Best Practices: Caring for Japanese Prints

by: Lia Robinson

Japanese prints masterpieces remain an accessible and rewarding medium for beginner and seasoned collectors alike. However, like other works on paper, prints are susceptible to damage from a range of factors. Proper care and conservation of your collection will ensure your ability to enjoy the works  for years to come! Koller Asian Art’s general guidelines are meant to provide you with a foundation to maintain best practices while caring for your collection. Remember, always seek out a professional conservator or restorer specializing in Japanese prints if your notice changes or damage to your artwork.

Key risk factors for prints:

Light- Both natural and artificial light can contribute to rapid fading in prints. Japanese prints from the Edo period (1602–1868) and earlier are particularly susceptible to fading from light exposure. Light may also damage and cause yellowing or browning of certain papers. 

Temperature- Fluctuating temperatures can dry out print paper, making the works more fragile or lead to unbalanced humidity.

Humidity- Proper humidity for prints is between 40 and 60%. Over exposure to water vapor can lead to molding or foxing, a category of mold (saprophytic fungus) recognizable by brown discoloration of print paper. Humidity may also create an environment conducive for silverfish and other paper-consuming insects.

Exposure to Pollutants-  Acids from paper, furniture or frames, oil or sweat from direct contact with hands, dust, and dirt are all capable of causing print deterioration or discoloration.

Storage & Display

Proper care and display of is the prerogative of the collector and often determined by a print’s rarity and historical value. The tradition of Japanese woodblock printing dates back as early as the 8th century and was initially the primary mode of circulating Buddhist texts. By the 16th century, illustrated book culture had initiated a demand for visual work independent of text known as sumizuri-e 墨摺り絵, monochrome prints in black ink. Printing techniques continued to developed into the mid-18th century to include polychrome prints made from organic and mineral pigments called nishiki-e 錦絵. While some earlier prints were colored by hand, nishiki-e were colored by applying color to one woodblock per color.

Print culture flourished during the Edo Period (1602–1868) as artists perfected techniques recognizable to collectors in ukiyo-e woodblock prints and production increased so that a print cost roughly 400 yen ($4) often said to be about the same prices as a bowl of noodles. With Japan’s foray into the global art market after opening to international trade in the 1850s, printers also began integrating new aniline dyes. Generally, prints dating back to the Edo Period and earlier (with their organic, natural pigments) are significantly more fragile and susceptible to damage from light. Printmaking was further transformed during the early 20th century and postwar period as artists experimented with and integrated a wide range of techniques, which contemporary artists continue to utilize and combine in their practices today.

Collectors should consider the age, techniques and materials of an artwork when deciding on a mode of storage and display. Strictly speaking, the only way of ensuring a print remains in mint condition is to avoid damage through extended exposure, handling, or matting and framing. Many collectors opt to mat and frame less expensive prints or reproductions and store their highest quality prints in acid-free mats or 100% cotton rag folders in flat file cabinets or archival boxes. While keeping light-susceptible prints stored out of sight in a climate-controlled environment ensures their preservation for posterity, some collectors may also prefer to display and live with their art. Collectors that wish to exhibit framed prints in their home should do so with the understanding that this presents a real risk of fading.

Tips for handling prints:

Always wear cotton gloves. If you must handle your print with bare hands, wash your hands with soap and water to ensure minimal oil or dirt comes in contact with the paper.

Do not bend or fold prints. Support paper by carefully holding each side of the print. Creases are extremely difficult to remove from Japanese paper and should be addressed with a trained conservator if they occur.

Avoid direct contact with pigments. Hold paper with both hands along the edges with care not to touch the printed image.

Boxes & Cabinets

When storing unframed prints, place works in individual, acid free folders, portfolios or 100% cotton rag boards. Window mats, glassine or tissue paper should be used to avoid direct contact storage materials. Never store prints in direct contact with other prints or boards. Lay works flat in archival boxes or flat file cabinets. Boxes should not be fully airtight, as condensation can form without some ventilation. Metal cabinets are more appropriate for print storage than cabinets made of wood or other materials as they are less susceptible to insect infestations and do not emit chemicals. Even when stored properly, it is best to check print conditions quarterly to minimize any damage.

Matting & Framing

When matting and framing a Japanese print, always use acid-free, archival-quality matboards, hinges and backing. Never attach the original artwork to backing with glue or dry mounting. While acid-free, archival tapes can be used to affix a print to the mat, they dry out within a few years and are not advised for long-term display. Japanese paper or glassine hinges inserted at the top edge of a print are most appropriate to prevent the print from slipping within the frame. Never allow prints to be trimmed for display purposes or to correct uneven edges. This significantly decreases the print’s value.

Window mats are necessary to ensure prints never come in direct contact with the frame glass.  Museum-quality UV-resistant acrylic is recommended because it is typically non-reflective and will not cause condensation. Regular or non-glare glass is often not entirely clear and can also make prints appear out of focus.  Collectors should note that even with UV-filtering glass, visible light still presents risk of fading over time. Prints should always be displayed in a dimly-lit area of the home and rotated with other works if possible. A typical museum-level rotation involves a three month prints display followed by three years of rest. While this may not be accessible for the vast majority of collectors, Koller Asian Art advises some degree of temporary display and rotation to ensure the quality of your collection for long-lasting enjoyment.

Tips for displaying framed prints:

Hang Prints on dimly lit walls and without direct light exposure. Even prints framed behind UV-filtering glass and exposed to indirect light are subject to fading over time.

Avoid display in humid areas such as bathrooms or kitchens, where they are exposed to fluctuating or intense humidity.

Use antistatic cloths for cleaning. When dusting or cleaning frames apply glass cleaner directly to cloth rather than spraying directly over a framed piece. Seek out a licensed conservator for any direct cleaning of the artwork.