You give a little painterly advice and suddenly you know everything. At least I think that’s what Ed Buonvecchio meant:
“Julie and I were spring cleaning this weekend. We have an oil painting in our kitchen which is covered with cooking grease. It is not varnished, and is very textured (palette knife painting). Maybe you can write about the dos and don’ts of cleaning paintings. I could google it, but you are all-knowing!”
This is what happens when you start cleaning in the first place, Ed. There’s a bar in the East Village called McSorley’s Old Ale House. Its chandelier was never cleaned from WWI until the health department insisted in 2011. “The inspector encouraged the operator to clean the dust, or at least avoid storing or serving open drinks directly beneath it,” a city spokesman explained. There went the charm of the place.
But you’ve started and now you must see it through. Your first step is to determine that your greasy painting is not, in fact, a valuable masterpiece. If there’s any doubt, send it to a restorer.
You want to avoid using water on oil paintings. The grounds and backings of paintings are hygroscopic, meaning they will swell if they get water near them. That’s a recipe for cracking and damage.
A time-honored way to clean dust from them is to use swabs of squishy white bread. Just keep dabbing gently at the painting with the soft side. As each slice gets dirty, either throw it out or feed it to the dog. Whoopie Pies are not a reasonable substitute for bread slices, even in Maine.
After you’ve gone over the painting completely, and are no longer lifting grease and discoloration, brush down the painting with a soft sable brush to remove any crumbs. There is a theory (I’m not making this up) that saliva is good for cleaning paintings, so I suppose you could just lick up the crumbs, but personally, the idea grosses me out.
Now that you have most of the dirt off, you can finish cleaning the painting using Winsor and Newton Picture Cleaner. I have used this product for years, and I swear by it. Just apply with small cotton pads until you’ve covered the surface. When you’re finished, do a quick wipe-down with distilled turpentine and you’re done.
Since you know the painting was never varnished, watch that you aren’t lifting color. If that happens, stop and entrust it to a professional.
Ed Buonvecchio, by the way, is the driving force behind Plein Air Painters of Maine’s current show at University of Maine Presque Isle’s Reed Gallery. The exhibit continues until June 19, and includes work by Ed Buonvecchio, Ken Carlson, Michael Everett, Jane Frost, Penny Markley, Corinne McIntyre, Candy Storrs McKellar, Kerrin Parkinson, Ellen Pelletier,Felicity Sidwell, Sally Giddings Smith, Richard Reitz Smith, Gwen Sylvester, Luise Van Keuren, Michael Vermette, Peter Yesis and yours truly.
This is a uniquely lovely show, and well worth the drive.