Tom on Japan

Protecting and Displaying Prints – Part I

Collecting Japanese PrintsCaring for works of art on paper like Japanese prints presents more challenges than most other kinds of art. When you own a beautiful oil painting the natural tendency is to frame and hang it on a wall so you can continually enjoy it. But oil paintings and prints don’t have the same physical characteristics. Prints are highly susceptible to fading in normal home lighting conditions. This is especially true of older, Edo-era Japanese prints with their vegetable and mineral dyes. And a dimly lit environment defeats the purpose since you won’t be able to see the print in much detail, or fully enjoy it’s colors. Of course you would never permanently display a print in a brilliantly sunlit room. Or even temporarily, for that matter.

Wall Displays

But there’s another school of thought which argues that prints can be displayed on walls out of direct sunlight provided you take proper precautions, which usually means having an experienced print framer do the job. That job means using archival quality matting and UV-protected glass or plastic. Others take issue here, arguing that typical UV products do not really provide complete, long-term protection from fading.

If you’ve ever seen an old print afflicted with browning along it’s perimeter and maybe into the subject itself, that probably was “mat burn,” caused by acidic content of the wood-based matting which surrounded the print for many years. But this is not a UV issue and poses no problem today with the use of modern archival matting materials.

Fortunately, wall display may not be an entirely do or don’t decision. If you have at least a small collection of prints you can display one or a few on walls for weeks or months and then trade off with others from your collection—“recycle” your print displays. One experienced collector I know has a different solution. There is one print which he particularly loves and must have on his wall. So he keeps it in a room with no direct sunlight, and with the light switches off most of the day while he’s at work. When he travels he drapes a heavy cloth over the frame to keep out light.

And then there is a third solution, which is to buy a non-print reproduction and hang it on your wall while keeping the real print safely protected from fading as we discuss below. Obviously not every print is available for sale this way though many famous prints in fact are available as reproductions. If yours isn’t, have a reproduction made for yourself. Today’s technology makes that easy, I’m told.

While only this third solution may afford real long-term protection from fading, nevertheless as a practical matter for collectors—rather than for one-off print buyers—the issue of wall display or no is of limited consequence. If your intent is to build a sizable collection over time you’ll probably run out of wall space long before you run out of prints. So you need a workable solution for protecting an entire collection of prints—from fading and from other problems discussed below.

Archival Storage

Luckily that solution is easy, relatively inexpensive—and doesn’t take up a lot of space. Art supply shops with good breadth of inventory carry what are known as archival storage boxes. These boxes, like the archival matting discussed above, are made of acid- and lignin-free materials with acid-free adhesives in the boxes’ construction. Because of the wood acid problem, archival boxes are far superior to placing a bunch of prints in wooden drawers.

So are metal drawers a better solution? No drawers which house loose prints are a good solution. That’s because to view the prints you first must grab a bunch of them in the drawer, and then remove and place them on a table which for any number of reasons may be ill-suited even as a temporary backing for prints. Every time you touch a print you run a risk of one kind or another—including soiling, rubbing marks, creasing and tearing. So the goal is to minimize the number of times a print must be touched in order to be enjoyed (which is one argument for displaying prints on walls, though again, that won’t work for a sizable collection).

Some argue for lint-free archival gloves. But others, including some museum curators, point out that these gloves only add bulk to your fingers and easily can result in your rough-handling the prints. Gloves just may not give you a good grip on the delicate paper. Creasing, unintended folding, or even tearing can be the unfortunate consequences. So a better choice may be simplest—frequent hand-washing when spending time with your prints. You may be surprised how quickly natural oils build up on your fingers after you wash your hands. Those oils when transferred to your prints easily retain dust and free-floating pollutants. The result can be soiling or unsightly spots, either of which will only devalue your prints.

The best solution for storage and display combined may be use of archival clamshell boxes, where the top when opened lies flat rather than angled on a table or desk. So when you’re finished viewing a print resting in the bottom portion of the box, you carefully turn it over face-down onto the top portion. The box therefore does double duty—as protected storage and as convenient display. All you need do is take the box off a shelf, swing the top down onto a flat surface, and enjoy your print.

In the next article we’ll continue with this subject.

© 2014 Tom Silver


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