This is part of a continuing free-lance series of how-to columns to help readers deal with situations and/or make life more enjoyable.
Oil paintings, whether 2 or 200 years old, are subject to elements that cause grime buildup, which affects the quality and luster of the art. These problem makers include smoke, dust, cooking grease and other atmospheric pollutants.
An occasional cleaning of the painting can remove this surface dirt and revitalize the look of the painting, explains art restorer J. Ronald Reed, who frequently restores historical architectural sites and painted pictures, from masterpieces to the portrait of Uncle George painted by Cousin Gwen 10 years ago.
The end result, he says, often depends on how the owner expected the painting to look before it was cleaned.
"A collector recently brought me a series of 200-year-old paintings to be cleaned and restored," Reed explains, "and this included the removal of discolored and smoke-laden varnish.
"Once the restoration process was completed, the collector, who had been accustomed to seeing the dirty surfaces, was shocked when he saw the cleaned paintings. He realized that he had preferred the look of the paintings when they were dirty," he recalls.
"The history of art tells us that this 'aged' look was such a rage at one point," Reed continues, "that the 19th-Century French created special antiquing glazes to attain the old, mellow look.
"In most cases today, however, that 'old' finish is nothing more than discolored varnish, plus dirt, which has nothing to do with age or rarity," Reed says.
He urges common sense in deciding whether the owner of a painting should personally attempt to clean it or to have it professionally restored. If you have doubts about your ability or patience to do the project or if you aren't sure of the value of a painting, don't even consider cleaning a painting yourself. Get a professional.
But, for people who are not concerned with museum masterpieces or even lesser-valued paintings, he offers a step-by-step procedure for removing surface dirt:
--In a work area that is clean and dust-free, carefully remove the painting from the frame. Lay it flat, picture side down, on a clean surface. Never work with the painting upright or on an easel, because liquids will run down the canvas and damage it.
Hold at an angle the brush attachment of your vacuum cleaner and sweep over the back of the canvas to loosen particles of dirt and dust. Never aim the brush (and suction) directly downward. Use a soft stroking pattern across as well as up and down the canvas.
--Now turn the painting right side up, and use a new makeup brush (such as one for applying blusher) to lightly sweep the surface particles of dust from the face of the painting. Never use a vacuum for this, because there may be loose particles of paint that will be lifted.
--With the canvas still on a stretcher, you must fashion a block to fill the space between the canvas and the table top. The canvas must be supported from behind to prevent stretching or sagging during the cleaning process. From whatever you devise the support, however, it should not force the canvas up above the wooden stretcher, nor allow a significant space between it and the canvas. If the support is smaller than the canvas, it can be moved from one area to another of the painting as you work. In fact, it may be better to work in small areas on the painting and for short periods of time, say 15 minutes in the morning and evening, until the project is done. In so doing, the temptation to rush, and possibly create damage, will be lessened.
--Prepare a solution of 25% Ivory liquid soap and 75% water in one container and tepid, clear water in another. Place the containers far enough away from the painting so that they can't be accidentally splashed onto the painting. Get the other supplies you'll need: cotton swabs, cotton pads (the kind used for makeup removal) and an art brush.
Use Test Area
--Using the part of the painting that is concealed by the frame as a test area, soak a piece of cotton in the soap mixture, squeeze out the excess liquid and dab the cotton on the painting, very gently massaging that spot. Never rub the cotton across the painting.
Soak another piece of cotton in the clean water and repeat the process, "rinsing" any soap residue from the spot where you're working. Be sure to change the rinse water frequently. If the soap mixture doesn't seem to be cleaning properly, increase the soap mixture until it reaches an effective ratio. Never use a stronger solution than is necessary. More is not necessarily better and can be damaging to the painting.