Ukiyo:  Art of Japan and the Floating World

Care and Display of Japanese Woodblock Prints

    The appropriate care and display of Japanese woodblock prints depends in part on the rarity and value (monetary, artistic, and cultural) of the print, and also on the collector's motivation and taste.  Many serious collectors keep their prints in individual acid-free, 100% cotton rag folders, stored in acid-free board boxes meant especially for art.  This avoids the serious risk of fading from exposure to light, and also avoids the risk of damaging the print by adhering it to a mat for framing, as well as the less serious risk of tearing the print through breakage of the glazing.  As one's interest in the art grows, the value of having the print available for careful study and enjoyment when desired becomes the main motivation, and making it a permanent part of one's decor becomes less important.  Nevertheless, semipermanent display in a not-too-brightly lit area, or rotating display of framed prints, can make a wonderful addition to the living environment, and a wonderful way to share the prints with guests, and make them a part of each day.   And even prints carefully kept in folders may one day be loaned to a museum for exhibition, and proper framing is essential in this context.  So, both options will be discussed here.

Displaying Prints

    Unfortunately, Japanese prints, especially those of the Edo period (ending in 1868) and earlier, are very susceptible to fading from exposure to light.  This usually means that rare, valuable, or unique prints should not be exposed to light for long periods of time.  Ten years of even indirect, but not dim, light, can be expected to have noticeable effects on Edo period prints.  This will likely not be a total loss of color, but will first be seen in a change of color balance as the more fugitive pigments fade first.  Even lesser prints should be protected from fading, and Meiji and later prints, although more robust, also need protection.  Light can also damage and brown certain papers.  If framed and exhibited, using ultraviolet-reducing glazing, such as film-coated "conservation glass", or "OP3" or "UV3" acrylic (Plexiglas make a version) helps some, but is far from a panacea as visible light fades prints too. Never let direct sunlight fall on prints, and try to place them in relatively dim areas, or at least not directly facing a wide expanse of windows.  Avoid "non-glare" glass, which makes the prints look slightly blurry.  There is also very expensive so-called "museum" non-glare glass (though I am not sure museums actually  use it), which looks better than ordinary non-glare, but I still prefer plain conservation glass.  Although perhaps a somewhat inelegant venue, I display some of my framed prints in a windowless powder room, and keep its door closed.  Never store or display them in a bathroom with shower, or other location with extremely high or variable humidity or condensation.

Materials for storing or matting prints

    Storage in the dark in folders of  100% cotton rag, kept in acid-free boxes is the best way of protecting prints.  For folders, I use "student Hosho", a pure white, 100% cotton rag Japanese-style paper that comes in large sheets.  For locals, Artisan Santa Fe stocks an acid-free student Hosho at 80 cents a (32" x 40") sheet;  similar products should be readily available on the net.  Make sure that it is explicitly stated to be acid-free, and that this is, for example, down in writing on the pricelist or assured by a proprietor knowledgeable about conservation (and not just stated by a nonexpert clerk).  You can check acid-freedom with the manufacturer, if you can establish the manufacturer and get in contact with them.  Other acid-free rag papers could also be good.   For Edo and earlier prints, try to use unbuffered materials when possible.  It is thought that the alkaline buffers recommended for matting many types of art may damage the vegetable pigments of  Edo and earlier prints, though it is not clear this has been clearly established experimentally.  This is most important for materials that will come directly in contact with the artwork, such as folders, mats, and coversheets.  Local frameshops may be unsure if their materials are unbuffered;  ask them to check with the manufacturer, or get the product number and check  yourself.  This is probably most important for high-value prints, less so for prints that are already faded, or protected somewhat from the matting by backing.  Similarly, buffered boxes are probably a minor issue, though unbuffered should be used if easily available.  Art supply shops are probably the best place to obtain papers, matting, and boxes;  there are also good sources on the internet.

Museum-Style Matting

    Museums whose prints are occasionally exhibited, and examined by scholars, have developed a system of matting prints that can be recommended to collectors who plan on framing or lending their prints as well.  It is appropriate for valuable prints that must be matted, or any print you think looks good this way.  It is important to realize that frameshops claiming to do "archival" or "conservation" matting do not necessarily mat to these "curatorial" standards---good ones can, but you must make sure, and if necessary specify what you want.  Less careful matting may suffice for prints already in lesser condition.  Museum standard matting often involves using eight-ply, rather than the standard four-ply, matboard for both backmat and windowat.  It should be 100% cotton rag acid free board (often called "Museum Board"), preferably unbuffered although this can be hard to find and Archivart's "Photorag"  is the only one I know of.  Even if you are used to cutting your own four-ply mat, cutting windows in eight-ply mat poses some challenges, although an adequate job can be done even with a hand-held cutter (like the Logan) and straightedge, if you're not too picky.  You may prefer to have the mats cut professionally.  Redimat ( sells precut mats in convenient sizes at good prices, and has 8-ply museum grade, and unbuffered 4-ply;  they will also cut custom sizes.  Unfortunately they do not have 8-ply unbuffered.  My preferred matting style is to cut the windowmat 1/4" larger than the print on each side, and hinge the print to the backmat so that the entire print shows with 1/4" space between it and the bevel of the windowmat.  It looks great with Japanese or European prints--- the National Gallery (U.S.) matted an exhibition of recently acquired works on paper this way, with 8-ply mat.  (4-ply mat, either overlapping the print edges, or not, is also common, though if not overlapping the edges there is more risk of the print contacting the glass and being damaged by condensation.)  Museums store and ship their works on paper in these mats, and try to avoid changing them.  They are handled with white cotton gloves to avoid soiling that leads to the need for replacement.  Scholars examining prints in these mats run much less risk of  creasing, tearing, or soiling the print than they do with prints stored in folders.  Standard mat sizes are chosen to fit in pre-made standard frame sizes.  For the most common size of Japanese print, the Oban, 16 x 20 frames are the appropriate standard size;  this might be slightly wider than you'd think optimal, but it looks good.   If you are using custom frames, around 2 1/2 or 3" borders is nice;  make them slightly wider at top and bottom.  If you don't like the edges of the paper showing, you can also make the windowmat overlap them by 1/8" or so on each side.  I find this works best with prints having little design at the edges.  Also, it can be appropriate for lesser,  but still enjoyable prints, for which exhibition of the whole sheet like a precious artifact might seem excessive, especially if the edges are ragged.  A windowmat overlapping a design is a potential source of abrasion though---again, not much of an issue except with high-end prints.  For museum-grade matting, you need to specify that hinging be done with acid-free Japanese paper or tissue, and paste made from precipitated wheat-starch or rice-starch paste.  It is best for the hinging paper or tissue to be somewhat lighter weight than the print itself, and to match the print's paper in color.

Frame Styles

A satin finish (semigloss) black wood frame is classic, at least in the West.  3/4" wide framestock, with a frame about 1 1/4 or 1 1/2" deep, works well.  A J-profile (semicircular in front, then straight back) looks nice.  A square-fronted profile can look OK, too.   Black sectional metal frames can also look good;  they are available cheap in some crafts stores and art supply stores.  Woodworkers can make some nice frames using hardwoods that complement the print, with finishes bringing out the natural beauty of the wood.  Walnut, oak, cherry are good---but careful matching with the colors of the print is important, as is compatibility of color and design with frames used for other prints in the room.  I have not yet found a good source of pre-milled, unfinished hardwood framestock in tasteful design at a reasonable price.  Making your own can be very time-consuming, though enjoyable.  The insides of wood frames should be painted or finished with shellac, or possibly polyurethane, to help seal the wood's acids from the print.  Wood frames not so sealed can be sealed with "frame-sealing tape" available at most art-supply stores that have framing supplies.  Ask your framer about this if you are having frames done professionally.  Sealing the frame is far less important than using acid-free matting, but a good idea nonetheless.  Buying cheap frames at stores like Target or big-box craft stores can be surprisingly frames can be OK, and sometimes decent oak ones can be had. Don't waste your hand matting job, or a nice print, on tacky fake woodgrain, though, and as a rule simple moldings will be much more appropriate than fancy ones (even in black).

Do-it-yourself museum grade matting.

To do a museum style mat job yourself, calculate the size and location of the windowmat opening.  Double-check this, as it is easy to make a mistake and waste a lot of matboard.  About 2.5 to 3 inches of mat on each side looks good for an oban print (you may be constrained by your frame size, of course).  Smaller prints often look good with a wider space of mat around them.  The window should be slightly higher than centered, vertically.  Some think art looks best if the visible mat margin is a little wider at the bottom.  In any case you need it about 1/2" higher than centered just to have it look centered, because gravity will press the mat/print/glazing package against the bottom of the frame, leaving all space at the top.  I cut mats 1/8 to 3/16 inches smaller than the frame opening, and I carefully measure the latter.  This space is necessary to make sure the package fits in the frame, and also to give room for expansion or contraction of frame relative to mats with changing weather.  Once the window is cut, and the windowmat and backmat are of the correct dimensions, hinge the windowmat to the backmat at the top by placing backmat top-to-top next to the reversed windowmat, laying a strip of wetted water-activated linen conservation tape (acid-free, available at good art-supply stores) over the joint, overlapping both, smoothing it out, and then folding the windowmat back over the backmat so the tape, now hidden between the mats, acts as a hinge.  Carefully position the print in the windomat opening, so the space between print and windowmat is the same on each side.  Very lightly mark, with a sharp pencil, the position of the print's corners on the backmat.  Fold back the backmat, and make the hinges (two, for an oban or smaller print).  For an oban, these should be about 3/4" wide and 1.5" long.  To make them, tear Japanese paper or tissue along lines wetted with an eyedropper or cotton swab ("Q-tip").  (Tearing is better than cutting because the ragged fibrous edges of a torn hinge are less likely to make an impression in the print than the sharp edges of a cut hinge.)  Using a clean Q-tip (or miniature brush), put a modest amount of your prepared conservation adhesive on the lower 1/3, or a bit more, of the hinge.  Don't put too much adhesive, because you don't want the print to absorb moisture from it and pucker.  I usually dip the Q-tip in adhesive and roll the side of the cotton swab around, flattening out the small globs of wheatstarch into a thin, but fairly uniform layer.  Adhere them to the top edge of the back of the print, about 1/2" in from the side ( or maybe 1 inch in on a horizontal oban), and so that the end of the adhesive patch is level with, or the tiniest bit below, the top of the print.   Put adhesive on the front part of the hinges, that project beyond the print.  Turn the print upside down, and line up the top corners of the back of the print with the corresponding pencil marks you made earlier on the backmat.  Place some thin waterproof material, such as mylar or a piece of a priority mail envelope, over the hinges, below the print but with its edge right next to the print's edge.  Then CAREFULLY turn the print right-side up,  "swinging" it down on its hinges, which you should lightly fold so the fold is just hidden behind the top of the print, being careful not to fold the print itself.  (Some people prefer to fold the hinges first, then carefully put adhesive on the remaining part of them; or put adhesive on the projecting part of the hinges and then fold;  and then to put the print with folded, adhesived hinges, down on the mat with its corners by the pencil marks, allowing the hinges to contact the backmat and adhere;  the disadvantage to this is that the hinges can swing down and stick  to the backmat at the wrong place or angle.  It's the only way, though, if you've attached the hinges too low on the print to swing it on them, which may occasionally be desirable or necessary.)  After the adhesive has dried, remove the waterproof insert (whose purpose was to prevent adhesive from seeping through the hinge and sticking the two parts of the hinge together).  Then carefully swing the windowmat down, and you're done.  

General considerations for performing the above safely include:  have a clean, smooth surface, like a piece of matboard, available to place the print on for performing operations like attaching the hinges.  Beware of puffs of air from letting pieces of mat flop down on the table, or the windowmat  dropping down onto the backmat;  they could lift your print up and let it slip off the table.  Wash and dry your hands prior to the operation.   When handling prints, if they must flex let them "roll" a little (as little as possible!)  in one direction (as if around a large cylinder, and in the direction they naturally tend to curl if there is one), by picking them up on one side only, so that when they unroll no permanent creasing has been done,  rather than letting them flex several ways at once, the flexes meeting in a point and creasing the paper there.  

Copyright 2006, Howard N. Barnum III.  All rights reserved.