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How Do I Go about Cleaning Oil Paintings?

By S. Mithra
Updated May 16, 2024
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Any advice about cleaning an oil painting that's covered in dust or yellowed varnish must come with a major disclaimer. More than other kinds of do-it-yourself projects, cleaning oil paintings should really be trusted to expert conservators. Furthermore, altering true antiques almost always decreases their value, whether or not they look better to you. If your painting is not that old, not terribly valuable, or not too important, however, there are a few possible ways to make it look brighter and cleaner yourself.

Before the 1940s, paintings of oil on canvas were frequently covered with a layer of varnish to add sheen and protect the thick layer of paint, called the impasto. Yet varnish reacts differently to the environment than does paint, so these varnish seals end up cracking, yellowing, or gumming up over time. It can make the original hue of the oil paints look dull or discolored.

If it seems that your painting is older, assess whether the paint is in good shape but the varnish has aged. In this case, try applying a mild solvent called a conservation liquid. Art supply stores might sell an "emulsion" designed to clean and remove varnish. There is always a chance that the solvent will also damage or remove the oil paint. If you are willing to risk this possibility, dab the emulsion with a cotton swab very delicately. Try spot-testing one corner before moving on to the entire canvas. Work in an area with adequate ventilation.

For recent paintings, your problem is more likely a build-up of dust, smoke, pet hair, dander, and even bacterial or fungal growth. In this case, make sure none of the paint is ready to come off the canvas or board, meaning that it doesn't exhibit any cracks or flakes. Then you can carefully dust the surface with a very soft, dry bristle brush, such as a baby toothbrush or shaving cream brush.

If the surface is sticky, grimy, or oily, you may want to take the cleaning a step further and actually use a mild detergent solution. Again, generally speaking, oil and water should never mix, as moisture can damage both the canvas and the impasto. Proceeding with caution, use brand new cotton cloths dipped in a mixture of dish soap and warm water. Lightly blot the surface, but don't scrub, wipe, or rub at the painting. At no point should you submerge any part of the painting, nor allow so much moisture that it drips or pools.

For the experimental types, people have come up with some unorthodox methods of getting dirt off an oil painting. White bread seems to work. Ball up soft, sticky, doughy white bread and gently rub it against the canvas. You'll see it blacken like a pencil eraser. Brush off the crumbs. You also might try a low-suction vacuum with a brush nozzle. This should remove pet hair and dust balls in a deeply textured painting.

What Cleans Oil Paint Off Brushes?

Oil paint is created using dry pigments and combining them with refined linseed oil. The oil paints you purchase in stores use nearly the same recipe that has been used for centuries by the old masters who would collect their own pigments. The pigment and oil are mixed together until a smooth and pasty consistency is achieved.

Because the primary ingredient in oil paints is oil, you can't use water to clean your brushes, as the water is simply repelled off the brushes. Artists must instead use solvents to remove oil-based paint from their bristles. Because many solvents such as turpentine and mineral spirits are toxic and can be dangerous when inhaled, any cleaning should take place in a well-ventilated room.

How To Use Oil Paint Brush Cleaner

In addition to traditional solvents, you have the option to purchase a cleaner designed specifically for removing paint from brushes. There are numerous brands on the market, and some claim to be nontoxic and made from natural ingredients. While using solvent as a daily cleanser can provide the best immediate cleaning, cleaners marketed specifically for brushes are also good to use occasionally as conditioners. Follow the instructions on the label for best results.

Solvent Cleaning

Follow these simple steps to use a solvent to clean your brushes:

  1. Place solvent in a small glass jar or cup.
  2. Wipe away as much wet paint from your brush as you can with a paper towel or a dry rag. 
  3. Dip the bristles in the solvent. 
  4. Using a clean paper towel or rag, wipe away any color that remains on your bristle.
  5. You may have to repeat the dipping process one or two more times, depending on how deeply the paint penetrated.

Allow the brushes to air dry naturally and they'll be ready to use the next time you paint.

Safflower Oil Cleaning

Using safflower oil to clean your brushes lengthens the time it takes to clean, but the oil can also work to condition the bristles between uses:

  1. Pour a small amount of safflower oil into a cup. 
  2. Wipe the wet paint from the bristles of your brush immediately after use. Continue wiping until the color is mostly gone. 
  3. Dip your brush in the safflower oil and massage it so it penetrates all the bristles.
  4. Place the brush in your brush stand or in a jar with the bristles pointed upward.
  5. When you're ready to use your brush again, remove the safflower oil and any remaining stain from the bristles with a clean towel. 

How Are Oil Paintings Cleaned?

It's important to note that oil paintings are not cleaned with solvent. Using solvent on a finished oil painting could potentially remove pigment and damage the surface of the artwork.

The best way to clean an oil painting is to take it to a conservator. The professional cleaning process is tedious and time-consuming. Generally, the conservator works across the surface of the painting cleaning inch by inch. The instrument used for cleaning is simply a cotton swab or other nonabrasive cloth. The cleaning solution is made up of an olive oil-based soap with water or other archival-safe solution.

Conservators are trained to take as much time as needed to ensure the safety of the painting. They are aware that any water left on the surface of the artwork leaves it vulnerable to decay.

Locating a Conservator

Art conservators can be found in most major cities. For help locating one, visit your local art museum and ask who it uses. Museums generally only hire the best conservators with work renowned in the industry.

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Discussion Comments
By anon956078 — On Jun 11, 2014

I cleaned my oil painting with a cut onion, and it became brighter, but white coloured spots became yellowish. But after wiping it with a soft piece of cloth, they disappeared. But I wouldn't risk it if the painting was valuable and light.

By anon337062 — On Jun 02, 2013

I would just like to point out that the conservation of paintings is not a topic that should be taken lightly or be done by a DIY-er. Many problems can arise by cleaning undertaken by an untrained person and the conservation of fine art is a profession. The removal of paint and blanching of the surface are some of many problems which can permanently damage an artwork. Please seek the help of a professional and not a DIY video by someone looking to save a few dollars.

Anyone seeking information on how to find a conservator or restorer of fine art should look at the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic works. Alternatively, anyone in Canada should look at the Canadian Association for Conservation. Europeans should check out International Council of Museums - Committee for Conservation.

By anon323172 — On Mar 04, 2013

@anon269351: The American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic works's website has an option to search for a conservator. Don't try to clean it yourself.

By anon323171 — On Mar 04, 2013

Please don't do any of this! If your painting needs cleaning, take it to a conservator. The wrong kind of brush can damage your painting, and under no circumstances should you use any type of cloth on the surface. Never use solvents or any special solutions. Conservators carefully check the painting's vulnerability to different substances and pick the safest one to use, if you use the wrong substance you could irreversibly damage the painting. Don't risk it! Take it to a professional conservator.

By anon309185 — On Dec 15, 2012

I hate to inform anon101624 that saliva on a cotton swab is precisely how top conservators often clean oil paintings. I have experienced it first hand myself standing in front of a $100K painting watching a top conservator do it.

By anon295711 — On Oct 08, 2012

Please do not use bread or any other foodstuff on oil paintings. It will introduce mold which will eat into and destroy your painting. Go to a professional restorer and don't mess with it. If it is nothing special, a small amount of white spirit on a cotton wool bud will clean off surface dirt. --Chezzie

By anon287658 — On Aug 26, 2012

Vinegar is a great cleaner.

By anon269351 — On May 17, 2012

This is nice but no one who says to consult a professional, defines who that professional might be?

I have a 16x14 painting done by a family member. I don't know if there is a coat of varnish. I do know that after tons of smoke around it, it could use a cleaning. I tried just a little paint thinner but the "snow" in the painting is still yellowed. I also have a museum quality print and it has darkened.

I don't want to spend a fortune but would like to have these cleaned correctly. I am located near Raleigh, NC.

By anon245286 — On Feb 04, 2012

Could someone tell me how to clean built up cigarette smoke from large oil painting by Thomas Kinkade?

By anon230597 — On Nov 19, 2011

Thank goodness our paintings are small! My husband's father painted a few and I know they have smoke on them. I will ask the experts.

By anon121665 — On Oct 25, 2010

Please, people: if it's worth nothing and you don't care if it gets damaged, mess with it all you want.

If it has any value, monetary or emotional, please take it to an expert. I have owned an art gallery and frame shop for 30 years. The professionals have gone to school for the knowledge of restoration practices and know what they are doing. Trust them. You always get what you pay for. Scott

By anon101624 — On Aug 04, 2010

This really is frightening stuff. Spitting on a clean cloth and rubbing the painting, as with many other DIY solutions may look fine at first but will damage your work over time. Someone will have taken time and effort to create the artwork and will once have been proud of it. Treat it with respect and use a professional. There are still important undiscovered works out there that you may just destroy!

By anon98043 — On Jul 22, 2010

Re posts by anon62542:

He/she is quick to tell us we are idiots. And maybe we are. But posting with an anonymous random ID sure doesn't lend credibility.

So, anon62542, since you have so much knowledge, why not put your name on it?

Meanwhile I tried the white potato thing but I didn't do it seriously. The white bread rub makes sense but I haven't gotten to that one either.

There's all kinds of stuff on the net about cleaning paintings. That being said, I would do my homework first. e.g. I wouldn't take foodstuffs to an Edward Hopper.

By anon97919 — On Jul 21, 2010

While I would like nothing better than using a professional restorer, I took my painting that was purchased in the 1950s for about $50, the restorer quoted me $1100 to clean it. (I live in NYC). Since spending this amount of money is not going to happen, my only choice is to do it myself. I just used sudsy water and it certainly helped. Would still like to improve the surface and I appreciate the help offered here.

By anon90703 — On Jun 17, 2010

I am a professional art restorer and am horrified by most of what is posted here. (Most will destroy the art). There is so much chemistry involved in cleaning painting and what you use has to do with the age, condition, materials of the work. If you don't know what you are doing, and the work is important to you or your family, please, hire someone experienced.

By cynyc — On May 16, 2010

I've heard about the potato thing. I'm going to try it on a dirty nicotine-stained painting that I did myself 30 or so years ago.

Old paintings I possess I am reluctant to touch without having them assessed by somebody very knowledgeable. Sometimes you'll get a hit by posting a picture on an a popular art message board--especially for people who don't know anything about their art.

I know art so the items I have require expertise. I was took a piece to a Madison Ave. gallery (Alfred David Lenz) because they supposedly handled Lenz and the guy looked at the 3-D engraving and blew it off as a photograph.

So do your homework. I paid $20 for that one.

I am a newspaper reporter now and am going to do a story on a local conservator. She told me a story: Client brings in an old painting--a flea market find that she just happened to like. Cleaning revealed signature and this particular conservator recognized the artist. Valued at 40-80K.

By anon80457 — On Apr 27, 2010

Tried and true is half turpentine and half liquid Murphy's Oil soap (Flax soap) rub ever so gently gently with a soft sponge. And yes less is more.

By anon65688 — On Feb 15, 2010

I read an article in our local newspaper about cleaning of oil paintings, wherein they recommended that the best method was spitting on a clean cloth and rubbing gently. I am an artist, and have used it successfully for small spots.

It is not a good idea to wash the painting if you are not very sure about the medium used - some artists use mixed media, which is not easily discerned by the amateur.

By anon65226 — On Feb 11, 2010

As restorers, we have seen many attempts to clean paintings result in further damages. Second sentence of this article reads "More than other kinds of do-it-yourself projects, cleaning oil paintings should really be trusted to expert conservators."

Cleaning of paintings is not a do-it-yourself project unless all you are doing is dusting with a very soft and dry bristle brush.

By anon62542 — On Jan 27, 2010

Lord, some of the above is frightening! The guiding rule with oil paintings is that if you don't know what you are doing, don't do anything more than wiping with a soft dry cloth. And that is only if the paint is absolutely secure and not flaking at all.

Whatever, do not take instruction from the likes of anyone who advises hosing oil paintings down outside. That is just staggeringly stupid and criminally irresponsible and destructive. Water (damp) is an absolute killer of oil paintings. It isn't the oil paint at risk, it is the gesso that holds the oil to the canvas. Get that damp at all and the paint will come adrift. If you kept a hose on a painting, the paint will eventually just slide off.

But even if dried off quickly, as the person maintains, the gesso will have been shot and while it might look fine for long enough to fool someone, an oil on gesso painting will have been fatally damaged and paint and gesso will spoon start to separate. And the best way to save it then would be to get it wax lined so that the wax/resin soaked through literally holds the paint in place instead.

And just for the record, it is heartbreaking to see the traversties of desecration on both paintings and frames in the name of "restoration" by those who don't know what they are doing.

By anon60840 — On Jan 16, 2010

I have an oil painting that has a yellowed varnish on it. My daughter wrote on it with ink and marker. It is over just the bare canvas and not where there is paint. How can I get the ink and marker off?

By anon59808 — On Jan 10, 2010

I have an oil painting I picked up at a second hand store for $5. It has been subjected to years of dust and tobacco smoke. Because it is not a valuable piece, I cleaned it myself. I used a magic sponge. It worked beautifully, and did no damage to the piece.

By anon58178 — On Dec 30, 2009

I have a recommendation for a affordable restorer.

The Paint Doctor cleans and repairs oil paintings via mail. Estimates can be given online by e-mailing in photos of the painting.

By anon51139 — On Nov 03, 2009

I used a professional restorer for an old portrait of my father that had darkened. I didn't want to ruin the painting trying to clean it myself. The price was reasonable and the painting looks like it did 20 years ago. I highly recommend my restorer, Lynn Kershner.

By anon46404 — On Sep 25, 2009

Hello everybody, i used my vacuum cleaner with the brush attachment. I angled the brush to weaken its suction effect. I started from the top down, with easy circular motions. Then I worked the inside, in and around the frame. Seems to have done a fairly good job. Louie D' from NYC

By anon40819 — On Aug 11, 2009

Thanks for the really informative article. It is very well written and described. it will be of great help to oil painters. --Art Oil Painting

By anon34413 — On Jun 22, 2009

I restore things for people regularly.

The guiding rule is *value* of the item:

1. if it is at all of value, look up a specialist and let them do it - you will be so glad you did! Get a guarantee that if, a few months later, damage from the restorative shows up, that your specialist will do it over or fix it.

Also *insure* -that way, if something happens you'll be covered.

2. if, however, the painting is one you paid 5 dollars for at a tag sale, and can afford to throw away, should restoration not work, then you can have fun trying a number of things to clean it.

It's all about studying the thing carefully and using your commonsense about cleaning.

*always less, not more*...

if a plain dry soft brush or cloth will do it, then do not use solvents of any kind, or get into complex cleaning procedures. You'd be surprised at what a plain buffing can achieve.

*test* - if you are not in a hurry - test your idea for cleaning in a small, inconspicuous area of the painting, and put it to one side, and wait to see if the cleaning method causes damage after a month or so. *Because*: Some restorations will look OK at first, but then later, show discoloration, buckling or cracking or gumming up.

*My story*: I have done this many times, with no problems afterward at all - a client likes covering the walls of one part of his business place with his tagsale art "finds", and several of them were large, very musty, dusty and filthy - I told him what I wanted to do and that it would either "make it, or break it" and yet, he thought it fine, since he paid almost nothing for the paintings, and was prepared to throw them away or salvage the frame and "Pitch the pitcher"... if my method was not successful.

*After study* of each of the paintings, at every point, I took each piece of the art outdoors, on a nice day, but *not* in direct sunlight.

Next was cleaning dry soft brush to remove large cobwebs, dust balls, and other identified matter.

Then, with a basin of the mild detergent and water and soft large brushes, *on all sides*, and garden hosed it gently till perfectly free of the cleaning solution.

I even used a tiny bit of clorox on one that was too musty to bear.

Keyword for this 'soap and water' approach - *quick*. Work fast and gently but firmly - courage!

Then the art must drip and almost dry, outdoors, out of the sunlight but in the breeze, and then I brought it indoors to complete the drying, carefully dabbing and soft-brushing it as needed, and smoothing it with my clean hand, like a "hand-press" iron or massage. This 'hand press will even restore an elegant sheen, where you want it.

The paintings were good enough when done to hang proudly, with only a careful spritz of clear acrylic on the frames (covered the art part to be sure the acrylic would not get on the art) to give a show-worthy look to them.

And fresh hanging hardware, of course!

*Experience, preparation, study, test* and *common sense* are key words - if you feel you may have the knack for such tasks, *don't* attempt any of it, if you are unsure - till you *think*, talk with friends who are into it, study online about the specifics of your project.

*And if the art has value at all, do not do it yourself. Give it to an expert.*

By anon34403 — On Jun 22, 2009

for the musty smell: try sealing the painting in a plastic bag along with a sheet of Bounce.

By judybran — On May 21, 2009

I have some oil paintings that were in an old house and have a very musty smell. The paintings are clean. They are not expensive but have sentimental value. Is there any way to get rid of the smell so that they can be displayed in my home?

By maniototo — On Mar 13, 2009

Hi, I have a painting (I think it's oil) and the artist covered it at some stage with black paint to reuse the canvas (but never did, and it was covered in black paint). Someone has removed part of the black to expose a rather beautiful painting underneath, but unfortunately I don't know what they used. The black paint scrapes off with a fingernail or light file, but it is very uneven and I wondered if there was a gentle solvent or something I could use to reveal the underneath artwork. It's not an especially valuable piece but the artist was of some renown in NZ and passed away years ago, so it's quite special to me. Any suggestions would be gratefully accepted!

Thanks.

By anon13063 — On May 19, 2008

Dear Sir

I have done some paintings on canvas (Oil Color) 6-7 years back, still some of the area wherever I used white color is little sticky, I feel like it is not dried properly. How can I dry or remove the stickiness.

Please I need your help. Your sincerely, akbar

By anon6808 — On Jan 09, 2008

how do i get water streaks off our oil paintings. thanking you in advance

By anon6154 — On Dec 18, 2007

Oil paintings were cleaned in my country succsessfully of dirt with onion or potato cut in half and rubbed over the painting without damaging the color.

By anon6130 — On Dec 17, 2007

We have oil paintings from italy which were purchased in 1969. My dear husband decided they needed a good scrubbing so he used clear water and a wash cloth, which needless to say you can see where he wiped them. Is there anything that we can do to correct this?

thank you

js

By packrat — On Nov 20, 2007

I have an oil painting my father bought my mother in 1968. It has hung in a home with heavy smokers since then. the colors have become dull. It also got wet during a hurricane when the windows were blown out. Can it be restored?

By anon5018 — On Nov 09, 2007

JK,

If you have a steady hand, try using a sharp scalpel blade to open an edge between the painting and the emulsion blob. Then use your fingernail or a toothpick to prise the blob away. Oil and water paints will stick together but the bond is weak, so the emulsion may well peel away when you get underneath it.

By ceilidh71 — On Oct 03, 2007

I have an old oil painting from prior to the Napier earthquake in New Zealand. I would like to clean it. I would appreciate it if some one could advise me.

Thanks

By anon3833 — On Sep 19, 2007

I have an oil painting (approx 20 years old) which has, in some areas, been painted with very thick layers. A small 'blob' (5mm x 5mm )of white emulsion paint has, unfortunately, fallen onto a dark red area of this painting. How do I get rid of it please?

JK

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