How To: The Proper Conservation and Preservation of Artworks on Paper

By Ashley Knowles

For the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas as well as other art galleries, museums, art collectors and appreciators, one’s storage system is an institution’s most important asset (besides the art of course). Without one, collections of priceless artworks and artefacts will deteriorate at rapid rates. Below are recommendations for the proper handling of works on paper.

For works on paper, artwork is best stored flat, outside of a frame. Frames are not recommended to store art on paper as the piece can stick to the glass, develop scratches, fade or accumulate dirt or dust. The paper should be placed in a folder of acid-free or archival quality paper. This folder is best if it is similar to a protective slip with only one opening. Regular folders, that open and close, are basic but not recommended as the art can shift and scratch inside them.

Acid-free paper is very important, it is a protective agent and will assist in the blocking of light, dust and harmful pollutants that corrode and fade paper. Only one sheet of paper/piece per acid-free folder is recommended. The folder should be subsequently stored in a folio or drawer where it will be safe from sunlight. UV light is the fastest way to fade and crinkle artwork on paper.

The Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC) are a troublesome area for preservation. For example, for every 14 degrees Fahrenheit rise in temperature, the deterioration rate of paper doubles (Canadian Conservation Institute).

A balanced humidity must be struck in the storage facility. Paper absorbs moisture quickly which crinkles, swells and expands art, thus destroying it. High humidity also encourages mold, mildew and fungal growths. However, a humidity that is too low is also harmful, as it will dry the paper out. Experimenting can be done to find the best humidity but striking a middle ground or purchasing a dehumidifier is a step to controlling the humidity and environment.

Paper is susceptible to heat, so the temperature in the building must be on the cooler side. Avoid storing work in basements where temperatures fluctuate. If displaying art, the pieces must be kept from any heaters or air conditioners where it will be subjected to extremes in temperatures.

When handling works on paper, the individual should wear white, pure cotton gloves. Never touch the works on paper with your fingers because our hands are filled with oils and dust that will slowly degrade the piece and destroy it. The piece, when outside of its storage facility should avoid sunlight as much as possible, as well as liquids, pollution, dirt or dust. If displaying the piece for a short period of time, the piece is best propped on a wooden or metal frame that has been cleaned.

Works on paper that are shipped are best done so flat. If possible, avoid shipping by boat, as the humidity, sea spray and possible heat or cold will severely damage the work. Seawater will completely ruin the piece. If this is unavoidable the pieces should be shipped in an airtight box where it can avoid sunlight and water. Packing surrounding the box or the pieces is encouraged as things have a tendency to shift in transit, which can potentially damage the piece significantly. Wrapping with bubble wrap, cloth (acid-free, lint free) or any soft material is encouraged. The less moving around and shifting in transit, the better.

When framing works on paper, they can be taken to professional framers. The owner must make sure that the framers use acid-free backing, acid-free tape and acid-free matte (if matte is desired) to support the piece. Regular glass can be used. Framing is particular to the desires of the owner but if using a paper/plant based material in the framing process make sure it is acid-free or “archival” quality always.

No matter how an individual chooses to care for their art, proper conservation and preservation must be maintained the entire step of the way. Without it, we would not have our precious historical artefacts and the National Collection at the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas. For more information and inquiries on the proper care and handling of art, feel free to contact the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas at 358-5800.

Works Cited

CCI. “CCI: How to Care For – Works of Art on Paper.” Welcome Page | Page D’accueil. Canadian Conservation Institute. Web. 12 Jan. 2012.

Mary Juice, “One Painting a Day”, N.D. Ink, markers and watercolour on paper. Made in San Salvador.