After Two Years, the Sensitive Watercolor Painting Makes an Appearance

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After Two Years, the Sensitive Watercolor Painting Makes an Appearance

By Trish Oxford | @TrishatReynolda

In anticipation of the Written with Water: American Watercolors from Homer to Close exhibition opening Saturday April 12 on Community Day, I sat down with colleagues in the Collections Department at Reynolda House to learn more about the delicate lifespan of a watercolor painting.

These 13 distinctive watercolors can only be displayed to the public every two years, and only for six months at a time. Even though each work in this exhibition artistically captures a sense of time and timelessness, works on paper can have a very short life if they are not properly preserved. Learn from the experts why it is rare to see these pieces, and take advantage of the chance to see these pieces from the Museum’s collections!

Thanks to my colleagues Rebecca Eddins, Meghan Maher, and Suzanne Inge for sharing their expertise.

Q:  Why are watercolors sensitive to light?

A:  Works on paper, such as watercolors, are inherently fragile because they are painted on natural fiber - paper.  Paper is particularly susceptible to damage caused by any light source.   Natural light (the sun), and man-made light (light bulbs), both cause deterioration of works on paper.  Ultraviolet radiation cannot be seen but is found in sunlight and fluorescent bulbs and is one of the primary causes of damage to watercolors. The technical term for light damage is photo-oxidation.  Chemical changes occur during photo-oxidation that can break down the structure of the paper and also cause fading of pigments used in paint.  The deterioration that is caused is irreversible.

Q:  What are the signs of damage that might be noticeable?

A:  You may notice overall fading or yellowing.  This can be most noticeable around the edges where the mat has protected a very small area from light and the contrast of unexposed color is the strongest.  You may also notice alteration of pigments; for example, green foliage may appear blue because the yellow component in the pigment has faded. Similarly, a bright blue sky may look yellow due to the yellowing on the paper underneath.

Q:  How can watercolors be preserved?

A:  Limiting the exposure to light increases the lifetime of a watercolor. As a result, we regularly rotate the works on paper in Reynolda’s collection.  We follow a schedule that most museums use of six months on view, followed by 18 months off-view.  Another important way to preserve works on paper is to lessen the amount of illumination that you use.  A basic rule of thumb in museums is to use less than 5 foot candles or 50 lux.  You can further mitigate damage by using ultraviolet filtered plexi-glass or glass when framing.  

Written with Water: American Watercolors from Homer to Close will be on view in the West Bedroom Gallery from Saturday, April 12, 2014 to September 14, 2014. This exhibition celebrates the distinctive qualities of the watercolor medium by examining works from 1881-1979. Artist Charles Burchfield once explained, “My preference for watercolor is a natural one. To paint in watercolor is as natural to me as using a pencil; whereas I always feel self-conscious when I use oil. Each work in this exhibition demonstrates the various ways artists use watercolors to evoke emotion and capture movement, time, and timelessness."

Image Credit: Winslow Homer (1936-1910), Watching from the Cliffs, 1881, Watercolor on paper, 13" x 19", Bequest of Anne Cannon Reynolds Forsyth, 2003.2.1.


Great information and now I have a better understanding of why this is done.

This is very interesting.  I never knew that watercolors were so fragile.

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