Guidelines for Handling Art on Paper

by  Laura Stirton Aust, paper conservator

Improper handling of artworks is a major cause of damage.  Each blemish, no matter how small detracts from the visual and aesthetic value of the work.  Especially works of art on paper in which improper handling leads to staining, distortions, creases ,dings, even tears and media loss.

Guideline number 1

Always wash hands before touching a print or drawing. Hands naturally contain oils as do lotions and foods.  These oils may not be visible on the paper immediately, but will appear with time.  Sometimes a complete finger print can be found on paper but, more commonly hands cause indistinct yellow/brown staining which appears to be smudging.  Oils attract dirt which gets trapped in the paper fibers and produces discoloration which becomes darker with age. 

If there is no sink for hand washing, alcohol wipes (without lotion added) may be used.  Though hand washing and wipes help remove oils, most museums insist on the use of white cotton gloves*.  These are inexpensive and are meant to be washed or disposed of after a few uses.  These too will attract dust and dirt as they absorb skin oils.  Unfortunately, it is not always possible to insist everyone wear gloves while handling art.  Try to be a good example and have several pairs of gloves available for others to follow your lead.

Guideline number 2 

View artwork on a hard flat surface.  Prevent possible staining by covering the viewing surface with clean, flat blotting paper or Tyvek* purchased for this purpose only.  Never let art extend beyond the table edge.  Have paper weights available if needed to prevent movement of the art.  Do not place the weight directly on the art.  Place glassine* paper under the weight, in the margin if there is one.  Ties, scarves and jewelry all present potential hazards when viewing art.

Guideline number 3

Never hold art by a corner. Corners are usually the weakest point in a sheet of paper or frame.  Lift a print in the middle of two opposing margins.  Avoid pinching the paper between fingers and thumb.  This often breaks paper fibers and leaves behind a dent in the sheet.  Art on paper should be lifted by sliding hands under the paper so it is evenly supported.  When lifting an edge use a stainless steel micro-spatula*.  These are an inexpensive tool which should be kept within reach wherever artwork is handled.  To reduce handling of works of art on paper use map folders* made from Bristol Board.  The folders should be several inches larger than the print to prevent corner dings and dog ears on a protruding corner.  To view the back of an object simply close and turn over the folder.  If the folder begins to get dented or grimy it is easily replaced.

Large pieces are especially challenging to handle delicately.  It is most important to make enough space for  maneuvering.  Over sized pieces may require two or more people for secure handling.

Guideline number 4

Never have food or drink near art.  This rule includes water which can be disastrous to art on paper.  Coffee, tea and colas of course are even worse.  Opening a can of soda, even seltzer water can leave a disfiguring spray of stains that may be difficult or impossible to remove.  Where there is food there will be crumbs.  Not only will crumbs stain artwork, but they attract vermin which may also damage art.

Guideline number 5

No smoking.  Tar in cigarette smoke is very sticky.  It binds to paper fibers and the discoloration and odor are often impossible to eliminate.

Guideline number 6

Pets should not be allowed in rooms where prints are handled.  Accidents involving pets are not uncommon.  Saliva, dander, hair and claws are only a few hazards associated with furry creatures. 

Plan ahead before unpacking art or removing it from drawers or walls.  Consider what tools might be needed and gather them together before washing hands or handling art.  Following these few guidelines will help prevent unnecessary accidents in your collection.

* These items are available at archival supply companies.  Two of these are TALAS and Metal Edge, Inc.

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