In one of the courses we’re taking this term, Principles of Conservation, we have the opportunity to discuss the complexities of conservation treatments. Along with discussion of the ethics and practicalities of examination, documentation, cleaning, adhesion, consolidation, compensation, etc, we also have the chance to try out our hand skills. As part of the course, we were given a short introduction to cleaning oil paintings and were each given a painting with much soiling and numerous stains.
As a book conservator, this was probably the first and last time I would do anything of the kind, so I took lots of pictures!
Using soft brushes, we started by gently brushing off any large particles into a waiting HEPA-filtered vacuum.
Then, we went over the painted surface with successive grades of sponges—of both the dry-cleaning and make-up variety–to pick up as much of the remaining particulate matter as possible.
Once we were done with the ‘dry’ portion of the cleaning, we switched to solvents. Turns out, one solvent that is at our disposal was saliva! We moistened swabs and gently cleaned the whole painting.
The saliva successfully removed the wine spots, but there were still some stains left from wax droplets, acrylic-paint spillage and a piece of brown paper tape. The brown paper tape came off with the application of a damp swab, leaving behind adhesive that luckily also came off after I swabbed further. The wax came off with a combination of mechanical effort (using the scalpel blade) and the application of a swab moistened with benzine.
I spent the remaining class time trying to get the acrylic off, but to no avail.
It was rather fun cleaning the painting, but also somewhat terrifying. I’ve never wanted to work on paintings, and it was my first time using benzine as a solvent — or even scraping something off the surface of a painting. It was a little unnerving to be scraping on an uneven surface, where the slightest misplaced pressure could damage any underlying impasto. I was very glad that these were paintings made—and dirtied—specifically for our use in this class, and that they were not more valuable!
It was exciting to have the chance to do this (admittedly very quick and basic) cleaning, since it’s unlikely I’ll ever clean a painting again. In a way, it’s almost more important for me to have done this specifically because it is beyond my comfort zone and outside of my intended field — It is important to know what is going on in other fields of conservation, and to know that if I come across a painted book, there are certain concerns that I will have to take into account that are very different from those of other books.