Oil paintings are hard things to clean up by yourself

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Q: I have an oil painting that needs cleaning, not restoring. It’s not an inheritance, and it’s not very valuable. It was an auction purchase, for $100. But I like it and think it would be much improved by cleaning. It measures approximately 12½ inches by 34 inches. I think the signature is “Pettie Stotlemeyer”, no date. The painting looks quite old. What do you suggest me to do?

A: Cleaning an old oil painting without damaging it is a very delicate undertaking – “one of the most demanding areas of painting conservation”, according to an overview published by the Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute.

Jessica Johnson, the institute’s curatorial officer, said in a telephone interview that when a painting is not of sufficient value to warrant professional cleaning, she normally recommends doing nothing. “If it’s dirty, it’s not going to get worse,” she says. “If you clean it up and do the wrong thing, there’s a chance you could seriously affect it.”

However, provided the paint doesn’t flake off, you can probably remove the dust without risking damage by following the Smithsonian’s advice: wash and dry your hands, then place the paint on a clean surface . Tilt the board so that it tilts towards you at the top and the dust you remove does not land on the board. To remove dust, use a soft brush about one to two inches wide with natural bristle bristles. Do not use a duster: the threads could catch on a rough spot in the paint. A feather duster or a hard brush are also out; they can scratch. With the soft brush you can gently brush the surface, working from top to bottom or all over the paint. If the paint has a dull surface, take special care not to brush too long or with too much pressure so as not to burnish the surface, making it shinier in places.

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Many oil paintings have a coating of varnish installed to make the colors more saturated and the gloss more uniform and to protect the painting from dirt and dust. Unfortunately, varnish tends to yellow and darken with age. Cleaning can remove varnish, which can cause paint colors to appear brighter. But solvents that remove varnish can also damage the paint. Determining which solvent is safe to use on a specific paint requires testing protocol and an understanding of art, chemistry and materials history. There’s a reason why professional restorers spend years in training. If you were to attempt the cleanup yourself, it could create the damage Johnson warns about.

Various websites recommend a few cleaning methods they claim are safe, including brushing off dust with a fine-bristle brush or an old badger brush, and dabbing oily dirt with white bread dumplings. But even brushing off the dust, as the Smithsonian recommends, wouldn’t be safe if the paint is brittle and peels off. And the bread stuff can leave crumbs, which invite bugs.

It is also possible to purchase solvents that dissolve various varnishes and then test them to see if they work without picking up color from the paint. Winsor & Newton, which makes artists’ paints, has instructions under the “How to remove varnish from an oil painting” page on its website, Winsornewton.com, but even that begins with this warning: “This It would be a tragedy to damage a valuable painting trying to remove the varnish if you have no experience in stripping.The best advice is to simply take it to a restorer.

If you want to do that, the American Institute for Conservation and the Foundation for Advancement in Conservation have a “find a conservator” feature on the Culturalheritage.org website. Type in your zip code, choose the number of miles you’re willing to travel to bring your painting to a restorer, and select “paintings” in the search field. Then scan the results for the restorers doing the treatment.

Most restaurateurs do an initial consultation at no cost. They will assess the condition of your paintwork and explain their proposed treatment to you, along with an estimate of the cost. You then decide if you want to continue this work.

Even if you think your paintwork just needs a cleaning and not a restoration, a professional can spot details you haven’t noticed. Alex Volkonsky, owner of Sable Fine Art Restoration at BethesdaMD, (202-568-2704; sablerestoration.com), looked at the photos you sent and said he thought there might be some cracking in the paint coat. If a practical evaluation in his studio in Silver SpringMD, confirmed this, he would recommend relining the paint – a process that involves attaching a new canvas to the back. He would also test cleaning methods to find what works without causing damage, then replace the varnish to help stabilize the paint. Volkonsky is not listed on the American Institute for Conservation’s website, but he has had years of training, including five years at George Washington University’s Corcoran School of the Arts & Design. In total, he estimated that the treatments he listed could take him eight to 10 hours and cost between $320 and $400, less than many restaurateurs charge. For a paint you like, it could be a worthwhile investment — and safer than trying it out for yourself.

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