Cleaning and Protecting Paintings: What You Need to Know

Because the wrong method can permanently damage your work.

Stained Glass Tress by Leilani
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Spring is in the air, and we’re all thinking about cleaning. As you look around your artist’s studio or your home, you may find some paintings looking a little dusty or discolored. Or, you may be interested in taking preemptive measures, even if the work has no visible dirt or damage. In this article, we go over when to clean paintings, how to clean paintings, and how to protect your paintings from getting dirty in the first place. This guide can be used by artists or collectors.

cleaning and protecting your art agora gallery
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s “The Crucifixion of St. Andrew,” is being cleaned by painting conservator. Source: Cleveland Museum of Art

Before Cleaning: Keeping Art from Getting Dirty

When maintaining your paintings, you should know what can cause dirt accumulation and damage. The most important part of cleaning paintings is preventative: it’s much easier to protect your artwork from dirt and damage than it is to clean it.

If you are the original artist of the work, you can (and often 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 onto your painting! In addition to protecting your art from dust, varnishing also reduces the roughness of the painting’s surface, increasing the color saturation.

Varnish layers aren’t right for every painting, and there are different types for acrylics and oil paintings. Just be careful and always read the instructions and label carefully to make sure you’re working with the right varnish and that you are applying it correctly.

Cleaning and Protecting paintings: what you need to know Agora Gallery
Varnishing a painting. Source: Tate.org

Cleaning and Protecting Paintings: in the home/studio

Improper storage and display are common causes of artwork damage and soiling. Most paints are light-sensitive, so you should be wary of placing the work in front of a bright sun-facing window. Oil paintings are particularly susceptible to damage from extreme temperatures and humidity. Consider this if you are storing the work in a basement or attic: you may want to invest in a humidifier or dehumidifier for these spaces.

For particularly older or more fragile artwork, it may be beneficial to have the artwork framed with a glass protector – especially when hung in a dust-heavy area, like higher on a wall. Just be careful – protective glass cannot be placed on every painting. We’ve written an article already on having artwork framed or gallery wrapped, which should be read before you get started.

[pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Did you know? Smoking near a painting can cause damage. Particularly for unvarnished paintings – soot and smoke damage can permanently change the tone of the piece. If you or your guests want to smoke, just go outside. It’s safer for you, your home, and your art.[/pullquote]

Cleaning and Protecting Paintings: On the road

Improper packing can cause many types of damage to artwork – from superficial to tragically irreversible. There are countless factors to consider when packing your work: to roll the canvas, or ship it framed? To roll the work with the painted side facing in, or facing out? What packing materials should you use? What direction should the bubble wrap face?

Luckily, Agora Gallery has already covered these questions and more in our two guides:

  1. Shipping Artwork De-Mystified: How to Roll Canvases or Prints for Shipping
  2. How to Pack Your Paintings for Shipping

Cleaning and Protecting Paintings: over the years

Cleaning and Protecting paintings: what you need to know Agora Gallery
Leonardo Da Vinci “The Last Supper,” 181″ × 346″, before and after restoration. Source: Wikipedia

One of the most common ways for a painting to become damaged, dirty, or discolored, comes from everyone’s worst enemy: natural aging. There are measures that can be placed to limit the damage of natural aging, like using varnishes and storing the work properly. However, as the years go by, some natural damage will inevitably occur.

Symptoms of an aging artwork can include:

  1. Flaking paint
  2. Discoloration
  3. Cracks
  4. Warping

If you are noticing some of these signs of damage on your artwork, it is a good idea to bring it to a professional restorer.

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When to Clean Your Paintings

First and foremost, consider the value of the piece. If the work is a multi-million dollar Manet original, don’t risk the DIY-cleaning job. Go to a professional. And make sure that bad boy is insured!

Next, if you’ve decided to clean the piece yourself, you need to identify the type of damaged or dirty your painting is. Is it dusty? Discolored? Aging? For most major signs of damage to your artwork, Agora Gallery recommends that you go to a professional. Particularly when it comes to age-related damage. We do not recommend attempting to clean or restore this damage on your own. Don’t just take it from us, The Smithsonian advises, “Cleaning requires the skills of paintings conservators who have years of formal training and practical experience. Permanent damage may easily result from even the most cautious attempts to clean a painting by an untrained person.”

For dust or visible particles accumulating on the surface of your work, you can do the simple cleaning yourself, and we offer a few methods below:

Do not use cleaning products. This should go without saying. Many chemical cleaning products are abrasive or have color-changing properties. At the very least, they’ll stain your painting. They can also wear away at the materials. Many cleaning products will damage your artwork permanently, so don’t chance the risk.

Do not use water, either. A painting is not the same as your kitchen floor and shouldn’t be cleaned by the same method. Water can change the dimension of the fabric of the painting. It may also wash out some of the additives in acrylic paint.

So… what can you use to clean a painting? We recommend 2 methods that are tried-and-true and have been used by the professionals for years.

Method 1: A soft, dry brush. The simplest way to clean your painting is to dust it, lightly, with a soft, dry brush. Make sure there is no paint or moisture on the bristles before you take it to your artwork. Softly swipe away dust and accumulated soil off the artwork.

Cleaning and Protecting paintings: what you need to know Agora Gallery
Make sure the brush you use is made of soft bristles.

Method 2: Spit. Some museums and historians use saliva to clean paintings. Saliva is not the same structure as water and is less likely to damage the artwork by reacting with or washing away the elements. If you plan on using this method, don’t just hock a loogie onto the painting. Instead, you’ll want to moisten a q-tip or cotton swab with saliva and lightly swipe the surface of the painting.

Notes on this method:

  1. Do not eat or drink (other than water) for at least 30 minutes before doing this method. These can mess with your internal chemistry and affect whether or not your saliva will damage the artwork!
  2. Test the method on one corner of the piece before applying to the rest. You will be able to see the effect and determine whether it’s helping your specific painting or hurting. Now would be a good time to determine whether you’d like to invest the time into this method – it can be very time-consuming and you’ll need to see the cleaning through.
  3. Use a soft material, like cotton q-tips, to apply the saliva. Anything rougher, like cloths, can be abrasive and scratch the work. Sponges can also end up absorbing some of the natural oils and chemicals from the painting.
Stained Glass Tress by Leilani
“Stained Glass Trees,” (fragment), by Leilani

Some websites will recommend that you use certain food items to absorb the dirt from the surface of a painting. From raw potatoes to white bread, it seems like you can substitute any lunch product for some artwork maintenance.

While Agora Gallery has never tested this method, we do not recommend it. Based on research, the results of food-based painting cleanings tends to 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 you do either.

Cleaning and Protecting paintings: what you need to know Agora Gallery
Artist Daniela Friederike Lüers began painting en plain air. She paints in a studio now, but still prefers light, airy, and clean spaces.

If you haven’t had enough cleaning yet this spring, check out our article Spring Cleaning for Artists in which we take a look at the mental ways to clean up and prepare for a new season of creation and growth!

Looking to enhance your career and build a presence in New York? Submit your portfolio to us and get the opportunity to present your work to a broad range of national and international art collectors and buyers. Visit our Gallery Representation And Artist Promotion page for more information.

You may also like Going Green: Environmentally Friendly Practices for Artists. See what materials you can use and how to preserve and recycle in order to show your appreciation for our planet!

This post is also available in: Spanish

9 comments

  • I have a little splash of coffee on an oil my mother painted for me about the size of a dime
    Would you use the spit method or another technique

    • Dear Brooke,

      The spit method should work fine. However, if the mark is big you try using some an ear bud dipped in regular oil to remove it.

  • Suggestion please. Oil paintings stored in a barn and a basement ( a big mistake obviously) have been stained with mouse urine. Is there a solution–liquid, cream, etc. –that can be use with cotton swabs to remove the dark spots on the painting. Also, do stains on the backs on raw canvas, need to be neutralized–are they acidic? Thanks very much.
    Thomas

    • Hi Thomas, we recommend you ask a restoration expert. You can google ‘art restoration services near me’ and explain the situation when you give them a call. We’re sure they can help you because they deal with that sort of thing quite often. Please keep us posted!

  • This was an interesting about the different ways art becomes damaged and how it can be restored. I am an art student and learning about the different restoration methods for pieces of art. I think I’ll research more about your suggested method of dusting a painting.

  • I am abstract artist from India and loves to use lots​ of oil painting on large canvas. I am practicing my art for last 30 years now and i am receiving complaint’s from my collectors that painting are flaking lots of dust getting accumulated on the surface and some paintings have fungus on it your above arrival helped me a lot . But i must confess​ that i have made mistake using white bread for cleaning surface on some of my paintings . Now i will follow your advice. And nessary i contact professional. Than you.

  • Wow, nicely cleaned.
    Thanks for this post and will help me to protect my paintings & easy to clean them without any damages to my painting.
    But, I would like to know that how can I protect oil painting from dust?

    It will be pleasure for me.

    • Hi Daniel!

      We are glad the post helped you!

      If the oil painting has a coat of varnish on it, you can simply clean it with a cloth. If not, we suggest using paint brushes with soft bristles.

  • Muy buena información… Saludos de CDMX ????

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