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Control light sources to keep art from fading

Karen Youso, Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

The Charlotte Observer Home Section, 2007

Q. I know that fluorescent lights will fade textiles and limited-edition art prints (just look at the art in dentists’ and doctors’ offices).  Is that true of the new compact fluorescent bulbs? I’m hesitant to replace my incandescent bulbs with fluorescent ones for that reason.

Yes, it’s true, but it’s true of all light. Sunlight, fluorescent, even the traditional incandescent – all can fade artwork and textiles. It’s a matter of degree. Sunlight, for example, is intense and from a part of the light spectrum that causes quick fading and damage.

Light can cause irreversible damage to art, according to the Chicago Conservation Center. It is particularly harmful to works on paper, such as photographs, watercolors, pieces with colored inks and any negative.

Light damage is cumulative, and subtle changes may not be immediately detectable. Ultraviolet exposure may manifest itself as brittleness, darkening, bleaching, yellowing, general fading or the change of only certain colors.

In your home, however, compact fluorescent lighting isn’t a major concern. Our homes aren’t lit as brightly as a commercial building or office space, and we use artificial light less. In most homes, light coming from outdoors probably is a greater threat to artwork.

In any case, there are ways to limit damage, according to the center:

  • Keep artwork away from direct light, whether sunlight or artificial sources. Be aware that fluorescent light and sunlight contain high levels of UV radiation.
  • Avoid picture lights mounted to the frames. They can cause “hot spots.”
  • Keep curtains or shades drawn and lights off when the room is not in use. UV protective film can be installed on windows.
  • Consider rotating art every six months or so.

Light is measured in foot-candles and can be assessed with a handheld light meter. However, light meters do not measure UV radiation. A meter for UV may be worth purchasing if you want to protect a large art investment.

In general, 5 to 10 foot-candles is the maximum light level recommended for the temporary exhibition of printed materials, certain photographs and paintings, and textiles. Up to 15 foot-candles may be a safe exposure for many oil paintings, gelatin silver prints and wood objects. Other objects may be virtually unaffected by light.

Architect's Comment: In addition to being gentle to your art, compact fluorescent bulbs are more kind to your silk lampshades than incandescent!

Lindsay Daniel provides residential architecture services to Charlotte, North Carolina and the surrounding communities.