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How to Clean Your Paintings

Do you, a friend or family member collect or create paintings? Have you noticed that the paintings look hazy, muddy or dark? If so, the paintings may need cleaning.


Figure 1, Conservator Jen Munch cleaning an oil painting by Ivana Vratna with a soft brush.


Cleaning is one of the most frequent tasks that I, a professional paintings conservator, perform for paintings. Cleaning by a professional conservator can make a huge difference for your painting. I think of cleaning like lifting off a veil, revealing vibrant colors and details that were hidden by the layer of surface dirt. Cleaning usually refers to removing surface dirt, but sometimes the word is also used for varnish removal, since discolored varnishes disfigure artworks the same way dirt does.


Would you like to clean an artwork just like the experts? For instant gratification, I highly recommend the fun interactive tool offered by the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. With this tool, you wipe away darkened and yellowed varnish by waving around your cursor.


Figure 2, Screenshot of "Time for a Clean" interactive tool for Vincent Van Gogh's 1884-5 painting Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen.


Would you like to clean your own paintings? Routinely dusting your paintings will go a long way to helping preserve them in optimal condition. For one thing, the paintings will look brighter. Dust is actually acidic and it provides both food and nesting material for insects, so removing the dust is also beneficial for other reasons.


Below are some tips on how to safely dust your own paintings, plus a few methods to avoid. For more advanced cleaning needs beyond dusting, please get in touch with a conservator. The methods below apply to paintings that do not have protective "glazing" (a glass or Plexiglas sheet between the art and the viewer).


First, let’s discuss what the dust and dirt on a painting are. Dust is primarily small particles like skin cells, clothing fibers, soil, pollen, hair, even parts of dead insects. Dirt can mean a number of things, but here I’ll define it as a mixture of soil (organic matter) and inorganic particulates like carbon black.


Grime is another term conservators use- it’s oily or greasy organic matter. Grime is what sometimes makes dust and dirt tenaciously “stick” to a painting. Removing grime and removing varnish both involve advanced techniques so we won’t be covering them today.



How to dust your own painting:


Step 1, Examine:

· First, examine your painting for any areas of paint flaking or other instabilities. If the painting is stable, you can proceed with cleaning.


If you find flaking or lifting paint, do not attempt to clean these areas yourself as you could make the issue much worse. The painting is also best cleaned by a conservator if the paint is sticky, if the canvas is very loose (if it moves when touched), or if the paint layer has highly-textured impasto.


Step 2, Plan ahead:

· The risk of damage is highest whenever an artwork is handled or moved, so be careful and attentive to your surroundings anytime you handle an artwork. Plan your movements carefully prior to touching the artwork. Do not rush.



Cleaning, level 1 (basic):

· The safest way to clean an artwork is using an air puffer tool. This can be surprisingly effective, so go ahead and give it a try. For all but the most delicate artworks, air puffer tools are a low-stress way to clean. Gently squeeze the air puffer and release to blow air on the artwork. Work from top to bottom so that air you puff away from the surface will not land on an area you’ve already cleaned. Air puffers can be purchased at photography supply stores or other retailers. Do not substitute “canned air” for a manual air puffer as there are added substances in the can that can affect your art. Air puffers are also safer than blowing air from your mouth in many cases, since that method risks spitting on the art.


Figure 3, Example of an air puffer tool (image: bhphotovideo.com)



· If the painting is not currently hanging on a wall, you may wish to clean the back as well. Dust can accumulate on the back, especially when there is space between the back of the painting and the wall it hangs on. When cleaning the back of the canvas, first ensure that the art is in a safe position. Then, gently puff air onto the back of the artwork to dislodge dust.


· Once you have removed the dust from the artwork, you can clean up the dust that's settled on the floor using a broom and dustpan, or a vacuum. Do not allow a vacuum to get close to the painting you've just cleaned.



Cleaning, level 2 (intermediate-professional):

· Have you tried the air puffer and found that you need more cleaning power? Using a clean, dry, soft-bristled brush, you can gently brush surface dirt and dust off of your painting.


The ideal brush has never been used for other tasks outside of dusting, since dry residues in the brush hairs can scratch your painting. We like soft nylon-bristled brushes such as the ones shown below, or goat hair brushes. You can also use (clean, dry) makeup brushes. Do not use feather dusters as feathers can easily become caught in the paint’s texture and cause damage.

Figure 4, Example of a soft nylon-bristled brush with an edge of the metal ferrule wrapped in masking tape


For even more safety, apply masking tape over the metal part of the brush (the ferrule) to prevent the metal from accidentally scratching the painting. Make sure to cover the sharp edges of the metal with the tape.


Do not use any pressure when brushing dust off of your artwork. Paintings on canvas are surprisingly fragile. Any pressure or scraping will have consequences such as cracks that will show up in the future. Keep your movements controlled by gently moving your wrist back and forth, versus using your entire arm to move the brush.


· Just like dusting with the air puffer, it is easiest to dust from top to bottom, as gravity will cause dust to fall on the lower surfaces as you clean.


· Make sure to dust the frame, or the sides of any unframed painting. Incidentally, some professionals prefer to use a separate brush for cleaning frames. This is to prevent the transfer of any loose metal particles from a gilded frame onto the painting itself.


· To clean the back of a painting that is not currently hanging on a wall, first ensure that the art is secured in a safe position. You may then use the same gentle, no-pressure method of cleaning with a brush. You can tilt the top edge slightly forward to prevent dirt and dust from falling behind the bottom stretcher bar. If needed, you can carefully turn the painting over to get dirt to fall out from behind the bottom stretcher bar. Do not stick anything behind the stretcher bars as you might scrape the canvas which can cause cracks to the paint that will not show up right away.



Cleaning, level 3 (advanced-professional):

· Professional paintings conservators may use an advanced technique to clean using a adjustable-suction vacuum with a hose attachment. This method is briefly explained here so that you are aware of how it works. It is not recommended for any individuals other than paintings conservators, as it requires more training and practice to perform safely.


In some instances, a special brush attachment is added to the hose, while in others, a brush is held in one hand while the vacuum hose is held in the other. The vacuum is used on the lowest suction setting, and the hose is held away from the canvas while the brush is used to remove dust. The conservator is careful not to use high suction as you never want to suck the painting towards the vacuum hose. That will cause damage to the painting.

Cleaning paintings with the vacuum hose is certainly a technique that is best left to experienced professionals. The advantage of this technique is that dust is efficiently removed as the conservator cleans. However, the technique is challenging to master, and paintings can be damaged if the technique is not performed correctly.



Conclusion:

With a little extra attention and routine maintenance, you can help ensure your art’s longevity. The air puffer method is the most straightforward and is highly recommended for anyone who needs to clean a painting. The brush-cleaning method is more advanced and requires practice to carefully execute. The vacuum-and-brush method is best left to painting conservation specialists.


Does your painting need further cleaning than the first two options we've discussed here? If so, get in touch with your local professional conservator. If you're located in NYC, contact Jen Munch Art Conservation or another of the excellent conservators in this area. For US-based readers, there is a directory of qualified, local conservators here. For Canadians, click here. If you're in another country, you can find a conservator by looking online for the local professional group of conservators or search here via ICON.



Disclaimer and rights-reserved:

This blog post was created by paintings conservator Jen Munch of Jen Munch Art Conservation, with the aim of empowering individuals to take on the basic care and maintenance of their paintings. Please exercise caution whenever handling and cleaning artworks. Some types of dusting and cleaning should only be done by a trained art conservator or other skilled collections care professional. The author and Jen Munch Art Conservation are not responsible for any damage or injury that occurs due to your actions.


This post is the copyright of author Jen Munch and may be reproduced with the author’s written permission; please contact the author for permission to reproduce this post in whole or in part, prior to publication.



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