How do I clean a painting?
The internet is an amazing thing. You can find out how to do pretty much anything just by doing a quick Google search or finding a video on YouTube. There are plenty of ‘how to clean your painting’ videos out there- quite often involving bread– some with bizarre but ultimately not hugely harmful advice and others with DEFINITELY NEVER DO THAT stuff on, like using boiling water to correct the tension in a canvas. Just don’t. There have also been a number of high-profile botched restoration jobs. Monkey Jesus is still my favourite/least favourite but there more recently there have been a couple of polychrome sculpture disasters too. In all of these cases there is a serious problem with what has been added, but there is also a problem with things being taken away- scrubbed with wire wool or a wet cloth or cleaned of final touches.
Conservation on film
In fiction there are a wonderful number of cleaning- a-painting-gone-wrong incidents: the Mr Bean film, the old Paddington Bear, Shaun the Sheep (just a tiny aside at the end of that one when the pigs are cleaning up the house). It seems as though a lot of people know that it’s a delicate job that requires more than just enthusiasm and marmalade, but there are still people out there who get in touch with conservators and are only interested in what they should use at home. I’ve even seen websites offering DIY picture cleaning substances for sale. Going back to fiction, one of the things that bugs me about the depiction of conservation in Ghostbusters II is that Sigourney Weaver’s character is blindly carrying out a varnish removal and says something like “I’m doing well with that mixture you gave me”, as though she doesn’t understand what she’s using or why it might be working. A very wise conservator, when dealing with such an enquiry in my presence, firmly yet politely told the enquirer that it’s not about the ‘what’ it’s about the ‘how’. Of course using the correct materials and tools for the job is important but far more important is that the person wielding them knows what they’re doing and why.
One size doesn’t fit all
Importantly, conservators don’t use a ‘one size fits all’ approach to treating paintings. We are trained to look closely and assess, we research, we aim to understand what we’re dealing with and have learned what is likely to be problematic, we test, we are cautious and work in small areas, and sometimes a painting still doesn’t respond in the way that we expect, we keep abreast of new developments and share findings, in the UK we have an agreed professional code of conduct, we also know how what we are using might damage our health and so take the appropriate precautions. So step away from the wet cloth, the fresh bread, the kettle, the ‘oil paint cleaner’, and please don’t try this at home.