Best Method for Cleaning and Preserving Stained and Yellowed Works of Art on Paper (2023)

Closeup of writings written on old parchment papers on a wooden surface with a dark background

How Do You Clean Stained Artwork?

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Cleaning stained and yellowed works of art on paper involves many delicate conservation treatment processes that require testing, care and attention to detail. The first crucial step in cleaning any work of art on paper is to assess the condition of the piece, including identifying the nature of the staining and discoloration complexes.

What Causes Discoloration and Staining of Art Work?

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One common cause of discoloration in works of art on paper is the presence of acid. Acid can cause the paper to yellow and become brittle over time. This is often the result of aging or, with more modern papers, it is caused by the use of wood pulp or other non-archival materials in the manufacture of the paper.  If it is caused by the latter, this condition is often termed “inherent vice” within the conservation community.  Older papers predating 1850 typically age much more gracefully over time.  Papers that are made from cotton or hemp rag have a much higher cellulose content and typically less lignin and acidic compounds, which contributes to their overall superior permanence.  Wood pulp papers, or other modern papers with commercial fillers and chemicals often deteriorate much more quickly.  This is not always the case, though.  Watercolor paper is a fine example:  it is typically made from high quality cotton fibers, and therefore does not usually become acidic quickly.   To remove acid from paper, it can be washed in an alkaline solution tailored to the needs of the specific artwork.  As the work of art is washed, soluble acidic degradation compounds and discoloration are gently removed from the paper.  This process lowers the acidity of the paper, thus helping prevent it from becoming embrittled and/or disintegrating.

How To Remove Foxing From Art Work

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Another common cause of discoloration is the presence of foxing. Foxing is a type of discoloration that appears as small brown spots on the paper. It is often caused by the presence of mold or metallic inclusions in the paper. To remove foxing, the work of art can be cleaned with a targeted solution of chelating agents, oxidizers or reducers depending upon the sensitivity of the media.

Are Stains on Paper Permanent?

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It is important to note that some stains and discoloration may be permanent and cannot be removed. In these cases, it may be best to leave the piece as is and take steps to prevent further damage.
Another aspect to consider is the overall care of the work of art. It is important to use acid-free and lignin-free materials in the framing and storage of artwork. This will help to slow down or prevent further discoloration and deterioration.
In general, cleaning stained and yellowed works of art on paper should be performed by a professional conservator with experience in the field. They will be able to properly assess the condition of the piece and determine the most suitable course of action for cleaning and preservation of your artwork.

In conclusion, cleaning discolored works of art on paper is a delicate process that requires knowledge and experience. It is important to identify the type of stains and discoloration present, and take appropriate action based off of this information. The storage & care of the work of art is also important, using archival materials for both framing and storage. It’s always best to consult a professional conservator for optimal results.

At Kelsey National Book and Paper Conservation, we offer a full range of services to assist our clients with preserving their works of art on paper, manuscript & document collections, vellum & parchment artifacts, and bound volumes.  These may include lithographs, serigraphs, mezzotint, aquatint, engravings, acrylic paintings, watercolor paintings, gouache paintings, pencil & ink drawings, historical documents, vellum scrolls & manuscripts, rare antique & vintage books, family bibles, and more.

We serve clients nationwide, including areas such as:

Asheville, North Carolina – Atlanta, Georgia – Chapel Hill, North Carolina – Charleston, South Carolina – Charlotte, North Carolina – Chattanooga, Tennessee – Columbia, South Carolina – Durham, North Carolina – Fayetteville, North Carolina – Louisville, Kentucky – Nashville, Tennessee – Raleigh, North Carolina – Richmond,  Virginia – Roanoke, Virginia – Savannah, Georgia – Virginia Beach, Virginia – Washington, DC

Contact us today for an estimate!

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