Fine Art/cleaning


  I recently purchased an old portrait of a man dressed in the 17th cent style.  The painting was very dirty.  But the main thing was that it was very dark.  I heard that spit and Qtips can clean it up and I was surprised at the soot that came off the painting.  It looks l00% better.  But the painting is still dark.  Can you tell me if old portraits were just painted very dark or did something happen to the painting over the years?

Q Tips and spit eh?
Maybe you should bottle it and market it on E bay! Call it Q Spits!

Could be that it was painted in dark and somber tones anyway but you will probably find that the layers of varnish have deteriorated over the years too.

Artists used toboil up and fashion some pretty wiered and wondeful concoctions themselves to use as a protective varnish, special secrets which only they knew about and felt particularly fond of to protect their works.

In general, it's the 'decay' of these varnishes which sends them yellowish brown and dirty looking. This, in the main,  is part of the natural deterioration of the compounds within the varnish. This is due to its age and the condition its been kept in. Doesn't mean you keep a dirty house though you know.
Often times, as you suggested,the culprits, nicotine, general cenral heating smut and air bourne grime come in to play too, but I have to say, cleaning paintings is a particularly fine skill and in two seconds, if you're not careful, you can scalp the painting, go through to the paint too quickly and remove it, along with the disagreeable varnish itself.Or allow the wrong agents to seep under the paint layer through the tiny cracks which appear with age, which effectively will loosen the paint from its ground.
This would devalue you paintings worth and leave you in a far, far worse situation than you started!

Best to leave it to the experts, a well qualified conservator or  restoration group and not just a local picture framer or handy man.
It's too fine a skill. You don't after all fix up your own teeth!
These people have studied and apprenticed for years, know exactly the correct dilutions of spirit and what spirits or chemicals are appropriate for the removal of particular varnishes.
If you do attempt to try and remove the varnish layers using eith a proprietry brand cleaner or spirit, you MUST have something there with you to kill the effect and strength of its effect if it goes wrong.

The other interesting thing about this game is that sometimes some underhand dealers from way back when, mixed pigments with varnish to darken it. This adds the appearance of age and effectively adds to its saleability in the market place due to the 'antique' nature of its appearance!
Came across one recently, a so called Gainsborough which was coated in several layers of 'stained' varnish to add a couple of hundred years  and a few naughts to its price.

My advice.
Take advice.
Best David

Fine Art

All Answers

Answers by Expert:

Ask Experts


David Freeman


Art Historian, Fine Art Consultant and author. British School and Barbizon School expert. Biographer of; Ch. Jean Georget - Édouard Frére - Thos Faed - Henry Barraud - Alexander Franz Loemans and many more. Happy to help in any academic or advisory capacity.


David Freeman is a British Art Historian, a fine author and educationalist with 35 years of experience in the world of fine art to his credit.
He is also an International Fine Art Consultant and the busiest appraiser in North America. David is also the Executive Director and founder of the The Freemanart Consultancy.
Working from bases on both sides of the Atlantic Canada, Germany, the UK and Spain, David tours extensively with the Roadshow.

His personal specialisms include:
The Investigation and Identification of Art Fraud and Counterfeit works.

Much of his time is spent Authenticating Paintings and works of art, concentrating on Forensic and Academic Research and Provenance verification for clients throughout the world

Mr Freeman lectures Internationally to Conferences and at University level throughout North America and has appeared many times on the television.
David Freeman writes extensively on his specialised subject as well as formulating artist biographies.
More information:
Freemanart Web site;
He is currently writing a book on the life of eminent Canadian Artist Conyers Barker called, the Horizontal Boy. Hosts the new TV series Treasures that Talk and writing the script of a new Documentary series, Secret Britain.

©2016 All rights reserved.