Techniques and Tips

Protecting Your Collage

Protecting Your Collage

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Q. I’ve made a collage of tissue paper and watercolors on foamboard, assembled with acrylic collage medium. What’s the best way to protect this type of work? Would a solution of Elmer’s glue and water be sufficient, or is there a special varnish available?
Barbara Lipkin
Naperville, IL

A. While Elmer’s glue may have its uses, it was never intended to be used as a varnish, and with good reason. The glue will discolor with time and it’s not easily removable, leaving you with a permanently altered artwork. In general, although there may be varnishes on the market that claim to address all of your concerns, I caution against varnishing any artwork largely executed on paper. Paper is a very absorbent material, so unless it’s heavily sized the varnish will sink into the structure instead of resting on the surface as a discrete layer. When impregnated with a varnish resin, paper can appear translucent, and tissue paper may even appear transparent.

The best way to protect your collage is simply to frame it properly behind a sheet of glass or Plexiglas. This process, called glazing, acts as an excellent barrier to airborne dust and pollutants, as well as the hands of a curious audience. It’s also easily reversible if you should ever have a change of heart about it. But there are a few safety precautions to remember when glazing, too. Never place the glazing against the surface of the art—use a mat or a spacer to maintain an enclosed air space. This space reduces the chance of mold growth from the condensation of trapped moisture, keeps the materials from being accidentally compressed by mishandling of the piece, and prevents any tacky materials in the art from sticking to the glazing. You’ll need to make sure the glazing is well-secured in the frame; if it’s too loose dust can creep in, and if it’s too tight the glazing could eventually bow or break.

There are also some considerations to remember when choosing the type of glazing. If your work includes charcoal or pastel, never use Plexiglas. When this surface is wiped clean, static charges can build up and can physically lift these types of media off the artwork. If the work contains light-sensitive pigments or acidic papers, such as newsprint, then you should use ultraviolet-filtering Plexiglas to help reduce light degradation. In most other instances, choosing between glass and Plexiglas is a matter of weighing the positives and the negatives. Plexiglas is hard to break but it scratches easily. Glass is cheaper but it’s also heavier. Plexiglas can have a yellow tint to it while glass can have a green one.

If you don’t want to place your collage under glass, I still don’t recommend varnishing. It’s better to leave your piece both unglazed and unvarnished and then dust it lightly with a soft brush now and again to prevent heavy deposits of dust from building up. You may also want to consider rotating its exhibition time with other pieces and letting it occasionally spend some time in storage to lessen the environmental wear.

Burton Silverman’s first one-man show took place in 1956 at the Davis Gallery in New York City. Since that time, Silverman has had 24 solo shows in New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Washington, DC. His work has appeared in numerous national and international exhibitions, and he’s garnered 32 major awards from the National Academy of Design, the American Watercolor Society and the Butler Institute of American Art. His work can be found in corporate collections in the United States and Europe and is represented in the collections of numerous museums, including the Brooklyn Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the National Portrait Gallery. Silverman has also had a long, distinguished career as an illustrator, and his work includes portraits for the cover of Time Magazine and the “Profiles” section of the New Yorker. Currently living in New York City, Silverman teaches weekly art classes at his studio.

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