How Important Is It To Use Archival Materials?

by Jean Pederson

To be or not to be archival, that is the question. When we know more about the archival qualities of our materials do we choose to use them? Should we as artists be concerned about using archival materials? I always seem to go back to intentions but isn’t that what art is all about? Intentions form the backbone of choices when creating our artwork.

mixed media art by Jean Pederson

The B’s and D’s (mixed media, 30×60)
This painting was inspired by my experience working on the Farm Fragments series. I learned about the quality of pigments from watercolors. Transparent and opaque, light and dark, thick and thin, flat and round all came about from earlier explorations, and this experience served me when moving into acrylics and mixed media.

Ask yourself these two questions to help you decide how important archival materials are within your process.

• Do I want my work to be disposable or enduring?
For some artists the process is more important than longevity (performance art is a great example of this concept). Cost may also be a factor. Students, for example, may opt for less expensive student-grade or hardware-store supplies. Because students are practicing technique and expanding their personal voice, they may not require longevity within the finished product.

• Is the work for sale? Will the work go into a collection?
Many artists have the privilege of being included in public and private collections. Collectors will want the artwork to be stable for as long as possible.

mixed media art by Jean Pederson

Using found object will create archival issues as they materials are almost certainly not acid free or light fast. My Farm Fragments series incorporated pieces of the old homestead for materials to build assemblages. The visual impact and concept would have suffered without the authentic parts from the past.

When new ideas are hatched, permanency may not be at the forefront. Many of the first mixed-media works incorporated materials that weren’t archival, such as cardboard, fugitive paints, acidic glues and collage paper. Conservators are now faced with issues to try to extend the lifetime of these precious, fragile pieces.

When choosing your materials, research their archival rating; many materials list this information on the package. Museum-grade materials are intended to last indefinitely–pigments are lightfast, papers have neutral PH and are alkaline-buffered, and so on. This is a tough order as permanence in art materials is difficult to achieve. Even if the materials are rated high for archival stability, other factors (lighting, temperature, etc.) can impact the longevity of your artwork.

Artists’s methods, application, and display environment can all factor into the long-term stability of the piece.

• Are you using the materials properly?
Painting on an improperly prepared surface can result in an unstable support, leading to paint flaking. Proper technique will contribute to a more stable and long-lasting artwork. For example, a common thought when using oil paint is to apply fat over lean. Some layers of paint can dry and shrink faster than others, leading to crazing. The best paint will crack if the paint is applied with poor technique.

• How are you storing the materials and paintings?
The environment can impact the longevity of your paint and paintings. Acrylic paints don’t do well if frozen; acrylic paint can become spoiled from freezing and dried acrylic will become brittle when frozen, and therefore prone to cracking.

There is certainly a lot to think about, so where do you stand? Perhaps the best step is to become educated and then use your muse to make artistic decisions moving forward. Have the freedom to make choices based on your intentions and be ready to accept the consequences!

Learn more from Mixed Media Artist Jean Pederson
• Mixed Media Painting Workshop: Explore Mediums, Techniques, and the Personal Artistic Journey (book or download)
• Expressive Portraits: Watercolor and Mixed Media Techniques (paperback)
• Wet Glazing Watercolor Portrait (DVD)
• Watercolor Artist, August 2011: Create the illusion of depth in your paintings with these simple tips and helpful illustrations of linear and aerial perspective. (article)
• See her work at

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