oil painting cleaners and follow the instructions carefully. Here are some reasons that tell you that you need an art restoration specialist.

  • Shows cracking
  • Flaking and peeling off
  • Forms an unnatural layer of dirt
  • Excessive mold and stickiness
  • Unsure about results
  • Lack of time
  • Lack of knowledge

How To Keep Your Oil Painting Away From Dirt In Advance

Many reasons contribute to the formation of grime, making an artwork look dull and shabby.

Whether you have cleaned your oil painting by following the above shared techniques or just mounted a new painting, here’s how you can keep your oil painting away from dirt in advance (Two Important Tips).

1. Routine Dusting

a man is dusting off the painting with a brush
Image: Headout

Routine dusting is a must and can also be useful if your oil art doesn’t have a stubborn sticky layer or unfixable dirt. Dusting your painting can have a significant effect if done properly. 

The bristles of the brush shouldn’t be sharp; they should be soft because barbs can cut some paint off and hamper with its essence.

You can even start from bottom or top, or perhaps tilt the painting upside down (towards you) and start brushing from left to right in a way that dusts it off in the air. 

It is suggested that you sweep the canvas attentively and not indulge in an abrasive movement to alter it.

Once it is done, you can add a coat of varnish, which extends its shelf life.

2. Correct Placement

 an art lover is mounting her oil painting back to the wall
Image: Nbg

The location of the painting determines its future. If it is mounted in a cramped place, it will catch up the dirt presently because of the corners, or if the space between two pieces of furniture is less, it accumulates spiders and dust very early.

Also, the painting should be kept far away from direct sunlight or a source of moisture, as the rays can immediately affect the pigment.

It is recommended to keep it away from steam or smoke; it can yellow the art very soon. 

Keep it away from open windows and air, as outside elements can cause the formation of the grime. 

Mostly, it is kept in an open space where people can see it and rejoice in seeing it. 

By following these techniques, you can keep any artwork—custom, pet, or family portrait—away from potential threats.

The Bottom Line

When you take up the job of cleaning your oil paintings, you learn several things. 

For example, the nature of colors used in the art, different oil painting cleaners and techniques, and others. 

Cleaning an oil painting on canvas is a painstaking process. But with each attempt, you get closer to mastering the art of cleaning oil paintings.

Whether you own a cat picture, a horse portrait, or a reproduction of famous art, you need to put it down on a flat surface and clean it promptly.

The above-shared process helps you remove dust, dirt, and all sorts of grime, keeping your art evergreen.

Author’s Note

Hey Fellow People! 

These were our best tried and tested tips on how to clean an oil painting at home. 

Thanks for sticking till the end 🙂

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

Remember, there is nothing wrong with cleaning your oil paintings on your own, nor is it wrong to take experts’ advice.

At the end, it is your property, and you’ll be solely responsible for its health. 

I hope you make the right choice and extend the shelf life of your oil painting.

Thanks once again, and if you want to say something or leave any suggestions, the comment box is open!



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.

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.

Can you clean oil painting with water?

No, you should avoid using water or water solutions to clean an oil painting. Water can change the size of the fabric and remove the paint if the painting is old.

What is the best way to clean an oil painting?

The best way to clean an oil painting is to dampen it with saliva and roll it across the art.

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.

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.

How do you clean oil paintings with bread?

No, you can’t use it as it will put the art at risk. It will cause molds to grow on the painting that will damage the entire art.

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.)

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.

12 thoughts on “How to Clean an Oil Painting (Research-Backed Ways)

  1. Pingback: Christmas Gifts For Grandpa

  2. Pingback: Pet Portraits: Factors To Consider Before Buying | Best Services & Etsy Artists.

  3. Pingback: 70+ Ideas For Bedroom Wall Decor You Need (2023 Updated)

  4. Barbara Jones says:

    I was about to use the soapy water technique until I read your article. I have dry brushed it and figures are showing that I couldn’t see previously. However, there are stains that may never come off and I certainly cannot afford professional cleaning. However, I have been glad to do what I have accomplished. Thank you for your advice.

    • Jinx says:

      Hello Barbara,
      I’m glad that you didn’t use soap water.
      Cleaning an oil painting can be a task! If you’re not confident about cleaning it at home, we advise you to take it to the experts!

      • Stacie says:

        The oil painting I want to clean was painted on a piece of flexible metal, not on canvas. Would this open the door for more stringent methods of cleaning other than saliva?

  5. Pingback: Gift A Painting And Win Their Heart! 12 Reasons To Gift A Portrait

  6. Pingback: Oil Painting Vs Acrylic Painting: The Differences And Which Medium Is Best For You

  7. Max Jones says:

    Thanks for explaining how oil paint is one of the most versatile mediums. My friend recently obtained an old oil painting from a thrift store, and it looks a little worn out. I’ll tell my friend to find an art restoration service that can restore his versatile oil painting.

  8. Lindsay Barrett says:

    How to products such as Winsor & Newton Artists’ Oil Picture Cleaner compare to the “saliva” method?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Send this to a friend