I was recently asked about how long watercolor paintings last. It's a great question that came from a collector interested in buying watercolor paintings, but worried they would fade over time.Thinking of some of the faded framed art that I've seen in doctor's waiting rooms this makes perfect sense! You know the ones, they are so sun-faded that everything in the picture appears bluish. Well, thankfully, that is not a problem with today's original watercolor paintings. In fact, most of the art you see that is faded in that way is usually a print, not an original. But even original work from many years ago may appear faded. Paper also tends to yellow if it isn't of the best quality. So how can you be sure that a watercolor painting will not fade?
Most of the paints used in watercolor paintings these days are lightfast. When an artist chooses a tube of paint, there is a lightfastness rating listed on the label. This rating is made by a testing entity outside of the paint manufacturers using special equipment. By referencing the rating, it is possible to obtain watercolor paints that will stay colorful for hundreds of years. Like any painting, watercolors need to be placed out of direct sun as the sun fades everything (even the highly sun resistant paint on cars fade).
Acid Free Materials
Georgia O'Keeffe painted some lovely watercolor landscapes in 1917. Unfortunately, she used inexpensive sketch paper and the paintings have yellowed (see them here). This problem was common with papers from that period of time. The papers were composed of wood pulp which released acid and produced yellowing. The acid also causes paper to crumble or become brittle, think about old letters and newspapers. Artists today can choose from a wide variety of acid free papers. High quality watercolor paper is made from cotton rag, not wood pulp. Cotton rag paper is free of acid.
The last way to ensure that a watercolor painting will last for ages is to frame it properly. The frame is mostly to protect the painted surface from moisture. If a watercolor painting gets wet, there is a chance that the paint will return to its liquid state. Glass or plexiglass will protect this from happening. It's also a good idea to not hang a watercolor painting in a place where moisture accumulates - near bathroom showers, above sinks or in damp basements for storage. Framing can also provide protection from UV light (like the sun). It is important that the backing materials and any matting that touches the painting also be acid-free because acid can migrate into the painting. Many watercolor artists are starting to experiment with varnishing. This new technique protects the painting and eliminates the need for glass.
The good news is that watercolor paintings are now much more likely to stand the test of time than those of the past. Today's quality watercolor pigments are as bright and lightfast as oil paints. Fine papers ensure that the painting won't yellow or crumble. With proper framing, a contemporary watercolor painting will most likely be cherished for generations. If you're in doubt when purchasing a painting, be sure to ask the artist about what materials they use. The answer should include words like acid-free and lightfast.