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Artwork: Can Acidic Backing Boards Damage Your Work of Art on Paper?

Do you have a painting or printed artwork on paper that has become discolored or stained over time? Yellowing and discoloration in works of art on paper can have a variety of causes including poor framing materials, inherent vice, excessive exposure to sunlight, or environmental pollutants to name a few.

Above is an example of discoloration caused by inherent vice and exposure to sunlight: an etching of Judy Garland by Al Hirschfield that has darkened all along the area where the plate was impressed during the printing process. Initially, the darkening surrounding the image would not have been readily apparent. However, over time exposure to sunlight has catalyzed the degradation of oils from the printing plate and the paper has begun to yellow and darken.

Adhering artwork to backing boards is a common and necessary practice in the framing industry. Over the years, many different techniques have been employed and utilized by framing galleries. Everything from masking tape to rabbit skin glue or dry mount tissue have been used. The ideal method to attach paper-based art to a backing board is to hinge the artwork on along the edges with Japanese tissue and wheat starch paste. It is also important to use a rag-based archival backing board. Much of the damage to artwork I see in my practice stems from the artwork’s attachment via acidic adhesives, such as animal hide glues, or simply attachment to acidic backing materials including poor quality mat boards, cardboard or even wood. All of these materials are acidic in nature, and over time the constant contact within the microenvironment of the frame will cause migration of degradation products from the acidic backing materials into the paper substrate of the artwork itself. This leads to yellowing and discoloration of the paper, as well as rapid deterioration and embrittlement of the artwork. For the sake of its longevity, it is paramount to remove the harmful backing materials as soon as possible.

Removal of an acidic backing board from a watercolor painting.

Backing removal can be quite tedious and labor-intensive. Factors that affect the speed and ease of backing removal include the fragility of the painting or print itself, and the type of adhesive or hinging materials that were used to frame it previously.

Another stage of the backing removal process from the watercolor painting pictured above.

Once the acidic backing board and attachment materials are removed, the artwork can be treated if necessary to reduce staining and discoloration. It will then be ready for reframing with the appropriate archival materials.

Sometimes careful application of a poultice is necessary to reactivate the adhesives used to attach the backing board,

Do you have a work of art on paper that requires evaluation and potential conservation treatment? For a complimentary estimate, feel free to submit an inquiry via the contact form on my website:

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