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ASK MRS. BIDDINGTONS Advice on Restoring and Preserving Art & Antiques
Editor's Note: Mrs. Biddington notes that paintings are usually best left untouched by anyone; she rues the American impulse to scrub any surface within reach. Biddington's staff concurs that the cleaning of paintings should be left to a competent professional conservator or restorer--and then only if truly necessary. For the intrepid do-it-yourself person, Mrs. B. offers these words of advice.

Dear Mrs. Biddington,
I own some modern paintings that have a good coating of dust and dirt over them. Some of the paintings have fairly thick paint. Any ideas for sprucing them up?

Dear Giselle,
An artist friend Lynne Frehm dropped by as I was reading your letter. She suggests bread for cleaning surface dirt from oil paintings--even ones with heavy impasto. (Of course, avoid any areas where paint may be flaking.)

The procedure is as follows:

1. Buy a loaf (two or three loaves if the painting is large) of a good doughy bread--a large sourdough works nicely.
2. On a pretty day, take the painting outdoors--or work inside on a large drop cloth--since this is a messy procedure.
3. Using dough pulled from the inside of the loaf, scrub the painting using gentle pressure. You will see the soil collect on the dough. Get a new hunk of dough as the older piece gets dirty or disintegrates. Continue this process over the entire surface of the work.
4. Using a soft bristle brush--such as a good quality house painting brush--brush the remaining dough crumbs off the painting. Go methodically over the entire surface because the dough likes to stick and any remaining crumbs would be an enticement to insects.

Good luck with your spring cleaning!

Augusta Biddington

Dear Mrs. Biddington,
This may be a silly question, but I recently bought an oil painting on artists' board, and it definitely needs some cleaning up. How do I do this? It's not a valuable piece, and if it were one of my paintings I'd just take some soap and water to it. What shall I do?
Thank you,

Dear Tommy,
Without truly expert knowledge and tools, it is difficult to assess what mix of materials were used to make the painting and what subsequent layers were applied to it for a finish or other form of protection. So, applying any solvent--even water-- to the surface is to court trouble.

For a superficial cleaning, dust the piece--ever so gently--with a very soft brush. (Imagine you are cleaning a soiled rose bloom from the garden.)

If the paint layers appear to be very firmly attached to the board support, you might try the bread technique given above; otherwise take the painting to a professional restorer or leave it as is. The likelihood of your destroying the piece in an attempted cleaning is quite high.

Words to live by: the reason some people choose watch repair as a hobby is they lack the patience to do art restoration.

Good luck.

Augusta Biddington

To delve into the complexities of painting cleaning, restoration and the technical underpinning of works of art, try these resources: Helmet Ruhemann's "Cleaning of Paintings" and Mayer's classic art students' materials manual entitled "Artists' Handbook" .

Dear Mrs. Biddington,
At a garage sale, I found a wonderful old drawing. But it's rather dirty and perhaps has had some water dripped on it. What is the best way to clean it?

Dear Lauren,
It is for good reason that the value of an artwork on paper--be it a drawing, a watercolor or a print--is closely linked to its condition: works on paper are very difficult, sometimes impossible, to clean or restore.

Perhaps, a kneaded eraser could be used to carefully remove a small blemish or bit of grime. Otherwise, simply smooth the drawing with the assistance of a mat and enjoy it "as is".

We are reminded of an expert paper conservator who was working on the cleaning of an important antique print marked with the valuable collection stamp of its 17th century owner. The conservator placed the print in the chemcial bath for cleaning only to see the collector's stamp lift off the paper surface and dissolve away. Imagine what mistakes an amateur might make.

Augusta Biddington

Do you need appraisals or valuations of artworks?

Ask Mrs. Biddington Archives:
Ask Mrs. B--Framing and Hanging Paintings
Ask Mrs. B--Cleaning Paintings & Works on Paper
Ask Mrs. B--Framing Prints & Works on Paper
Ask Mrs. B--Lace Restoration
Ask Mrs. B--Lace Cleaning
Ask Mrs. B--Liquidating an Estate
Ask Mrs. B--Humidity & Fine Objects
Ask Mrs. B--Roseville and Removing Spray Paint
Ask Mrs. B--Care of Doll Hair


With fine objects, pleasure derives not only from ownership but also from acquiring the specialized knowledge involved in their conservation. Even experienced collectors may not know exactly how to care for their delicate valuables. At BIDDINGTON'S, upmarket, online art auctions & art gallery, our in-house oracle on preservation and restoration procedures is Augusta Biddington. Mrs. Biddington is an old hand at old things. This archived feature was first published in 1998. Mrs. Biddington is no longer able to provide answers to specific questions.

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