Light and artworks

Although art cannot be enjoyed without light, it is important to be aware that light can cause permanent damage to prints, drawings, textiles and even paintings.

When it comes to our artwork, we tend not to give light much thought until the damage is done. Heat and light accelerate fading and discoloration, but the amount of destruction depends on the intensity and duration of exposure to these elements.

All light can be damaging to art, but invisible ultraviolet rays from sunlight and fluorescent light cause the most damage. You need to be concerned, not only about sunlight coming in through windows and skylights, but also light from lamps and light fixtures within the home or office environment.

Avoid hanging light-sensitive art in direct or reflected sunlight. Draw blinds or shades during the brightest part of the day to help prevent damage. If this is not possible, it is best to hang the piece in an interior hallway where the lighting can be controlled. There are other options to consider. Try rotating works of art periodically. Or, utilize the excellent copying technologies available today; you can have a copy made (if there is not a copyright issue) and framed, storing the original in a preservation-quality storage box or folder.

Ultimately, problems arise with long-term exposure to light. A major factor is the intensity of the light. Try to avoid illuminating artwork with picture lights; if this is not possible, use low-wattage incandescent bulbs. Turn on the light only when you are viewing the piece. This will keep the heat and the exposure to light at a minimum. If fluorescent light can't be avoided, as in most offices, the tubes should always be covered with special cylindrical sleeves that filter the ultraviolet rays.

Not all objects are equally light-sensitive. Textiles are generally considered very sensitive, with silk being the most sensitive fiber. Oil paintings are categorized as moderately light-sensitive. They do not fade like watercolors, but they can lighten or discolor. Some particularly light-sensitive materials include inks in some felt-tipped markers and ballpoint pens, pastels, watercolors and gouache; however, due to their chemical makeup not all colors are equally light sensitive.

The causes of artwork deterioration are not cut and dry. There are many variables that you must try to control as best you can. Fortunately, with a little effort, light is one of these variables over which you have a great deal of control.

Look for the purple and white Professional Picture Framers Association (PPFA) member decal on a shop door or window!

The horse under the rider no longer exists due to light damage

(Image from 'How to Care for Works of Art on Paper' Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)