A Conversation With Andrea Pitsch, Paper Conservator, Part 2

This is a continuation of last week’s conversation with Andrea Pitsch

Andrea Pitsch 

BC:  You were saying to me last time we spoke, that everything acidifies anyway over time, which I thought was really interesting. That paper will naturally acidify even in the best circumstances.


AP: Yes. Even 100% cotton or linen rag paper will take on some acidity due to exposure to the environment, and will darken a little bit. But very little if you kept a good quality paper in a stable appropriate environment. The Rembrandt I showed you would be OK still. Still-after hundreds of years–but that’s a good piece of paper. That is not a contemporary drawing on newsprint.


BC: So the paper itself can actually disintegrate.


AP: Yes it can.


BC: But you can de-acidify it.


AP: Usually, but even deacidification is a complex issue and should be carefully considered. It’s not appropriate for everything, and it’s not a cure-all. Most paper, unless we’re talking about an extreme newsprint, is not going to just fall apart. It’s going to become more brittle and then if you don’t handle it the right way, then a chunk may break off. But if it’s just lying flat or safely framed, it probably won’t crumble before your eyes. Not like something out of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

           BC: Ha!

AP: But–then something happens. Some little trauma. Like, it gets very humid and the paper expands and it expands so much that there will be cracks at the edges of the hinges. That’s newsprint after 30 years.


BC: What are the ideal conditions for works on paper?


AP: A good rule of thumb: 60/50. (60 degrees, 50 % relative humidity), and fluctuations should be slight and should be gradual. And for most people. how are you going to keep a temperature of 60 degrees, right? OK. So, you keep the temperature as low as possible, because you’ve got to live in your house; but in the winter, could you keep it 64 degrees and not 68 or 70 degrees?  Yeah. And the humidity in the summer is a huge issue; don’t leave your house or apartment without air conditioning in August in the northeast. That’s just sensible. If you would be uncomfortable in your house in August, so is your art.


BC: Good to know.


AP: It’s true for computers, too. It’s true for a lot of things. A lot of materials are not happy when the temperature and humidity fluctuate or become extreme. People leave their NY apartments for the entire month of August and they don’t think about their apartment baking and steaming? What’s up with that?

BC: laughs. It is the sad truth!

AP: Think about it; if you have anything you care about in there, you’d close the drapes because you would know that the bright daylight would hurt your rugs and furniture. Why have light if you’re not there? That’s a start. But you have to close your windows because it could rain in a month. So you’ve got this oven, and the humidity creeps in and it stays there.


BC: And then the paper absorbs the humidity.


AP: Yes, and it expands. And if you’ve got your paper framed touching the glass, or it expands enough so that it gets wavy and touches the glass, the condensation will build up. If that happens a few cycles, a few years in a row, then you could get mold growing in spots where the paper touches the glass. Because that humidity doesn’t leave  quickly. That humidity is stuck in there until October.


BC: And when it leaves…


AP: The paper doesn’t shrink back to flat, the paper has a memory for the distortion that it had for three months.


BC: For three months. Pretty much, time for your heat to come on and completely dry it out and then….


AP: Yeah, but then it’s a shock to your paper and often we have uncontrolled heat here. My studio has radiators that are either on or off.


BC: As do most people in NY.


AP: Cast iron radiators. And they’re a wonderful thing. And we want not for heat. We are not cold; the heat comes on, you roast, so you open a window in January. What kind of temperature control is that?


BC: laughs Right. That’s NY.


AP: And it’s all dry.


Print with Ripples

Print with ripples: sheet was pressed between backboard and glazing, humidity increased and paper developed tight ripples as it expanded.

BC: Would you suggest that people put on their humidifier in the winter?
 AP: Yes. I need a humidifier in winter just to be physically comfortable, and so does                             my furniture and art. 

BC: But you have to put de-ionized water in there, no? Otherwise you’re spitting out particulates.


AP: It depends on your humidifier. If you’ve got a fancy humidifier, then it will tell you what it wants.


BC: I learned this recently from a furniture conservator. “Oh no, then we get particulates.” So they have this whole system, huge, which looks like a science project, with many kinds of water dripping in there. I think “OMG”.


AP: People generally won’t do anything elaborate to regulate humidity. Get a good humidifier. Look at the box. What kind of water does it require?


BC: OK. So what people can do?  No acid materials; hinge things properly.


AP: Ultraviolet light is your enemy.


BC: High humidity is your enemy.


AP: Right, as is overly dry. You want to keep the humidity in a mid range–temperature and humidity within a range that you as a human being would be comfortable with. That’s about the best we can ask for in normal life.

Lithograph, with foxing, before treatment

Lithograph, with foxing, before treatment

BC: Very pragmatic, I’d say.


AP:I don’t expect anyone else to do things I wouldn’t do. If it’s not easy, I’m not going to do it. Life is short.
Foxing and mold: Foxing and mold are a byproduct of high humidity. Another reason not to have your place too humid. The foxing that I showed you on that Thomas Hart Benton print comes from living in Florida.


BC: That’s it. The print lives in Florida.


AP: The print lives in Florida. It’s pretty much a death sentence unless one is ever vigilant.


AP: Unless you have your apt. or house climate-controlled. And I think a lot of people in FL are forward-thinking enough to realize that they have to do that because it’s hot and humid and they’re uncomfortable. But do it even when you’re not around.


Lithograph, after treatment

Lithograph, after treatment

BC: So what are the other effects. I’ve brought to you some pieces with some pretty severe nicotene stains.


AP: You know if you’ve got a toxic environment. If you have something hanging in the kitchen, hanging in the bathroom, or if somebody smokes, you know that’s bad. It’s a science experiment with your art as a filter. You can see cooking smoke, oil and nicotene building up on surfaces of all kinds. You don’t specifically have to be thinking about your art to see that something is sticking to your surfaces.


BC: But say a work on paper lives in a frame with a heavy smoker, after what period of time would that need to be cleaned?


AP: The sooner the better and don’t do that anymore.


BC: laughs For everyone’s health.


AP: Nicotene can be surfaced cleaned off unless you leave it too long. The longer something is on your paper, whatever it is, dust, dirt, foxing; the longer it’s there, the more of an effect it will have on the paper permanently, because paper is porous and every time it gets humid, the paper fibers open up. The paper expands to allow things into its pores, so to speak, we all understand things get into our pores. So, if that happens many years in a row, it’ll get into the pores, and it’ll want to stay there. So the sooner you get on top of that and get it off of the surface, the better it is for the paper. And then you can seal your frame more thoroughly, keep an eye on the glazing, and spray water or windex onto a paper towel and clean the glazing or clean the top edge of your frame. And if you see that it’s discolored or dirty, not just dusty, but stained, then you know something is getting inside because those particles, the nicotene particles, and other things like nitrogen, sulfur, steam, those things are smaller particles than dust particles, and often they are oily.


BC: Oh, that is so interesting.


AP: So, if you brush off the dust lightly, and then use the moisture or Windex on a paper towel test, and you still get something gray or yellowish off, then you’ve got something going into your frame. Those are smaller particles. You can’t dust them off, you have to clean them.

BC: I see. That’s very good to know. So now I think people will know that you shouldn’t necessarily wait until you want to sell a piece or donate to a museum or leave it to your children in order to start to take care of it, because the sooner the better.

AP: Right, you want your object to last as long as possible. Once you find out that the sun will cause damage to your skin, you do something about it. You don’t say, “Well I’ve been living like this for 30 years and another 30 won’t make a difference.” It will make a difference. And you may want to sell it someday, because nobody owns something forever.  You may want to pass it on to your children. You may want to have it in the best possible shape so your children don’t have to deal with another 30 years of damage. Because people have this sense… if they don’t know a conservator, they have this sense like my mother did, that if something looks old, you just junk it. Many treasures have been found in the trash because of it.


BC: Yes they have.


AP: Because people don’t want to deal with what it takes to reverse the damage. So, now that people are reading your blog and they know that damage starts with a little bit of damage, do something while it’s a small matter. You can do simple things to slow down the aging process. You should do it for yourself, and do it for your treasures. Why not?


BC: Great. Thank you Andrea!

Question to Readers:  What question do you have about caring for your works on paper?  Please post it below in Comments.

7 thoughts on “A Conversation With Andrea Pitsch, Paper Conservator, Part 2

  1. Yes, enjoyed the interview with the very knowledgable Andrea.
    I have been working with photo copier machines to produce images since the 80’s. Back then I was a member of a group of NYC artists called The International Society of Copier Artists (ISCA) & we utilized what was high end technology back then. Todd’s Copy Shop on Mott St. had an excellent color machine & operator & I utilized heat transfers to be used in my paintings. Later I produced photo copied artists books (two in the permanent collection of MOMA) on my Canon personal copier.

    **At this time I am utilizing a Canon personal copier that creates lush, gorgeous images of the photographs I locate in magazines, etc. I copy onto acid free papers & mount them on acid-free Stonehenge paper with acid-free spray adhesive (Scotch, Elmers, 3M all have come out with this product recently). I spray my freshly copied images with 3M fixative to “seal” if-you-will the toner produced image.

    *The life of toner produced images has long been discussed. QUESTION: What experience or knowledge of this art making process can you comment on in terms of durability?

    • Hello Larry
      I do not have personal knowledge of particular modern toner inks. I believe the formula may vary from one manufacturer to another and one batch to another. The manufacturer should be able to give you test data according to Image Permanence standards. My concern for you is commercial spray adhesives and fixatives, where I take issue with the use of the word “archival”. Archival is supposed to mean the material will always remain pH neutral, reversible and will never discolor. If your adhesives and fixatives contain chemical propellants and acrylic or acetate, the effect on your collage papers could be quite surprising over time. If the manufacturer won’t give you technical specs, be afraid. Do some accelerated aging tests yourself, with a control sample and various permutations, labeled, in a humid sunny environment and compare the results of exposure over several time periods.

  2. Andrea- this is a great insight, and – I myself have not thought much about the properties of fixatives and how they change over time. So, I will be doing some testing myself! Thank you so much! Barbara

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