Paintings are prone to collecting grime and dirt that diminish their colors and composition over time. Cigarette smoke has a particularly nasty impact on oil paintings as it contains tar, nicotine, and ashes that land on their surface. Paintings that come from an era where people smoked heavily are most likely to have a thick layer of cigarette smoke on top of the varnish and can also smell like cigarettes. The desire to learn how to clean an oil painting from cigarette smoke is an understandable one.
Removing the effects of cigarette smoke from an oil painting is straightforward and easy, but you need to take care to avoid removing the varnish and paint layer. You will need to use some household items such as a toothbrush, paintbrush, cotton wool, and even soft bread and some basic cleaning products you have in the bathroom or kitchen such as mild detergent, acid free soaps and solvents.
Another aspect to consider is the value of your painting. If there’s sentimental or historical value in the painting, you’re better served by having an art conservator like Baumgartner Restoration do the work. You can also follow their Instagram page if you wish to see shorter restoration clips.
Meanwhile, here are a few methods to help you remove cigarette smoke from an oil painting.
How to Get Ready to Use a Home Remedy for Cleaning Oil Paintings
You’ll need a few tools to clean the painting and minimize the risk of damage to the varnish and paint layer. You’ll also want to use latex gloves to protect your hands from the dirt that you’ll release from the painting. The tools you’ll need include:
- Soft paintbrush
- Cottonballs or wadding
- White bread
Have a jug of distilled water on hand for cleaning with water. Distilled water won’t leave residue behind as it’s been filtered and demineralized.
How to clean an oil painting from cigarette smoke
Learning how to clean an oil painting from cigarette smoke requires a few attempts using one or more of the techniques listed below. Start by removing dirt and impurities from the painting first. In 90% of cases, this will be enough.
Remove dirt from the painting first
Your cleaning efforts are more effective when you remove any loose dirt from the surface of the painting. Use the toothbrush in a circular motion on the painting with gentle pressure. The goal is to loosen up the dirt without pressing onto the canvas. Make sure to get into areas of texture created by the impasto of the paint, but if the dirt won’t lift easily, don’t force it out.
Once you’re finished with the toothbrush, use the paintbrush to clean off everything that you’ve loosened with the toothbrush. Taking these steps makes it easier for your cleaning agent of choice to loosen up and remove the grime. Use a clean cottonball to wipe up the cigarette smoke grime as it lifts.
Cleaning With Bread
Bread has been used to clean the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel since the 17th century, and was used in the comprehensive restoration of the frescoes during the 1990s. This may seem like a strange home remedy for cleaning oil paintings, but it’s safe and effective. White bread, specifically Wonder Bread, was found to have the perfect consistency to act as a sponge and its absorbent properties helped draw away the smoke deposits, says Cleanup Team.
Start by wetting the area you’re working in with distilled water, then put a piece of bread over the area and rub it gently against the surface. Maintain a light pressure as you work the piece of bread on the painting’s surface to avoid lifting up the elements of the painting. You may need to repeat the process a few times before you see noticeable improvement.
Using a Mild or Diluted Detergent
Fels Naptha or original Dawn soap that’s been diluted are both a conservator’s choice for cleaning cigarette smoke from an oil painting. Make sure to use the original Dawn without any additives and dilute it to the point you can see some suds, but not a lot. For Fels Naptha, shave some off the bar into water and stir until it dissolves. Use distilled water at room temperature to avoid giving the painting a thermal shock.
The best method of cleaning with soap and water is to set the painting upright and blot the painting with a paper towel soaked in the solution. Place the paper towel against the painting in a blotting motion so you lift the dirt away as opposed to a wiping motion. Make sure to use a gentle pressure as you blot to avoid stretching the painting and creating a sag in the canvas. Standing the painting upright lets the water drain off and prevents it from pooling. Dry the painting with a dry paper towel and blot it once again.
If all the above are not giving you the results that you are looking for then you can try using some mild solvents.
Solvents such as Gamsol are good for removing cigarette smoke from oil paintings, but you run the risk of removing more than you’d like from the painting. When looking at what solvent is used to clean oil paintings, you’ll find suggestions that range from rubbing alcohol and vinegar to varnish remover.
Be sure to use a light touch when using solvents, and lightly soak your cottonballs before applying them to the painting. Gently rub the cotton ball in a circular motion over the area you’re cleaning and track how much grime is being removed as you work. Never put a solvent directly onto a painting’s surface as the solvent is capable of burning through more than just cigarette smoke.
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Joseph Colella is a frustrated artist with over 40 years experience making art (who moonlights as a certified Business Analyst with over 20 years of experience in tech). While he holds a Diploma in Information Technology, in true wasted talent style he spent years trying to get into various Art degrees from the Accademia di Belle Arti (Napoli), and failed to get into the Bachelor of Arts (Fine Arts) at the University of Western Sydney. His goal is to attend the Julian Ashton School of Art at The Rocks Sydney when he retires from full time work. In his spare time, he writes for the this blog, WastedTalentInc, where he shares practical advice on art, making art, and art materials. Joseph’s art has been sold to collectors all over the world from the USA, Europe and Australasia. He is a trusted source for reliable art and copyright/fair use advice and is committed to helping his readers make informed decisions about making them a better artist.
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