You may be an artist who creates drawings and therefore already knows all of the best practices for archivally preserving paper drawings. You may, on the other hand, have inherited a drawing or a work of art from a distant family member and are not quite sure what to do with it. Or perhaps you’re just interested in preserving your kid’s grade school drawings or art projects (see images below). In all of these cases, however, whether you’re a seasoned pro or an armchair family historian / genealogist / archivist, there are certain archival standards and quick tips that everyone should be aware of when it comes to preserving paper drawings—for enjoyment today and for future generations tomorrow.
Kids’ drawings. The one on the left used to be on WHITE construction paper. It was drawn almost 50 years ago, though, and the paper
is now yellow, brittle and “burned” by the acids that remained from the manufacture of the paper itself (see explanation below).
What You Can Control, and What You Can’t
Generally speaking, a drawing on paper can often be a very hardy artifact, whether it be a sketch by a Renaissance master that has survived relatively intact for 500+ years, or the drawing your 2nd grader brought home from school last week. The flip side of that coin, however, is that many drawings on paper can be exceedingly delicate objects. Much of this depends on some of the things you just CAN’T control such as the media used (pencil, pen and ink, charcoal, chalk, pastel, etc.), and the material on which the drawing was created (fine art paper, vellum, newsprint, construction paper, etc).
What you CAN control, however, is how you handle and archivally preserve paper drawings that have become part of your art collection or family archive.
Be Mindful of Materials
Various types of paper react differently to sunlight, temperature and humidity, more often than not with damaging results. Over time, certain chemicals that were either naturally present in the paper or were perhaps introduced during the manufacturing process may become “activated,” affecting the drawing in very destructive ways.
Perhaps the best example of paper destroying itself is seen in old newsprint and the paper used for many old books from the late 1800s / early 1900s, much of which is now yellowed (if not brown) and very brittle. Lignin is a naturally occurring acid that is present in the wood pulp slurry used to create the paper. The yellowing and brittleness of these old papers is due to these residual acids becoming “activated” by humidity and temperature in a process that often ends up destroying the paper itself.
By extension, drawings on rice paper, watercolor paper and paper made from wood pulp (trees) can thus change color and have their structural integrity compromised over time, due to both natural chemical reactions or those caused by the chemicals used to make the paper (see above). All of these papers can also wrinkle due to excessive moisture or humidity, and can fade with excessive exposure to light. Drawings on canvas, which is often made of woven textiles, can shrink or stretch depending on these same heat and humidity fluctuations. With all this in mind, it’s important preserve paper drawings in protective archival enclosures and acid-free boxes.
Unless it is done properly, frequent handling of works of art can actually damage them. Dirt or naturally-occuring oils on one’s hands and fingers can smudge or even ruin a drawing. Washing one’s hands with simple soap and water goes a long way in preventing this (just make sure your hands are completely dry), and using white cotton inspection gloves when handling a sentimentally or monetarily valuable drawing will add yet another layer of protection against such damage. Another rule of thumb is to never bring food or beverages near a drawing or a work of art, as disaster is only a spill away.
On top of these procedures, while pencil drawings can be fairly robust (even though still requiring care in handling), if you have a charcoal, chalk or pastel drawing you will need to be extremely careful to not smudge the sketch with your fingers or gloves. In practically every instance it is always best to hold a drawing by its outer edges, and make sure that the image does not make contact with other items, including other drawings. Or the floor—upside down. Ouch!
Store Smartly when Preserving Paper Drawings
As noted by the National Archives of Australia, most works of art on paper should be stored flat rather that rolled up, as rolling a drawing might wrinkle the paper or smudge the image. There are a number of options for addressing this that include placing your drawings in archival open-end or flap envelopes, or by using polyethylene bags or crystal clear bags which allow you to see the drawing without the need to remove it from its protective enclosure. In each case it is recommeded that every drawing be stored in its own individual enclosure to minimize handling and the potential for smudging. It is also recommended that when using a polyethylene bag or crystal clear bag one should consider adding a standard-sized sheet of 2-ply acid-free mat board as a support and a stiffener to strengthen the entire package.
For additional archival protection, efficient organization, and easy access to your drawings, store them in a metal edge box and place them in a cool, dark area in you “living space” such as a bedroom or hallway closet (rather than your attic or basement). By following these simple yet important guidelines, preserving paper drawings is a quick, easy and archivally sound process that will keep these artworks safe for generations to come.
If you have any additional questions or would like more information on the archival storage and presentation materials that are right for you, please contact us here at Archival Methods. We’re always there to help with any archiving, storage, or presentation questions you may have.