View Full Version : To be or not to be: archival quality?

Alachua Artist
02-09-2006, 02:51 PM
I'm about to start a riot here...

I've always been so careful to buy the best art materials I could afford, to make certain all paper, tapes, glues, mats, etc were acid free, archival quality, permanent to last until the human race no longer existed.

Then I went to France and visited the Muse d'Orsay and was completely blown away by all the original Degas, Lautrec, Cezanne and the gang there. And all that archival mumbojumbo went out the window.

I was stunned at how old the works were... AND HOW WELL THEY HAVE HELD UP! They weren't painted on archival acid-free anything - these artists were broke. Oh, they had some patrons and other kind people who would help them out financially from time to tiime. But basically, they painted on anything and used anything they could get their hands on. Most of the works I saw were painted on regular ordiniary corrugated CARDBOARD pulled out of the garbage that had to be taped or glue together with who-knows-what. BUTCHER PAPER was another great find! And who knows - maybe the fish oil in the paper contributed to the invention of oil pastels!

Now, mind you, I still buy the best materials I can afford. But I no longer sweat over archival whatnot. I have a painting I did in 1973 on a sheet of institutional brown paper towel - like the kind found in restrooms. It still looks great! Who knows - maybe someday, that little painting may hang in the Muse d'Orsay.

How about you?

02-09-2006, 03:33 PM
Hi Wendy,
Ha ha ha! Yes, my goal was definitely to have my art outlive the human species so I've been v-e-r-y careful!! :) Just kidding.
I had an outdoor show last summer and I did very much go the archival route as much as possible, and one of the reasons I did so was because this was my first show and I wanted to feel like I knew all the best materials out there for my artwork.....therefore I was a real artist with working knowledge of my field and respect for the work I did and I advertised that info on the back of each piece, what the matt package/framing was made up of.
I did alot more critical thinking about all this archival stuff but that was after I invested in all acid free and 100 % rag paper and matting and foamcore and barrier tape and hinge tape, etc. And I came to the conclusion, a very fuzzy one at that, that as long as I could afford it, I could do what was necessary to keep wood acids from leaching into my paper art just because I still feel the acid free and rag content papers have great value. I have seen some of my older work from years way past that have yellowed and become brittle although they are on newsprint and that's expected. I don't think my past work will be worth anything except to my children and my children's children but it would be nice if the works were in viewable condition for them if they were interested in it. But again, it's how much I can afford at each moment in time. Archival packaging isn't going to stop me from creating art when my supplies run out, but it's a "nice-to-have".

Also, I'm wondering how many years historical master artists' works were living outside a museum's pristine environment. That'd be interesting to know.
Great thread!

Pat Isaac
02-09-2006, 03:58 PM
Yes, I started the archival route a while back as I started putting my work in galleries and shows.
I do have to say that some of my work that is about 20 years old is now showing signs of not having archival materials. The core of the mats has turned yellow and when I went to remat some the yellow had discolored the paper around the mat. Also the regular masking tape was all dried up and yellow.
That is my argument for using archival materials.


Deborah Secor
02-10-2006, 12:38 AM
Well, all I can say is that Albert Handell was asked about this and he said, "Archival is one year longer than my lifetime. After that it's the conservator's problem." It brought down the house, of course, but I've actually thought a lot about that since then.

Truth is, I don't worry as much as some--just enough so that the galleries can say it's rag mat... I've said it elsewhere, and I'll say it again, I think there is an awful lot of influence from the art materials industry to try to talk us artists into spending a whole lotta money on 'archival' stuff.

It's interesting to note that soft pastels are very alkaline in nature, while papers tend to be acidic, creating a nice balance in some way. I'm no chemist (although it was a chemist who pointed it out to me) and won't defend this--just an observation!


02-10-2006, 01:02 AM
Well, I don't preserve my work. Once I finish it get thrown out or is recycled if possible. hahaha. Seriously. I don't keep anything I do and so I use any paper that I like using pastels on and any tape handy. it's not something I want preserved!! lol. I just like to do art and feel the need to do it but, not keep it.

Kitty Wallis
02-10-2006, 01:43 AM
sorry, duplicate post

Kitty Wallis
02-10-2006, 01:44 AM
My first brush with the concept of 'archival' happened in the basement of an art supply store. I forget what I was doing there, looking for something. What I found was an old beat-up bunch of canvas swatches from a manufacturer. The 'pastel canvas' in that old bunch was bright mustard yellow. I investigated and found it was supposed to be white. I hated the notion that a painting of mine could turn that ugly over time.

Now I realize that the notion of archival is often over-emphasized. A marketing ploy. However, I do like to say to gallery folks that my work will last 500 years. Their eyes light up so pretty. :D

02-11-2006, 01:32 AM
Now I realize that the notion of archival is often over-emphasized. A marketing ploy. However, I do like to say to gallery folks that my work will last 500 years. Their eyes light up so pretty. :D

I'm sure they are happy to know that they won't be seeing any of your work returned for shoddy materials! LOL I figure as long as the price difference is minimal and I have a choice, I'll take the good stuff, but I'm not going broke over museum board backing and super buffered mat boards, etc. Besides, I mostly use Wallis paper, what more do they want!?!?! :D

02-13-2006, 12:02 PM
Diane, do you seriously *not* keep anything you do? Gee, I keep *everything*, even the worst stinkers. I figure someday I'll want to look back at them and laugh, and feel so smugly superior over how far I have come. :)

I guess I do try to buy acid-free papers and mats as I can see, just with paperback books I bought in the 60's and 70's, how yellow and brittle the pages have become, and I would hate to see that happen to my art. My grandmother had a friend who was a wonderful watercolor artist (though strictly amateur, as she was a housewife and didn't think it was "nice" to try to sell her art, this was back in the 30's and 40's). When my mom got married in 1948 this woman gave her two paintings as a wedding gift.

We still have these paintings which I like very much, and they are are fresh and vibrant as if they had just been painted, so that is a goal I would like to shoot for.

On the other hand, about 25 years ago when I first moved into my house I decided to try to paint some pictures to hang on my bare walls, and I actually tried some pastels. I knew nothing about art or archival or professional or student grade in 1980. I just wanted my walls to be less bare and had no money. So I just bought the cheapest paper and cheapest small set of pastels I could find, and framed my pictures in the cheapest frames. Yet these pictures still look very vibrant, and the colors true, and the paper in good condition - although they may not be the best art. :)

Paula Ford
02-13-2006, 01:59 PM
LOL...Great discussion Wendy!

I'm with Kitty and Sooz. Just as long as I use Wallis, not much else matters!


02-13-2006, 03:48 PM
Debbie, I have a pair of 50 year old charcoal portraits done on grey charcoal paper, I did as a Teen. I had given them as a gift to my grandparents who were the subjects. Someone, either my mom, me or the gps pasted them onto white pasteboard and matted them with same. They had been kept in an old cardboard suitcase in a damp attic. I recently had them come back to me. The mats were dirty and waterstained, but the portraits looked fresh done, not brittle, no yellowing or deterioration, so perhaps archival is over rated, especially if we aren't doing work destined for a museum. I think protection from UV rays is probably the most important for preservation. Now I do try to be reasonably archival with the support, and the mat and I use foamcore for a backer. But I see no problem with using brown kraft paper for a dust cover in the back. If I have the funds I go for an all rag matboard, if not I go for archival top and bottom and the core will obtain a nice cream color over time, oh well.
If my work ever gets to the sought after big time quality then I'll get scrupiously archival--I'll be able to afford it then.:)

Laura Shelley
02-14-2006, 02:11 PM
I have to wonder how much time and money has been spent on stabilizing some of those works in museums...;-)

Yes, I think a lot of the "archival" talk is just marketing. There's no legal definition of "archival" or "acid-free", so manufacturers can slap any label they like onto their materials. Take it all with a big grain of salt (or calcium carbonate). There's a lot of mystique and mumbo-jumbo surrounding artist's materials, which is one reason they still make tubes of paint with names like "Indian Yellow" and "Mummy" even though those actual pigments are no longer in use.

However, I have a book on Mary Cassatt that analyzes some of her pastels in technical terms. These are works done in the 1870s for the most part. Many of her supports were a commercial light blue paper mounted on a stretcher. In every case the paper has faded to tan. She left a lot of paper surface showing in many works, so this gives a significantly different impression from the original state. She was very fond of bright pinks, but some of her favorite sticks were apparently made with fugitive pigments. In particular the article pointed out a portrait of a girl with her mother, in which the girl's dress, formerly bright pink stripes on pale pink, has faded to white on pale pink.

This is one reason why I do lightfastness tests and make a lot of my own pastels! Since I do commissioned portraits for a fee, I think I have an obligation to my clients not to use materials that are going to change or self-destruct in a short time. I want to know exactly what's in my pastels and my supports so I have some idea of how they'll behave, and I want to use techniques that are not going to compromise the stability of my work.

For instance, Cassatt steamed her pastels and sometimes worked the damp pigment with a brush, which she learned from Degas. Unfortunately, steam tends to make the pastel particles stick to each other in a crust instead of stick to the paper, and so many of her works are extremely fragile and have suffered noticeable losses. That doesn't take much time to happen. In a gallery a couple of years ago, I saw some bold coloristic pastel landscapes done on what looked like watercolor paper. This was brand new work by a living artist. He had used steam in many areas to build up a thick texture. And bits and pieces of the pictures were collecting at the bottoms of the frames right before my eyes! Not a dusting of color--a pile of little shards that matched the cracked and exposed highlight areas of the painting. Yikes!

I'm 43 and had some long-lived grandparents, so I'd say my stuff should last fifty years at a minimum. :D Many of my subjects are young children, and I'd like to think that their portraits will endure in reasonable shape during their lifetimes as well. So push that out to a hundred years and I'll feel like I'm giving value for money!


02-14-2006, 07:07 PM
Wow, Laura, thanks for some valuable info! You've done some homework in this area and you've generously passed it on here.
Could you start a thread in how you make your pastels? That's info that is golden, too. To start that thread, here's my first question: Do you use pure pigments with very little binder like the Unison brand? If so, and you love how they turn out, I am VERY interested in the process.

Laura Shelley
02-14-2006, 08:41 PM
You are not wholly dependent on manufacturers for your art materials. Maybe it's sold in a store or has a famous brand name, but that doesn't mean it's better than what you can make. Pastels are much simpler to make than paints. I think it's worth it for any pastelist to make some sticks just to become more aware of his/her materials and play with custom shapes. You don't have to run out and get lots of raw materials--just crush up and mix some of your broken bits to start with.

Test the pastels you have to get an idea of what you're working with: make swatches, label them and cut them down the middle, then hang one set in a sunny window and put the other set away in a drawer. Check often. Some sticks I've tested lost most of their color in less than a week. Danger areas often lie in pale tints and in pinks and purples. (Wouldn't you know it! I LOVE purple!) Earth colors (siennas, umbers, ochres, Mars pigments) are usually bulletproof.

This is my most recent pastel-making thread, which is in Kitty's forum. I use her pastel doughs in various proportions for a lot of my mixing--those have binder already added. Now I am also buying dry pigments and various inert whites (marble dust, calcium carbonate, talc, kaolin, fine pumice) and blending those to achieve various textures. I use no gum binder at all with my dry pigments, since I haven't found it necessary for sticks I'm not intending to sell or transport. Mixing a little kaolin into crumbly pigments usually does the trick.


Kitty Wallis
02-14-2006, 08:55 PM
Thanks Laura, Rereading your thread was fun.

02-14-2006, 08:59 PM
Laura, I'm starting another thread to ask you a few questions.

Laura Shelley
02-15-2006, 06:20 PM
Thanks Laura, Rereading your thread was fun.

Thanks! Making pastels is a lot of fun for me! :)