Spring is in the air and we’re all thinking about cleaning up. As you look around your art studio or home, you may find that some paintings look a little dusty or faded.
You may want to take preventive measures, even if the work is not dusty or visibly damaged. In this article we’ll talk about when to clean the paintings, how to do it, and how to protect the paintings from dirt to begin with. This guide can be used by artists or collectors.
Before cleaning: avoid getting art dirty
When doing maintenance on your paints, you should know what can cause damage and dust accumulation. The most important part of cleaning paints is prevention: it is much easier to protect your works from dirt and damage than to clean and repair them.
If you are the original artist of the work, you can (and usually should) apply a coat of varnish to protect the painting from dust. When applying it, make sure there is no dust on the piece or in the air around your workspace – you don’t want to seal those particles in your painting! In addition to protecting your work from dust, the varnish smoothes the surface of the paint, thus increasing the color saturation.
Not every painting should be coated with a varnish, and there are different types of varnishes for acrylics and oils. Just be careful and read the instructions and labels carefully to ensure you are working with the correct varnish and applying it correctly.
Cleaning and protecting paintings: in your home/studio
A common cause of damage and soiling of works of art is storing or displaying them inappropriately. Most paintings are sensitive to light, so be careful not to place the work in front of a window that faces the sun. Oil paintings are particularly susceptible to damage from extreme temperatures and humidity. Take this into consideration if you are storing your artwork in a basement or attic: you may need to invest in a humidifier or dehumidifier for these spaces.
For older or fragile works, it may be beneficial to frame them with a glass protector, especially if the works will be hung in a dust-prone area, such as the top of a wall. Just remember to be careful: glass protectors cannot be attached to just any painting. We wrote an article on how to frame and wrap artwork, which you should read before starting.
Cleaning and protecting paints: on the road
Improper packing can cause many types of damage, either superficial or tragically irreversible. There are countless factors to consider when packing your artwork: Should you roll the canvas, or send it framed? Should you roll the canvas with the paint in or out? What materials should you use for packing? Which direction should the bubble wrap go?
Fortunately, Agora Gallery has already covered these questions and many more in our two guides:
- Demystifying Mailing: How to Roll Up Canvases or Prints for Mailing
- How to pack your paintings for shipping
One of the most common ways that paints are damaged, soiled or discolored is due to our worst common enemy: natural aging. The following measures can be taken to limit the damage caused by natural aging, such as using varnishes and storing work properly. However, as time passes, damage will inevitably occur.
Some symptoms of aging artwork may include
- Peeling of the paint
If you notice any of these signs in your works, it is a good idea to take them to a professional restorer.
When to clean your paints
First and foremost, consider the value of the piece. If the piece is a multi-million dollar original Manet, don’t risk cleaning it up yourself. Find a professional. And make sure the piece is insured!
Then, if you decide to clean the piece yourself, you must identify the type of damage or dirt that your painting has. Is it dusty? Faded? Aged? Agora Gallery recommends that you ask an expert to treat most signs of damage to your artwork. Particularly when the damage is related to aging. We do not recommend that you try to clean or restore the damage yourself.
The Smithsonian advises, “Cleaning requires the skills of art conservators, who have years of formal training and practical experience. Permanent damage can occur from even the most careful attempts to clean a painting by a person without the necessary training.
In the case of dust or accumulation of visible particles on the surface of the work, you can do a simple cleaning yourself, and we offer a few methods below:
Do not use cleaning products. This should be obvious. Many cleaning chemicals are abrasive or have color-altering properties. At the very least, they will stain your paint. They may also wear down materials. Many cleaning products will damage your work permanently, so don’t take any chances.
Don’t use water either. A paint is not your kitchen floor and therefore you should not clean it using the same method. Water can change the dimension of the paint’s fabric. It can also remove the additives in the acrylic paint.
So… what can you use to clean a painting? We recommend 2 proven methods, which have been used by professionals for years.
Method 1: A soft, dry brush The simplest way to clean your paint is simply by gently brushing it with a soft, dry brush. Make sure there is no paint or moisture on the brush before you touch your art. Gently shake off the dust and dirt that has accumulated on the work.
Method 2: saliva. Some museums and historians use saliva to clean up paintings. Saliva has a different structure than water and is less likely to damage works of art because it does not react or dissolve the elements.
If you plan to use this method, the issue is not simply to spit on the piece. Instead, moisten a swab with saliva and wipe it gently over the surface of the painting.
Notes on this method:
- Do not eat or drink anything (only water) for at least 30 minutes before using this method. Food and drink could change your internal chemistry and affect the chances of your saliva damaging the work!
- Try the method on one corner of the piece before applying it to the rest. You will be able to see the effect and determine if it is helping or hurting your specific painting. This would be a good time to determine if you want to invest time in this method: it can take a lot of time and you will have to do it carefully and completely.
- Use a soft material, such as cotton swabs, to apply the saliva. More rustic items, such as rags, can be abrasive and scratch the work. Sponges may also absorb some of the natural oils and chemicals in the paint.
Some websites will recommend that you use certain foods to absorb dirt from a paint surface. From raw potatoes to white bread, it seems you can use any lunch product to maintain your artwork.
Although Agora Gallery has never tried this method, we do not recommend it. Based on what we have researched, paint cleanings done with food often leave crumbs and residue on the artwork. Galleries and museums do not use this method, and unless you are willing to risk the quality of the piece, we do not recommend that you do so either.
If you haven’t cleaned up enough this spring, read our article Spring Cleaning for Artists in which we talk about the mental ways we can clean up and prepare for a new season of creation and growth.
You might also like Going Green: Green Practices for Artists – see what materials you can use and how to preserve and recycle to show that you appreciate our planet!