How to Clean Smoke Residue from a Canvas Oil Painting


Stewart asked: How can I clean an oil painting on a canvas board? I have an oil painting on canvas board that hung in my parent’s house for around 40 years. Needless to say, they were both smokers. The painting does not look bad at all, but I would like to clean it for the sake of seeing what is under all that smoke residue. Thank you very much!

Cleaning an oil painting might best be left to the professionals, so if the painting has extreme monetary or sentimental value it may be a good idea to take it to a pro.  If you’re willing to give cleaning it a try yourself, this method should be a safe one but you must take your time and follow all directions carefully.

You Will Need:

Steps to Remove the Residue:

  1. Lay the painting face up on a large sheet of paper. (If you have anything you can place under the canvas of the painting to keep it from stretching downward as you apply gentle pressure, it will help to protect your artwork.)
  2. Apply neutralizer to a piece of cotton. Wipe it over the surface of the painting, changing dirty cotton balls as needed, to clean away surface dust or dirt. Although the neutralizer should be perfectly safe, begin in a corner to test it before you cover the entire painting.
  3. Use a cotton swab to test the emulsion cleaner in a corner of the painting. If the painting does not pass the spot test, stop now and call in a professional restorer. If the painting does pass the spot test, continue to the next step.
  4. Clean in small sections, about 3-4″ square at a time, by rolling the cotton swab with emulsion cleaner over the surface using only gentle pressure. Do NOT scrub, the rolling motion is very important.
  5. After you clean each section, go back over it with the neutralizer on a cotton ball. Make sure you work in sections small enough so that the emulsion cleaner does not dry on the surface before you use the neutralizer. This is an important step. You must neutralize the cleaning agent in order to prevent possible damage to the painting.
  6. If desired, finish with a gloss varnish to preserve and protect the painting.

Additional Tips and Advice

  • Plan to spend a great deal of time on this project. Always spot test, use gentle strokes and take care not to over wet the painting.
  • You can probably find the necessary supplies in a local artist supply store. The brand name is not important, as long as the product is intended for the same purpose as the ones indicated above.
  • When in doubt, call in a professional to complete the cleaning.

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