Curtains faded? White clothing yellowed? Face leatherier than a saddle-makers workshop? Yeah, these are the result of the mean old sun!
As any annoying unwrinkled teen will tell you, ageing is a part of life. Sadly, artwork is susceptible to environmental ravages over time too. Even paintings by the Old Masters have weathered through the ages.
Is there anything we can do to avoid our potential Picasso becoming faded, discoloured, peeled, cracked or buckled? Happily, yes! Whether you’re an artist or art buyer, here are some important factors to consider to minimise the damage.
USE HIGH QUALITY PROFESSIONAL ART SUPPLIES
I couldn’t imagine spending weeks painstakingly drawing little Sally trussed up in bright get-up, only to find a few years later she’s faded into obscurity like a washed-up soapie star.
It’s unlikely pencils covered in smiley rainbows or pencils claiming to contain “fruity scents” fit into the category of professional. Exhibit A below. Like the now defunct airline, these children’s Ansett pencils were put out to pasture several years ago.
To avoid my work becoming cracked like me, I work with high quality professional art supplies specially created with features that assist longevity.
But is it as simple as giving “cheap” products a wide berth or just going with a brand name? Not necessarily. Below are two considerations for artwork longevity, and really any medium where pigments are concerned.
Lightfastness basically means how permanent a pigment is when exposed to UV/sunlight.
Many pencil lightfast ratings are based on the textile industry Blue Wool Scale test, a high-tech controlled test which determines the level of fading when a pigment is exposed to sunlight over a 3 month period.
The pigments are then given a rating between 0, being poor lightfastness with the potential to fade in 2 years or less with light exposure, and 8, meaning there has been no change in the pigment and the potential to remain unchanged over 100 years.
Colour pencil lightfast ratings
Colour pencil brands translate Blue Wool ratings into their own ranking system.
As an example, Faber-Castell Polychromos use a 1 to 3 star rating (3 the best, 1 the worst), Derwent use the Blue Wool Scale 1 to 8 rating (8 the best, 1 the worst). Generally, there are some colours that will naturally fade faster but most can last over 100 years.
If you buy a set of pencils and a few have poor ratings, determine whether you feel comfortable using them or if you can perhaps use an alternative.
Now if you’re asking me, “Why do brands use different rating systems?” all I can say is, the same reason round pizzas come in square boxes, they just do. I don’t make the rules.
Graphite lightfast ratings
Like everything else, graphite can be affected by UV. But provided it hasn’t been tinted with pigment, graphite is one of the most lightfast materials you can use. It scores a triumphant 8 on the Blue Wool Scale.
Paper / surface
The surface you use should also be lightfast. If you plan on using coloured, toned or tinted paper make sure the paper colour is as permanent as possible. Unfortunately, some coloured papers, even from reputable brands, claim to be “fade resistant” but sometimes fading does occur.
2. ACID FREE / ARCHIVAL
Acid belongs in a margarita, not your art supplies!
Both the pencils and the surface you choose to work on should be acid free. Acid has the potential to oxidise when exposed to UV/sunlight and can eat at the surface over time, causing it to yellow and become brittle.
Papers that say “archival” generally imply acid-free and are usually more permanent and durable. If you have this available to you it’s a perfect choice.
There are hundreds of papers to choose from. It just comes down to preference. Just make sure it is archival or acid free.
Note: Remember to check for archival and acid free qualities in other products you might use like fixative sprays, varnishes and prep and finishing products. In my experience, things like varnishes and epoxy resins are some of the worst for yellowing.
Oh and keep your grubby mitts off the work. Your oily, acidic margarita hands may have a negative impact on the artwork.
DO YOUR RESEARCH
Despite its assertions, Red Bull doesn’t “give you wings”.
For a product to make bold claims about lightfastness and durability, stringent testing and complex production are involved. In these cases, the higher price tag you often see is well justified.
Be aware, some shady brands slap claims on their product without conducting any testing, i.e. they assume if a pigment is ‘typically’ considered lightfast, that their product will naturally be also.
Reputable industry brands will be transparent about their product on their website, offering disclaimers if something is not lightfast or if it changes when mixed with water or additives.
If you’re unsure, I recommend conducting your own form of testing if possible. Below is my simple at-home test of Derwent Graphitint lightfastness. The sample sits next to a window which receives intense, soul crushing sun with extreme UV 13-14 most of the day. There has been no change in approx 3 months.
Whatever you choose to do, however much you pay, if it can satisfy the lightfast, acid-free/archival criteria, go for it!
If you’re an art buyer and you are concerned about artwork deteriorating over time, feel free to ask the artist about the products they use.
Of course, not all art must stand the test of time. Weather-beaten art could be considered a bold statement about fickle, fleeting beauty. If the work is purposefully designed to alter over time though, showcase that feature and enlighten the buyer on how best to care for the majesty of their ever evolving treasure.
Now, before we toddle off to make our margaritas, be sure to check out this post, where my studio assistant shows you the top 7 tips for looking after new artwork.