Art & Decor Trends

Cleaning an oil painting

One of our loyal readers was seeking advice cleaning an oil painting:

“My grandmother did several oil paintings before she died. They are lovely, but only valuable to our family.

My mother, a heavy smoker, hung a small oil painting (about 12” x 18”) in her small studio apartment for many years. This week she is moving, and gave me the painting. It is sticky and drippy with smoke residue.

My local art gallery wants almost $200 to clean it!

Is there a home-remedy that I could attempt? Obviously, I don’t want to damage it, but it’s not a valuable piece, and I just want it cleaned enough to hang in my kitchen (still life with wine and fruit).

Thanks for any advice you can offer!”

I can’t make any guarantees (because I’m not a curator) about the safety of these methods for your particular painting. But I can tell you what I do to clean the paintings I own.

The safest option, but won’t work on sticky areas is to use a very soft brush to remove dust and soot particles (super soft paintbrush, baby toothbrush, shaving brush, that kind of thing). You can buy a micro attachment kit for your vacuum that has small brushes (under an inch in diameter) for deeper cleaning (don’t scrub the surface with the bristles, though–just light, circular passes). If that doesn’t work, you can use a dry rubber sponge in short strokes across the surface, but only if the surface isn’t damaged or flaky. It picks up every last bit of dirt and soot, but likely won’t work on the really sticky parts.

The other option is to use soft, clean cloths and water with a few drops of dish detergent. If you can remove the frame to test this on the side or edge of the painting first, do so. Watch the surface of the painting and check the cloths to see what’s coming off, and obviously if the paint colors are lifting off, stop cleaning. Try just damp cloths at first, dab the painting, no scrubbing. If she painted on canvas, be careful not to stretch the canvas by pressing too hard. If damp cloths aren’t working, use a bit more water, just beware that water can seep under varnish, if there is any, and that if the paint is thin, and the canvas or board gets wet, it can shrink or warp and cause cracks in the paint.
I’ve cleaned my own paintings this way, but a conservator would wring my neck if I ever tried it at a gallery. I’ve also used rubbing alcohol on a cotton ball for really bad areas…scary, but it works. Use a tiny amount of alcohol.

If these methods don’t work, it might be worth it to ask around at the gallery to see if there is a conservator’s apprentice or helper working there. Ask around unofficially by checking with the security guards, reception staff, gallery shop clerks, etc. He/she might be willing to look at your painting to recommend a solvent or clean it for a lower price (under the table on his/her own time). You could also check antique and framing shops to see if they have lower prices for cleaning services.

Good luck cleaning your painting, let me know if you found the advice helpful…

About the Author

Amitai Sasson of is an art world traveler on a mission to seek out the beauty and passion of the art world. As an avid enthusiast of art and oil paintings, he contributes to as Chief editor and writer.