Hints 'n' Tips | Visual Arts

Debunking the Myths of “Works on Paper”

To the frustration of some artists, there’s usually a significant price difference between works on paper and works on canvas or other surfaces. It hardly seems fair when the cost of supplies and creative time is not necessarily less, and the cost of framing can be much more for works on paper. Thus, the artist’s profit margin may be much less.

The cruel irony is that the difference in price stems from myths that can be traced back hundreds of years and are no longer true. In support of artists whose preferred medium is watercolor, ink, pastel, graphite or anything else on paper, and to enlighten collectors who may doubt the value of works on paper, this column will attempt to debunk the myths.

Myth #1 – Pastels, watercolor, pencil, or ink are for sketching or doing studies in preparation for completing a work in oil. 

While this has been true in the past, and continues to be the way some artists work, other artists, historically and today, have used these media on paper for finished works. Cezanne created still life paintings in watercolor, Mary Cassatt worked in pastel and printmaking, and some of JMW Turner’s best-loved works are landscapes painted in watercolor on paper. In fact, a JMW Turner watercolor sold last year for $11 million, demonstrating that works on paper can not only survive for more than 200 years, but also appreciate in value.

Museum curators who tend to give a great deal more space to oil or acrylic works on canvas or board rather than works on paper may have perpetuated this myth. Though I have no proof, I can imagine that public perceptions about what’s good and valuable may be based on what they see in museums.

Myth #2 – The glass covering a work on paper is a barrier, making the work less immediate, vivid, or compelling for the viewer.

Salt Lake artist Nancy Maxfield Lund, who works in a variety of water media and paper collage, says, “Watercolor is my favorite medium hands down, but the fact that I have to put it under glass is frustrating. So I am continually experimenting to find ways to use my watercolors in a way that they don’t have to be under glass.”

For example, watercolor and collage paintings can be coated with acrylic medium, which seals the painting and the paper from moisture and dust, eliminating the need for a frame.

Pastel paintings, on the other hand, must be framed under glass. But today there are many grades of glass, the best of which are non-glare and virtually invisible.

Myth #3 – Works on paper will disintegrate, yellow, or fade over time.

This perception may be due to that ubiquitous, torn, faded watercolor in Great Aunt Martha’s parlor. Yes, paper is more fragile and must be handled carefully, but unlike artists in Great Aunt Martha’s time, today’s artists have access to archival, 100 percent rag or cotton papers that will last many lifetimes if handled properly.

Most artists who are serious about selling their work will use only the best professional quality papers and will pay attention to other durability issues, such as the light fastness of their water-based paints. Collectors can ask the gallery representative or the artist about the quality and durability of the materials if that information is not offered with the painting.

On the other hand, if you are a collector of contemporary art and favor highly unusual forms, archival may be the least of your concerns. Some artists express themselves in ways that defy any kind of rule, least of all rules benefiting posterity. These here-and-now works might be done on cardboard, gum wrappers, or any other kind of material that inspires expression. Whether the work will withstand the test of time may not be the collector’s or the artist’s primary concern. Is it less valuable if it may not outlive you? Not if you love it and want it for your own.

The best insurance against fading or damage to works on paper is professional framing. Travis Tanner, an artist himself and owner of Tanner Frames, notes that the archival materials and the methods available today can protect the art from sunlight, humidity, insects, and other environmental hazards.

Whether you are the artist or the buyer, when it comes to framing use professional materials and services and don’t skimp. Here’s advice from Travis for protecting your works on paper:

· Make sure there is space between the art and the glass. Travis says if the artwork touches the glass, condensation can form, the art will stick to the glass and may never come off. There are two ways of ensuring that space – a mat board or, if the art is “floated” on top of the mat, spacers cut from mat board or other archival material.

· Use good quality glass or Plexiglas. You don’t necessarily need to use museum quality, which will block 100 percent of damaging UV rays but will add a lot to your framing bill. A more reasonable alternative is AR (anti-reflective) glass, which blocks about 70 percent of harmful rays. If your painting is large, Plexiglas is a lighter weight alternative. Plexi, too, comes in UV and museum quality. Another advantage of Plexiglas is that water won’t condense on the inside, making it the best option if you plan to hang your painting in the bathroom or other humid environment.

· Put a dust cover on the back of the frame. Usually made from an acid-free brown craft paper, the dust cover helps protect the painting and backing from dust, moisture, and insects. A good framer will also know to use the proper kind of glue or adhesive, one that is archival and will not attract insects or rodents.

Valerie Calkins, a curator at the Utah Museum of Art and History, adds this advice: Works on paper should also be out of any direct sunlight; sunlight will lighten the work. And if it is a charcoal or pastel drawing, it should be protected from bumping since bumping may loosen some of the chalky pigment.

If your piece of art is beginning to look a bit tired after many years on your wall, you might consider taking it to a professional framer/conservator. A new mat, new acid-free hinges and backing, and an upgraded quality of glass can give your art new life and protect its value over time.

Dispelling the myths that works on paper are somehow not as finished, valuable, or long lasting is an educational process for which artists, curators, framers, and all art lovers can share responsibility. ||




Categories: Hints 'n' Tips | Visual Arts

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