Handy guide to the art of cleaning art work

Cleaning art work is an art in itself. With unframed paper-based artwork, such as prints, etchings and drawings, for example, it's best to approach cleaning with a healthy dose of forethought and prevention. Here are some tips for cleaning various types of art.

Handy guide to the art of cleaning art work

1. Paper is fragile

  • Paper is easily damaged, and any medium applied to it has a much more tenuous bond than, say, oil on canvas.
  • Prints, etchings, drawings, watercolours and pastels simply can't be cleaned. So do the sensible thing and preserve these pieces of art under glass and framing. That way, you clean the exterior casing, not the artwork itself. And the value and longevity of your artwork will increase.

2. Framed works

  • Take the framed work off the wall and lay it flat.
  • Remove dust by wiping all surfaces with a soft, dry cloth.
  • Don't use a feather duster or a paper towel, which could scratch the glass or frame.
  • To clean the glass, lightly moisten a soft cleaning cloth with glass cleaner and wipe the surface.
  • Don't spray cleaner directly onto the glass. The cleaner could seep behind the glass and damage your artwork.

3. What not to do

  • When cleaning paintings, there are more don'ts than dos, unfortunately. The good news is that dust doesn't tend to settle on paintings themselves, because they hang vertically.
  • Don't attempt to dust a painting. Feathers from a feather duster or fibres from a cloth can snag on the paint surface and damage it.
  • If you simply can't resist dusting a painting, wave a feather duster at it, making sure it doesn't actually touch the surface, and the resulting wind will do the job.
  • Don't blow on your painting — there's inevitably some damaging saliva in human breath.
  • Dust will settle, of course, across the top of your painting's frame. But you still have limited options. The frames around valuable paintings often have delicate gilding — feather dusters and cloths are a no-no on an elaborate older frame. (If you have modern frames, they're OK.)
  • But all is not lost. Remove any attachment from your vacuum hose and put a soft flannel cloth over the end, secured with a rubber band, to reduce the suction.
  • Dislodge dust from the nooks and crannies of your delicate frame with a soft watercolour brush and use the covered hose to catch the airborne particles.

4. Cleaning sculptures

  • This is an exercise in the art of light-touch simplicity. Avoid the kind of harsh chemicals you get with commercial cleaners.
  • And avoid soaps of any kind, since it's hard to know how they will affect various sculpting materials and finishes.
  • Also, resist the temptation to use feather dusters, as the feathers can get caught in crevices and break off a piece of the sculpture or damage veneer finishes.
  • Clean plaster of Paris objects with a cloth lightly dampened in distilled water.
  • For harder, more durable sculptures you can use plain tap water.
  • To dust a wood sculpture, sprinkle a few drops of paraffin oil, or eucalyptus oil, onto a soft rag (old T-shirts are great) and gently wipe the entire surface once a week, pulling dust out of crevices.
  • You can use a very slightly damp rag on your wood sculpture, too, but take care that no moisture is left behind to damage the wood. This is not speed work.
  • Proceed carefully, because some areas can be more delicate than others.
  • Don't use silicone-based products and sprays which will soak into the wood and build up.
  • If your sculpture is stained from long-time exposure to impurities from a fireplace or a heating system, take it to a professional conservator for advice.
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