Works of Art On / Of Paper

An artist grabs a paper napkin, a matchbook for doodling . . .

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Sketching is instinctual and any surface will do. However, when the time comes to create a finished work on paper—a drawing, a painting, a monoprint—that same artist will choose the paper "canvas" carefully.

Witham sketch Witham sketch

Particular media, whether it be pastels, pencils, watercolors, oils or crayons, rely on the paper's surface--the weight, the tooth. Artists may choose among the plethora of commercial papers or they may choose handmade papers. Collectors learn a great deal about the work itself by considering the materials employed by an artist. The chosen materials are the skeleton of a work. The history of these bones often reveals artistic intentions.

Vernon Witham
Two details from
50 years of Daydreams
Mixed-media works on paper

Moreover, knowing about the skeletal framework gives the collector valuable information about caring for the piece in order that it may age gracefully.

Paper Conservation: An Expert's Advice

Patricia Morris, a nationally-recognized paper expert and conservator residing in Santa Fe provides some advice:

The history of paper goes back to the Chinese emperor, Ho Ti, whose eunuch, Ts'ai Lun may have invented, sponsored, and/or patronized the advent of papermaking in 105 AD. These first papers were made from pulverized cloth scraps, tree bark, hemp waste, and old fish nets, suspending these fibers in water, then matting them into crude sheets of paper. These papermaking techniques reached Japan in 610 AD to be developed and perfected over the centuries into a fine and delicate art. The craft of making paper had spread to Baghdad by 793, Spain by 1151, Italy by 1276, and finally reached England in 1494. The first American paper was produced by William Rittenhouse near Germantown, Pennsylvania, in 1690.

The Challenge of Conservation
Effective conservation of works on paper presents an increasingly serious problem, both for private collectors and responsible institutions the world over. Millions of artworks on paper, books, manuscripts, maps, prints and photographs are literally crumbling into pieces every day. Possibly because the existence of paper has been taken so much for granted, the necessity for care and conservation has been largely ignored.

Preserving archival paper materials is difficult; however, the life expectancy of an artifact can be extended by understanding and intelligently dealing with the harmful internal and external factors.

"Enemies" of paper
Misinformed, careless people, though possibly well-intentioned, cause considerable damage. Improper handling results in stains, fingerprints and tears; improvised bookmarks leave indelible impressions on pages. A basic principle of paper conservation is the concept of "reversibility," i.e., nothing should be done to an artifact that cannot be undone at a later time. For this reason, pressure-sensitive tapes (eg, Scotch and masking) should never be used to mend a tear. They leave stains that bleed through the paper, never to be completely removed. "Elmer's" type glues become difficult, if not impossible, to remove. Mounting or lamination with a non-archival adhesive will not only eventually cause damage, but is extremely hard to undo.

Acid, possibly the worst of the "enemies," causes damage through simple contact between a paper artifact and a non-archival housing. Improper storage in acidic file folders, slipcases for books, boxes, and portfolios made of cardboard, and poor quality matts, will cause rapid damage because acid in the wood pulp of these materials will migrate into a paper artifact. For example, when wood has been used in framing, to back works on paper, the acid migration is clearly visible in the pattern of the wood grain and knots transferred to the paper. Acid may also be inherent in the original components of the artifact. Impoverished artists, later to become famous, used poor quality paper with a high wood-pulp content, that became brittle and darkened with time. Iron gall inks become acid and will affect surrounding paper fibers, eating through the paper. Sulfur dioxide from polluted air reacts with absorbed airborne water to make sulfuric acid, which stains and weakens paper, bleaches dyes, and decomposes leather.

Environmental factors speed deterioration as well. Light (especially sunlight and fluorescent) will fade media such as watercolors, pastels and inks, and may darken papers with a high wood-pulp content. Decay increases as high light levels combine with high humidity. A certain amount of moisture is needed to sustain flexibility in paper and leather fibers, and to maintain strength in adhesives, but too little moisture will cause fibers and adhesives to weaken and break, so a sensitive balance must be maintained. Fluctuations in humidity cause fibers to expand and contract as they first absorb water, then dehydrate; this movement may lead to cracking and flaking of fragile media.

High levels of heat in combination with moisture and the accessibility of cellulose or adhesive as a food source will encourage mold growth. Mold, or mildew, starts as a powdery colony of spores, easily brushed or vacuumed off, but as growth continues and the mold digests fibers and adhesives, permanent stains will develop in the host material. Leather will rot, and paper suffers first from surface erosion and finally turns to a pulpy mess. "Foxing" (small brown spots seen on many papers) may be the result of a chemical interaction between metal impurities left in the paper during manufacture or organic acids released by mold. Insects and rodents are also attracted to warmth and food. Cockroaches, silverfish, termites, book lice, bookworms (larvae of beetles), and moths all enjoy consuming paper, leather and adhesives. Nor does the rodent family respect archival materials--they will greedily utilize paper for food and nesting. Preventive Medicine
If the collector, curator, gallery and framer are aware of the dangers to valuable works on paper, careful maintenance may prevent many future conservation problems.

Cautious handling, proper housing, and an appropriate environment are critically important. Artifacts should be stored only in acid-free materials. Book boxes made from archival quality substances can protect rare books from chemical contamination and physical damage. Manuscripts, enclosed in acid-free envelopes or file folders, should be organized in flat document boxes. News clippings, generally highly acidic, should be interleaved with acid-free tissue or glassine paper and stored separately from better-quality, less-acidic papers. Unframed art on paper and photographs should be stored flat and individually protected by acid-free folders or matts, with glassine slip sheets, in archival boxes or metal filing drawers. Framed paper materials should be checked for poor quality matts and contact with acidic (wood/cardboard) backings; and they should be "sealed" with a dust sheet of paper at the back to help prevent damage by the environment, insects and dust.

Because acidity is such a problem with paper, any extremely rare or valuable artifact which is significantly deteriorated may be "deacidified." In this procedure, the paper is treated with a water or alcohol-based solution that neutralizes acidity as it develops. These methods are time-consuming and expensive, and should be carried out by a trained conservator.

Controlling the physical environment will also extend the longevity of paper materials. Sunlight should never fall directly on any work on paper, book or photograph. Fluorescent tubes can be covered with plastic sleeves, which absorb damaging ultraviolet light. Paper is most effectively preserved at temperatures between 60 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit, with the humidity between 50 and 60 percent. Although paper may be safely stored at as low as 30 percent humidity, leather and parchment will become desiccated and hard. Compromise with these ideals is obviously necessary in many cases. Mold or mildew should not develop if the temperature is kept below 75 degrees F and the relative humidity below 60 percent. If mold spores are noticed, a light brushing or careful vacuuming will remove the growth. The artifact should be aired in a clean, dry room and then be checked periodically for any recurrence. Cleanliness and regular inspection will keep insects and rodents under control.

A competent conservator can repair works on paper and reduce the visual effects of some damage. He or she can also help to preserve an artifact by chemical treatment, but the artifact cannot be made "just like new," once tears, stains, bleaching, or acidic deterioration have occurred. A preventive philosophy is far less costly, both in terms of expense and of sustaining the integrity of the art or artifact, than calling for help after it is too late and the damage is done.

Prints: Innovative Techniques

Richard Levy, art collector and owner of Richard Levy Gallery remote Albuquerque, New Mexico

I recently spent a few days in New York City at the International Fine Print Dealers Association Print Show. Most people think of prints as traditional etchings, engravings and lithographs. Times have changed. Walking around the show I saw new interesting combinations of seemingly incompatible processes; etchings with hand coloring and silk-screen, waterless lithographs printed over photographs. There were three-dimensional prints. A large (probably four feet square) Elizabeth Murray lithograph was a maze of shapes and colors that stood out a foot from the wall like freeway interchanges. Several prints by New York artist Lesley Dill had cut pieces of paper hanging from threads, one in the shape of hands, and another with different shapes that together looked like a necklace. Other Lesley Dill prints were dresses, standing out from the wall or a paper figure in a shadow box frame with text printed on it. James Drake waterless lithographs had python skin on each print. A Red Grooms print in a frame had a tab that caused lithographic hula girls to wiggle back and forth. Another Red Grooms was a dimensional lithographic scene, like his room installations, but smaller. A Christo lithograph of a little red wagon showed the contents of the wagon wrapped in real cloth and tied down with a real piece of rope. A huge embossed print by Richard Serra looked as if it had been printed with road tar. Steven Sorman painted on his prints, creating an edition with variations in which every print is different.

All of these prints look as if they could be unique, but all of them are part of an edition. The publisher is able to spread the cost of producing the edition over many prints. At the same time the artist is offered a new and different challenge and allowed to create an affordable interesting edition that doesn't look like what most people think of as a print.

Not all prints are on paper anymore. Lorna Simpson printed a whole edition on felt. Her photographs of wigs would have been beautiful printed on paper, but are more successful on textured felt. The fuzzy, hairy felt feels more like a wig than a print on paper ever could.

There was, of course, the usual array of traditional lithographs, woodcuts, wood engravings, etchings and engravings from earlier in this century and before. The bright large lithographs of David Salle, James Rosenquist, Joan Mitchell and Roy Lichtenstein are still in evidence. Contemporary prints in every size and shape were beautifully printed and presented. The range and quality of what is available is a result of the growing number of accomplished printers who use the available technology in new creative ways to collaborate with an artist. This widespread talent and experimentation made for a lively and innovative Print Show this year. An array of prints is available for every taste and at every price.

Next time you're in a gallery or museum, look closely at the prints. You might be surprised at what you see.

Photography and Paper

Kennedy Indian

David Michael Kennedy
©1995 from the Dancers of The Northern Pueblos Portfolio

Photography makes use of paper in numerous ways. In fact, a photograph can be made on any type of paper. In the silver-print process, silver lies in a gelatin or albumen emulsion that coats the paper and most photographers use pre-coated papers for this process. With hand-applied emulsions, such as in the platinum or palladium process, the photographer makes the same paper choices as a print-maker or watercolorist. Platinum and palladium lie on the paper surface and a deposit of the element is absorbed slightly into the paper. Therefore, the paper used is of extreme importance, since every paper has different texture, sizing and weight.

Photographer David Michael Kennedy remote site uses watercolor papers for his warm palladium prints. A portfolio by Kennedy, Dancers of The Northern Pueblos, consists of eight palladium prints and is the culmination of a two-year labor of love. Each print is a photograph of a dancer from one of the Eight Northern Pueblos.

The Dancers danced specifically for David, void of tourists, buildings and other distractions that seem to come with the photographs of modern Native Dances. The edition consists of 35 portfolios and five artist's proofs. In addition, a limited edition of single images from the portfolio is available from the artist and the Andrew Smith Gallery in Santa Fe.

A Word about Framing

In order to protect your artwork on paper, have the piece framed with archival materials by a framer who specializes in conservation framing. Never allow the framer to cut or trim the margins of a picture. To do so may damage its aesthetic effect and destroy evidence of authenticity. No picture should be mounted down merely for the sake of removing a few waves or slight buckling in the paper surface. In certain cases it may be necessary to support a fragile or damaged picture by backing it with handmade paper. A picture must never touch the glass, since glass easily condenses moisture and may cause the growth of mold. The best rule of thumb with framing: any action taken must be reversible. A piece bought in the dry air of New Mexico may buckle a bit in increased humidity. Many framers prefer to have a piece cure in the environment before they frame it. At home, spray glass cleaner on a cloth, rather than directly on the glass surface. The liquid cleaner might drip between the frame and glass, staining the matt or creating humidity in the framed environment. If a piece is kept permanently framed, it is advisable to open and examine it every ten years or so.

An Excellent Resource
Light Impressions remote is a catalogue and valuable source of archival supplies for the professional and the layperson who wants to protect, store or display photographs, artwork and papers of all kinds. The catalogue also provides good advice and tips about mounting, storage, presentation, cleaning/handling and organization of all your paperworks!

To get a Light Impressions catalogue, call +1-800-828-6216.

By Pamela Michaelis, founder of The Collector's Guide and former host of “Gallery News” radio show on KHFM 95.5 remote, classical radio in Albuquerque.

Originally appeared in
The Wingspread Collector’s Calendar - Volume 4, Number 2

Related Pages

A Brief History of Pastel Painting article
Collecting Antique Prints article
Collecting Photography of the Southwest article
Conserving Works of Art on Paper article
Contemporary Lithography article

Digital Fine Art article
Glossary of Prints and Original Graphics Terms article
Handmade Paper article
Ledger Drawings — Then and Now article
What is a Monotype? article

Collector’s Resources


Darryl Willison | 505-238-6469
Susan J. Zimmerman rem By Appointment in Corrales | 505-280-4755
Leich Lathrop Gallery rem 323 Romero St NW - Suite 1 | 505-243-3059
Exhibit 208 rem 208 Dartmouth Drive NE | 505-450-6884
Fermin Hernandez Fine Art rem 328-B San Felipe NW | 505-243-0333
Weyrich Gallery | 505-883-7410

Santa Fe

Pablo Milan Gallery | 505-820-1285
EVOKE contemporary | 505-995-9902
The Karen Wray Gallery rem 2101 Trinity Drive Suite B-2 | 505.660.6382
Pippin Contemporary | 505.795.7476
Bellas Artes | 505.983.2745
Mell Feltman pic 1838 Sun Mountain Drive | 505-988-9127
The Johnsons of Madrid Galleries of Fine & Fiber Art | 505-471-1054
Carole LaRoche Gallery | 505-982-1186
Meyer East Gallery | 505-983-1657
Turner Carroll Gallery | 505-986-9800
Vivo Contemporary rem 725 Canyon Road | 505-982-1320
Waxlander Gallery | 505-984-2202


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