Watercolours are some of the most beautiful, delicate, detailed and exciting artworks.

However,  they are also among the most fragile too.

Our history has been documented for centuries through watercolours, but over time many have faded beyond recognition.

Four key factors determine watercolours’ permanence: the pigment, paper, framing, and exposure to light.

Substandard pigments will inevitably cause watercolours to fade over time and, unlike the high-quality paints available today, artists throughout history had to find other means of creating them.

Modern-day watercolour paints use Gum Arabic, a resin made from acacia sap or honey, as the primary binder because they are much less prone to discolouration or fading.

Pre 19th-century pigments, on the other hand, were often created using natural earth or vegetable fibres that were ground to a fine powder and bound together with gum or egg.

As a result, these have poor lightfastness and have been known to fade or discolour.

If watercolour is to stand the test of time, the paper used must also be of the best archival quality. The best watercolours use acid-free paper, comprised of 100 per cent cotton or linen fibres, which is what many modern-day watercolour artists prefer.

However, these materials have not always been available to artists throughout history. More often than not, paper that is not acid-free causes the painting to turn yellow and fade over time.

Just as the canvas used can affect the watercolour, so can the quality of framing.

Although many collectors enjoy displaying their watercolour pieces, if the materials used in the framing process aren’t acid-free, the painting will fade. Even if the original watercolour is on acid-free paper, there is a risk if it comes into contact with an acidic surface. The artwork will start to yellow and fade, which is why framing must include acid-free matts.

Finally, exposure to light can be one of the most damaging factors affecting watercolours’ longevity. For this reason, many museums and galleries are limited to displaying older watercolour works for short periods every few years, and why visitors cannot take photos with a flash. It is challenging to sustain the correct environment to ensure the work is not affected by light and heat. And, despite the best efforts of collectors and curators, many watercolours will be affected by their surroundings.

The majority of pre-20th-century watercolours are more at risk of fading, often as a result of improper care, exposure to UV rays, and poor quality pigments and paper.

Thankfully, charities such as Watercolour World have made it their mission to help preserve these beautiful works of art from fading through digitising and archiving them.

Since 2016, the organisation has digitised well over 80,000 original watercolours and has added them to a growing archive that can be accessed via its website. This free digital database now allows generations to access never-before-seen parts of history, the world, and life before photography.

In collaboration with PFU, a Fujitsu company, Watercolour World uses state of the art ScanSnap SV600 portable scanners to capture collections safely.

Because ultraviolet rays can cause watercolours to fade, the organisation ensures that the LED technology used emits no harmful heat and light.

The scanner will never come into direct contact with the work, and can even create a perfect replica of the piece through glass. The process is incredibly safe, and allows collectors to preserve their prized collections permanently and, at last, share them with the world. 

Without adequate care and preservation, watercolours are destined to fade and be lost to time, but through the tireless work of organisations like Watercolour World, these integral parts of our history can be saved for future generations to enjoy.

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