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Care for Art on Paper

Extra care required for works of art on paper such as watercolor, pen and ink, and prints

Artworks on paper require extra protection to keep them in good condition. Pen and ink drawings, watercolors, charcoals and prints can be quite fragile

Although all works of art should be handled with tender loving care, works on paper require an extra touch. All of the standard, common-sense rules regarding temperature, humidity, light and pollutant control apply to works of art on paper, but their fragility demands closer attention to things such as handling, mounting, storage and displaying.

Avoid touching artwork directly when handling

Avoid touching the paper as much as possible. If you must touch it, wear clean, white cotton gloves to avoid stains from moisture or oils from your bare hands. It is best to mat and frame your works in a manner that permits both viewing and transporting without direct handling.

Select matting and storage materials carefully

Always consult an expert when selecting mounting or storage material and adhesives since prolonged contact with acidic substances can damage paper. Make certain your framer is aware of the importance of using preservation-quality materials. If you have purchased a print that is more than 20 years old and you notice a browning of the mounting, it is probably a good idea to have it re-framed.

Carefully control amount of light exposure the work on paper receives

Be aware that works on paper are particularly susceptible to light damage. The medium itself may fade, and the paper may darken or become brittle if exposed to too much light. Some museums avoid putting certain works of art on paper on permanent display for these reasons.

Since light damage is permanent and irreversible, the best placement for works on paper is in low-light environments, away from daylight. Ultraviolet rays are particularly harmful and are found not only in sunshine but also in fluorescent and halogen lamps. Sleeves for these lamps or films for the windows may be used to filter out the UV rays. Ordinary household incandescent lights are the safest around your paper works of art. However, since these bulbs do emit heat, it is recommended that they be placed a safe distance from the artwork.

Watch temperature and humidity levels

As with most works of art, careful control of temperature and humidity are important. In general, paintings are happiest in the same temperature and humidity ranges that people are. Drastic changes or extremes in either can cause damage. Avoid storing or hanging works of art in attics or basements for obvious reasons. In particular, avoid conditions where mold might grow. It can cause permanent and irreversible damage to works on paper.

For more caveats on caring for paper works of art, contact the American Institute for Conservation.