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Seeing in Different Ways: A Liz Magor Backpack Project
Seeing in Different Ways:
A Liz Magor Backpack Project

Why Paper Discolours (Part 2)
Why Paper Discolours (Part 2)

Why Paper Discolours (Part 1)
Why Paper Discolours (Part 1)

Mending a Tear in an Aboriginal Drum
Mending a Tear in an Aboriginal Drum

Distortions and Dimensional Changes
in Paper (Part 3)
Distortions and Dimensional Changes
in Paper (Part 3)

Distortions and Dimensional Changes
in Paper (Part 2)

Distortions and Dimensional Changes
in Paper (Part 1)

After treatment
Oscar Cahén: Innovative Conservation
for an Innovative Artist

Rigid Water Gels: New Treatment Options for Paper Conservators

Structural Remedies for Canvas Paintings

Organizing and Preserving Collections - Part 4: Digital-based Material

Organizing and Preserving Collections - Part 3: Photo-based Material

Organizing and Preserving Collections - Part 2: Paper-based Material

First Steps
Organizing and Preserving Collections - Part 1: The First Steps

Natural Dyes
The Use of Natural Dyes in Textile Conservation

A Relocation Project

Challenges of Preserving Contemporary Artwork

Preserve Your Investment through Art Conservation

A Project Completed: Heritage Preserved

Old and New Methods for Cleaning Paintings

I Can See Clearly Now – Or Can I? Part 2

I Can See Clearly Now – Or Can I?

The E.J. Hughes Mural: An Expanded Project

Is She or Is She Not an Emily

Treating Art with Sensitive Media

Malaspina Mural: An Update

For the Artist: Testing Your Materials

Conservator as Art Historian

Alum Sizing and the Art of W.J. Phillips

Treatment of an Elizabeth Keith Wood Block Print

Structural Treatment of an Emily Carr

The Treatment of a Monumental Wall Hanging

Changing Images

Preserving a Rare Record

Gold Leaf: Imitation and Genuine

The Case Against Canvas Backings

Heritage Colours: Research Discovers Original Colours

Lighting Your Art: Balancing Seeing and Protecting

The Double-Sided Emily Carr Painting

Choosing a Period Picture Frame

How to Identify a Picture Frame

Stretching Canvas and Restretching Artwork

Mounting Textiles

Aging Paintings:
Some Causes and Effects

Chine Collé Prints

What's Your Favourite Color?

Backing Removals

Rips, Holes and Tears

Filling in the Gaps

DIY – Preventative Care of Paintings

Frame it Right

Fire, Water and Smoke-Damaged Paintings

Inherent Vice

Saturated Problems:
A Water-Damaged Painting

Moldy Paper

Conserving Time

Conserving Paper: Dos and Don'ts

Repair of Textiles

Conserving Wood

Rescuing Endangered Murals

Repairing Acid-Matte Burn

Art Services & Materials
Exhibition Openings & Events

  Conservation Corner Back

Original backing savedThe original backing with artist’s sketch at bottom centre, can be saved in its entirety. [right] An unplyed backing board is thinned bit by bit
Thinning backing board

Backing Removals

by Rebecca Pavitt
Conservator, Pacific Conservators
Vancouver, BC

PHOTOS AND ART on paper are sometimes backed onto rigid materials. This practice first gained wide popularity in the 19th Century, when machine made paperboards became readily available. Wet (paste or glue) and dry (heat activated) adhesives have been used to attach art to backings, each coming with its own set of advantages and drawbacks. The obvious purpose of backing art is to keep it flat. Why then would one want to remove it?

The usual reason is stabilization. Although high quality, chemically stable paperboards are easily available now, this was not always the case. The majority of paperboards used in the past were made of poor quality, acidic wood pulp with unstable sizes. Volatile acids and peroxides generated by these paperboards often discolour and weaken artworks. Poor quality paper boards can also, over time, become quite fragile. It is not unusual to see artworks broken and cracked when their brittle backing boards snapped. Stronger materials like plywood, chipboard, masonite, and doorskins, have also been used for backings. These usually don’t break, but they do emit volatile pollutants which damage and discolour paper and media. Poor quality adhesives like rubber cement and early shellac-based drymount tissues can also stain and damage artworks.

Another reason to remove a backing is to ready an artwork for conservation treatment. Overall discolouration, stains, and tears are most easily treated without the complication of a backing.

Backings affect the look of art on paper, and there are cyclic trends in the popularity of backed and unbacked works of art on paper. Mountings which are not original to the art may be removed in order to regain the more relaxed look of a free sheet of paper. Monetary value is also a consideration when deciding to keep or remove a backing. A watercolour with an original, artist-applied backing might be devalued if the mount is removed. Alternatively, removing a backing that is not original, and interferes with the intended “look” of the piece, can increase the value of an artwork.

After weighing the pro’s and con’s, the owner may decide to have a backing removed. How is this done? Usually, the first step is to thin the backing as much as possible, to allow easier access to the adhesive. If the backboard is laminated, it can be split along a ply line. This makes it a simple matter to save important inscriptions on the reverse of the board, or gallery labels for later encapsulation. If the board is unplyed, saving inscriptions, etc., is a bit trickier, but still almost always possible. Unplyed boards are peeled down bit by bit until there is only a thin layer of paperboard and/or facing paper left.

If the binding adhesive is water based, paper and adhesive residue are softened using moisture and sometimes heat, and slowly removed from the reverse of the art. Drymount adhesives can usually be softened with organic solvents but polyvinylacetate emulsions (white glues, like Elmers) are permanent.

Backing removals can be time consuming, but most paper conservators enjoy this alpha-wave inducing task. Occasionally, backing removals reveal hidden inscriptions and sketches on the reverse of the artwork, giving a rewarding sense of discovery and connection with the artist and their art.

Conservation is an engaging combination of science, art and a participation in the guardianship of artwork and history. For more information visit the FACTS (Fine Art Care and Treatment Standards) website at www.artfacts.org.

Last issue: Rips, holes and tears
Next issue: History of pigments

 Fri, Feb 1, 2008