Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Antique Oil Painting "Grandma" and How I Cleaned It - A Comparison

Technically just shy of being a true antique, "Grandma and Kay" is an oil and oil stick painting I finished in 1987 while a senior in high school. My family lived with my Grandma. Kay was one of her very best friends and she would visit us frequently. While my painting style has changed, I love the painting for sentimental reasons. Here it is in it's dirty glory.

©VP Miller 1987, "Grandma and Kay"
Oil and Oil Sticks

The painting has been gently neglected. In fact, it has never been varnished and was left in my mom's attic for decades. So now that I am a proper adult, with a proper house and have been gifted it back, I am going to properly bestow the care and cleaning on it that it deserves!

Today, I am going to do a product comparison of two cleaning agents.

Baby Wipes vs. Windsor & Newton Artist's Picture Cleaner

A head to head comparison. (Pause for laughter.) A Face-off. Get it? (Look closely at the painting above, then come back. I'll wait) Okay, no one but me likes puns, much less visual puns ... I get it!

I originally bought Windsor & Newton's Artist's Picture Cleaner to do the job, frankly because it is made by a world class company and marketed to artists. After reading the back label "Stop if color appears on wad", it gave me pause. After all, isn't the idea is to keep as much pigment on the painting as possible? 

On to something that mothers the world over know is gentle enough to use on their baby's bottoms. Baby wipes! Not just any kind will do. Ultra gentle unscented, alcohol-free, and containing lanolin are requirements. Lanolin is used because of it's waterproofing agents that as a protectant against the elements. Bio-degradable would have been a huge plus, but it simply wasn't available at my neighborhood store.

Setting up my experiment, I would use the baby wipes on Grandma's half of the painting and the more chemically aggressive Artist's Picture Cleaner on Aunt Kay's side.
Disclaimer: no claim to actually be slightly or in any way empirically accurate. Pseudo-scientific research conducted by artist.

Using a very light and gentle touch, I swabbed in small strokes and used more circular patterns in areas of built up texture. This picture shows the baby wipe after I've finished and the resulting dirt or residue it picked up. I don't see any paint and there is a lot of attic debris on the wipe, whatever it was.

Close up of dirt removed by Baby Wipes

Next, I shook the W&N Artist's Picture Cleaner bottle well. The directions say to clean small areas with a cotton wool wad. I had an old t-shirt which would serve admirably. It also says "Valuable paintings should be cleaned by conservators". This sounds like something they throw on there so you don't sue them if something goes horribly wrong. Of course, I would love to hire a conservator to clean my painting annually, as well as have a Nascar pit crew replace my tires. How ridiculous! Why even buy this stuff? But of course, I already did. 

I poured a small amount onto my t-shirt wad. I can smell the pine oil, which is strong but not unpleasant. I probably should be using a mask, but I am running this experiment outside. I carefully apply it to a teeny area on Kay's shirt and pull it off studying the wad. Dirt, but not paint. Great. Feeling bolder, I repeated the entire sequence until the right half of the painting is processed. 

This is a close up of the t-shirt wad and it shows a lot of dirt, more so than the baby wipes picked up, but it also shows some of the green paint that was lifted when I wasn't vigilant. Not good. Touching the two sides to compare (you know you aren't supposed to touch paintings, right? But I can, because I am an art rebel) the Artist's Picture Cleaner side is squeaky clean and hard, whereas the baby wipes side is softer and feels like the paint is more flexible. Flexibility is desirous to prevent cracking years later. 

Close up of dirt and paint removed by Artist's Paint Cleaner.

Below is the "after" photo, showing the painting cleaned. I would definitely use baby wipes again for a gentle cleaning and not bother with the W&N Artist's Picture Cleaner. It's too aggressive (not that they didn't warn me). I'm going to have to remove any residue of it with turpentine (or odorless mineral spirits) when I go to varnish it anyway. I just wanted something to casually clean an unvarnished painting that had been improperly stored for years and thought that a product called "Picture Cleaner" would be the ticket. Sometimes, less is more.

Comment on your cleaning experiences whether it is the windex formula from "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" (I hope not!) or a home made formula that you swear by. Life is more fun when you share.

"Grandma and Kay" after the cleaning
Baby Wipes left side - Artist's Picture Cleaner right side
Can you tell the difference? I can't. But one is gentler.


  1. You pun-tificator! What a great experiment. Thanks for sharing. Love the writing too.

  2. Oh good- my old teacher, Mr. LaMore would be so proud! He used to make us write persuasive arguments. I didn't like argumenting so it wasn't always fun, but apparently it has paid off. :-)