My One and Only Attempt at Cleaning a Painting

One of the courses we’re taking this term deals with the complexities of conservation treatments: the decisions we have to make, and what they mean, as well as the actual hand skills involved. As part of the course, we got a quick introduction to cleaning oil paintings, with each of us handed a painting with numerous stains.

Since this was probably the first and last time I did anything of the kind, I took lots of pictures!

We started with gently brushing any large particles off with soft brushes into a waiting HEPA filtered vacuum.

Here I am, ready to start, with sponges and scalpel at the ready!

Here I am, ready to start, with sponges and scalpel at the ready!

Then, we went over with successive grades of sponges to pick up any remaining particulate matter.

This was my sponge after the first round of dry-cleaning.

This was my sponge after the first round of dry-cleaning.

Now I was through with two sponges!

Now I was through with two sponges!

Once we were done with the ‘dry’ portion of the cleaning, we had to switch to solvents. Turns out, one solvent is saliva! We moistened swabs and gently cleaned the whole painting.

Dirty swabs piling up as I spit-cleaned the painting.

Dirty swabs piling up as I spit-cleaned the painting.

The saliva got off the wine stains, but there were still some stains left from wax droplets, acrylics and a brown paper tape. The brown paper tape came off with the application of a damp swab, leaving behind adhesive that luckily also came off after I applied a moistened swab. The wax came off with a combination of mechanical effort (using the scalpel blade) and application of a swab moistened with benzine.

These were all the leavings after cleaning!

These were all the leavings after cleaning!

I spent the remaining class time trying to get the acrylic off, to no avail.

This was as 'done' as my painting got!

This was as ‘done’ as my painting got!

It was kind of fun cleaning the painting, but also somewhat terrifying. I’ve never wanted to work on paintings, and it was my first time using benzine as a solvent — or even scraping something off the surface of a painting. It was a little unnerving to be scraping on an uneven surface, where the slightest mis-placed pressure could damage impasto. I was very glad that these were paintings made for this class, and not more valuable!

It was exciting to have the chance of doing this (admittedly very quick and basic) cleaning, since it’s unlikely I’ll ever do this again. In a way, it’s almost more important to me to have done this specifically because it is beyond my comfort zone and my intended field — it’s important to know what is going on in the field of conservation in general, and to know that if I come across a painted book, there are certain concerns that I will have to take into account that are very different from those of other books.

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About Saira

Saira is a newly fledged book conservator currently based in New York.
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