Preserving Works on Paper
I think the natural processes of what papers do should be accepted, even cherished and considered part of the process of the work. A little dignified fading is just fine in my book. As a collage artist I have a great love of very old papers. Many of the papers I have used over the years are as much as a couple of hundred years old. I am happy no one slathered some sort of preservative all over them. The pure wood pulp papers are something of a problem of course because they actually just turn to dust. If you look at early wood pulp papers from the 1880s and 90's, many of them you can hardly even touch any more. They are just crumbling. These types of papers definitely need the acrylic barrier. The internal acids are so strong that the paper is destroying itself regardless of preservation techniques short of putting the material in a deacidification liquid (which you can also use) However, I would like to stress that the look of many papers which will last a very long time - several hundred years - will be compromised by these techniques of layers of acrylic medium. So I would urge you not to use that technique indiscriminately. Additionally, consider the application. If possible thin your medium down quite a bit so as not to leave brush marks and unwanted texture on the papers. possibly even use a spray application. The papers that we use should be given the utmost respect and consideration as they are the very basis of what our work as collage artists is all about. The deterioration of the papers and inks is part of what we love about them.
One thing that can be done - and is what I do without exception - is to mount your works on heavy watercolor paper (or museum board). I prefer 300 lb paper and leave several inches between the image and the outer border of the base sheet. This will help prevent waves or warping of the paper. I usually leave about a 4-5 inch 'dead space' so, an 8 x 10 inch collage is mounted on an 18 x 20 inch base sheet of 300 lb watercolor paper. This allows the image to be isolated from the environment by having a 5 inch barrier allowing the work to be seen without interference from the surroundings which can effect the perception of the work. It also, when handled, prevents anyone's hand from ever touching the image in the middle of the paper, it also leaves plenty of room for the base paper to absorb all the bumps and tears and stains that never make it to the image in the center.
The other problem with works on paper is the surface getting scratched, rubbed or stuck to other surfaces from having other works stacked on top or stick to it. Therefore it is good to have some plastic bags to keep works in individually so they don't hurt each other. This kind of thing probably creates more damage in the artist's studio than natural deterioration.
Framing and Storage
Then there are two other aspects of preservation. Framing and Storage. If you use a UV sheet of glass or Plexiglas that will take care of the ultraviolet issue as well as the exposure to air or touch issue. Enemies that proper storage and framing will help with are: light, atmosphere, dust, moisture and insects (some of whom have a great love of paper too!) One of the biggest enemies of paper is direct sunlight. Keeping works out of the sun is one of the best things you can do for your art papers so invest in containers and drawer units that will store your papers and finished works in the dark. Also, keeping works in a dry, cool place helps a great deal too. Proper atmospheric conditions go a long way to ensure the longevity of your papers. Be sure also to keep the area where your papers are stored free of any kind of insects or vermin such as mice or rats. Many artists have lost vast amounts of work from putting their art in deep storage only to return years later to find that mice decided to set up house in the flat files. Imagine the horror of finding your life's work in this condition. Even framed work can suffer from moisture, mildew and insects so if you keep works framed be sure to inspect them carefully at least every six months. Works hanging on walls should be taken down now and again for cleaning and to check the backs of frames for any of these problems.
Remember, paper has always been intended as an ephemeral product and for indoor use only. Paper by its very nature is not something designed last for eternity and indeed, that is one of the things we love about it. But still with proper care most papers will last indefinitely into the future.
And if we happen to get our works into well-funded art museum collections and the works go up and up in value, we'll have a whole staff of people looking after the work long after we are gone. On the other hand, if our work is not destined for this kind of glorification, no matter what you do, it will suffer the fate of negligence and probable destruction. Some experts say, 90% of all art created will be destroyed within a generation. Here, the artist needs to intercede.
Adhesives : A Sticky Issue
After all of this preservation the other possible problem is the adhesive used. I personally use acrylic gel medium but you can use wheat paste, rice paste, wallpaper paste, billboard paste, Elmer's Glue, etc. But what you have to avoid are glue sticks and spray adhesives and rubber cement. These things yellow badly or loose their adhesive quality. After a number of years, the papers will become unattached. However, they are good for creating temporary paste-ups which are collages that you make strictly for the purpose of creating reproductions from them either by photographing them or scanning them so that the final work is not the collage or photo montage paste-up but the photographic image of it. In which case you would destroy the paste-up when finished with it and you would not care if it falls apart or yellows over time.
Cecil Touchon is an artist living and working in Dallas, Texas. His most recent solo exhibition was at BSG Modern, in Atlanta, Georgia. Touchon exhibits widely in the US and his work is collected privately and publicly. Touchon also curates the Collage Museum, which he has also founded. [Images above: Fusion Series #2282 - 13 x 10 inches - collage on paper; Cecil Touchon in his studio, Dallas, Texas; Fusion Series #1872 Collage on Paper, 12 x 9 inches; Fusion Series #2389, 2008, Collage on Paper, 9 x 6 inches]. Contact him via his website: Cecil Touchon.