Art 101

How to Clean an Oil Painting

Oil paintings need that little bit of extra care when handling, cleaning and keeping in optimal condition. Find out how to clean an oil painting in Rise Art's guide.

By Tatty Martin

Cleaning an oil painting without ruining the surface or compromising its appearance is a vital skill. It is no secret that oil paintings need that little bit extra care when handling, cleaning and keeping in optimal condition. Whether you've purchased a new piece, or discovered a historic treasure, knowing how to look after your oil painting, specifically how to clean it, will ensure that your piece remains true to how it was always intended to look.

Taking you through the do's and don'ts of caring for your art, we'll teach you how to ensure that it will last as a forever piece with proper cleaning and maintenance.

Looking for the latest original oil paintings from leading artists? Browse now.

Ellie, 2022, by Philip Tyler


Oil Painting Is Here to Stay

Oil painting has long dominated the painting medium, and has been used to create some of the world's most famous works of art. What's more, it shows no signs of slowing down. Artists are still drawn to the impeccable detail, richness of colour and forgiving process of working with oils. Today, mediums such as acrylic, gouache and watercolour all offer instantaneous painting results, however no medium rivals the result of oils.

Pyramid of Cestius 29.06.20, 2020, by Philip Maltman


Removing Dust from Oil Painting Canvases

Perhaps your oil painting is collecting dust? The easiest way to remove a thin layer of dust, grime or residue is with a soft cloth and soapy water. Due to its low pH level and mild properties, olive oil-based soap is often considered the most effective soap to use. Make sure you don't use anything that contains alcohol as this could remove some of the paint. Gently blot your painting with your damp cloth and you'll instantly see how much dirt comes off. For the corners, or if the painting is particularly textured and impasto, you can always use cotton buds to get into pockets of dirt that have built up over time.

Oxford Street (Worker Off Duty), 2021, by Georgia Peskett


How to Clean Oil Paintings More Thoroughly

Most of the dust should come off, but if there is still grime on the canvas, don't be tempted to scrub harder as this could result in cracking the dry paint. If your painting has been exposed to the elements for a long time or been around smoke that has gradually worked its way onto the canvas, then it may need a stronger art cleaning product. Due to the chemical properties of these products, it is best to seek the help of an art restorer. No matter the lifespan, value or size of your painting, it's never worth compromising and potentially ruining it if you don't know what you're doing.

Chasing the Light: Loch Etive Glow, 2019, by Paul Hirst


Cleaning Oil Paintings on Paper

Increasingly, oil paintings are being created on paper. When cleaning works on paper, it is crucial that before you start, you know that no other paints have been used, especially any water-based paints. If you are unsure, rather than using a wet cloth, it's best to be safe and with a soft, dry paintbrush gently dust the surface of the piece. Make sure your brush is not coarse, and sable bristled paintbrushes are generally known as the best. Don't be tempted to use other cleaning tools such as feather dusters, they are not entirely reliable and may contain the odd bard that will scratch your painting.

If you are sure your painting isn't water-based, then use a cloth and soapy water as with a canvas. However, cleaning oils on paper isn't as straightforward as on canvas. Here, you want to avoid cleaning any area where the paper is exposed as you could create a water stain or dampen the paper and cause it to change shape. Generally, works on paper are shielded by the glass of a frame, so often it's just a case of cleaning the frame rather than the painting itself!

Supersonic, 2019, by Robert Dunt


Myths of Cleaning Oil Paintings

Cleaning with starchy food

One of the biggest myths with cleaning oil paintings is to use starchy foods, such as bread and potatoes. This isn't actually effective and could end up damaging your piece. They could also leave crumbs and excess residue on your painting.


Attempting to clean with baby oil

Another misconception is that baby oil will remove any dirt from the surface of a painting. Although, it is soft and won't harm the paint itself, baby oil can dry in a way that leaves your painting with an unwanted stickiness and shine. This sticky texture can then make your painting even more susceptible to dirt and exposed to the elements, so becomes even harder to clean as the surface of the painting is no longer dry. Rather than cleaning, baby oil can also act as a glaze, subsequently enhancing the colours of the painting and changing its overall appearance.

Oil paintings are forever popular and hugely sought after at Rise Art. No matter the care and attention they need when handling, storing, cleaning and maintaining, they are worth looking after if you have invested in a piece you love!

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