Cleaning Vintage Paintings

September 24th, 2010

Lisa H. emailed asking for some advice on how to clean an oil painting she recently found at a thrift store.

Above is an example of a filthy painting I just pulled out of my garage. Since I buy so many paintings at thrift stores, I use a little trick that gets years of grime off easily and quickly. The secret?

Bread! Doughy white bread to be exact.

Well, we didn’t have any white bread laying around except for this old bagel, which if you hate carbs would count as evil evil bread. What you need is the interior surface of the bread exposed. Either get a precut loaf of bread or cut something in half. Just get to the squishy white part.

Rub the soft side all over the painting. Don’t push hard, just gently run the bread all over the surface. The bread will pick up all the grime and grossness like a sponge.

Once your bread is filthy, toast it up and slap some jam on it. Or throw it away. That’s your call.

Use an extra clean piece of bread to do the final gentle rub down and your grime should be gone.

The grime may be gone but there will be residual bread crumbs all over the place. I use a clean soft bristle paint brush to wipe them all off and get rid of any remaining gunk.

That’s it, you’re done. Feel free to hang it anywhere your little heart desires.

Bam!

BEFORE & AFTER

---------------------------------------------------------------

    79 Comments

    1. eileen on 09/24/2010:

      I can’t believe that somebody gave this painting away. That pout! That page boy! She’s marvelous. Imagine her at 14.

    2. Fat Cat on 09/24/2010:

      Wow! Amazing trick, amazing painting and who knew that there was more to bagels than cream cheese and salmon.

    3. Tonia on 09/24/2010:

      You think it will work on watercolor? I guess it wouldn’t hurt to try. I’ll let you know.

    4. now that’s handy to know. fab.

    5. maya on 09/24/2010:

      i still think she looks like you!

    6. kelly on 09/24/2010:

      Yes! My cousin is a professional restorer of antiques for museums and dealers, and he always uses Wonder bread to clean paintings.

    7. Ashley on 09/24/2010:

      Genius. My only question is: how did you discover this works?

    8. Eric @ flavorspaces on 09/24/2010:

      Wow that’s amazing! I would have never in a million years guess that white bread could do this. I’ll ask the same questions as Ashely— how did you discover this, and is there any other handy things that you can use bread to do? (besides eating it of course)

    9. jennifer on 09/24/2010:

      so clever :)

    10. John on 09/24/2010:

      Is there any problem bread can’t fix?

    11. Robyn on 09/24/2010:

      Great advice!

    12. Lisa on 09/24/2010:

      Sheer awesomeness!!! Love it. Worked great for me only I wish my painting were that cool.

    13. Patricia Ann on 09/24/2010:

      I don’t like paintings with faces… when the lights are shut at night, for some reason you can’t see anything else on the painting but their eyes. I make sure to avoid it and not make eye contact, especially when I’m at my grandmother’s house. Hey! I think I just figured out how to avoid midnight fridge raids. :)

    14. helloshiella on 09/24/2010:

      you are so handy. win!

    15. modernhaus on 09/24/2010:

      I would never in a million years have guessed…
      There’s an art restorer here in town that recommends saliva, but I say, how much would you need to clean a whole painting? You’d have to store drool for days…

    16. Rae on 09/24/2010:

      I find lots of fun treasures in my thrift stores, but never had I had any such luck with paintings and it’s what I’m always searching for. I’m storing this tip in my bag o’ tricks in the event I ever find one! Love the site. Thanks for the constant flowing inspiration.

    17. THE BRICK HOUSE on 09/24/2010:

      I forgot where I learned this trick. I’ve been doing it for YEARS. Maybe art school…

      It works great though.

    18. the vintage cabin on 09/24/2010:

      Looks real good! Hopefully it will work just the same with gluten/corn/soy free bread. Thanks for the tip!

    19. bianca on 09/24/2010:

      this is brilliant! i don’t remember learning this at otis… what the…

    20. julia wheeler on 09/24/2010:

      dang girl! you are GOOD! now i just need to score a good thrift store painting… i think you’re taking all the good ones;)

    21. Holyoke Home on 09/24/2010:

      I count on you for these regular examples of things equally gross AND cool.

    22. Caitlin on 09/24/2010:

      Looks amazing! Great tip!

    23. Charlotte on 09/24/2010:

      Thanks so much for this; what a great tip.

    24. HousePet on 09/24/2010:

      you are always amazing!

    25. Mike W on 09/24/2010:

      Good tip and, cool commentary. Makes me want to go out and eat a frickin scum covered bagel right now. :-)

    26. jeannette on 09/25/2010:

      wow. you. are. teh. MAN.

    27. Clare on 09/25/2010:

      Hhmmm–white bread. whodathunkit! will try it. If you”re amenable to giving out another household secret– for instance the wood coffee table and gray Eames chair that needed “a good oiling”. what product do you use. I have used Watco danish oil on woods, but plastic chairs?? I have 6 of those chairs which are kept on outside patio–can you help me?

    28. Nancie on 09/25/2010:

      Nice bangs!

    29. Ana on 09/25/2010:

      Great tip. I have lots of miscellaneous paintings that need a little cleaning.

      P.S. The kid in the painting looks a lot like my sister when she was young. It’s kind of freaking me out.

    30. i’m not gonna lie…that shit right there is maybe the most awesome tip i have ever had.

    31. manuel on 09/26/2010:

      great idea! thanks for this!

    32. Lynne on 09/26/2010:

      Wow! I had no idea something so simple as bread could clean a painting! Your tips and ideas are just the best! I bought a huge painting at a thrift store…very midcentury modern….but the idiots pricing the painting put the price sticker right on the actual painting!!!! Not the back!!! UGH!!! So you can guess what happened when I removed it….very gently also….a piece of the paint came right off!!! DRAT!!! I have it above my fireplace but have a candle sitting in front of that blemish. I thought I’d ask our local high school art department, if some talented student could just shade it in or something. That price sticker thing at thrift stores happens alot! BLEH!

    33. Eric on 09/26/2010:

      I work in museums and this trick is not recommended at all. If you have something of value, never try this. Rubbing food on art is never a good idea.

    34. The brick house on 09/26/2010:

      Duh.

      We are talking about thrift store paintings…obviously you aren’t going to clean your Warhol with bread.

    35. Anna on 09/27/2010:

      Where do find all these great portraits? love your blog!

    36. jokemijn on 10/01/2010:

      love the trick and adore that painting! You have a nice growing collection of portraits!

    37. whorange on 10/06/2010:

      Bagels – so many flavors, so many functions!

    38. Lisa on 02/10/2011:

      I have these painting of flowers that my husband’s great grandmother painted on boards. I love them, they are dark with age/cigar smoke etc… I read, jumped up grabbed some bread rubbed, it crumbled(Jamaican hard dough), I brushed and wow instant gratification. This was a great idea thank you so much for sharing the wisdom!

    39. emily on 04/07/2011:

      i am a painter and i didn’t know this. guess i haven’t had any long enough to get them dirty. great advice.

    40. CrowNology on 05/21/2011:

      So interesting…
      Will be trying it out tonight…
      Thank you!
      xo

    41. Tracy on 06/23/2011:

      Wow..what a difference bread can make..interesting!

    42. Mike on 07/18/2011:

      A friend has asked me to re-frame an old family watercolour. the painting (on board) is marked and dirty. Would the bread method work on a watercolour?

      Thank you.

    43. Liz on 07/21/2011:

      I’ll bet a donut would work….

    44. Hillary on 08/24/2011:

      Don’t do this to watercolors. Don’t do this to paintings you care about. You can get the same effect with a product called Absorene sponge, that is a dry rubber sponge sometimes sold as a cleaner for wall scuffs or to remove dog hair from furniture.

    45. Lisette on 12/23/2011:

      Great tip and so thrifty too! Thanks!

    46. Connie on 09/24/2012:

      Great post on cleaning paintings!! Downside is that painting looks exactly like Amy bishop, the woman who killed three professors at the university of Alabama in Huntsville two or so years ago! It’s literally freaky. Especially given that today is the day she was sentenced. Google Amy bishop uah and see for yourself!

    47. Hiccup on 09/28/2012:

      first world problem -> first world solution…
      ;) nifty nonetheless

    48. Candice on 10/12/2012:

      That is so great ! we have no bagels where I live so I tried it with white pita bread. I guess I will have to wait until I am in the US again and try again with a bagel :) We won’t discuss what my husband thought/said when he saw me vigorously rubbing half a pita on an antique oil painting :)

    49. funnytoo on 11/12/2012:

      hurry to the Antiques Roadshow, you’ve got a real treasure ((-;

    50. nellie on 01/08/2013:

      this is awsome i have a painting that my mom done some 19yrs ago an was afraid to clean in an it really needs to be thank you so much

    51. Elsie Harrington on 01/25/2013:

      Italian renaissance artists used bread as a standard eraser for drawing and cleaning art. I have heard also of a potato tradition, rubbed lightly over the surface to clean oil paintings, but only sturdy, not flaking off or delicate ones. Be careful, you can also ruin a painting quite easily, and I would be wary of those sponges. Experiment on a small corner first!
      A little sunlight on the painting surface was the way old masters got their colors to be bright and fresh again. It apparently loosens the molecules so they are more mobile and can reflect light. Good for getting rid of mildew too. But again, be watchful. As an artist I have used all these methods and they work, but I knew what the works were made of. (Lightfast, on linen, etc)

    52. Pam Gumper on 02/02/2013:

      Thank you so much for this! I am amazed at what people get rid of, precious paintings of people, other paintings with sentimental notes written on the back. I look for paintings every time I go junkin’ and I do have a slew of them! Nice to know now how to clean them, I knew there had to be a way!

    53. Joy on 03/12/2013:

      This seems crazy but I am going to have to try it.

    54. Claire on 03/24/2013:

      Je ne pense pas que ce soit une bonne idée de nettoyer un tableau soit même. Il vaut mieux laisser faire un spécialiste comme un restaurateur de tableau. Chaque tableau est différent et il n’y a pas de recette miracle. Ce n’est pas un exemple à prendre, des tableaux peuvent êtres détruis ainsi..

    55. Claire on 03/24/2013:

      I think that it is not a good idea. Fragile painting must not be so cleaned. Scales of the painting can scratch and leave. It is not a miracle solution for all the paintings. The breadcrumbs can be source of mold.let do specialist

    56. Nisha on 03/30/2013:

      Those are two great tips (bread to clean painting + paint brush to clean bread crumbs)..
      LOL @ “Once your bread is filthy, toast it up and slap some jam on it. Or throw it away. That’s your call.” =))

    57. Laura on 05/18/2013:

      Tried this with an oil painting from my grandparents, who used to smoke inside and have many beautiful, but darkened paintings. Anyway, it didn’t work.

    58. Kirsty on 08/12/2013:

      I am a trained paintings conservator and I can only say that this is absolutely not how a painting- any sort of painting should be cleaned. There is unfortunately no quick and safe remedy to clean a painting, you should always consult with a professional as you may risk damaging something very precious to you.

    59. Kris on 09/18/2013:

      Having worked in art conservation I would have to second Kristy’s remark. You should always consult a professional first and not use bread to clean a painting. The issue is that even though that bread might seem pretty safe it is leaving oils and other residues behind that can cause more damage than just some dirt on the surface. In a pinch, if you are okay with possibly damaging the work that is (paint that is unstable could flake off) use cosmetic sponges instead. Don’t smear them around, but dab them on the surface. Works like a charm and nothing is left behind on the painting!

    60. Nicolas on 11/27/2013:

      Is this painting up for sale? I desperately need something cool with like a hunter green. I found it here.

      Thanks, Nicolas

    61. Thanks for one’s marvelous posting! I quite enjoyed reading it,
      you may be a great author. I will always bookmark your
      blog and will often come back very soon. I want to encourage that
      you continue your great work, have a nice afternoon!

    62. Name on 02/09/2014:

      Awsome!

    63. Jessica davies on 02/09/2014:

      Wow just one word ‘awsome’

    64. Greta on 02/11/2014:

      Please, please, please do not use food products to clean artwork. Bagels are made with more than flour and water and can leave residues behind. Conservators go to school for years to learn the best decision making skills for handling objects of cultural heritage. You can easily find a conservator in your area: http://www.conservation-us.org/about-conservation/find-a-conservator#.Uvok5fldXE0

    65. Jenifer on 03/12/2014:

      Any tips for old paintings with years of nicotine staining on them? Looooove the site, thanks for passing along the genius.

    66. Lori on 03/28/2014:

      http://www.finearttips.com/2011/07/how-not-to-clean-an-oil-painting/

      Using bread, or anything other than a sable brush is NOT recommended.

    67. Annette on 05/04/2014:

      What a wonderful tip! I have looking for a way to clean my oil paintings and cannot afford to have done professionally. Thank you so much.

    68. Joan on 05/13/2014:

      As a child in the late ’50’s & early ’60’s Mom would use the inside part of homemade biscuits to clean & shine our patent leather shoes!

    69. Dave on 05/27/2014:

      Duh yourself Brickhouse. 90% of us wouldn’t know a valuable painting unless someone told them. It’s a bad idea and you shouldn’t be pushing it. Rubbing a bagel on a fragile NONFLEXIBLE painting surface! Real smart.

    70. Davina on 06/03/2014:
    71. Linda on 06/17/2014:

      I’ve used this trick to clean smears from white, textured wallpaper. I let the crumbs dry on the floor over night and vaccuumed up.

    72. DrBeth on 06/23/2014:

      NOOOOOOOOOO!!!! I beg all of you who have paintings NOT to do this!!! I am a collector and lover of art, and I have some wonderful works, including a Charles Santore, and yes, it needs to be cleaned, but every professional we have consulted will not TOUCH it for fear of ruining the delicate strokes, the colors, or God forbid flaking the aging paint from the work! I have many paintings that I have bought at estate auctions and thrift stores that were worth an immense amount more than I would have thought! I also have pieces that were done by family that can never be replaced, and the idea of putting bread on them to clean them is ludicrous!!! Please do not even think of doing this to ANY painting!!!! I cannot believe this is being touted as a good way to clean a painting! This literally has given me severe anxiety for the people who will do it, not knowing any better!

    73. Claudia on 07/21/2014:

      Please don’t try this. As an art restorer I can tell it will cause further damage to the painting as it will leave organic residues and later you will hace a mold problen on it. It might seem right and easy but it’s not… Please consult with a professional.

    74. That Guy on 07/29/2014:

      Not just that, fortunately they are utilized in lighting production for that you explain limited lighting fixtures.
      Get the fairy resting here and get ready to the next puzzle.
      That Guy

    75. Rhonda on 08/19/2014:

      So Wonder Bread is actually good for something besides fish bait. Ha!

    76. ArtGirl on 09/01/2014:

      NO NO NO NO NO!!!! Do not rub food of any type onto art! Not on oil, not on acrylic, not on watercolors! Rubbing bread onto a painting can cause the oils and yeast to destroy the finish and the paint. There are products on the market that can allow you to safely and thoroughly clean your art. Select the right cleaner for your medium and follow directions provided.

    77. DoItMyselfer on 09/12/2014:

      I purchased a very large picture at a thrift store for under $10. The frame was perfect for my home but the picture was not. I planned to paint over it but there was lots of smoke and grease on the painting. Since I was not at all worried about the oil painting itself, I tried this. Wow, turned out the painting was an entirely different color under all the dirt and grease. I actually like it, so now the painting hangs in my home and is a favorite of everyone who enters. When my friend, an art restorer, came over and I told her about it she was horrified that I had used bread but had to admit that the results were amazing. Turns out that the painting is worth far more than what I paid for it. In fact, I had it appraised and now have it covered by insurance, just in case. Will I use this method again? Sure will. It is important to always test the picture carefully in an inconspicuous area first, but I would consider that to be the “duh!” Brick House was referring to in the earlier post. Is it possible to ruin art using this technique? Probably but being careful with any idea is a total “duh” in my experience. Thanks for the post. You gained me a tremendous amount of money which would have been lost if I had repainted the canvas without reading this first.

    78. Bob on 11/15/2014:

      Oh dear lord. People DO NOT RUB FOOD ON PAINTINGS! It will quickly damage the finish, changing the natural luster, and speed up the degradation process. Use a soft paint brush to lightly brush away the dust or a can of compressed air — at 18 inch distance. Save bagels for eating.

    79. Donna on 11/23/2014:

      I am not a conservator, so I.m not sure about this, but it seems to me that this is a great technique for paintings of little value. If you think you have found a jewel in the rough I would be concerned about PH balance and how the starch might effect the paint. Consulting with someone who cleans paintings for a living might be a better way to go

    Comment It Up!