The Visual Journal Artist’s Guide to—Sealing, Encasing, Archival Materials, and the “500-Year Life Span”

May 17, 2011

Please see the full post for a discussion of the topic.

Yesterday on the Strathmore Workshop blog I posted about "Using Non-Archival Paper Ephemera in Your Journals." I discussed how to encase non-archival paper ephemera if that matters to you (why and how). (If you would like to read about that for now you'll have to go and sign up for that workshop and read the internal blog. But since it's free, that's not really a hardship.)

Many of you may already know how to encase paper in acrylic media and I thought that I would really like to share information on which acrylic media to use here on my regular blog for all of you. That's why I've rewritten this post on using acrylic media for sealing or encasing for my regular (and non-workshop) readers.

Let's ask the obvious: Why would you want to seal or encase a bit of paper? Well because you don't know if it's acidic or not and archival issues are important to you.

Over on the workshop blog I encouraged people to ask a lot of questions about how much time and effort they want to put into the issue of archival materials. I once asked one of my favorite artists if he sold archival hardboard/masonite. I hadn't researched the board at all and was just investigating using it for my paintings. Since 99.9 percent of the time you're going to prep such board with gesso, it seems in retrospect a silly question. But he said instead: Roz, does everything you do have to last 500 years?

That was the best thing anyone ever said to me (related to art).

First off—NO, nothing I make has to (or will) last that long. People are not going to be looking at my bird paintings in 200 years from now, let alone 500. I'm not being humble, I'm being realistic. I make art because after a busy day of doing things that other people want me to do, I want to make stuff for myself. (Shhhhh—little secret, often I don't wait until the end of the day—I make things throughout the day, in the small breaks and "found time" of my day. Journaling is great for finding time.) Yes, sometimes I make stuff that people actually want to buy for themselves and that's great. But the underlying principle here is to make stuff regardless.

When it comes to my journals (which weren't what we were talking about on the hardboard day), those don't even have to last one day beyond my death. Because those journals are for me, just me.

I do use archival materials in my paintings so that people get an expectation, when they buy one, of some "lasting" value. You would be surprised how many artists don't care even marginally about this, and to them my artist friend would say, "they are employing the conservators of tomorrow."

I know that Dick, if he outlives me (and he plans to, and I don't mean that in any sort of ominous way, but with the gene pool he comes from it's more than probable) would like to have my journals when I'm gone, so let's just say my journals only need a lifespan of "my life + 10 years."

With that said, ANY additional time I spend on improving the archival nature of my journals is a net loss of time and materials when you think that it will take me away from the things I really, really love doing—drawing, painting, writing, thinking.

But sometimes situations arise when we want to take steps to "hedge our bets" so to speak. We don't want the acid from some bit of paper ephemera leaching through a journal page and staining a favorite painting. Or, more usual in my case, I don't want a pencil drawing to smudge.

Lots of people look through my journals and a certain toll is taken on them because of this. I always scan or photograph any spread I am particularly fond of the day I complete it. And if the media is smudge-able I consider what exposure the piece will have, i.e., lots of hands over it, or few. I might take pains to seal it with acrylic media, but more often I'll just insert a sheet of glassine. If I want to do something else to that smudge-able piece, then I get out the acrylic media and coat the surface.

That's what's under discussion—what to use when sealing your pieces of paper or art. To complete this task it is important to choose an acrylic medium that works in a way that will fit into your work (e.g., do you want to paint over it afterward with watercolor? with acrylic? use colored pencils?). It is also important to get the "finish" right in the sense of layering.

The most common mistake that artists make in this situation is to cling to one acrylic medium for ease of use (or because of ease of availability), without realizing what impact their choices are having on their artwork.

If you come away with nothing else from this post I hope you will remember this one simple thing:

Gloss (or clear), gloss, gloss, gloss, gloss [for as many layers as it takes, or you want to add], until your final layer. Then use gloss, satin, or matte, depending on the surface finish you want.

This is true with acrylic media and it is true when you are varnishing something. Gloss (or clear), gloss, gloss, gloss…then one layer only of satin or matte if you don't want the clear finish.

Why? Because if you use layers and layers of anything other than a clear/gloss medium you are adding layers and layers of opacifiers contained in that medium. (And remember, if you mix your acrylic paints with matte medium you are adding those same opacifiers into your paint. Some artists do this so that their final artwork will have a matte finish and not "shine" like some acrylic paints do. But if that's what you're doing consider instead using acrylic glazing media and applying a final coat of matte varnish. That process will give you the clearest colors. Or go to a different brand of acrylic paint? All I'm saying is think about the repercussions of your choices.)

People who use layer after layer of matte medium will see their colors dim, grow foggy, even muddy looking. There will be a growing film developing over their artwork. If this is the look that you are looking for—go for it. But if you spent hours laboriously laying in glazes of brilliant color that you want to shine through, save the matte medium for another project, or your final sealing layer (because you want a matte finish).

I use the following acrylic media to encase ephemera or to seal a finished artwork that is smudge-able (and in this latter case I only seal the surface of the piece, as explained in my earlier post). These media each have a distinct look and surface that I've noted after each.

(And for people not in the Strathmore Workshop, encasing is simply coating on both sides of the piece of ephemera to isolate it from the journal page, based on the manner in which a painter use gesso to isolate his paints from his board or canvas.)


Gloss Gel Medium—If you are going to apply multiply layers of medium you want to use the gloss, as explained above. Gloss gel medium is excellent as a glue for heavier papers and cardstocks so it's a great medium to have around. The drawback to this medium for me is that it tends to have a more plastic feeling surface when finished. You may find that your pages stick together over time. Also this plastic surface makes it more difficult to do additional work OVER the encased and pasted down ephemera. However, if you like to work with fluid acrylics it will be a breeze to work over such pieces. I recommend that you create a large swatch of paper covered with two layers of gloss gel medium. On this swatch test your pens and paints and other media to see how they work for you (including dry media and rubberstamp ink). Retain this swatch for future reference. You might find yourself using an initial layer of gloss gel medium and then for your penultimate layer you might use matte medium or clear acrylic gesso to get the final working surface you want.

To avoid pages sticking together you might want to cut glassine sheets to insert between pages.

Clear Acrylic Gesso—I find that this medium gives you the protective qualities of gesso, with a clear finish that you can work on with a wide selection of media (including watercolor, gouache, colored pencil, graphite, etc.). I recommend this medium for "encasing" any paper products you want to isolate, for whatever reason (acidic paper, smudge-able medium). I apply this to pencil sketches that I want to include in my journal, but which I don't want to smudge. You can see an example of how I used clear acrylic gesso to protect pencil work from smudging here. The edges of the encased papers holding the sketches were then painted over with acrylic inks.

You can see a page spread where I protected the pencil work and then painted over it with watercolor here. Watercolor was deliberately handled delicately in this example. You can work with more intense washes if you wish on this surface.

For me the advantage of using clear acrylic gesso for encasing or protecting artwork in my journal as described yesterday is that it leaves a textured surface that is not "plastic" in feel. I find it easy to work on that surface with the other media I typically use in my journals (watercolors, gouache, pen, colored pencil). Because of the texture of the dried surface I find that even when similarly treated items are across the page from each other the pages do not stick together over time. The drawback to this medium is two fold—it is a bit more smelly than what I normally like to work with so I try to plan ahead and prepare and then air out the drying piece before it goes into my journal (not always possible). Second, the tooth of the final surface is so pronounced that if it is opposite a page where there is a gouache painting it will actually disturb the gouache (not exactly sand it away, but start to degrade it depending on how often you open and move these pages against each other). Keep that in mind.

Acrylic Matte Medium—This is my least favorite but I still use it upon occasion. Drawbacks with this medium include a plastic surface finish and the matte quality which even with one layer only is sometimes too much for me in terms of opacity. Also for me the final surface is not conducive for additional work, except if that work is additional acrylic painting. With a light layer of matte medium—such as needed to simply stop smudging not contain acidity—you can have success watercoloring and painting with gouache on the surface, but I generally prefer option 2. The exception is if I want sloppy wet washes to puddle on the plastic surface. Then I use a slightly thicker layer of matte medium to ensure a completely covered and plastic surface, and paint away on it in puddles, after the medium has dried. It makes a useful glue for some heavier weight cardstock items.

I recommend that you have all three acrylic media in your tool box, just in case. But before you use any of them, think about what your final goal is? Do you want to encase a piece of ephemera that is acidic? Do you want to stop a pencil drawing from smudging? Are you going to use more than one layer of medium? (If the last, then stick with clear/gloss until that final layer.)

I also recommend that you keep gloss, stain, and matte varnish around, for those times when you need to varnish. Again—gloss, gloss, gloss, until that final layer when you use the varnish with the finish you want for your final look.

In my  Strathmore Workshop post I stressed the need for and use of non-yellowing acrylic resin spray to first stabilize the surface of your ephemera or artwork before you brush on one of the above media, if you have determined with testing that the motion of brushing will smudge or disturb the top of your paper piece, or your artwork. There are ways to be careful and to jump right in and skip the spray step, but they involve some practice and a little bit of "I don't care." As my workshop blog mentioned you can also eliminating the need for any of these steps and use conservation sprays which neutralize acidity—but they have their own set of costs and drawbacks.

Consider also keeping a finishing wax on hand for those pieces you don't want to seal or encase with acrylic media. You can use Dorlands Wax Medium or MicroGlaze (from The latter is my favorite because of its pleasant smell and it has worked better for me. I will gently buff it onto finished gouache paintings upon occasion. I do not use these in addition to other media. They are a final layer. They are labor intensive, but might fit the task you have at hand.

I have friends who use wax on dry media such as pastel or graphite, but I find these smudge too much for me when I apply the wax. For friends using wax in this way they have already smudged their dry media in their artistic application, and the additional smudging that takes place during the wax application is viewed as minimal, or an enhancement.

Final Recommendations
As I've said repeatedly TEST. I recommend that you make a swatch of each of the acrylic media, as well as the waxes, as described under "Gloss Gel Medium." And that you keep these test swatches for future reference, selecting a finishing and sealing medium based on what each can do for you and what your additional plans are for that piece.

Whether you want to encase "suspect" ephemera or stop artwork from smudging know that using any of these methods is NON-REVERSIBLE. In addition each will require practice—for instance you might find it possible to brush over 6-B pencil work without smudging it whereas another artist may find it next to impossible. Alternately you might find that you have to stabilize all artwork with a spray (non-yellowing acrylic resin) before doing any brush application of sealing media, no matter how much time you practice. Sometimes it will simply take a different brush and a slower approach. It's all variable and you'll have to test it out.

Before you start any of this, ask yourself—is any of this necessary? Is your time better spent sketching more? Is it really that important that your drawing not smudge? Is it that important that the acid in your receipt from your shopping trip not leach into your page? What is the journal for you? How can you best work in it? How can you have the maximum amount of productive time with it? What satisfies you? Do I want to spend the extra money? Do I want to spend the extra time?

Only you have the answers to those questions. The rest is trying out the media, practicing, and deciding how they work for you.

  1. Reply


    I had read somewhere else that for a finished piece, you should put a layer of matte varnish on first, and follow it with one or two thin coats of gloss varnish.

    Also, when collaging with matte medium, to coat the surface of the items after you glue them down, as it can be worked on after it is dry, and it will seal what is below it.

    Can you comment on these ideas, please?


  2. Reply

    Camilla, As for varnishing—I can’t see any reason to put matte varnish on first (before gloss), unless you deliberately want to make your surface matte (because that’s what it’s going to do). But then it makes no sense to add the gloss varnish as they will make it gloss and you’ll have the effect of the matte underneath that.

    Since I don’t know the type of finished work you’re describing and its particulars the ONLY situation I can think of where this might be a reasonable approach is if the work is a collage of different surfaces and the matte varnish is added first to unify all the surfaces across the piece. The gloss coats of varnish are then added because of a desire for a glossy finish.

    But I’m really stretching to come up with some logic for what you suggest and that’s all i can think of.

    It is not a practice I would follow. I would stick with what I wrote in this post. My article is based on discussions over the years with acrylic product reps, scientists, and acrylic artists. They’ve all said the same thing to me.

    As for using matte medium when collaging to “coat the surface of the items after you glue them down, as it can be worked on…and it will seal what is below”—that is certainly the case, in that it will seal the items, and you can work on it.

    BUT it doesn’t get you away from the fact that every layer of matte medium adds more opacifiers and this will ultimately film and muddy your work.

    With any of the media you need to test first and see which will take the work and media you want to do on top of it.

    If you do that you’ll probably find another medium that you can work on easily, which doesn’t have the matting agents, and can therefore serve all the same purposes.

    For instance, for stand alone collages I will work with gloss gel medium, and it will seal all that is below, I can work on its surface (with more acrylic paints, and some other media—not all the choices I typically like, but when I do this type of work I use different choices). And when it’s all finished I can finish it as explained in this post. Throughout the process, since I’ve only used gloss medium there’s no issue with matting agents (opacifiers).

    The use of matte medium or matte varnish early in the process makes no sense to me based on what I’ve learned, and seen in my own experiments.

  3. Reply

    Melly, I’m glad you enjoy the patinas you became so intimately acquainted with in your conservation life. I think by accepting these things in your journal life you and I are having a lot more fun, and getting a lot more done.

    • Leslie Schramm
    • May 17, 2011

    this is very intersting, I spent a few years working for a philatelist. I handled papers and vellums going back to the 1400’s and probably tonnes of stamps on and off paper. I can date envelope scraps to the nearest decade,and pretty much tell how a stamp has been stored, I;ve seen a million attmepts at cleaning old stamps, retouching of the fugative inks used. With Early Victorian stamps can even say if the original collector was male of female!! I reckon even non-archival materials stored dry and cool and in the dark in softener-free plastics seem to last the test of time. I love Ephermera, and regulary see bus tickets and tram tokens from the early 1900’s in great condition. Even with a nillion exotic and dangerous cleaners, a slice of bread!! is about as good as any at lifting dirt and dust from paper without damaging it, just gently rub with some bread, don’t make a sandwich. About the worst was sticky tapes drying out and going brown, Like Melly I liked the signs of the aging, and it’s just part of everything growing old. The finest of goatskin parchement written in squid ink, or sepia usually survive most things, even the practise of slitting the envelope open and pouring in boiling vinegar which was used in the 1600’s to stop the spread of the Black Death. As a chemist I’d worry a little about how stable acrylic is very long term, esp if the surface is flexed around a lot, but if it works , it works. I’ll keep going with decent paper, decent paint, clean water, careful storage,and someone else can worry in the future

  4. Reply

    Leslie, I don’t know if you’re on the Workshop or not, but there I talk about using sprays to neutralize acidity. I think that’s the main concern for most people—wanting perhaps to use newspaper clippings and not have them leach through the page. (I have lots of that going on in my college journals!)

    I find all these methods too much to deal with, since longevity isn’t an issue for me. But I really do appreciate having a way to “fix” pencil and keep it from smudging, while allowing me to work on it. And people wanting to do that in this way can also accomplish it.

    I’ve never had any flexing problems with the acrylic-treated pieces, but the issue of the longevity of the acrylic mediums is of course one to consider. I won’t be around to see the end result of that experiment and discussion. We can only go by what the manufacturer tells us for that. That’s why I always stress that these are non-reversible techniques.

    For me paper is one of the great treats in life and I don’t like encasing it for any reason—but I like fixative even less.

    Now I know to whom I can go when I have an envelope to date!

  5. Reply

    Leslie, I really enjoyed reading your post too, thank you.

  6. Reply

    Roz, thanks for your very indepth and informative response to my questions. I am working with collage and art journals, and that is what the suggestion was made about, regarding coating everything with matte medium before proceeding to the next layer. I can see what you mean about things becoming too opaque — I think it’s time to pick up some gloss medium and give it a try! I was just worried that things would be too shiny.


    • Dusty
    • May 18, 2011

    Eek. There’s a blog associated with the workshops? What have I been missing?

    I worked as a professional archivist for 20+ years and I saw how quickly materials could deteriorate. The worst was tape, within a couple of decades and polaroid pictures. I have a really, really hard time putting tape in a journal because of the gooey mess it can leave behind.

  7. Reply

    Camilla, don’t worry about the gloss, for your very last layer you can use matte and that will know the gloss back, but allow you to retain as much of your color and depth as possible.

  8. Reply

    Dusty, I know the Ning site can be really intimidating and even confusing with lots of different places to go, but besides the discussion threads (groups) which start at the bottom of each workshop page (for each instructor), every person has an opportunity to have a blog which all feed into a main blog.

    I found the discussion threads were too easy to loose comments in and people were asking things that I knew other people would want to know so I used the blog feature.

    I’ve written 18 or so blog pieces there on everything for clarifications to the lessons to where to get collage papers. And I also send out each week’s inspriational email through the blog, because when I sent them out through the internal email people were telling me they weren’t getting them.

    So yes, you have a lot of catching up to do if you want to avail yourself of the workshop blog!

    At the top of your page in the workshop look for a link to “blogs” and then you can start to navigate from there.

    As for tape, hey Dusty, after the gooey mess it dries out and you get a lovely stain! At least that’s what happened to the tape I was using in my college journals!

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