How to Care for Fine Art Prints

how to care for fine art prints blog title image

I want to share with you some great care tips to keep your new fine art prints safe and looking great! 

Handmade works of art on paper are inherently fragile, but can easily and effectively be protected from damage with a little bit of knowledge and effort.
 
Proper care can lead to prints lasting centuries, while improper care can dramatically shorten this time frame. The information below will help to keep your art safe and in great condition, so that you can protect your investment and enjoy your artworks for years to come.
 
Let's get down to business…
 

The Dangers - What Can Go Wrong?

Paper is fundamentally made of finely broken down plant fibers (cellulose). In its purest form, cellulose is extremely durable, but additives, preparation methods, pollutants, environmental factors and user error can cause the paper to become weak over time.

Fine art prints can be damaged by a number of factors, including:
 

  • Light - Ultraviolet light is one of the biggest reasons that art fades. Exposing your prints to direct sunlight and even strong artificial light from bulbs can cause color fading. Light damage is cumulative and irreversible and can even damage the structure of the paper itself.
  • Extreme fluctuating temperatures - extreme temperature fluctuations can cause expansion and contraction of the paper fibers and make the print surface uneven. Temperature increases can also increase the rate of deterioration, leading to brittleness and darkening of the paper. This is why museums keep a constant temperature in their exhibition rooms. 
  • Humidity - high humidity can cause mildew, molding and foxing (brown spots), as well attract pests like silverfish and other insects. On the other hand, too low of humidity will dry out the paper and make it brittle. Extreme fluctuations can also cause the print to buckle. 
  • Pollution - pollutants to look out for include atmospheric pollutants like sulphur and other airborne particulates, dust, dirt, sweat and oils from your hands as well as acids from the paper itself (Hozro Printshop uses archival papers to avoid this issue) and mounting materials from framing. Acids from the paper or the framing materials can cause colors to bleach out and cause discolorations of the paper. Atmospheric pollutants as well as biological agents like insects and mold will only flourish as a result of uncontrolled environmental factors such as high humidity and temperature. 
  • Pests - insects like silverfish and some other pests like to eat paper (mmm, delicious). 
  • Poor Handling - incorrect treatment of the paper while handling can lead to creases and bends that are difficult to remove. Dirty hands and/or oils on the fingers can scuff the surface and leave residues.
  • Storage - Improper storage can lead to prints coming in contact with any of the things listed here. 
  • Mounting - Acidic mat board and other framing materials can transfer their acidity to the paper which can cause mat burn over time (the paper turns a brown color). The paper may also become brittle and even disintegrate. Mounting and framing with the correct materials is very important. 
 

What you Can Do 

Environment

The environment the your print lives in plays a major role in the protection of your work of art. There are five main environmental factors that you need to look out for and keep in check. 
  • Light - keep out of direct sunlight (especially south-facing light) and high-intensity artificial light. If you decide to frame your print, look into using UV protection glass/plexiglass. If not exposed to extreme light, prints will not become excessively faded or yellowed.
  • Temperature - keep prints in a cool environment, preferably within the range of 60°-72° F (16°-22°C). Don't hang prints near areas that get too hot or cold, like fireplaces, radiators, or air-conditioners. Warm or moist conditions accelerate deterioration and encourage mold growth and insect activity.
  • Humidity - maintain a relative humidity between 35 and 55%; if humidity is too high the print can be damaged by mold or insects, but if it’s too low the paper can become brittle. Avoid hanging your fine art print somewhere that is very humid, like a steamy bathroom or next to a humidifier. 
  • Pollution - keep away from dust, dirt and other pollutants for the best protection. A little surface dust can be very gently brushed off with a dry cloth, but anything too extreme should be removed by someone who knows what they're doing.
  • Pests - pests are more inclined to live with your prints in a humid environment as opposed to a drier one. By keeping the temperature and humidity in check, you can avoid pest problems.
 

Handling

When handling prints on paper, you should try and touch the paper as little as possible, and avoid touching the image area entirely. If you need to handle your print, use both hands and hold it by opposite corners (very gently) to avoid creasing. Also, try to hold from the edges and not touch the printed part to much.
 
The paper used for creating prints can be very receptive to oil and moisture in the skin. These can leave marks behind that you do not want to see. I have sometimes read that prints should not be handled by bare hands, and instead should be picked up/moved while wearing white cotton gloves. I do not do this myself, nor do most printmakers that I know, but one thing I always do is wash and dry my hands thoroughly to remove any dirt, oils or lotions before handling prints. This limits the amount of oils that come in contact with the print. However, in cases where you are handling very old, valuable prints, gloves are recommended.
 
Be careful removing prints from tubes or framing. Eager hands can cause damage when trying to uncurl the print by causing crimps, dents or tears in the paper. If you pull a print out and need to let it rest on the table for a bit, put down a clean piece of blotter paper or similar clean surface to protect the back of the print from stains and smudges. Also, make sure to keep food and drink away form the print while it is out in the open.
 

Proper Storage

If your prints are not on display, the best way to keep them safe and looking great is to store them flat (horizontal) inside of a metal flat file or a specifically designed, archival box or rigid folder. Avoid rolling or folding the paper for extended periods as the fibers can be stressed, stretched or broken and creases are extremely difficult if not impossible to remove after they have set in the paper. The work should be protected from light, dirt and humidity while being stored. 
 
Long-term storage for prints should be packaged in archival materials only. Prints can be kept in acid-free paper folders away from light and dirt in an acid-free box. Mats, folders and storage boxes should be made of  cotton rag or 100% chemically purified wood pulp. Folders should be rigid enough to offer support and should be larger than the prints themselves to offer the best protection. Stored prints should not be in direct contact with each other; if multiple prints are stacked, try to layer them between sheets of very smooth, non-acidic interleaving tissue like glassine to separate them.

Avoid storing in attics, basements, and other locations with high risk of environmental extremes or leaks.
 

Transporting of Prints

Prints can be transported flat or rolled depending on their size, but either way the print package used for transporting should be very stiff. Also, the prints should be separated and fixed in a way to prevent sliding and rubbing of packing materials across the surface of the paper.
 
If you are moving a larger prints and have no choice but to roll, use a tube with a wide diameter so that it isn't rolled too tightly and try to sandwich the print in between glassine, or another very smooth, non-abrasive tissue to protect the surface. You can transport smaller prints in a plastic sleeve with backing board or rigid folder or box.
 
Once prints have arrived at their new destination, it is best to unroll them and store them flat again if they will not be hanged.
 

Mounting and Framing Art Prints

Good quality mounting and framing is one of the most effective methods of preserving and caring for works of art on paper. On the other hand, improper framing is responsible for much of the damage to art on paper, so make sure it is done correctly and carefully!
 
First things first, make sure you take your fine art prints to a framer who has experience handling fine art prints and understands archival mounting and framing. Improper framing can permanently damage your print, so it's important you find a professional framer who uses archival and preservation-quality materials.
 
Prints should be mounted on pH neutral backing only. Museums recommend using 100% cotton rag mat board (at least 2 ply thickness). Avoid mats made of ground wood pulp, as they are acidic and will discolor paper.
 
Avoid self-adhesive tapes to mount prints (the adhesive creeps into the paper and is extremely difficult to remove). You may use high quality Japanese paper or linen and some sort of wheat paste or rice paste to create hinges to hang print within the mat. These pastes are non-acidic, non-staining, and reversible with water. Another safe alternative is mylar prints pockets which are attached to the mounting board. The print can then be slipped into the pockets. This way no adhesive is used and the print can expand and contract without bad effects.
 
Consider UV glass for protection against light. Museum glass is a little more costly, but worth it for the long haul. Acrylic plastic aka plexiglass is also offered with UV light absorbers; it cannot break, is less expensive, causes no condensation and is mostly a non-reflecting glass. An important detail worth mentioning is that prints should not have any direct contact with the glass (glazing material). Over time, the print can adhere to the glass and become destroyed, so a window mat or spacers should always be used to create distance between the surface of the print and the glass.
 
When going to a professional framer, make sure to ask them about all of the materials and mounting processes they will use. Make sure they are all archival, acid-free and will be done with the upmost care. It is worth it for your art and your investment!
 

Trimming

This may sound trivial, but you should never trim or cut a print, even if it has white margins. Typically margins (white areas surrounding the image) are included in the print intentionally by artists.  Trimming can decreases the value of your art investment and change the feel of the piece as a whole.  
 

Conclusion

I know this can seem like a lot of information at once, but with proper knowledge and care, your fine art prints will last for generations. I hope this article has shed some light on actionable steps you can take to keep your prints safe, secure and looking great!
 
If you have any questions or ideas for additional info, comment below!



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