Clean Oil Paintings

How to Clean Oil Paintings

Do you have old oil paintings that look a little more faded than you remember them? Now I’m not talking about the Mona Lisa mind you. I’m referring to old paintings that you love – maybe a family portrait or a relative’s landscape – paintings that you love, that perhaps aren’t hanging because they aren’t looking their best. This post is about how to clean old oil paintings at home!

(After I had written this, someone tried to cake the Mona Lisa! Lucky it’s stored in a glass box!)

Mona Lisa Cake attack at the Louvre - the glass cover of this famous painting will need to be cleaned
Mona Lisa Cake attack

My mother was an artist, and she also collected paintings from artists that she knew.  Her paintings may not be collector’s items but she had an eye for colour and things that I now appreciate.  I have kept many of the paintings from her home, some that she painted and some others as well. 

In particular, she had a large painting of our family cottage that she had left in her basement for many years.  I decided to hang this in our cottage – but the painting was dull and covered in 50 years of dust.  It needed to be revived.

Now if I was not willing to risk this painting – I could have taken it to a professional restorer to have it cleaned. I was hoping to clean this piece carefully myself – just verrry carefully.

If a painting is precious and you are not willing to take the risk, then don’t try this at home! Otherwise, here are my DIY oil painting cleaning steps:

How to clean oil paintings at home

The best way to clean an oil painting is gently and patiently – a very little bit at a time.

Brushing

I gently brushed the whole painting with a soft clean paint brush – just one from the dollar store – I gently brushed down along the whole painting – and so much dust and debris came off. Apparently a sable brush is soft enough and recommended – but I found my soft polyester brush to be perfect. You DO NOT want to break or peel any of the bits of paint. A Swiffer may “catch” in the sharp edges of paint, and a feather duster may have pointed edges – so not recommended. Any brush which has fibres that pull off easily is also not recommended.

The green paint in the centre of this oil painting appears more vibrant after cleaning - how to clean oil painting
The green paint in the centre appears more vibrant

It was amazing to see how much “dust” brushed off the painting.

Dabbing

My second step was to very gradually clean small areas at a time with a slightly damp white jersey cloth.

I had read that I should use a cotton cloth soaked in a gentle olive oil based soapy water – then I read never to use olive oil or soap – SO CONFUSING! My experience is to use a very soft white cloth – I had the most luck with a white thick T shirt style fabric cloth. I found that using a paper towel or something thin – pilled and stuck to the painting. Using cotton balls or cotton swabs also resulted in bits of cotton pulling off and sticking to the painting. I used no soap at all.

Very carefully, I dabbed small areas of similarly coloured paint with a slightly damp cloth. I found the increase in vibrancy of the paint as I slowly worked across the painting to be very rewarding. I was careful to not add very much moisture – and to stop and let each small area dry before proceeding with the next and was also careful to not crack the textured paint.

Be Patient and Work Slowly

It is important to work with the painting flat on a table – and work on about one square inch at a time – using just a small amount of moisture and letting each area dry – so that your painting doesn’t become wet overall and warp – crack – or peel! That would be bad.

Dollar store soft paintbrush - used to clean an old oil painting - how to clean oil paintings
Dollar store soft paintbrush

After the painting had dried from my complete once over – I went back over the whole painting with a soft clean paint brush again – just another nice gentle brushing – top down. 

I am happy that I took the time to clean my old oil paintings at home.  I was very careful, and the process went very well.  These were paintings that I was willing to test out the process with – if the painting was looking worse at any time, I would have stopped. 

The nasty dust and particles brushed off onto the frame - of this old oil painting being cleaned - how to clean oil paintings
The nasty dust and particles brushed off onto the frame

Now I have paintings that I hope will hang for many years to come, and they look much more vibrant than before the cleaning.  You can take your paintings in to get professionally cleaned or restored – but will you?  Or you can leave them in the basement!

Here are some FAQs about Cleaning Old Oil Paintings

Why does the painting look yellowed?

Many oil paintings have been treated with a top coat of varnish to protect the paint underneath. This unfortunately yellows over time. Cleaning may or may not lessen the yellowing. You may want to consider taking the painting to a professional to have the varnish removed.

Can you use lemon juice, saliva, vinegar, a cut potato, baby or olive oil or rubbing alcohol to clean an oil painting?

No – using food to clean the painting may leave behind debris that decays.  Baby or olive oil may soften the paint and alcohol may remove the paint.  I know that professionals have used saliva and lemon juice for ages – but it’s probably not a good idea!

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