artist materials:
"the right stuff"

As an art restorer, I spend a lot of time stabilizing artwork and fixing  things that should never have happened. There is no reason why good art should not survive and look the same as the day the piece was executed -- but it is up to you, the artist.

Most art prior to the 19th century, save for wars and animals, has survived nicely. It is not at all unusual to come across a 17th century block print or drawing that is pristine. All the materials were hand made then, but with the Industrial Revolution came manufacturing, and with it, poor quality materials: rotten canvas, acidic paper, and pigments which chemically interact in unpredictable ways.

Many artists, I have found, do not think of the longevity of their work. As an artist, you owe it to yourself and your collectors to insure that your work is stable and will last fifty to a hundred years, or more. Here are a few suggestions for works of art on paper (which is my specialty).

As a start, know the nature of the materials and their stability -- read the labels that come on them! Avoid all acid materials and utilize stable, natural pigments. Read up on the subject of art conservation. Keep in mind that things can happen -- stains can be removed, paper cleaned and damage to frames undone. Bear in mind, however, that restorers need a reasonable base with which to work.

Paper. This is your foundation. Good quality paper will last for hundreds of years but much of the paper on the market today is acid and will self destruct in a short time. Keep in mind the use for which your materials were designed. Newsprint,  for example, is for short-term use and is good for perhaps ten to fifteen years. You want paper that has a neutral Ph, strong fiber and no metal content. Final artwork, if it is to survive, should be done on hand made paper, preferably "rag" which is made to last and is very forgiving. This paper is tough, permeable and has the right Ph.

Do not use glossy paper -- the top layer, which is like clay, prevents ink and pigment from penetrating. Similarly, avoid using tracing paper. Tracing paper (like newsprint) is designed for short-term use and will become very brittle over time. If you want transparency, consider using hand made Japanese paper (there are many great Japanese papers on the market). If you are using board, get high quality "illustration" board that is buffered from acid content. Never use corrugated cardboard -- not only does it have a texture and bad glue, but also is of very high acid content. Finally, if you are doing digital work, the best paper is a light textured watercolor paper.

Pencil and Pastels. These materials are inert, and if cared for, will last for hundreds of years. The real danger is in using fixative which will yellow and discolor over time. If you must spray your work, do so lightly. Most 17th century pastel drawings were never "fixed" as they were put under glass when completed. If you spray your work with gloss or varnish, you are reducing its lifespan as coatings will darken to the point of obliterating your work. Remember that these coatings cannot be removed from art on paper. Whatever you do, don't laminate your work (unless you are making place mats!)

Inks. Black India ink is still the best. If you make a mistake don't use "white-out" as all paper discolors over time and the correction fluid doesn't - it will stand out in a very obvious way. Instead, use an old-fashioned eraser.

Colored water base inks tend to not be stable. This is particularly the case for intense reds and yellows which will oxidize in a very short time. If you want color, consider watercolor.

The ink in all but archival felt pens is not stable - even this "archival" ink will eventually fade into oblivion. Felt pen ink, because of its base, never dries and over time spreads and the spreading cannot be stopped. The absolute worse situation is a felt pen drawing on tracing paper, or on a paper with a hard surface. The ink can also transfer -- I have seen felt pen drawings transfer onto the glass under which they are framed.  Unfortunately, drawings done in felt pen cannot be stabilized and, in time, will be lost.

Printer's ink has an oil base and it is very stable. The oil itself may spread (in perhaps a hundred years) but a restorer can easily bleach it out.

Pigments. Use quality watercolor pigments made from natural materials -- inexpensive ones will have a chemical base which causes the colors to fade quickly. Avoid zinc oxide in white -- metals in watercolor will eventually cause them to oxidize resulting in black or brown spots. If you want intense color, use gum Arabic, either as a wash over the watercolor, or mixed in with the pigment. Also, be careful of the water you're using as it may have a high metal and/or mineral content.

Acrylic and oils on paper are fine, provided that the paper is strong enough to support the weight of the pigment.

Avoid all aniline dyes as these are extremely unstable.

Adhesives and Glues. Adhesives used should not penetrate the paper and should be water soluble. There are very few adhesives which are "archival" (in this case meaning they can be readily removed). Spray glue is for short-term usage and white glue is for carpentry -- the best to use is still wheat paste. Never dry mount your work as the adhesive penetrates the paper.

My experience is that all self adhesive tapes, no matter what the directions say, will penetrate and discolor the paper permanently.

Finally, a word about incorporating bodily fluids into your artwork. Chances are there may be some acidity in them which, if concentrated, can eat away at the paper. Know that, with practice, watercolor and/or oils can replicate the "real thing". Hair, on the other hand (if it is clean), is inert and can be permanently worked into your art.

As an artist, you are gifted -- very few people can draw, much less be creative.
Your artwork should survive as a testimony to you.

Know your materials!

Gary Felgemaker



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“I know my little ‘dirty drawings’ are never going to hang in the main salons of the Louvre, but it would be nice if — I would like to say ‘when,’ but I better say ‘if’ — our world learns to accept all the different ways of loving. Then maybe I could have a place in one of the smaller side rooms.” (1991)
— Tom of Finland