How are Paintings Cleaned? – the Discovery Process and “Unknown Factor”

Do you have a painting that needs cleaning? Are you interested to know how decades (or centuries) old paintings are cleaned? This article is for you. One of the questions I am asked the most as an art conservator is, “How are paintings cleaned?”. Let’s explore the process together.

Victorian-era portrait by G.A. Cuomo circa 1880

The story of this painting’s restoration can help answer the question, “How are paintings cleaned?”. See below for its journey.

When a Las Vegas art gallery trusted me to restore a Victorian 1880s oil painting, I expected a straightforward removal of the yellowed varnish. Despite my 40 years of experience, I approached the task with humility. The importance of careful analysis and caution in the process of cleaning a painting cannot be overstated.

Many Las Vegans have the misconception that estimating the cleaning of a painting is a per-square-inch task that can be done over the phone. The reality is much more intricate. Safely cleaning aged oil paintings involves in-depth solubility tests with various solvents to make sure they dissolve the varnish without harming the original paint. We use tools such as head-mounted magnifiers and stereo binocular microscopes to delve into the details of each artwork, as varnish qualities vary significantly. 

In the case of this painting, beginning estimations suggested a $300 investment in time and materials for a complete and safe cleaning. However, the artwork presented unexpected challenges. This resulted in an expenditure of $1,200.00 to carefully eliminate every trace of yellowed varnish and dust without damaging the original paint.

The art conservation process, including cleaning, often involves a “discovery process,” that unveils hidden intricacies and demands flexibility. Estimates are typically precise, but occasional unknown factors that come up from time to time underscore the dynamic nature of art restoration.

This example gives insight into the complex world of estimating and discovery during the cleaning process. You can see now why answering the question, “How are paintings cleaned?” is not as straightforward as one would think. This article gives you the knowledge you need to talk to art conservators about the conservation process. We provide art conservation services to the vibrant community in Las Vegas, and we invite you to explore the fascinating journey of art conservation and restoration. Every masterpiece holds a unique story waiting to be revealed.

image of the Las Vegas welcome sign with the strip in the background

We provide art conservation services and consultations in the Las Vegas area

Do you need help with an insurance claim relating to artwork? We can help.

We can answer more questions than just, “How are paintings cleaned?”. Fine Art Conservation Laboratories’ 45 years of expertise in preserving and restoring art offers invaluable help and practical knowledge for helping people through the insurance claim process for damaged collectibles and art pieces. Our experienced team understands the complexities of insurance claims related to art, heirlooms, and antiques, providing reports that are properly prepared with information that the insurance company never puts in doubt. Fine Art Conservation Laboratories charges flat fees for this work, not a percentage of the claim settlement, and our expertise is honored nationwide. Let us help make the art, heirloom, and collectible part of the insurance claim process as seamless as possible and preserve your peace of mind. Click here for more about insurance claims.

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2 Responses to How are Paintings Cleaned? – the Discovery Process and “Unknown Factor”

  1. Felicity Frisch says:

    Thank you for this article! It’s great to explore your page and learn more about the hidden strategies of how art conservation and restoration affect investments in these types of assets. Though, after reading through I am left with many more questions about the process. Is there any sort of risk of further damage when you first evaluate the type of paint, varnish age and what work needs to be done? Or, are the solvents and materials gentle enough that with trial and careful work it is easy to tell what is needed to be done for each individual painting. Thank you!

    • Felicity, exactly like a surgeon does not randomly cut into you to see what’s going on, professional art conservation standards of practice specifically detail that nothing shall be done to harm the original artwork. Ours is a science of preservation, not inflicting damage and many safeguards are employed in the way we look at items besides the materials we use. Thanks for asking. Good questions.

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