If you’ve ever wondered if there is anything that can be done to restore watercolours and works-on-paper, you certainly aren’t alone. It is an understandable concern to wonder whether these artworks are too fragile and thin to have work undertaken on them, but with the right care and appropriate treatments, works-on-paper can be restored just as well as the more robust oil paintings. Much like with oil paintings, a frequent treatment we carry out for works-on-paper is cleaning.

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This process can achieve excellent results and lift away dirt and surface contaminants that are clogging a painting, and make it much fresher and brighter with the colours fully revived. If you’re also wondering if watercolours and works-on-paper are cleaned in the same way as oil paintings, the answer is mostly no. So how are artworks on paper cleaned? To help you understand the process, read on below where we answer some important questions we are often asked by clients.

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How do you clean a watercolour painting?

When a watercolour comes in for cleaning, the first step for our conservator is to make a full assessment of the artwork. This part of the process is similar to cleaning oil paintings – it is important to make a full assessment of the piece to check its general condition and other treatments it may require. There are some complex variables for our conservators to consider before the cleaning process can begin. These include the stability of the materials, such as the type of paint or ink, and the substrate used.

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When an artwork is first assessed and checked, our conservator can see the level of surface dirt that has settled. Once our conservator is satisfied that the artwork is ready to be cleaned, some preliminary tests are carried out, in much the same way that we test different cleaning agents in small patches on oil paintings to determine the most effective one. The tests are also specific to the method of cleaning that our conservator will carry out. A watercolour will either require a ‘dry’ clean or a float wash. This second option sees a watercolour being treated with our cleaning solution to lift the contaminants while submerged.

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The tests we comprehensively carry out ensures the stability of the artwork, and checks that the materials, including the type of paint or ink, will respond to the treatment well. These tests are carried out in a small area (again, much like with oil paintings) to check that the treatments are safe for the artwork. The colours will not run or become faded. The preliminary tests will guarantee that the cleaning will purely lift the contaminants and dirt lying on the painting. These same treatments also apply to other works on paper such as maps, prints and drawings. The tests are carried out and then the best option for cleaning is determined.

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Does cleaning a watercolour cause damage?

There will be no damage caused to your watercolour or paper by cleaning. The tests are vital and are carried out with every artwork to assess its condition, any variables that need to be considered and the treatment that will be most effective. We would never clean a watercolour or work-on-paper without first completing these checks.

Conservator float washing watercolour

Can watercolours be cleaned with bread?

This is a question we have previously covered with oil paintings, and the answer for watercolours is exactly the same – quite simply, it’s a no. This will do more harm than good. It doesn’t contain the right properties for removing dirt and will only leave a residue which will possibly cause staining and attract pests and mould growth.


Can I clean my watercolour at home?

Due to the considerable variables that can be involved with restoring watercolours and works-on-paper, and the delicacy of such artworks, we would advise against attempting to clean paintings at home. Any restoration work should be carried out by a conservator who understands how paintings will react and can ensure they are restored to the highest standard.

If you have a watercolour or work-on-paper you think would benefit from cleaning and would like our obligation-free advice, please contact us.

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