Fine Art Conservation – The Cleaning Process

Fine Art Conservation – The Cleaning Process

In this video I’m going to be focusing solely on one aspect of conservation, and that is the cleaning process. So before I get into what I’m doing and walking you guys through my technique we first have to understand what it means when I say a painting is dirty and that it needs to be cleaned. Now, paintings have really two things that might need to be removed from the painting and that is the accumulated surface grime and the old varnish. Now, accumulated surface grime is really just that – it’s grime that has settled on the surface of the painting and and that grime can be anything from the residues from tobacco, tar, nicotine, all the other combustibles that are inside of pipes, cigars, and cigarettes. It can be soot from the painting hanging over a fireplace. It can be coal dust or oil dust from an old furnace. It can also be cooking oils from a kitchen. Pretty much anything that lands on the surface of the painting that has no business being there is surface grime. Now, the other thing that’s on a surface of a painting that would need to be addressed and potentially removed is the old varnish and varnish is composed of a natural resin and a solvent that when mixed together yield a slightly viscous liquid. Now, this liquid can be applied by brush or sprayer or roller or rag to the surface of the painting once the paint is fully dried or oxidized. Now, oftentimes artists will apply a varnish to their own artworks, though not always. Sometimes a dealer or a gallery or a museum or another conservator or a homeowner -uhm- or pretty much anybody who comes in contact with the painting might apply the varnish. And the varnish is applied to the surface of the painting for several reasons Primarily it makes the paintings look really good. The varnish saturates the colors. It makes them look a little bit more intense, a little bit more vibrant, and lively. It makes the darks look very very dark and by contrast the lights look much brighter. And so it adds depth to the painting. It adds a certain lively quality to an otherwise dead painting. In addition to making the painting look good, it can also protect the painting because it’s an actual physical layer separating the paint surface from the world the varnish can act as a barrier and protect that paint from handling, from surface grime, from something being spilled on it, kids with crayons, splatter from house paint, just about Just about anything you could think of that would get in contact with the painting the varnish can isolate it from the actual paint. Now, over time natural resins like damar, copal, mastic, even shellac will change. With exposure to UV light from the sun and from early lightbulbs without UV filters and exposure to oxygen the varnishes can darken, they can become yellow or brown. In some cases they can become gray or even blue-gray. And they can crack because they are non flexible. They can also become cloudy or milky if they become exposed to ambient humidity or water, and that’s called a balloon. So you have a material that has been applied to the painting after the painting has been finished and that material has changed over time and so we want to consider removing that material so that we can reveal what the artist saw when they deemed the painting complete. Now, a lot of people will say that the varnish should never be removed that, that’s a patina that is on the surface of the painting and that it adds to the painting’s quality, it makes the painting look better, it makes it look more mysterious. And those are all interesting opinions but they’re all inaccurate. If the artist wanted to apply a patina to their painting the artist could apply a patina and tone down the colors. But most artists when they apply a varnish do not envision that that varnish will ever become yellow or brown or it will crack or it will become cloudy. And so if that happens to the painting we have to understand that that varnish is now defying the artists original intention and so that should be considered something we want to remove. Now, the process of removing a varnish, while one of the more interesting and exciting parts of conservation, is also one of the more perilous aspects. Anytime you remove something from a painting you always run the risk of removing or altering the original paint layer and that’s something that we definitely don’t want to do. So, unlike additive processes such as structural reinforcements or retouching which are done with modern conservation materials that can be removed safely without running the risk of damaging the painting, removing an old varnish can be tricky. Now, before any varnish gets removed it’s important to know the composition of the varnish and there are many ways to go about that. A sample of the varnish can be taken to a laboratory for analysis, which we would hope would yield the resin makeup or the solar makeup as well, and then it can be reverse engineered, you can take a wild guess what the varnish is and start throwing solvents on the painting and see what works, you can use your experience, and other evidentiary clues from the painting itself to help guide you, or you can try to rely on research into the artists and their working techniques to try to understand what varnish the artist may have used. Now, once the varnish is known or there’s a good idea of what kind of varnish was used, several tests can be made to determine its solubility in various solvents. And this is important because even if you know that damar varnish was used you still have to understand the best way to remove that varnish and there is no hard and fast rule. Every painting is unique. Every set of paints is unique. Every artist’s working technique is unique and every varnish is unique. So, the removal of damar varnish from two different paintings may require two radically different approaches. So, once you know the varnish and you have an idea of these solvents that can be used to soften the varnish and make it soluble again, some tests have to be made and those tests are generally made at the edges of the painting underneath the frame rabbet where nobody will see them, and it’s important to make lots of tests because the… while the varnish may be a unified layer that sits atop the painting, the paint layer underneath that varnish may differ in various ways. So some colors are more fugitive or vulnerable than other colors. Some painting techniques are more vulnerable than others. So, in some paintings you may find that the reds and the greens are more vulnerable than the whites and the blues. Sometimes you may find that the background has many glazes which are more vulnerable or susceptible to damage than the flesh colors or the faces. So, a lot of little tests have to be made to establish a baseline and an understanding of how the varnish can be removed and where the areas of more peril exist. All of this goes into the considerations for how to clean the painting. Sometimes a painting can be cleaned with swabs. Sometimes it has- the varnish has to be removed with scalpel. Sometimes the varnish needs to swell and absorb the solvent and then be removed with swabs or scalpel or compressed air. There are a number of different techniques for removing varnish, and again because every painting and every varnish is unique the approach has to be tailored to that painting. So, armed with information about the composition of the surface grime, the composition of the varnish and its appropriate solvents and an understanding of the painting itself and what areas may or may not be more vulnerable the actual cleaning can begin. When this painting arrived in the studio, it was plainly clear to me that it was quite dirty. Now, I wasn’t aware What was causing it to be dirty but I knew that the painting should look more lively, that the skin tones should be less yellow, and that the painting had a significant amount of something on the surface that was causing it to look this way. After examining the painting and making several tests I determined that there really wasn’t much accumulated surface grime on the painting at all. There wasn’t a heavy layer of oil or tobacco or soot. And that the yellowed brown color was coming almost solely from the discolored old varnish. Again with more tests and examination and some information about where the painting was painted And when, I was able to deduce that this was in fact a natural damar varnish. So I made some tests determining areas of vulnerability and areas that I wanted to be particularly cautious about cleaning and luckily for me this painting was very very stable. Now, that’s not often the case and sometimes you get very lucky and you get a painting that was well-built with good materials and cooperates in the cleaning process like this one, so generally, you would think that the reds might be more fugitive or some of those browns in the background or the hair, but all of these paint layers were stable and so the cleaning process was really fairly straightforward and not terribly difficult, which I was very glad for. I know my client will be very happy to hear. So, to clean this painting I employed an approach of rolling my own large cotton swabs, saturating them with solvents and then slowly working through the painting. The swabs are made by taking a cotton ball, disassembling it, and rolling it onto a little wooden stick handle and then tightening that up so that it is not loose and then saturating the swabs with the appropriate solvent mixture that I have determined is strong enough to soften the natural resin but mild enough to not pose any risk to the paint. Now you can’t see that I’m actually using multiple different solvents and different strength mixtures. You can see just the edge of one of the jars in the lower right hand corner, but in this one I think I had four different strengths of solvents and by and large I will start with the weakest of the solvents and see how that goes and then slowly progress to a stronger one if I feel like that’s needed. It’s always a good idea to start with a very weak solvent or solvent mixture and work your way up to a stronger one and than to start off with a strong one obviously if you start off with a very strong one and it is too strong and you cause damage to the painting there’s no going back. So, with a solvent saturated swab I can apply that to the painting and agitate the varnish. The solvent will soften up the varnish or turn it soluble again and then the swab can be used to agitate or lift that solvent off. Now, there are many different approaches to cleaning paintings. Sometimes you have to roll the swab as opposed to rub the swab. Sometimes you have to dab the swab. It really just depends on the painting. Now again, I said this one is a fairly straightforward, fairly easy painting to work on so, in this case, all I had to do was agitate and roll to solve it. Now, you’ll notice that when I clean the painting I’m focusing on small areas rather than the painting, the whole painting itself and these small areas, these shapes, are largely defined by the image itself. So, I first cleaned one arm then I moved on to the next then I focused on one cuff, and here, I’m going to start focusing on Just that section of the mouth from the face and there are a number of reasons that I do that, among them: It’s much easier to be focused and in control of a small area than if the entire painting were exposed to the solvent all at once. It’s just easier to be in control of what you’re doing when you’re working in a small space. And two, I’ve found that even though the solvents have been tested to make sure that they won’t harm the painting It’s always a good idea to not expose the raw painting to any excess solvent if you can and by making sure that those boundary lines coincide with image itself we make sure that if there is exposure it’s in an area that’s not a flat color field or an open area where you can potentially see that mark. Now, I’ve omitted the cleaning of the background because it was not all that interesting and it just took a lot of time. But, here we can see the painting finally cleaned with all of that old, natural damar resin varnish removed, the retouching completed and a new synthetic, ultraviolet stable resin varnish applied. The painting looks good. The colors are rich and saturated. The darks are dark. The lights are bright. There’s a beautiful sheen to the painting. It is as close to the artists original version or vision as it has ever been and it is stable, and sound for the next 100 or so years. So, thank you for watching. I hope you have enjoyed this small window into the cleaning process.

Dereck Turner

100 thoughts on “Fine Art Conservation – The Cleaning Process

  1. Pikio kun says:

    When once u go black u never come back has a loophole

  2. Pieter Kleij says:

    This was hanging in the Overlook Hotel, Room 217.

  3. L Lock says:

    I much prefer the cleaned painting, but I can understand some of the retisence too clean; I think it comes down to what the painting IS?

    Is it what it was made to be? (a painting to be enjoyed etc) or an historical artifact? (what it has become over time).

    If its historical then removing the patina reduces it a little as the patina is the mark of its passage through time (but then the conservation, new or old, is also a mark of its passage), but its also a picture to be seen…

    my head hurts…

  4. Mathilde gh says:

    How can I do this job with you? That’s fascinating me so much

  5. Avery Stratton says:

    This makes me wonder if the Mona Lisa actually has eyebrows but we can't see them anymore because of the grime/old varnish 🤔

  6. William Shepard says:

    What Solvent????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????
    no help whatsoever

  7. MacKenzie Karsonovich says:

    Fuck people who dog you for restoring art. You’re literally bringing what the artist created back to its original state. What you do is incredible

  8. IRIS ARBOLEDA says:

    My favorite parttt ♥ omg

  9. Online College of Art and Design says:

    Great technique

  10. Crack says:

    Ariana Grande after a week of not applying fake tan.

  11. The gaming girls ! says:

    8:40 looks like the girl got a black eye or has some kind of birth mark

  12. coconutjoonie says:

    I want this man to talk me to sleep

  13. Joel Valentine says:

    Who is the artist?

  14. domka heh says:

    honestly came to the comments to see if someone counted how many times he said 'varnish'

  15. g2macs says:

    You would think whoever commissioned the portrait would say to the artist….' for god's sake give them a smile….they have faces like a spanked babies arses'!

  16. djdjsjsjajjs ad says:

    i don’t know a thing about art but this channel videos are the best thing that happened in my life

  17. Little Hogwarts Potato says:

    The creepiest thing is that the twins look EXACTLY LIKE ME

  18. N-Silva Brazil says:

    I wish to see the clients' reactions to the results, really. If some of them allow you, please show record them and show us.

  19. moiraesfate1 says:

    Wow, this is amazing. And beautiful.

  20. Jayla says:

    My first impression of the girls was: How sad.
    Then I saw the girl on the right and she slowly changed to somebody who is mischievous and hiding it under a serious surface.

    Nice work.

  21. Juliette De Maso says:

    You literally reached back in time and retrieved the mood of this piece. At first it was gloomy, conveying something sad and stressful. I didnt like it. Now it is light, liberated, vital and youthful. The girls look safe instead of imperiled, even a bit impish. You have remarkable judgment, touch, instinct, and competence. The vision and skill of the original artist has been resurrected and restored.. I'm so impressed and moved by this!.

  22. Gail Fabricante says:

    7:30 the eyes look realll omg so satisfied

  23. Hannah Garone says:

    this is always my favorite part of restorations!


    WOW !! Amazing Work !!!

  25. V Soul says:

    Such dedication leads to perfection.

  26. V Soul says:

    photos from the past sometimes people forget basic facts from the old times

  27. V Soul says:

    the dedication in each piece is outstanding , so much time to make it perfect , such a great work

  28. Martin Lee says:

    Phantom of the Opera?

  29. A Dstfn says:

    I fell asleep to this video. Thx ! 😊💕

  30. Charles Price says:

    They went from flat, almost cartoonish, to alive. What a wonderful profession. Very satisfying. Leave things better than you find them is what you do.

  31. Jasmine Edits says:

    Omg,you should do asmr like this

  32. ryanmillerart says:

    honest question, who's down voting these videos? Who listens to Baumgartner's dulcet tones and thinks, "fuck this guy and his peaceful, informative and well made videos!"

  33. MrKrenath says:

    This is incredible to watch. What sort of cleaning solvent do you use for the cleaning?

  34. Cary Hanks says:

    amazing work. thanks for sharing

  35. Lin Meyer says:

    This is so satisfying to watch. The color of their eyes before and after did it for me I am thoroughly fucked up.

  36. Jeanri Wepener says:

    I need a swab count at the end of the videos.

  37. Dave B says:

    You don't have to be that careful cleaning. Try to use a solution of bleach, hydrochloric acid and detergent with some paint thinner and a wire brush. Scrub hard to get all the dirt and you painting is clean in a fraction of the time !

  38. Maester Meep says:

    I thought it was a painting of two hispanic girls but it’s actually a couple of little white girls, go figure…

  39. Lee Hill says:

    How old is the painting? I want more info on the subjects. Are they still alive. A story behind the work would make it more interesting.

  40. Gayle Klein says:

    Very nice. I had no idea anyone did a portrait of the girls from The Shining.

  41. raccoon boy says:

    8:13 she got a black eye

  42. Colette says:

    Fantastic work as usual! I am so intrigued by this painting. Can you tell us any of the history of it? I just have to know who these girls were.

  43. Bluetrainer91 FireBlast says:


  44. Michele Borna-Stier says:

    Absolutely fascinating. Your work is truly amazing.

  45. Helen Myers says:

    Anyone know what the background music is? I recognise it but have no idea how and it’s driving me mad!

  46. Helen Myers says:

    Why does the one on the left look like Matthew Broderick at 7:00

  47. paige mclachlan says:

    Almost like those girls came alive when that old varnish came off. The one on the right looks like she’s almost gonna smile 🥰

  48. Stephanie Murray says:

    Many years ago ( pre internet ) I bought a beautiful 18th century English portrait in the style of Raeburn which was dirty. I took nail polish remover to it !!! I am so ashamed to admit it now. This grazed the paint, what possesed me god knows. It's till one of my favorite pieces and only I know. Today I of course no longer clean paintings, apart from light dusting and cleaning without solvents. I recently recovered an old storage unit that contained two late 18th century Boilly engravings that I had frames with museum glass and Under the glass there is white mold spots. For now I have jsut stored them as they need help from someone who KNOWS what they are doing.

  49. Madeline Nicole says:

    Well shit, I just learned today that cottonballs could be unrolled like that……

  50. iulian ispas says:

    They look like the twins from Stephen King Shining

  51. InspiredBy Gilly says:

    Dear Julian, do you have a succession plan? I know very little about art restoration, but it seems that you have a gigantic store of accumulated experience, and when you eventually retire it would seem such a loss to the art world if that wasn't captured and made available for future art historians. Thank you for making me think about documenting the materials I use for my paintings, so that in the future they can be approriately restored. Keep on making these videos, they are so calming and educational. Thanks for sharing your astounding talent and patience!

  52. Cheater9394 says:

    I'm sorry if the question is stupid, but did you clean the triangle of dress under the right girls arm? Or have i somehow missed the point where you did that? It seems to be the same before and after the cleaning…

  53. richard scales says:

    The picture looks peculiar , there's so much in the girls faces and the dresses look like they were done by a different artist they are so 'flat'. I still think it's beautiful

  54. Norfolk250 says:

    Leave her with a black eye!
    It’ll give her ‘character’!!

  55. brinbrin62 62200 says:

    Meeting these twins in a hotel corridor when riding a tricycle must be an experience.

  56. Eddie Ledesma says:

    Rlly brought the painting to life

  57. Taylor Kinsey says:

    It is so awesome to come across the “real deal” on YouTube I have enjoyed all of your videos and I am so impressed with your knowledge.
    One of my favorites!
    Thank you

  58. Coralinezy Jones says:

    Is it just me or it feels just nostalgic and emotional the painting ? ~~~

  59. David White says:

    I’ve spent the day watching these videos. And now, as these girls vibrantly emerge, I want you to marry me.

  60. The_New_IKB 4472 says:

    is it just me or is that painting real creepy!?

  61. As It Is Films says:

    The half clean looked better…a white and a brown girl together was better than two white girls chilling together, just IMO

  62. Michael Christian Holthe says:

    What kind of cleaning solution is it possible to use on a very old and dirty oil painting?

  63. Daun Ledford says:

    How do you decide which piece you are going to work on?

  64. Jojo Love says:

    OMGOODNESS! This was amazing truly brought the life back into those adorable little girls beforehand it was kinda creepy specially with those dead eyes but the minute you seen the true colors it brought it back

  65. SanDee McGeek says:

    i'd be a happy bunny if cleaning paintings was my job. just the cleaning. so rewarding and relaxing to see the painting coming back to life! oh and the frames, i would clean those too.

  66. Uremawife Nowdave says:

    Watching these videos make me realise how much I would love to do this. I feel that at my age the chance of doing this is already far behind me, but that doesn’t change the feeling I get when viewing each of his restorations.

  67. 300DBenz says:

    “Come and play with us, Danny!”

  68. Emily Pfeifer says:

    The expressions of the girls were lost under the fog of yellow. They have so much more personality now that you're able to see the details of their expressions

  69. richard scales says:

    I just wish we knew who the artist was

  70. DongMin Lee says:

    All I gotta say is that some creepy ass painting

  71. Faruk Kaya says:

    Konuşmadan lütfen

  72. Ava Spencer says:

    Love the phantom of the Opera in the background😂

  73. Kirby Cecil says:


  74. aria *:・゚ says:

    when her foundation doesnt match her neck

  75. Really Though says:

    Who would have thunk this would be so interesting?! How does someone even get into this line of work?! I think I missed my calling

  76. Falcon3882 says:

    What an idiot. Incessant talk, and starts cleaning without explaining if that is just plain cotton, commercial poly cotton, any solvents etc. How about the tiny fibers that will stick to the sharp paint edges. All paintings are not smooth like wall paint. Tutorials are supposed to explain what you are doing as you go along, not what you will do in the future in a different process. Effin Moron.

  77. NEprimo says:

    that song sounded a lot like "music of the night" from phantom of the opera 0:25–0:40

  78. Skai Zwackhalen says:

    I felt that when she went from 👩🏼 to 👩🏻

  79. ROB Bohea says:

    creepy painting

  80. thegriffin88 says:

    Forget dirty, I think that painting is haunted. I'd have to sage up the studio after that! So creepy.

  81. HarleyTreefrog says:

    Anyone know the backing music? I recognise it, but can’t place it

  82. The Areri Project says:

    Goodbye contouring.

  83. The Areri Project says:

    Do you give a video cd of the restoration process to your clients as freebies?

  84. Leon Clark says:

    It strikes me that these sisters may have grown up, had children of their own, and died, all while the varnish darkened over their childhood selves.

  85. Chicken Draws Dogs says:

    Someday someone will do conservation work on Bob Ross' paintings. They might accidentally remove the original paint, Bob Ross will speak down from the cloud:

    "No worries, just have fun. It's not a mistake, just happy little accidents".

  86. Charles Bradshaw says:

    My question, although probably already asked numerous times, most likely is, Do you give the client a written summary of the work and the process, along with information that a restoration person such as yourself can use in a 100 plus years from now. Beautiful work that you do, so nice to see a piece of art come alive again.

  87. alexleanh says:

    @ 10:55 Wow! That is insane! The difference is unbelievable!

  88. Art of Manneherrin says:

    I can tell you really love the art you conserve

  89. Peyton Collins says:

    those girls’ necks are very thick

  90. Chincer Dante says:

    looks like when you think your clothes is white and you compare it to a brand new white thing and it looks like tan or beige, such a switch in color and detail

  91. jo rey says:

    Congratulations Julian for your work and sharing it with videos,i'm thinking to varnish my oil paintings with amber linseed varnish to a perfect protection,please can you tell me if you have ever made a restoration for a old painting with amber varnish and if you had to remove it,thanks very much,best regards !

  92. I’m at the wrong party says:

    This painting is lowkey creepy af and their necks are thiccccc

  93. Celia Jarvis says:

    Who is the artist?

  94. deadspace says:

    Art restoration is incredible because I would have assumed these girls were of latin/Mediterranean descent until the varnish was removed. If you didn't know the artist or origins, you could have an entirely inaccurate assumption about the subjects before cleaning

  95. Taylor Sanders says:

    The fact that people say "DoNt ReMoVe ThE vARnIsH" just kills me. Why do I want a green painting? I wouldve never seen the pink in her cheeks or the softness of her hair. She looks sad in the varnish, but without it she looks much cuter and innocent. Good job to the artist. The is absolutely brilliant.

  96. Halász Kriszti says:

    4:50 james charles who lmao

  97. vapeitup vapeitup says:


  98. Anon the-third says:

    I personally think that this painting in particular looks better with the grime but I understand that, that wasn't the artist's intent.

  99. Ana Griffin says:

    It looks like she has one blue eye and one brown @7:05

  100. Anna Cogswell says:

    That painting is beautiful and after cleaning it looks amazing

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