The How-To Issue

We know how to do things.

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How to Clean an Oil Painting with Spit

by Jacqueline Mabey

It is strange to think about the things one knows in some quantitative, itemizable way. It feels like the Master’s business, you know, feels like atomization and making productive of every last element of our existence. Makes me cringe, really, gives me knee-jerk, act out reactions. But this how-to project is not like that, no, so I racked my brain a bit. Some skill I could share, a thing that is a thing you might need to know how to do at some point, dear reader. Like, how to clean an oil painting with spit. 

This skill was acquired one summer several years ago when I was working as a curatorial/collections assistant at a small museum and archives in Canada’s Pacific Northwest. I was overseeing the preservation/documentation of a recent donation to the museum, a body of works by a mid-century painter, etc.

(That I remember how to do this is small victory. I moved to Vancouver for grad school and, after a series of unfortunate events, more or less, fell into the Pacific. I emerged an amnesiac, running on some sort of phantom power that [mostly] could get me up and dressed but was only an imitation of life, and a poor one at that.)

Working at the museum was the first time I really started to touch art, you know? As a student of art history, yr object of study is usually at a double remove - you study discrete reproductions of art more often then you encounter the contingent work itself. And forget touching. The first rule of the museum is looking is different from touching. Any child knows that. So to be living with these paintings for a summer - to handle them daily, to learn their weight and have my muscles react accordingly - it was like some other part of my brain/body turned on.

So, right, cleaning things with spit. It only works for oil paintings, as far as I know. The chemicals in yr saliva are like the perfect gentle cleaner; they break down the dirt and dust that builds up on the surface without damaging the paint. You’ll need little sticks, a roll of sterilized cotton, and patience. You can’t really rush the process. It will take the time it takes.

  1. Pull a small amount (like an inch) of sterilized cotton from the roll.
  2. Wrap it around the tip of the stick.
  3. Stick the cottony end of the stick in your mouth, between yr tongue and yr cheek.
  4. Roll it around, getting the cotton wet, but not super-saturated.
  5. Remove from mouth, and slowly, brush the surface of the painting. Make your way slowly across the work.


The conservator and I worked on the paintings over several days. With each movement across the surface, the colors emerged brighter and richer. Small magics, it felt like, or at least some kind of material proof of the occasional solidity of things.  

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