How to Store Drawings Safely: The Ultimate Guide

How to store drawings safely header

Have you ever had a drawing ruined because it was not properly protected? It is heartbreaking to see your hard work lost, and you don’t want to risk that happening again. There are a number of things you can do to store your drawings at home, and just as importantly, in transit.

Mount each drawing using an acid-free mat board and backboard, and use acid-free framers tape. Make sure everything is dry and wrap them in clear polypropylene. Separate each drawing with foamboard dividers. Store in a stable environment, ideally at about 70°F (21°C), with about 50% humidity levels.

This blog post will go over how different types of drawings should be stored as well as some tips on carrying them with ease. Let’s get started!

Storing Your Drawings: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Why can’t you just pop them in a box? You can of course but life is full of ‘ifs and buts’ and there’s more than one type of box.

It took me a few minutes to compile this list of mishaps and unforeseen problems, some of which you wouldn’t guess in a month of Sundays.

Take a look at this:

  • Damp stains,
  • Mold and Mildew,
  • Buckles and Creases,
  • Smudges,
  • Dirty fingers,
  • Tape Gum,
  • Grease and oil spots,
  • UV Light,
  • Dead and Squashed Insects,
  • Acid spots,

I’m stressed just writing it. So getting the storage right is important if you value your hard work, your expensive purchase, or your cherished gift.

The No1 Problem With Storing Drawings

Humidity. Mold will destroy your paper.

You should keep your drawings in a temperature-controlled environment, without extreme fluctuations. Ideally, with a humidity level of about 40-50% and a consistent temperature of between 21 and 24 degrees Celsius or 70-75 degrees Fahrenheit.

In a perfect world, we would all have a dedicated thermostat controlled storage room or live in a benign climate, but for most of us, we need to store our drawings in less than ideal conditions.

These are places to avoid:

  • Don’t use the attic
  • Don’t use the basement
  • Don’t store them in the garage
  • Don’t store art against the radiator
  • Don’t store art on the floor
  • Don’t store art in full sun

Choose a small room, preferably with no natural light, a closet will be fine. As long as there are no obvious signs of damp it’ll be OK. If it smells musty and you have no other option, get a dehumidifier and dry it out.

Dehumidifier and silicon tubs needed to store drawings
Dehumidifier and silicon tubs

Don’t store your drawings, or any art for that matter, on the floor. Any number of mishaps can occur, so elevate your art off the ground. Make a shelf or use a storage rack.

If your drawings are framed, or wrapped and mounted, store them upright as if they were books on a bookshelf. Better still, if you have space, hang your framed work.

What If The Drawing is Moldy?

If the worst happens and you do notice some mold spots on an old drawing, all is not lost.

Dry the paper out. Put it in the sun for an hour or use a hairdryer. Don’t go overboard with the heat, you don’t want to warp the paper.

When mold dries it becomes powdery. Take a soft paintbrush, or make-up brush, and gently stroke away the dust. Remove any residual stains with a kneaded eraser. You may even have to draw over some areas to help in the disguise.

Further Reading: 8 Ways to Repair Drawing Paper

If your artwork is drawn on very thick paper you might be able to use a mold killer if you are very careful. Use a fine mist sprayer and dab bad spots with a cotton bud. Let it dry completely. If you are wise you will test it out on a similar surface first.

Don’t overspray, a very light spray will do. Repeat the process if necessary.

If your drawing is very precious don’t risk doing it yourself and take it to an art restorer.

The Most Common Storage Problem With Drawings

I learned the hard way and I couldn’t figure out where I was going wrong. It seemed that every time I looked at my old drawings they were smudged and in need of repair.

It drove me mad.

I thought I was doing everything right. I used acid-free paper, I divided my drawings with plastic sleeves and tissue paper, and still I’d see those dirty smears left behind on all the surfaces.

The mistake I made was allowing ANYTHING to touch the surface of the paper. The cumulative effect of hundreds of tiny movements rubs and agitates the surface, creating an extra, barely discernable, layer of graphite.

You don’t always know it’s happened until you use an eraser on a clean area. The results can be dramatic. The white of the paper is lost and far from being intact, the whole drawing is dulled down and muted.

Further Reading: How to Prevent Your Drawing From Smudging.

I realized that every time I got my work out to look at them or added new work to the folder, I was causing an unintended micro-friction. I had all my drawings stored in those clear portfolio sleeves you buy in art stores and they looked perfectly fine; that is until I took them out.

It was only when I removed the drawings from their sleeves that I saw the graphite shadow impressed upon the inside. It was a real headache.

All that hard work had to be repaired. You may never recover the original sparkle but, thankfully, you can bring it back to something approaching its original state, with a bit of TLC.

How to Keep Your Drawings Safe in Transit

If the problem of smudging your own drawings is bad enough at home, it’s nothing compared to traveling with them.

I would take my drawings to show clients or take them to get scanned and I didn’t realize what was happening.

They vibrated in the car!

I can see the smudges in some of my earliest scans because I’d scanned damaged drawings. I’ve since corrected everything but it just goes to show how easily things can go wrong.

It was also the case that showing my drawings to people caused inadvertent problems. Other people routinely try to touch the surface. They think it’s OK because there’s a clear sleeve acting as a barrier. I now know that the graphite lifts off even with a finger touch.

So what’s the answer?

There are two ways to solve the problem.

Mount the drawing with an acid-free matt and backing board and cover it in a cellophane (or polypropylene) wrap. That keeps the surface nice and clean.

The other way is to sandwich your display sleeves or a drawing pad between two backing boards and clamp them tightly with bulldog clips. This works a treat.

I can backpack with a sketchpad and save my drawings by clamping them together, it’s that effective. My only traveling modification is using acrylic plastic instead of cardboard.

Should You Use Fixative?

You might conclude that I could avoid many of my hassles by fixing the artwork. It’s a fair point but I don’t use fixative and I’ll tell you why.

First of all, fixative is not as great as you imagine. The brands and quality vary. I would certainly not risk using an unknown brand and I NEVER-EVER use a hairspray.

And secondly it darkens your picture. Don’t believe the advertising blurb. Nothing is crystal clear, it’s a coat of varnish. You might be able to seal graphite but you will alter the tonal values in the process.

Winsor and Newton pencil fixative
Only use a trusted brand of fixative

Now that’s fine if you do it intentionally, not great if you have labored for hours perfecting your drawing and with a final flourish of spray, see it change before your eyes.

Further Reading: How to Protect and Preserve Your Drawings

I’ve rescued drawings that were too light by using a fixative and I’ve routinely fixed pastel to seal each layer as I painted. That’s all.

How Do You Store Your Drawings?

I keep my drawings in portfolio cases and plastic storage boxes. They are all individually wrapped and seldom touched unless I have an interested buyer.

I don’t have a safe room or closet, in fact, I don’t have anywhere safe to put anything, I live on a boat!

There couldn’t be a more hostile environment so for much of the time I store my originals with my family or in a storage unit.

When my drawings are aboard, I put them in a plastic storage box, along with a tub of silicone desiccant and I seal the container with clingfilm, just to make sure. During the lockdown when I got trapped on the boat for a whole winter (the 1st time in over 20 years) I stored all my prints this way and I didn’t lose one.

storage box for prints and drawings with silicon tubs
Plastic storage box with silicon desiccant

Once upon a time, when I lived more conventionally, I stored my art under the bed. Not ideal, but within a plastic container it was fine. Unless you make enormous art you’ll find a suitable box.

Take my advice and make sure the base of your box is flat and not indented. Line it with foamboard if you need to. If you are concerned about the humidity do as I do and put a desiccant inside and wrap the box in clingfilm. Put the lid on top.

If you are rich you can buy one of those cabinets you see in the art shops that hold large sheets of paper. A handyman could put something together. Just be careful about storing paper on wood, it’s acidic. You need an archival PH neutral barrier.

I store prints upright during my selling season and sometimes I encounter a problem that’s worth mentioning.

art storage box, prints, and tags
My well-used filing system

Loose paper wants to settle. Eventually paper starts to curve down to fill a space. The curve can become permanent so make sure you pack your prints tightly together.

I use a box to store my prints upright with dividers and a name tag, like a filing system. If I leave too much space, the prints want to sag so I bulk it out with foamboard. Everything is nice and compact.

How to Handle Paper Properly

One of the reasons things go wrong in storage is careless handling. I am always amazed when I see someone abusing the paper by having no idea how to pick it up properly.

It’s bad enough watching a shop assistant ruin a perfectly good sheet of paper but seeing an artist buckle their own work is bizarre.

Kevin Hayler holding a drawing properly at each corner for safe handling and storage
Hold the paper at each corner

Large paper should always be held at opposite corners. Smaller sheets can be supported with one hand in the center at the back. Never try to hold the paper with one hand as most people do. You get kinks and thumb buckles.

Always make sure your hands are squeaky clean. The last thing you need are clumsy great fingerprints. Don’t brush away specs with your fingers, use a brush instead.

If you work on an easel tap the board to get rid of any dust or eraser crumbs.

Get out of the habit of blowing specs away, especially if you’ve had something to eat or drink. You’re courting disaster, at some point you will spit.

It doesn’t matter what you do, you’ll never remove a grease spot so think about what you are doing.

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

One last thing.

When you are trying to slide paper into a display sleeve, it’s safer to insert it with a stiff piece of card acting as a support. You don’t have to leave the card in, you can slip it out, but personally, I leave the card in place. There is no chance of buckling the paper if each piece of paper has its own stiffener.

Miscellaneous Art Storage Hacks

If something can go wrong, it will go wrong. The more you are aware of potential pitfalls the better off you will be. Forewarned is forearmed as they say.

Commercial Sticky Tape leaves a destructive residue. If you need to tape your paper only use acid-free framers tape. It is low tack and can be removed without the fear that the acids will start to attack your paper.

Blu-Tak and other tacky poster gum will leave an oily stain on your drawing. If you can’t lose the edges of your paper, don’t use it.

Bugs and insects get into every nook and cranny if they can. I work outside so I am keenly aware that any open box can attract the wrong visitors. Always check for insects, and don’t always assume that the little black dot is graphite or charcoal.

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve flicked away an annoying spec only to cry with horror as I squash a bug across my picture.

Static electricity will draw particles of dust from the surface of a drawing onto the back of picture frame glass. Charcoal artists and Pastelists will recognize this problem.

One solution is to use ant-static glass when you frame your work. Another is to use a raised matt board that sits clear of the surface. There are two matt boards, one behind with a large aperture, and another on top, cut to size. The dust falls into the gap.

UV light is a problem for paint. If you draw with color, especially watercolor washes, some pigments are not stable and will fade in direct sunlight.

Using UV-protected glass and plastic will help slow the process down but will not eliminate the problem. Store colored drawings away from the sun. If you are not hanging them, keep them hidden from the light.

Acid-free paper is essential if you want your drawings to last a lifetime. graphite and charcoal will not fade. The paper is more important. To extend the life professional artists use an acid-free cotton rag paper

Frames get damaged very easily. Glass cracks, plexiglass scratches, and corners chip. They take up a huge amount of space and transporting them unharmed is a nightmare. Each frame must be stored with corner protectors at the minimum.

Conclusion

Pencil drawings are delicate, charcoal and pastel drawings are insanely delicate. Indeed, many galleries don’t want to touch them at all. They are too much trouble.

In this guide, you have learned how to store your drawings at home and learned how to transit your drawings safely. There’s no reason why your drawings shouldn’t last a lifetime.

If you do decide that storage at home is not safe enough you can store them in dedicated art storage units for a hefty fee, or archival document facilities intended for businesses.

Some house storage companies have safe facilities but they won’t necessarily be temperature and humidity-controlled. That doesn’t matter if you take extra care, but be warned, you’ll need good insurance cover. Not everyone insures art.


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