Vintage View: Cleaning artwork requires care

Cleaning any artwork requires great care, and your principal mission should be to do no harm, writes Kya deLongchamps.

Vintage View: Cleaning artwork requires care

Cleaning any artwork requires great care, and your principal mission should be to do no harm, writes Kya deLongchamps.

Last week we took a look at how we can best protect our artwork from damage and assess its ‘health’, but what about cleaning?

As an artwork is assimilated into our wider room-scape, it’s easy to forget that paintings, sculpture and crafted items are not modern toughies, bound in coffin grade varnishes.

Give each individual piece special attention (less really is more — does it even need cleaning?) and think your approach through beforehand.

Oil paintings without glass seem well-muscled but are too often attacked with inappropriate materials and solutions. First of all we’re not looking to lift old varnish to ‘brighten’ a painting or to restore it in any other way than lightly cleaning it. That’s what restoration specialists do.

Dissolving layers of darkened varnish with online recipes from amateur know-it-alls may potentially see you also lift paint.

Don’t be talked into anything more than a soft brush drifted like snow over the painting’s surface. A 3.5cm to 5cm sable art or cosmetic brushes are ideal to flick dirt and dust not adhered to the painting, lightly off the work and to even clean an intricate frame.

Start by taking the piece down, and very lightly tapping the reverse with a flat hand while facing the picture down (we’re not punching a Loony Tune hole).

Brushes are useful for detailed sculpture too. Perform the least invasive, dry dust you can manage. Start at the top and cross the painting or relief work from corner to corner and then go the other direction.

There are gentle, carefully formulated products such as Professional Oil Painting Cleaner from UK maker Fine Art Restoration (professional art restorers), as an alternative to the misunderstood hazards of soap and water. A dedicated product will lift dirt and ‘bloom’ from the painting without leaving a sticky, dulling residue.

It should be applied in 10cm squares with the supplied cotton wool pads or a soft brush, and lifted gently while wet with a cotton wool swab. Used to the letter, this cleaner dulls an excessively shiny varnish applied to a new painting, €47.65 from inc postage fineart-restoration.co.uk.

If any lint cloth is jabbed into dry impasto paint, it can grab a peak of the material and pull it off. Do less, not more. Bread? A popular web hack for cleaning paintings.

Rubbing spells pressure — rubbing foodstuffs on bare paint is a bad idea. For a cheap work, at least use only the doughiest of white bread. Spit and cotton buds?

Saliva is said to be relatively inert as a cleaning solution, but everyone’s mouth is seething with varying bacteria, especially after eating. Do professional conservators use spit? Yes, some do, but it’s part of their toolbox – they are not solely taking fire with natural secretions.

Watercolours, drawings, pastels etc, behind glass, depend on their framing for support and protection. When cleaning the glass, spray the cloth, not the glass itself which may allow the product to dribble and bleed into the frame and damage your artwork.

Bronze? A porous alloy of copper. Dust only but do keep it clean and dry. That patina is part of the beauty, history and slow oxidation of the surface and some tarnish in the crevices actually adds to the vintage look of a bronze.

Leave it alone unless you spot corrosion, at which point it should be taken to an experienced conservator. Stripping bronze with ammonia and other ghoulish solutions can devalue the work.

Marble? Also porous. Lay off anything but the lightest damp dust and immediate dry with another soft cloth. Lemon juice and other acidic and solvent products can eat into the stone’s vulnerable surface, staining and weakening the material through pitting and subtle veins.

If you are constantly flicking the feather duster at your paintings and sculpture (mind those quill ends), think about where they are staged.

Over a radiator or other heat source, dirt is convecting straight up and on to the work. Is there somewhere pleasing with less unseen currents and purer air?

Discoloured, aging and valuable paintings should be handled by a known conservator. Look for individuals with a comprehensive background in fine art and extensive experience working for established public galleries and private collectors.

Such individuals would include (based in the south), Justin Laffan, artrestoration-conservation.com.

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