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Fine Art Restoration/Oil painting cleaning


I have been purchasing old oil paintings for a while now, I don't know if they are valuable, I simply enjoy looking at them, however, due to their age, a number are dark and dusty and in need of a clean. I have read a number of things online about how to clean them but am wary of using bread, due to possible mould growth and water due to the risk of damaging / warping the canvas.  Can you advise how I could clean my paintings without damaging them?  Some are varnished but the others are simply oil on canvas.

Hi Ali,

The first thing that I would suggest is that you get them appraised by a reputable appraiser.  We've all heard of the Old Masters and Jackson Pollocks that turn up at thrift stores and estate sales.  You would want to know the value of what you have anyway for insurance purposes or for re-sale.

Cleaning oil paintings is generally not a do-it-yourself project, and should be done by an experienced conservator.  There's usually more to it than simply surface cleaning after a detailed condition assessment is done- canvas repair, re-stretching, tightening the stretcher or strainer, re-framing, etc..  Sometimes even relining can be called for.  That takes specialized equipment and skills.  I would recommend that dealing with darkened varnish be left to a conservator since it involves first testing with solvents to determine what will work, then cleaning and usually some in-painting, followed by revarnishing with a stable resin.

Having said all that, for simply doing surface cleaning if you're confident that the paint surface and canvas are stable, you can use non-latex cosmetic sponges to remove surface dust and dirt.  They are available in druggists and other stores that sell cosmetics and facial supplies.  In the US they come in plastic bags and you can get them in round or square shapes.  The are white compact sponge material, generally around 1/4 thick.  Lightly rub the sponge on the surface in one direction.  If you see paint flecks on the sponge, stop the cleaning.  I would also suggest using a soft brush first to sweep surface dust into a vacuum nozzle to remove dust from the rabbet and frame.  Repeat the gentle surface cleaning with the sponges until they come off relatively clean.  Depending on the degree of soiling and surface texture, you might not be able be able to get 100% of the dirt off, but in most cases you should see a noticeable difference.

Let me know if you have any other questions.

Paul Storch

Fine Art Restoration

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Paul S. Storch


I'm happy to answer questions concerning the preservation and conservation of three-dimensional archaeological, ethnographic, historic, technological, and decorative arts objects. My materials expertise includes leather, wood, metals, and composite materials.


I have close to thirty years experience as a conservator at three different museums and in private practice. I currently work as a collections manager overseeing 40,000 historic objects at over 20 sites around the state, as well as having a private treatment and consultation practice in the Midwest.

American Institute for the Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works Minnesota Association of Museums The Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections Professional Picture Framers Association

Journal of the American Institute For Conservation Texas Archaeology University of Texas Conservation Notes Caring for American Indian Objects/Minnesota Historical Society Press The Interpreter/Minnesota Historical Society Journal of Field Archaeology

B.A. in Anthropology/Archaeology; M.A. in Anthropology/Museum Studies with a concentration in Archaeological and Ethnographic Conservation.

Awards and Honors
Recognition certificate from the Institute of Museum Services

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