Archival Concerns in Collage

Found papers, like magazines, books, letters, etc. are all subject to a process of decay that, generally, we like. But what happens when you build those pieces into a collage that you would like to “freeze” in time? Can we stop the decay of these papers?

Paper

The most basic problem with printed materials is the paper they are made from. While archival art papers are made from 100% cotton rag and acid free, cheaper paper is made from wood pulp which contain lignin. When lignin is exposed to light and surrounding air, it oxidizes and turns brown.

Typically, paper manufacturers try to remove as much lignin as possible by using a bleaching process. The more lignin that’s removed, the longer the paper will remain white. But newspaper — which is made cheaply — has more lignin in it than a typical textbook page, so it turns a yellow-brown color faster than other types of paper.

Inks

The fastest noticeable aging process, though, is fading inks. Remember the faded blue movie posters in the Video Store windows? Different inks fade at different rates, and red seems to be the first to go. Higher quality printing, like perhaps used for photographic plates in an art book, will use more stable inks.

Collage Materials

  • With book pages, the yellowing/browning of the paper is your main problem. The black ink of the text is fairly stable.
  • With magazines, posters, paperback book covers, the fading of colored inks is your main problem.
  • With newspapers, colored inks and the paper both degrade quickly.
  • With documents, tickets, sales receipts, etc it varies widely.

Solutions

Keeping your artwork out of direct sunlight is your first defense in preserving the look of your collage work. UV resistant glass or UV Varnish are your second. They are not 100% effective but they slow the process considerably. These efforts will slow both the fading of the ink and the browning of the paper. Note that fluorescent lights also emit some UV radiation. How much? Unknown.

To protect your papers from air (the other part of browning), several coats of acrylic medium should take care of that. This also prevents any effects of moisture, like mold growth.

Also, use better quality papers and inks. Newspapers are your cheapest paper and inks. Magazines are better. Books are better than that. Anything meant to be temporary, will likely age much faster.

Maddeningly, there is little to be found on the interwebs, about how fast this all happens. Are we talking 2 years or 50 for your collage to turn paper bag brown? This is what no one seems to be able to specify, at least in my research. Inks fading from sunlight happens fast, more like 2 years. Direct sun is no good. The browning depends much more on the acid content of the paper and will *I think* be arrested by sealing it with acrylic medium.

Around 2010, I went to an exhibit of Kurt Schwitters collages. They were around 100 years old and the papers were brown, like paper bag brown. I don’t know the history of how they were kept but none of them were coated in acrylic. Somewhere in the last 100 years UV resistant glass was invented and they were reframed. And even though they were quite brown they were still stunningly beautiful.

Absolutely Archival

But if that is an issue for you, if you need to make SURE the work does not change over time, your only solution is to scan all your elements into the computer, print them with a giclee printer— archival inks on archival paper— and construct your collage from there. OR, make giclee prints of the original collage. Giclee prints are as archival as acrylic paints, I would guess.

What is your experience with non-archival papers? Has your work faded or browned over time? Does anyone have any tips I haven’t mentioned here? Please leave a comment below to share with the community!

Happy Creating in this lovely Autumn week,

Melinda

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