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.

A Conversation with Andrea Pitsch, Paper Conservator

Andrea Pitsch

BC: Andrea, where did you study conservation?

AP: I studied conservation, which was an adjunct to the Art Department and the Art Center, at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario,

BC: So you are Canadian. What brought you to New York?

AP: I came to New York in 1984, for a National Museum Act Grant at the Guggenheim, studying the conservation of paintings on paper and cardboard.

BC: And you stayed.

AP: I stayed. New York is the only place I’ve ever felt at home. I cannot account for that. There is nothing in my background that prepared me for a world of art or a big city. And then, via Washington and Andover Massachusetts, I landed in NY and thought, “OK, I’m home now, what do I do to stay here?”

BC: Brilliant! So you went into business for yourself.

AP: Because the Guggenheim grant ran out and there were rumors of three jobs, none of which materialized.

BC: So you had referrals from the Guggenheim.

AP: I don’t know how I was able to do this. I went to Sotheby’s and Christie’s and dealers of fine prints and drawings with my portfolio and said “here, this is why you should give me work. I have a Masters degree in art conservation, but I’m a practical person, I am not a museum person. Don’t be confused.” Dealers often complained that museum conservators were too conservative. That was a big lesson for me.

BC: That’s interesting, because I’ve experienced otherwise.

AP: That was the mid 80s. Things change. Still, Museum people are supposed to…..be minimal about it.

BC: Right.

AP: And there is almost never a reason for a museum conservator to intervene in a dramatic way. The job of a museum conservator is largely to preserve and protect, not to intervene. Unless something is wanted for exhibition. That’s often why art is restored,when it changes hands or is needed to look healthier or more attractive for exhibition.

BC: Right.

AP: For commercial purposes. Otherwise you can tolerate a slow deterioration and a gradual darkening. You don’t really know what it looks like under its window mat. The hinges are hidden, you don’t know the paper is turning brown,or the discoloration is so gradual from ultraviolet light that you don’t really notice the paper tone changing or the image fading.

You don’t notice the day a wrinkle popped out on your face. It’s very gradual.

BC: I think I did.


AP: I know I did too, but I’m a trained observer and so are you.


AP: You get used to the way things come to be and you remember it the way your artwork was when you first bought it, and that is human nature. It’s like we don’t judge how somebody we love is aging because we remember how they looked when we first knew them.

BC: So generally people bring something to you when it’s going to be exhibited. I’ve managed collections and of course I just consider it my job to make sure the collection is preserved and so when I see something that will cause more damage over time I bring it in, but I have a trained eye and I think many people do not.

AP: Right.

BC: But apparently enough people do, because you are quite busy here.

AP: Yeah, but that’s why I get more work when the art market is doing well. Because that’s when things change hands.

AP: You don’t necessarily have to clean the inside of your car unless you want to sell it. And then you realize it just looks tacky. You accept deterioration or dirt if you’re the only one who is looking at it, but you won’t get as much money for something not just because of the dirt, but because it looks neglected. And then what else has been neglected?

BC: Right.

BC: The last time I was here, there was a huge map on the table that was mounted on fabric.

AP: It’s in a completely different state now, you want to see it again?

BC: Yes. I want to hear about the process of conserving that.

AP: And you also saw it separated.

Map close-up, after conservation, before joining

And this section of the triptych here was torn into three pieces

BC: And you repaired them. And you removed it from the fabric. How long did that take?

AP: The better part of the day, and then all the pieces had to be cleansed of their dark brown glue. If you don’t remove it all, the glue will continue to turn the paper brown.

BC: You’ve removed it from the backing. You’ve repaired so far two of the segments and you’ll join them together. That is incredible. It’s so nice!

AP: This area had stains. It’s so hard to say what it used to look like if you didn’t see it.

This piece was joined back to this piece.

But this piece (picking up the third segment of the triptych) is going to be kept separate. So that my client can keep this map in his flat file drawer. Otherwise he can’t do anything with an object that size (the triptych, were it all attached would be 5 1/2 feet long, and would exceed the size of any flatfile drawer); but this size is doable.

When it gets matted someday for an exhibition, the framer will just hinge the third section to the middle.

BC: I like that you come up with a practical solution.

AP: People have to live with their stuff.

BC: Absolutely.

AP: I’ve learned from my own psychology, if it’s not easy to do or at least easy to remember people won’t do it. Life is complicated and it’s my job to make things easier for people. “I’ll take care of it.” “How much is it going to cost? ” That’s how the conversation goes.

BC: Yeah. I imagine that at some point you have to do the minimum to preserve things rather than restore them.

AP: Yeah, because restoration is often very expensive and you can imagine, it can take days.

BC: What will happen next with the map?

AP: Next all the parts get flattened and then they are put back together. Because the map is in three parts and it has two seams, and the seams have to get joined back together. That also used to have glue in between the overlapped seams. Now it’s just three map segments and the middle segment as you saw was in three severed parts.

BC: Has the client seen that?

AP: No; He won’t see it until it’s finished. We’re going to make him happy.

A lot of people, if they have maps, they will go to map dealers or institutions that have maps and ask for a recommendation for a conservator. All of those people will think of me as a map restorer.

BC: That is so funny!

AP: So to them, I am the map restorer. Then there’s a whole other segment of people who get my name from the Andy Warhol Foundation, and they think of me as the Warhol Lady. They would be very surprised to hear that I’m a map restorer. And there are print dealers who at the print fair will bandy names about and I am a print restorer.

BC: That’s great.

AP: I don’t think I’ve yet been called the watercolor conservator, although I am.

And if I work on a poster for somebody then they’re going to call me the poster conservator.

BC: So you might not want to do it.

AP: If it’s made of paper, then I’m the doctor. So I don’t care. Conservators spend much of their time attending to structural issues at the back of the object, and no matter how much I love it or dislike it, I have to give it back later, so it doesn’t really matter to me.

BC: Right.

AP: If this object matters to somebody, and they are willing to pay what it takes to do whatever we discuss, then it doesn’t really matter to me what it is. Somebody cares about it. That’s all we need to know.

Andrea pulls out a lovely etching by a famous artist

AP: This little sweetheart had brown paper packing tape all along its top edges because a framer mounted it to the window mat.

Top edge of etching, before

BC: Oh, wow. But that was very common at one point. Wasn’t it?

When would that have been a common practice?

AP: During the 30s 40s and 50s.

BC: So you must be seeing a lot of it right now.

AP: Oh yeah. That’s how WPA prints were always mounted. Because if you mount it to a window mat, you don’t actually have to provide a backing board. It’s all in one and it’s stretched tight like a drum, so it looks flat.

BC: Temporarily.

Top edge of etching, after treatment

AP: Ultraviolet light, even indirect daylight or lamp light, is probably going to have some affect on the paper or the colors depending on the paper and the colors, maybe in 5 years; you’ll see something in 5 years. Now if you’ve got a black and white drawing or print that’s over-matted, you might not notice a change for many years, but eventually you will realize that same piece of paper used to be the same color as the mat and now it’s a little bit darker. And then you have a rectangular discoloration on your artwork.

BC: Right.

AP: If you frame it with all the edges showing floating inside a frame, you might never notice, because there isn’t enough of a backboard to show any kind of contrast, and the wood of the frame is aging also, so everything just gets a little bit darker. You might not notice until 10 years have passed.

BC: Right.

AP: And then intervention is seriously necessary. But it’s not just the ultraviolet light that damages an object, you also have to think about the materials used to hinge and mat the paper. Paper does not magically stand upright like a sculpture so you want to know that what the paper is attached to the backing with is something that isn’t going to cause long-term damage. Framers will use what’s convenient and economical to use because your neighborhood framer is not paid are not paid to develop the consciousness to use mulberry paper and wheat starch paste. Mulberry paper is expensive and wheat starch paste has to be cooked from scratch. It would cost several times more for the hinging if it’s mulberry paper and wheat starch paste, and there are a few framers in the city that do that, and they all charge more.

BC: Our friends at Handmade Frames will use that?

AP: Handmade Frames is well equipped to do that. Framers get all kinds of things. Cheap and expensive. Whenever it’s something of value that warrants the time they should suggest that the client pay for this additional care. Bark will do it.

B: So what are the other common issues that you see coming in that could be prevented?

AP: I consider UV damage something that could be prevented or definitely the amount discoloration or fading lessened…

BC: if you use filters on your windows.

AP: Yes, it’s true. Filtered glazing on the piece and on your lights.

And even then you have to replace that. Seven years is the normal life span for ultraviolet filtration.

BC: That’s very good to know.

AP: But the the greater the ultraviolet exposure, the faster it will become exhausted, so if you’ve got ultraviolet filtering film on your windows you should certainly replace it after seven years because that’s your first line of defense and that gets all the ultraviolet light and that, after it gets exhausted, will allow the ultraviolet light into the other end of the room where the ultraviolet filtering plexi on your frame has to capture it.

BC: Right.

AP: So if you protect the framed art by changing out the film on your windows every seven years, then the UV filtration in the glazing won’t become exhausted nearly so soon

BC: And the next most common problem is…

AP: Acid in that frame.  Although normal cardboard .is safe and practical for several years, it will become acidic: after a while the cardboard gets very rusty brown, warm brown, natural wood sepia, because it’s alive. There are still things in there from the live tree thathave not been removed through purification. It’s not very highly processed. If you have aged cardboard in the back of your frame, then you should probably open up the whole frame and see what’s going on.

BC: Right…But as a rule would you just not use the cardboard?

AP: We have something now called blueboard. It’s acid free cardboard, so that would be better. I don’t like foam board either, because although some people call this–there is something called acid-free foam board . Acid free refers to the paper on both sides. The foam is the inner foam core and that is what deteriorates.

BC: So it doesn’t off- gas.

AP: Yes it does. It’s plastic. It is like a bubbly plastic.

BC: Some plastics are considered somewhat stable though.

AP:But even plexi, which I use as a tool in my work, I’ve watched sheets of plexi yellow with age.

BC: And you think that that would be pretty stable.

AP: The more flexible a material is, the more it has plasticizers in it that will deteriorate. And the foam core in foamboard is very flexible. It’s spit out like a liquid and then pressed between these 2 pieces of paper. And you can make a dent in it and at first it will bounce back a little, and it’s a little spongy when you stick your nail in it. But after a few years, the foam becomes yellow and powdery.

BC: You like blueboard as opposed to cardboard.

AP: Yes, you cannot prevent air and humidity from getting into your frame. Not really. Some framers will tell you that they can seal something hermetically.

Eventually moisture from the air will get in and then you want it to be able to get out.

BC: So in order to prevent acidification, or slow the process, what are the best things to do?

Use acid free…

AP: Acid-free or preferably buffered materials, so the process of becoming acidic is seriously slowed down,  and controlled temperature and humidity, and little if any ultraviolet light.

A museum environment. A flat file in a storage area in a museum.

B: That’s ideal.

AP: That’s ideal, but sterile. But then no one sees it. I think we should enjoy our treasures, and not hide them away for fear they will be damaged My precious things are not directly exposed to the light and they have UV filtration and the windows have UV filtration. I’ve got to enjoy my color photographs. If I try to stay observant and mindful, it becomes second nature.

Foxing. Learn how to avoid this.

Tune in next week for the second half of the conversation with Andrea, and find out the next most common issues with works on paper, and how to prevent them.