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art conservation
how to preserve and care for your valuable artwork

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Acrylic painting "Aunt Emma"
Courtesy of Andrew L. Thompson


In general, these are the highest grade of art and framing materials used by artists, museums and galleries who may be concerned about the life-long preservation and care of the artwork. This is an area that is too often understated by artists, galleries and dealers who fail to educate the average consumer on the subject. Overlooking the issue of art conservation can bring about irreversible damage to art that might be important to you.

Acid-free Paper and Canvas
Paper or canvas is treated to neutralize it's natural acidity in order to protect fine art and photographic prints from discoloration and deterioration. Note that the natural acidity of some papers will return over extended periods of time. In particular, wood pulp paper is known to regain its acidic properties once the neutralizing (or buffering compound) deteriorates over time. cotton fiber paper and canvas is a wiser choice, both for creating artwork or for matting materials when framing your valuable art.

Paper Mats
Inherent in wood is a chemical called lignin. Paper mats made from wood pulp are acidic and can damage the artwork over time. The manufacturers of paper mats add a "buffering compound" to the wood pulp to "neutralize" the damaging effects of lignin.

100% Cotton Fiber (Rag) Mats
A paper that is often used in printing fine art because of its purity and longevity. All components of rag mat board are naturally 100% acid-free and do not contain alum or lignin.

Conserving works on paper
Although works of art on paper such as prints, drawings, and watercolors are inherently fragile, they can be easily and effectively protected from damage and deterioration. Preservation measures include:

  • proper storage and handling, including framing
  • protection from light
  • protection from unsafe temperature and relative humidity conditions
  • protection from pollutants and airborne particles

Proper Storage and Handling
Works of art on paper should be touched as little as possible. Be sure that your hands are very clean, or wear white cotton gloves. Better yet, mat, frame, or store the works in a manner that permits viewing and transporting without direct handling. Its a good idea to make sure that your framed works have the proper backing and are covered on the backside to keep the tiny paper-eaters (insects) out. When they die they release acids that will discolor your artwork. When you see those brown specks, you know they are there!

Protection from Light
Light causes fading of artwork. Art Museums take special precautions to limit exposure of it's invaluable masterpieces to both natural and artificial light. Light can also darken or cause paper to become brittle. The damage to both, pigment and paper is cumulative and irreversible.

Protection from Extreme Temperature and Relative Humidity

Because warm or moist conditions accelerate deterioration, temperature and relative humidity (RH) should not exceed 20C and 60%, respectively. High temperature and RH also encourage mold growth and insect activity. Very low RH, below 25%, is believed to be less damaging but may cause paper to become brittle.

During periods of high humidity, use fans to circulate air and help discourage mold growth. Above all, do not store works of art in basements or attics. Do not hang them in bathrooms or over heat sources. Unless the building has excellent climate controls, do not subject art on paper to seaside locations or other damp areas.

Protection from Gaseous Pollution & Airborne Particles
dust and soot will soil delicate, porous paper surfaces and are difficult to remove safely. Ubiquitous pollutants from industrial gases, auto emissions, and heating compounds are readily absorbed into paper, where they form harmful chemicals that discolor or embrittle. In addition, sources of internal air pollution, such as copying machines, new construction materials, paint fumes, new carpets, janitorial supplies, and emissions from wooden cabinets, can attack paper.

When to Call a Conservator
Treatment of art on paper must be done by qualified conservators specializing in paper, not by those who claim to treat all types of objects. Want immediate detailed information about art conservation? Check out the AIC American Institute for Conservation of Historic & Artistic Works website.


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