The Spitting Image

Q. How do you clean dirt and smoke stains off an acrylic painting? I was told to use mild soap and warm water, but my paintings aren’t polymer-coated. I don’t want to take any chances. What do I do?

A. While it’s true that some acrylic paintings can be cleaned with water and mild detergent, there are many factors that come into play when you clean a painting. Depending on how you manipulate the materials while working, acrylic and oil paint can remain sensitive to cleanings with water even after they dry. Coated or not, varnishes can develop a white haze from uncontrolled exposure to water and other cleaning agents. Even worse are paint layers that are partially removed or otherwise affected by a cleaning.

If you feel confident enough to attempt it, I would suggest you dampen a cotton swab with a little saliva and gently roll it back and forth over a test area to see if you remove any dirt. It may sound gross, but saliva is much easier to control than water and is actually a more effective cleaner. If you were to dip your swab directly in water, you can get a lot more moisture on the painting, which can be a problem with water-sensitive colors.

For best results, try this on a light color that’s relatively smooth in texture—that way you’ll know that anything dark you pick up isn’t pigment, and the smooth texture makes it easier to roll the swab. Once you’ve tested one color you really should check all colors as each one can react differently. You can then use your saliva to clean the entire painting or you can carefully substitute a little water instead.

I would also suggest that you seek the advice of a conservator who can test the painting. It’s the safest way to determine the potential success of any cleaning. To find a conservator, check with the American Institute for Conservation (AIC, 1717 K St. NW, Suite 200, Washington, D.C. 20006. Tel: 202/452-9545. Web site:, which runs a referral service for locating conservators in your area. Conservation can be a time-consuming and expensive proposition, but you should keep in mind that a badly executed cleaning can compromise the aesthetics of your piece as well as decrease its value. Ultimately, it’s better to leave a work soiled rather than badly cleaned.

Andrew Borneman is an editorial intern for The Artist’s Magazine.

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