Does Art Fade? Does Pencil Fade? Do Paintings Fade? I Found Out

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Over time most art mediums will change and some art fades. Fortunately, there are ways to prevent art from fading and keep your artwork looking new for years to come.

Graphite and Charcoal drawings do not fade, Indian and black pigment inks are permanent too. Some pigments used in artists’ paints fade over time. The varnish on oil paintings turns yellow and darkens over time. Acrylic paints were invented in the 1950s and so far, they’ve proven more stable than oils. Watercolor paints are more vulnerable to fading because the washes are so thin.

All quality artists’ paints use the same pigments but some are not as lightfast as others. This post covers all the major art mediums and offers advice on how to keep your art looking new.

Let’s start with the good news and cover drawing media first.

Do Pencil Drawings Fade?

If you want to leave your art for posterity, you can’t get much better than graphite. It will outlast you and generations to come if you treat your drawing with respect. In actual fact, it will probably outlast the paper it’s drawn on. That said, it will deteriorate if you expose it to extreme conditions, but why would you?

Everything breaks down if you expose it to the elements for long enough. Sunlight, heat, and humidity will all take their toll. Poor handling will gradually smudge and wear the graphite away.

If you frame a drawing, use archival paper, and keep it away from direct sunlight, then it will last for hundreds of years.

Modern pencils use graphite powder, a pure carbon, mixed with a clay binder. It’s lightfast and it’s stable.

Derwent Graphic pencil HB
Graphite is permanent

Mechanical pencil ‘leads’ are made of the same graphite as normal pencils but some brands use a plastic polymer as a binder instead of clay. I cannot find any information online that would indicate any problem with fading due to the polymer.

There is evidence that some colored ‘leads’ are not lightfast. The normal grades of pencil-grey are fine.

Charcoal pencils are made of compressed charcoal dust and held together with a gum binder. Vine and willow charcoal sticks and charcoal powder contain no binders. They are lightfast and as permanent as graphite.

Carbon Pencils use a black pigment made from soot leftover from burning oil. They are permanent too.

Sanguine pencils are made of red ochre, an iron oxide chalk. It’s an earth pigment used for centuries and lasts for just as long as the drawings of Leonardo Da Vinci prove.

Do Drawing Inks Fade?

Black Indian inks are available as waterproof and non-waterproof inks but both are made using the same permanent carbon black pigment. A shellac binder is used to make Indian ink waterproof. Colored inks are not permanent.

Indian inks can be applied with a brush, diluted with water, and painted like watercolor. They can also be used with a pen nib.

Most modern artists use disposable permanent ink pens. They come with varying nib sizes starting from 0.05mm for superfine lines. The black inks are excellent for use with watercolors and line and wash work.

My favorite brand is the Sukura Pigma Micron Fineliner Pen. I had a different style to most artists using pen and ink. I kept all the old pens as they ran out of ink and used the grey ink to draw halftones. The results looked more like etchings than pen drawings.

Further Reading: What’s the Right paper for Pencil Drawing?

Not only were they permanent, but I could also add a simple watercolor wash and tint them.

So drawing media are very safe to use if you use the right acid-free paper. The problem with fading is really confined to certain color pigments which we will cover next.

Do Oil Paintings Fade?

On the face of it you’d think that oil paintings have stood the test of time but in reality, many of the old paintings we see now have suffered greatly since they were originally painted.

Not only do old oil paintings crack, but the varnish turns yellow or darkens. Some pigments darken, while others fade away, and some change color entirely.

If the old masters could return to see what happened to their paintings, they would weep.

Modern oil paints are far more stable than their predecessors. Manufacturers have tackled many of the problems the old masters faced, but not all.

Quality artists’ paints from recognized brands all come with a permanence rating to help artists choose stable colors. These grades may appear as Roman numerals, stars, or letters, and as is so often the way, there is no universal standard grading system that applies. Each company follows its own criteria.

Paintbrush: Oil painting fading issues
Oil Paints: Permanence ratings differ

It’s the best guide you’ve got so to play safe you should choose only those pigments with the highest ratings.

It’s not always clear from the tube and you may have to refer to the companies own websites to guide you properly but suffice it to say you are looking for both ‘extremely permanent’ and ‘permanent colors.

Then it gets confusing.

The lightfastness rating is sometimes different from the permanence rating. It’s as if these companies are hell-bent on ambiguity.

Lightfastness is purely a measure of the effects of UV light on the pigment. Permanence is a measure of all the other environmental and atmospheric factors that come into play.

Before we all lose the will to live, just take notice of the best performing paints. They are usually described in Roman numerals and the best colors are level l and level ll paints.

If you limit your palette and mix only the most durable colors you will not encounter a serious problem. Unstable and fugitive colors will fade, so don’t use them.

Why Do Old Paintings Darken?

The main culprit responsible for darkening is not the paint itself unless we are talking about antique art, but the varnish used to protect it.

Most artists will varnish an oil painting, not only to preserve their painting but to enhance it too.

Painters in the past would use a natural organic resin to coat their art. This layer darkens and yellows over time as it collects the dirt and grime of everyday life.

Restorers can usually remove that layer to restore the vibrancy. That’s the great benefit of painting in oils. The varnish can be removed and refreshed without lifting off the paint.

Modern varnishes are synthetic and more stable and degrade at a slower rate. They can be removed with the correct solvents.

After saying all this, some artists still refuse to use a final coat of varnish and glaze their oil paintings with UV-protected glass.

This glazing slows the aging process and does not halt it.

Do Acrylic Paintings Fade?

Acrylic paints have the same pigment issues as oils. You have to choose lightfast colors.

The main difference between the two mediums is the paint binder.

Oil paints use vegetable oils, usually linseed oil, and they have a natural yellow bias. This yellowing intensifies with age as the paint slowly oxidizes.

Acrylic paints have a clear plastic polymer as a binder. Acrylic dries quickly and stabilizes. Not only does that prevent the same degree of yellowing, but it also prevents the brittle cracking so typical of oil paintings.

Varnishing an acrylic painting presents a problem for the artist. The same solvents used to remove varnish will also remove acrylic paint.

You can leave the painting as it is and hang it away from the sun, use UV glass and protect it that way, or apply an isolation layer (https://cowans.org/products/golden-gloss-uv-topcoat) and varnish over that.

Paintbrush. Fading issues with acrylics
Acrylic Paints: More reliable than oils but the same lightfast issues

An isolation gel will seal the painting in a clear non-removable layer that acts as a barrier to applying varnish as a final coat. The varnish can safely be removed at a later date without destroying the painting.

Another quirk of using acrylic paints, something it has in common with watercolor, is the tendency to ‘fade’ as it’s drying.

This takes some getting used to. Wet paint appears darker and dries lighter. Somehow the learner must predict the results beforehand. If they don’t they’ll have to backtrack, constantly.

It’s worth noting that acrylic paints have only been commercially available since the 1950s and everything we know about their longevity is based on lab tests in ideal conditions and from a relatively short timeline in the real world.

Do Watercolor Paintings Fade?

This is the big one. Yes, they do. Not because they are less stable, as I’ve said the pigments are the same.

Watercolor is particularly prone to fading because of the way it’s applied. It’s usually layered in very thin washes, from light to dark and these very translucent washes bleach out in UV light.

Watercolors must never be hung in direct sunlight.

All watercolors must be glazed, preferably in UV-protected ‘museum glass’. This will filter out 98% of the harmful rays and cut out the glare.

If the painting is displayed indoors, away from the direct sun, there is no reason why watercolors shouldn’t have the same lifespan as the other paints.

How Do You Keep Your Art From Fading?

Simple rules apply when protecting art.

  • Keep your painting out of direct sunlight
  • Control humidity – 50-55% is optimal
  • Lightly dust the surface and never use solvents
  • Don’t hang art too near a heat source.
  • Use only lightfast paints
  • Varnish oil paintings
  • Use UV protective glass or acrylic plexiglass
  • Use UV film on your windows
  • Store in a dark place

Quite apart from the UV light, general care means you should take care to make sure that all materials coming into contact with your art with art is PH neutral. That includes your paper, canvas, matboard, backing boards, and tape.

Clean glass with a micro-fiber cloth with ammonia-free glass cleaner, or use a dedicated acrylic glass cleaner. Be very aware that acrylic plexiglass scratches very easily. Use a clean cloth, not an old scratchy one.

Do Art Prints Fade?

Expensive art prints should be treated with the same respect as original paintings and displayed with all the same care and attention.

Offset litho prints have been around since 1875 and until the last decade or so, most artists reproduced their art using this process. Nowadays most artists are selling Giclee digital prints instead.

Offset-litho prints are brilliant for printing in volume. It is still the only way to mass-produce high-quality printed matter. But they are no longer the best way to reproduce fine art. Times have changed.

White rhino sitting in the shade drawing
Rhino drawing (Offset Litho Print)

The black pigment ink used for offset-litho prints has a very long lifespan and can be described as archival. Anyone printing in monochrome, using just this single ink has nothing to worry about.

In research, the only problem I had was getting a definitive answer to the lightfastness of the colored inks used in offset-litho printing. The best answer I could find was a 30-year lifespan and I stand by that until unless I find out anything more.

In truth, few buyers will be conscious of any fading because the process is so gradual.

Giclee prints, on the other hand, have an estimated lifespan of about 100 years, and longer in storage. Giclee pigment inks are designed to meet the high demands of artists and photographers wishing to reproduce and/or sell their prints as valuable and permanent items.

Dye printers, by contrast, produce superb prints with rich and vibrant colors but are not considered archival. They use synthetic dyes with a lifespan of about 25-30 years.

There is nothing wrong with selling art prints with a shorter lifespan but ethically they should never be sold at a premium. They are fine for such things as greeting cards, posters, and cheap open edition prints.

Giclee prints are more suitable for limited editions.

Conclusion

Drawing media are mostly permanent. The major exception being colored inks that are not lightfast. Colored drawing media, such as pastels and colored pencils, contain the same pigments as paint with the same variability.

Paints all have the same issues with rogue fugitive colors. Best practice dictates that artists should limit their palettes to those colors with a high, or very high, permanence rating.

Cheap color prints are likely to fade. More expensive modern Giclee prints will last a lifetime in normal circumstances.

Please note that fluorescent colors will fade quite quickly.

Now you know as much about fading as I do. I researched the information and double-checked the facts.


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