Works of art on paper appear in almost every private or public collection and cover a vast range, both in subject matter and value. In Europe, paper has been in common use as a picture support since the mid 15th century, when printing created a huge new demand for it, and it remains a popular material for artists. Paper is fundamentally made of cellulose in the form of finely broken down plant fibres. In its purest form, cellulose is extremely durable, but preparation methods, additives and impure sources (for example, unpurified wood pulp) can cause the paper to become weak over time. Artists’ materials may also be unstable. Pigments can fade, inks can corrode the paper, pastels and charcoal get smudged, and thick paint like oils and gouache can flake.
Works of art on paper such as prints, drawings and watercolours can be damaged by light, extreme or fluctuating temperature and relative humidity, pollution, pests, and poor handling, storage and mounting.
An accredited paper conservator will be able to advise on the causes of damage as well as suggest appropriate treatments and provide recommendations for ongoing care.
Protect framed prints, drawings and watercolours from daylight. Avoid south facing light and use ultraviolet (UV) filtering glass for framing. Try not to hang pictures directly against the interior of the outside wall of a building: the comparatively low temperature can cause condensation and mould growth inside a frame. Conversely, a radiator or spotlight dries the air out, and concentrates dirt by convection currents.
It is best to keep works of art on paper in a cool, stable environment. Museums aim for a temperature of 16-19˚C and relative humidity of 45-60%. This may not be possible within a domestic setting, but a low and stable relative humidity (less than 60%) will help to slow the deterioration of the paper and reduce the potential for damage from pests and mould.
When handling works of art, you should touch the paper as little as possible and keep your fingers away from the image.
Pastel and charcoal drawings need extra care because the image may smudge easily: you could consider keeping them permanently framed within a mount that has been rebated to prevent any static or friction. Contemporary prints should not be handled directly either, because their immaculate paper is easily marked with oil and moisture from skin. Keep them in a mount or acid-free paper folder.
If your prints, drawings and watercolours are not on display, the best way to keep them is in a plan chest or a specially designed case such as a Solander box. The works of art are protected from light and dirt and can be placed in further protective folders inside the box or plan chest for ease of handling. Boxes, folders and portfolios are available in conservation quality materials (inert and sometimes with an alkaline reserve) and should be stored horizontally. Translucent acid-free tissue paper is good for interleaving or wrapping small items. Plastic sleeves are not generally suitable for storing works of art on paper.
When choosing a suitable storage area, bear in mind the need for a stable environment and avoid damp cellars and uninsulated attics. Items in storage should be checked regularly for signs of damage.
A conservator will be able to advise on suitable storage materials, provide estimates for the packing of collections, or carry out a re-housing programme.
Good quality mounting and framing is one of the most effective methods of preserving and caring for works of art on paper. Guidance is available in the leaflet ‘Guidelines for conservation mounting and framing of works of art on paper’, (see www.conservationregister.com). As a minimum guide you should think about the following points relating to light and methods of framing.
Light damage is cumulative and irreversible. UV filtering glass or acrylic is highly recommended to protect against the most damaging light. Acrylics such as Perspex™ are useful because they are light and unlikely to break on impact. However, these materials do scratch more easily and because of static, should never be used to glaze pastels, chalks, charcoal or any other friable material.
Your framer should be aware of ‘Museum’ and ‘Conservation’ levels of framing and should be able to answer ‘yes’ to the following questions:
A paper conservator can help you find a qualified framer.
There is much that individual owners or custodians can do to protect works of art on paper, but when damage has already been done it is advisable to consult an accredited paper conservator. Conservators are trained to understand the physical and chemical composition of paper and associated media, and their methods of deterioration. With professional treatment, the condition of both paper and image can normally be stabilised so that their deterioration is slowed. Although faded colours cannot be restored to their original brightness and severe paper staining may only be reduced, most damage can be corrected by a skilled conservator who will also take into account the history of the item and the way that it is used when deciding on the appropriate method of treatment. Some of the ways in which a conservator can help you are:
Use the Conservation Register to Find a conservator.
© Icon, the Institute of Conservation 2011.
This article offers general guidance and is not intended to be a substitute for the professional advice of an accredited conservator. The views expressed are those of the author or authors, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Institute of Conservation.
The Institute of Conservation would like to acknowledge use of the MGC publication 'Ours for Keeps' and the IPC/TNA publication 'Caring for your prints, drawings and watercolours' in the preparation of this text. The Institute of Conservation and its partners accept no liability for any loss or damage which may arise if this guidance is followed.
The Institute of Conservation would like to acknowledge the support of The Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 in the production of this guidance information. Further information on The Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 and its work is available at www.royalcommission1851.org.uk.