Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Dye Based, Acid Free Papers... Fade Badly.

Today I received an email from a friend about trouble he had with toned Strathmore Paper. I started answering and then though it might be of interest to someone else, so... 

Here's his letter to me, the response from Stratmore and my suggestions, including the best paper in the world. 

Hi Dorian,

How are you buddy? I wanted to get your opinion and I thought you might be interested in this paper tech issue. I generally don't use out of the pad type papers but I had purchased an "artagain" pad from Strathmore on a whim, its a 400 series tinted paper, its smooth and good to draw on. Long story short-see attached drawing! It faded within about 14 months. 

This guy tells me this is normal for a 400 series acid free and lignin free paper? I have several drawings on this paper that I can't sell for obvious reasons and the only thing he is offering is sending a sample of a "so-called" better quality paper to buy, where this won't happen? 

This is what is expected he says!?! Am I missing something here, I have newsprint that outlasted this strathmore 400 series. I realize that dyes are not as lightfast but the pad does not advertise anything but 400 series and acid free, it should be labeled as craft paper.

Anyway hope all is well, talk soon.


Hi Joel, 

Yes, that's the problem with most of their paper line and most papers in general. To sum up quickly, I'll give you my short answer and then a slightly more detailed explanation with links if you want to know more. 

Short Answer: 
It's a good idea to consider "acid free" as craft paper. It's basically the same, with a chemical treatment to change the PH balance. The treatment is not permanent and not even remotely to be considered archival.  
As far as paper goes, Fabriano makes the best paper in the world. It's not even a close contest. Nothing even compares. Here's a link to what I use: Best Paper
If you want a toned surface, tone it yourself with watercolor, gouache, acrylic, ink or some other archival color that has been tested. You can always test colors yourself if you don't trust the labeling. If you want something smooth like the commercially prepared papers, use an airbrush.

Almost all commercially toned papers are colored with dyes. Yes, it fades… badly. This is obviously the case with many 19 century drawings. Many Prud'hon drawings come to mind but many others have had this issue.

 I don't think it diminishes the value of their drawings in the market but I know how you feel. 

You want to sell something that was created with a high standard of materials. It's disappointing to find out that a reputable company you like sells inferior quality materials. Still, I think if someone likes your drawing they'll still like it if the background color fades. That said, if you want to work off a toned surface, it's probably a better idea to tone the paper yourself with archival quality paint. 

As a side note of interest, I've just completed an ink test using the finest Museum UV glass available on the market. It's designed specifically to help protect against the fading issues. All I can say is, I'm not too impressed. I'll post the results in another post. 

To stay competitive everyone produces, what to us are "craft papers" for sale. However, if you know what's what then you can avoid those papers and stick to the good quality papers.

Details (in short): 
Acid Free paper is really acidic paper that has been treated to help it last longer. There are varying degrees of quality but none of it should be used for anything art related. Unless of course you're just sketching. This is how the manufactures justify offering this quality of paper for us to draw on. In all fairness, it is less expensive paper. Less expensive is often the bottom line for most people. 

I was once in conversation with a manufacturer and was surprised to learn that only 10% of the market for art materials is consumed by professionals. By that measure, it's a miracle we have anything of quality to use period. 

Acid free will eventually become acidic and then highly acidic. In a pad, the process takes longer. This makes perfect sense if you consider that the standard for acid free was designed for use in printed books. Exposed to light the acidic process can take as little as a month. I did my archival ink test on acid free paper and you can see what happened to it in short order. (yellowed and brittle) 

"Paper made from wood-based pulp that has not had its lignin removed turns yellow, becomes brittle, and deteriorates over time. When exposed to light and/or heat, the molecules in the acidic paper will break down even faster. Acidic wood-pulp paper became commonplace in the late 19th century, and in the 1930s William Barrow (a chemist and librarian) published a report about the deterioration of acidic paper in the libraries. For fear of the gradual disintegration of written materials, measures have since been taken to improve the quality of paper." (Wikipedia link)

Although obviously everyone knew of this problem, amazingly it wasn't until the mid 1980's that any standard was established for the USA and the mid 1990's that there was an international standard. Still, it's a pretty weak standard allowing for as little as 2% alkaline to consider something acid free. Additionally, I don't think any of us would be surprised to learn that China was making the paper for most companies and we know how relaxed they are about standards. 

There are all sorts of interesting fillers that go into making acid free papers but the main thing to keep in mind when you buy acid free paper it's basically treated newsprint and should be used only for quick sketches. 

There are specially designed pens you can buy to test your paper but when you're going to do something of quality, only 100% rag is archival. 

Problem solved?… Not really. Not all 100% rag papers are made equally.  With some papers you may have noticed difficulties in handling and small tears when attempting any type of rendering. I won't mention names but one very popular company beginning with the letter "A" that dominates the market sells very inferior paper.

The best paper again is made by Fabriano. Nothing even comes close. 


  1. Thanks Dorian, I'm glad you posted this information, sometimes it takes a hard lesson to gain knowledge about a particular artistic product. It is unfortunate that a products shortcomings are hidden beneath a well known name and packaging. Yes, I absolutely agree about Fabriano papers, nothing seems to match their quality, I love their paper and recommend them highly. You're also correct in saying one should tone their own, first to know what the artist is dealing with and second it becomes custom in texture, washes and color.

    Unfortunately, it has faded so badly I can not sell it and sleep at night knowing this could be a bleached square in another year. This was done from life but I will redraw it on sound paper.

    Thanks for your research and response, as you mentioned knowledge is key. It is difficult to study all the properties in the plethora of artistic products out there and that is why this is important to talk about with fellow artists. I would love to see more technical posts along with the art. Great Job Dorian talk soon my friend!

  2. My pleasure Joel. I too get frustrated with the way many companies don't quite offer up all the information you need to know in order to make a purchase that is in alignment with your values.

    Research is good but ultimately, when you really want to know, you absolutely have to test for yourself.

    Sadly, when you do that a huge portion of your art supplies are no longer usable for archival work.

    One of the most frustrating things to me is the ink in ball point pens like a Bic Pen. Everyone I know loves to draw with them and they fade to NOTHING! The manufactures that produce ball point pens with ink claiming permanence according to an internationally agreed upon standard are basically the same.

    When I was younger, I never understood why more experienced artists than I were so adamant about making their own materials. Now I do.

    Happily in this case there are other options.

  3. This is a fantastic post. And very timely, I've been going on a kick of drawing light/dark on toned paper. I will definitely transition to 100% rag that I tone myself.

    For painting, I generally go with primed 100% rag printmaking paper, but it doesn't have the best tooth for drawing. I will give the Fabriano a shot.

    1. I'm glad you liked it Jesse. I think you'll find the Fabriano Paper to your liking. Personally, I love it. Hmmmm... did I mention that already?

      Another benefit of toning the paper yourself is that you'll be encouraged to experiment in all sorts of ways which will create a unique look to your work, unlike the mechanical look of the commercially prepared papers.

      Thanks for taking the time to write.

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