We enjoy answering many different questions from our clients and those interested in restoration. After all, it’s a fascinating field to be involved in and we like being able to share our expertise.One question we have been asked recently is whether surface cleaning an oil painting will cause damage.

This is an understandable concern for many clients who are thinking of entrusting their much-loved or highly-valued painting into the care of a conservator.

Surface cleaning is one of the most frequent treatments we carry out and it is not harmful to the painting or the paint layer.

Read on for all the answers and assurances you need…

When restoration is carried out in a studio by trained professionals, you can be assured that surface cleaning will never cause damage. To be able to properly and safely clean a painting we need to know more about the artwork.

We follow a couple of important steps for every single painting we work on:

1.) Firstly, we assess the condition of each painting in great detail before we start work so we know exactly what materials have been used, the substrate, whether previous restoration has been carried out etc. We know before we start restoration exactly what condition the painting is in and what treatments are required.

2.) Secondly, when a painting requires surface cleaning we carry out small test windows to ascertain the best materials for lifting the surface dirt and contaminants. By completing these non-invasive tests, we know what the most appropriate method will be to achieve the best results.

We can then safely start cleaning. Knowing this information before we proceed is crucial.

Conservators have studied and gained professional experience for many years. They therefore know and practise the best technique for cleaning paintings safely. This includes applying the correct amount of gentle pressure to a painting to lift the surface dirt. We do not need to press heavily into a painting to clean it.

Occasionally we receive paintings into the studio that have been cleaned using rather too much force and vigour. This can cause what is known as ‘overcleaning’.

What is overcleaning?

‘Overcleaning’ is a term applied to a painting when it has been cleaned too much. Too much pressure has been applied to a painting and when this happens the paint layer is worn down. It can cause unnecessary problems for artwork, for example it quite often leads to consolidation and stabilisation of the paint layer, and more treatment than an artwork ever needed in the first place.

What if my painting has impasto? 

Impasto is when the paint layers are built up so the paint is dimensional and thick. It is quite often a feature of contemporary paintings, and paintings with impasto can be cleaned just as successfully.

Cleaning artworks with impasto requires a careful clean of each raised area of paint, gently lifting the dirt away.

When cleaning the back of a painting with impasto, it will be completed on an easel so that it is not laid flat and the action does not damage the raised paint layer.

Will contemporary paintings be damaged?

Depending on the age of your contemporary painting and the environment it has been kept in, some modern artworks may benefit from a clean. If a painting was only created in the past couple of years and kept in a suitable clean environment, there will probably not be a substantial accumulation of surface dirt. For an older contemporary painting that may have been in storage, or again kept in a smoky room, surface cleaning can achieve notable results. Our approach will be the same as for older oil paintings; first completing the relevant cleaning tests and then seeing which is the most effective in lifting the dirt. Therefore, there will never be any damage caused.

We surface clean oil paintings every day in the studio. It’s a very common treatment, so please do be assured that your painting will never be subject to any harm. We achieve excellent results and our clients are always very pleased.

If you think your painting may benefit from cleaning and would like our advice, please contact us for our no-obligation recommendations.