Ask the Art Nurse: Maintaining fragile works on paper.

First of all, are you a bad or a good nurse? My main question, however, is from a collector/art lover’s angle. I love — absolutely LOVE — works on paper (I admit, it’s a fetish), but I have a dilemma: I’m terrified of placing any of the works near windows lest they are exposed to light and deteriorate.

I’ve heard that sun damage is so gradual that sometimes you don’t even notice the work is damaged until you put it beside another work (like another print from the same series). I properly frame all the work I purchase and use UV Plexiglas. But I hear that those don’t work very well after 5-10 years, since supposedly their effectiveness dwindles. I recently purchased an acrylic work on paper. I love it and have the perfect space for it but it has LOTS of light. Am I safe with acrylic? Also, I have photographs (C-prints). I want to love my art in the open but I fear that my love of art will never step out of the shadows where, at least, I know the art is safe. Am I being paranoid? Is there anything artists should be doing to guarantee their works don’t fade?

– Art lover desperately seeking to bring his art out of the closet

I am a good nurse, here to help you feed your fetishes. In the case of paper conservation — which I studied in graduate school under the phenomenal Antoinette King of MoMA, but abandoned when archeology came a-calling — I believe that a ton, not an ounce, of prevention is warranted. Fortunately, I live a stone’s throw from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and have known its chief paper conservator, Janice Schopfer, since she was at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. In other words, relax. No more fears or paranoia are warranted. Read on — and let your love step out of the shadows.

Schopfer says that “dark storage is a wonderful way to preserve works of art on paper.” But this may complicate things if you want to actually see them on a regular basis. The first step is to understand the basic rules of how light affects art. First and foremost: “All light damage is cumulative.” Secondly: “Some colored media is more sensitive to light than others. Individual pigments — especially organic media such as some watercolors — can be especially subject to fading.” Acrylics, she says, are generally light stable but that is dependent on many factors, including the stability of the colorants, which can have a great range of light sensitivity. (Which is why some colors fade before others.) Schopfer also tells us that paper quality is important. “Good quality rag papers are more stable than papers that contain wood pulp or lignin,” she explains. As for photographs, again, these are works that are sensitive — but it all depends on “the type of process, the quality of the processing and the quality of the print paper. It’s difficult to predict the light life of any individual artwork.” In other words, providing an exact diagnosis — without being able to examine the patient — is almost impossible.

Beyond the work is the type of light your work is illuminated with. “The light spectrum affects the rate of fading,” says Schopfer. “Ultraviolent (UV), natural sunlight (i.e. what comes through your windows) and unshielded fluorescent lights are the most damaging.” Likewise, climate is a factor. “Radical shifts in temperature and humidity and poor quality framing materials” can affect your work.

That said, there are things you can do to slow deterioration of your work (such as fading and discoloration spots), says Schopfer. She offers these tips:

  1. Choose good quality framing materials, 100% rag boards and Japanese paper hinges with wheat starch paste, and archival quality backing boards.
  2. Use UV filtering Plexiglas, which offers some measure of protection. Do note that while this type of Plexiglas can slow the effect of light aging, it does not entirely prevent light from damaging your works.  It’s not because the UV Plexi becomes ineffective with age; it’s simply a matter of the cumulative amount of time that an artwork is put on display.
  3. Hang your artwork in a low-light setting. Close curtains or pull shades during the day when you are not home. Reduce UV exposure by hanging artwork where it does not receive direct sunlight. And avoid hanging pictures where they will be more subject to fluctuations in temperature and humidity, for example on exteriors walls, near bathrooms and kitchens, and over fireplaces if there is excessive heat.
  4. Rotate your collection. Hang artworks for a while and then put them away in dark storage. Less bright light and fewer hours of light exposure extend the life of your artworks.
  5. Store your artworks in archival boxes with good quality folders and interleaving materials when it is not on the wall.

In other words, all paper and media will change appearance over time, but with some diligence you can certainly slow the process.

Rx, San Suzie

Have a question for the Art Nurse? E-mail her at suzie [at] c-monster [dot] net.


  1. Mark

    Good tips. I know light is an issue with artworks of most all media, but with the surge of photographing in galleries and museums how damaging ARE camera flashes?

  2. SanSuzie

    Dear Mark: Are people actually managing to photograph with flash? I can hardly get a non-flash shot in without some guard tearing at me. I believe that it’s probably a good idea to prohibit the use of flash in museums altogher, and most certainly for the most fragile works. But, dutiful Nurse that I am, I’ll poll my professional pals for a more scientific answer. Rx, SS