Yesterday on the Strathmore Workshop blog I posted about "Using Non-Archival Paper Ephemera in Your Journals." I discussed how to encase non-archival paper ephemera if that matters to you (why and how). (If you would like to read about that for now you'll have to go and sign up for that workshop and read the internal blog. But since it's free, that's not really a hardship.)
Many of you may already know how to encase paper in acrylic media and I thought that I would really like to share information on which acrylic media to use here on my regular blog for all of you. That's why I've rewritten this post on using acrylic media for sealing or encasing for my regular (and non-workshop) readers.
Let's ask the obvious: Why would you want to seal or encase a bit of paper? Well because you don't know if it's acidic or not and archival issues are important to you.
Over on the workshop blog I encouraged people to ask a lot of questions about how much time and effort they want to put into the issue of archival materials. I once asked one of my favorite artists if he sold archival hardboard/masonite. I hadn't researched the board at all and was just investigating using it for my paintings. Since 99.9 percent of the time you're going to prep such board with gesso, it seems in retrospect a silly question. But he said instead: Roz, does everything you do have to last 500 years?
That was the best thing anyone ever said to me (related to art).
First off—NO, nothing I make has to (or will) last that long. People are not going to be looking at my bird paintings in 200 years from now, let alone 500. I'm not being humble, I'm being realistic. I make art because after a busy day of doing things that other people want me to do, I want to make stuff for myself. (Shhhhh—little secret, often I don't wait until the end of the day—I make things throughout the day, in the small breaks and "found time" of my day. Journaling is great for finding time.) Yes, sometimes I make stuff that people actually want to buy for themselves and that's great. But the underlying principle here is to make stuff regardless.
When it comes to my journals (which weren't what we were talking about on the hardboard day), those don't even have to last one day beyond my death. Because those journals are for me, just me.
I do use archival materials in my paintings so that people get an expectation, when they buy one, of some "lasting" value. You would be surprised how many artists don't care even marginally about this, and to them my artist friend would say, "they are employing the conservators of tomorrow."
I know that Dick, if he outlives me (and he plans to, and I don't mean that in any sort of ominous way, but with the gene pool he comes from it's more than probable) would like to have my journals when I'm gone, so let's just say my journals only need a lifespan of "my life + 10 years."
With that said, ANY additional time I spend on improving the archival nature of my journals is a net loss of time and materials when you think that it will take me away from the things I really, really love doing—drawing, painting, writing, thinking.
But sometimes situations arise when we want to take steps to "hedge our bets" so to speak. We don't want the acid from some bit of paper ephemera leaching through a journal page and staining a favorite painting. Or, more usual in my case, I don't want a pencil drawing to smudge.
Lots of people look through my journals and a certain toll is taken on them because of this. I always scan or photograph any spread I am particularly fond of the day I complete it. And if the media is smudge-able I consider what exposure the piece will have, i.e., lots of hands over it, or few. I might take pains to seal it with acrylic media, but more often I'll just insert a sheet of glassine. If I want to do something else to that smudge-able piece, then I get out the acrylic media and coat the surface.
That's what's under discussion—what to use when sealing your pieces of paper or art. To complete this task it is important to choose an acrylic medium that works in a way that will fit into your work (e.g., do you want to paint over it afterward with watercolor? with acrylic? use colored pencils?). It is also important to get the "finish" right in the sense of layering.
The most common mistake that artists make in this situation is to cling to one acrylic medium for ease of use (or because of ease of availability), without realizing what impact their choices are having on their artwork.
If you come away with nothing else from this post I hope you will remember this one simple thing:
Gloss (or clear), gloss, gloss, gloss, gloss [for as many layers as it takes, or you want to add], until your final layer. Then use gloss, satin, or matte, depending on the surface finish you want.
This is true with acrylic media and it is true when you are varnishing something. Gloss (or clear), gloss, gloss, gloss…then one layer only of satin or matte if you don't want the clear finish.
Why? Because if you use layers and layers of anything other than a clear/gloss medium you are adding layers and layers of opacifiers contained in that medium. (And remember, if you mix your acrylic paints with matte medium you are adding those same opacifiers into your paint. Some artists do this so that their final artwork will have a matte finish and not "shine" like some acrylic paints do. But if that's what you're doing consider instead using acrylic glazing media and applying a final coat of matte varnish. That process will give you the clearest colors. Or go to a different brand of acrylic paint? All I'm saying is think about the repercussions of your choices.)
People who use layer after layer of matte medium will see their colors dim, grow foggy, even muddy looking. There will be a growing film developing over their artwork. If this is the look that you are looking for—go for it. But if you spent hours laboriously laying in glazes of brilliant color that you want to shine through, save the matte medium for another project, or your final sealing layer (because you want a matte finish).
I use the following acrylic media to encase ephemera or to seal a finished artwork that is smudge-able (and in this latter case I only seal the surface of the piece, as explained in my earlier post). These media each have a distinct look and surface that I've noted after each.
(And for people not in the Strathmore Workshop, encasing is simply coating on both sides of the piece of ephemera to isolate it from the journal page, based on the manner in which a painter use gesso to isolate his paints from his board or canvas.)
REMEMBER ALL THESE METHODS ARE NON-REVERSIBLE SO TEST HOW ANY MEDIUM REACTS WITH A PARTICULAR SURFACE.
Gloss Gel Medium—If you are going to apply multiply layers of medium you want to use the gloss, as explained above. Gloss gel medium is excellent as a glue for heavier papers and cardstocks so it's a great medium to have around. The drawback to this medium for me is that it tends to have a more plastic feeling surface when finished. You may find that your pages stick together over time. Also this plastic surface makes it more difficult to do additional work OVER the encased and pasted down ephemera. However, if you like to work with fluid acrylics it will be a breeze to work over such pieces. I recommend that you create a large swatch of paper covered with two layers of gloss gel medium. On this swatch test your pens and paints and other media to see how they work for you (including dry media and rubberstamp ink). Retain this swatch for future reference. You might find yourself using an initial layer of gloss gel medium and then for your penultimate layer you might use matte medium or clear acrylic gesso to get the final working surface you want.
To avoid pages sticking together you might want to cut glassine sheets to insert between pages.
Clear Acrylic Gesso—I find that this medium gives you the protective qualities of gesso, with a clear finish that you can work on with a wide selection of media (including watercolor, gouache, colored pencil, graphite, etc.). I recommend this medium for "encasing" any paper products you want to isolate, for whatever reason (acidic paper, smudge-able medium). I apply this to pencil sketches that I want to include in my journal, but which I don't want to smudge. You can see an example of how I used clear acrylic gesso to protect pencil work from smudging here. The edges of the encased papers holding the sketches were then painted over with acrylic inks.
You can see a page spread where I protected the pencil work and then painted over it with watercolor here. Watercolor was deliberately handled delicately in this example. You can work with more intense washes if you wish on this surface.
For me the advantage of using clear acrylic gesso for encasing or protecting artwork in my journal as described yesterday is that it leaves a textured surface that is not "plastic" in feel. I find it easy to work on that surface with the other media I typically use in my journals (watercolors, gouache, pen, colored pencil). Because of the texture of the dried surface I find that even when similarly treated items are across the page from each other the pages do not stick together over time. The drawback to this medium is two fold—it is a bit more smelly than what I normally like to work with so I try to plan ahead and prepare and then air out the drying piece before it goes into my journal (not always possible). Second, the tooth of the final surface is so pronounced that if it is opposite a page where there is a gouache painting it will actually disturb the gouache (not exactly sand it away, but start to degrade it depending on how often you open and move these pages against each other). Keep that in mind.
Acrylic Matte Medium—This is my least favorite but I still use it upon occasion. Drawbacks with this medium include a plastic surface finish and the matte quality which even with one layer only is sometimes too much for me in terms of opacity. Also for me the final surface is not conducive for additional work, except if that work is additional acrylic painting. With a light layer of matte medium—such as needed to simply stop smudging not contain acidity—you can have success watercoloring and painting with gouache on the surface, but I generally prefer option 2. The exception is if I want sloppy wet washes to puddle on the plastic surface. Then I use a slightly thicker layer of matte medium to ensure a completely covered and plastic surface, and paint away on it in puddles, after the medium has dried. It makes a useful glue for some heavier weight cardstock items.
I recommend that you have all three acrylic media in your tool box, just in case. But before you use any of them, think about what your final goal is? Do you want to encase a piece of ephemera that is acidic? Do you want to stop a pencil drawing from smudging? Are you going to use more than one layer of medium? (If the last, then stick with clear/gloss until that final layer.)
I also recommend that you keep gloss, stain, and matte varnish around, for those times when you need to varnish. Again—gloss, gloss, gloss, until that final layer when you use the varnish with the finish you want for your final look.
In my Strathmore Workshop post I stressed the need for and use of non-yellowing acrylic resin spray to first stabilize the surface of your ephemera or artwork before you brush on one of the above media, if you have determined with testing that the motion of brushing will smudge or disturb the top of your paper piece, or your artwork. There are ways to be careful and to jump right in and skip the spray step, but they involve some practice and a little bit of "I don't care." As my workshop blog mentioned you can also eliminating the need for any of these steps and use conservation sprays which neutralize acidity—but they have their own set of costs and drawbacks.
Consider also keeping a finishing wax on hand for those pieces you don't want to seal or encase with acrylic media. You can use Dorlands Wax Medium or MicroGlaze (from skycraft.com). The latter is my favorite because of its pleasant smell and it has worked better for me. I will gently buff it onto finished gouache paintings upon occasion. I do not use these in addition to other media. They are a final layer. They are labor intensive, but might fit the task you have at hand.
I have friends who use wax on dry media such as pastel or graphite, but I find these smudge too much for me when I apply the wax. For friends using wax in this way they have already smudged their dry media in their artistic application, and the additional smudging that takes place during the wax application is viewed as minimal, or an enhancement.
As I've said repeatedly TEST. I recommend that you make a swatch of each of the acrylic media, as well as the waxes, as described under "Gloss Gel Medium." And that you keep these test swatches for future reference, selecting a finishing and sealing medium based on what each can do for you and what your additional plans are for that piece.
Whether you want to encase "suspect" ephemera or stop artwork from smudging know that using any of these methods is NON-REVERSIBLE. In addition each will require practice—for instance you might find it possible to brush over 6-B pencil work without smudging it whereas another artist may find it next to impossible. Alternately you might find that you have to stabilize all artwork with a spray (non-yellowing acrylic resin) before doing any brush application of sealing media, no matter how much time you practice. Sometimes it will simply take a different brush and a slower approach. It's all variable and you'll have to test it out.
Before you start any of this, ask yourself—is any of this necessary? Is your time better spent sketching more? Is it really that important that your drawing not smudge? Is it that important that the acid in your receipt from your shopping trip not leach into your page? What is the journal for you? How can you best work in it? How can you have the maximum amount of productive time with it? What satisfies you? Do I want to spend the extra money? Do I want to spend the extra time?
Only you have the answers to those questions. The rest is trying out the media, practicing, and deciding how they work for you.