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Conservation and Preservation for the Artist or the Alchemist

For today's artist, conservation plays a minor or major role in your work, whether it's creating a hallway galleria of family photographs or preparing prints and paintings for a major art show. Conservation is just as important for your cherished child's artwork as it is in preparing a sale for your favorite client's fine art collection. And while artistry and presentation are the defining factors that might sell your artwork, every customer wants to know that their investment can be treasured year after year.

Conservation practices can be time-intensive, costly and demand real skill and knowledge. For most people, serious conservation is a challenging art unto itself and preservation is a dedicated science. So even basic techniques come with a learning curve. As an artist or even an artistic alchemist, it's best to know what to know. Then you'll recognize the art and conditions that call for the most intensive practices and those lesser stakes where only minimal stability is needed. Just how vulnerable is your work?


Risky Conditions -- Common Sense Measures that Matter

    Light: Light is your artwork's best friend. But direct sunlight is its worst enemy. Organic materials such as paper, wood and fabrics are particularly sensitive to extreme light, which also fades color and pigments. During framing, consider what lighting conditions will best compliment your work. If natural light is a critical element to appreciation, then you'll want to take extensive measures to prevent deterioration caused by intensive light and damaging UV rays.

    Dirt is a potent source of damage and deterioration. Define dirt as any foreign matter that you didn’t intend as part of the artistic arrangement. Dirt might be fine dust, molds, soot or airborne particles such as grease, pollen and pollutants. So it’s essential to evaluate the “dirty quotient” during art display preparation. If your clientele gets a smog alert on a regular basis, or if your work is a commission for the fireplace mantle or kitchen pantry, then it’s vulnerable to dirt and desires protection.


    Extreme Climates and Climatic Conditions: Art isn’t resistant to excessive temperature whether its bitter cold, brutal heat, bone-dry days in the desert or the coastline’s sticky humidity. Even modern works suffer temperature fluctuations and moisture malaise quickly, which leads to corrosion, rapid deterioration and give the appearance of artificially aging.

    Temptation and Disasters: You’ll also want to evaluate risks associated with curious hands and quick feet – those unpredictable, regrettable acts resulting from fingertip smudges, soft drink explosions or the soccer ball – the one no one claims was cascading about on the indoor playing field. While it’s difficult to predict these disasters, it’s a risk to consider, especially if you or your new client has eight kids or 18 rowdy friends. In these situations, choose frames and glazing surfaces wisely.

Now that you know the risks, assess potential solutions. The solution you choose has value that extends itself from the work to your brand as an artist or photographer. You’re aware of conservation practices and willing to make the stability requirements for the sake of the artwork and your client’s needs.

As a knowledgeable artist, learn the basic technique of conservation framing. This process is the framing procedure where all materials that come in contact with the artwork are completely acid-free. Using acid-free materials in every step of the process should minimize deterioration of the artwork caused by exposure to pollutants and environmental conditions. This framing method is a layered process combining acid-free, protective materials: a sturdy backing board, an impermeable layer, the back mat, the artwork or print, the window mat or matting series, the glazing and frame. Do use recommended conservation techniques when hinging and securing the artwork, using the proper tape, mounts, or acid-free adhesives.

Essentially, conservation framing creates an encased environment designed to protect and preserve the art, while creating a display for appreciation. It’s also important to know:

Paper is downright fragile. It suffers physical damage easily. It can tear, fold, be spindled and yes, chewed and mutilated. It ages. It ages quickly without proper protection. It loves dirt and absorbs moisture. It discolors and stains. Under extreme conditions, paper is a shapeshifter. If paper is your starting point for the grand finale, choose the best quality, most chemically stable paper you can afford, a paper well suited for your choice of artistic application.

As a rule, choose an acid-free paper or a supply designed specifically for your media. Be aware that some photographers use alkaline sensitive processes and some painters mix media. Acid-free or buffered papers and framing materials can alter these technical processes, custom mixes and applications, especially if the artwork is overexposed to humidity.

Inferior mat boards are just that – these substandard flimsy boards are rich in acidic content, a catalyst that causes the core and papers to darken, decompose and become brittle. You’ve seen those telltale results: acid burns and mat burns – the rusty outline that the artist never sketched - the ghostly view beyond the realm of the viewfinder.

As a preventative, use high-quality window mats combined with a chemically stable, quality back mat. Conservation quality boards – aka alkaline or acid-free boards - are an essential step and a preventive; museum quality materials are sometimes the preservationist must. As the conservator’s recommended basic: the mat is larger than the work, of 4-ply thickness, alkaline with a pH of 7.5–10, 100% cotton rag or purified woodpulp. Select conservation mat supplies such as museum or archival quality mat boards are also buffered. This buffer ingredient is a neutralizing agent and is critical when artwork is fragile or subject to deteriorating climates, pollutions or risky conditions.

Some conservators further recommend an impermeable barrier between the backing board and the back mat – a thin material such as polyester film or plastic-aluminum laminate. For important work, an additional dust seal made of stable paper or polyester film may also be placed on the back of the frame.

Conservation glazing is a clear protective covering, a treatment that can be applied to glass, acrylic or polycarbonate during framing. Glazing not only protects the surface of the work, it affords greater protection from harmful pollutants and ultraviolet light and lends to visibility. To protect artwork from glazing material, use thick matting or spacers.

Finally, always store art properly and when the masterpiece sells, recommend an ideal environment for your artwork. The ideal is a clean space — free of heavy dust and drafts, a space with climate control — a room or wall with indirect lighting or spotlighting that’s properly mounted and adjusted so it doesn’t damage the work. Artwork thrives in a comfort zone that’s basically no different than your own.

Recommended Reading & Additional Resources

Redimat recommends The Restoration of Engravings, Drawings, Books, and Other Works on Paper by Max Schweidler, translated by Roy Perkinson. This recognized German classic was first published in 1938, then revised and translated to English in 1950. Schweidler's work and techniques are still acclaimed by professional preservationists and knowledgeable amateurs. Much can be gained from the work’s meticulous instructions and useful illustrations.

Craig Tuttle’s An Ounce of Preservation: A Guide to the Care of Papers and Photographs is another favorite among collectors of photographs, papers, documents and books. Tuttle’s valuable stylebook is a good start for learning more about basic conservation and proactive preservation.

 

 

Restoring your Family Photographs is another excellent online resource via Cornell University.

 

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