Preserving Cartoon Art: Suggestions for Cartoonists and Collectors

Framing original art

Drawing Cartoons

The most important thing a cartoonist can do to provide physical longevity for his or her work is to use the highest quality materials appropriate for the job. All-rag illustration board may not be necessary for every drawing, but it will remain in good condition much longer than ordinary photocopy paper. The same can be said for inks: India ink is more durable than the ink from felt-tip pens.  If a soft medium such as conte crayon or pastels is used, it should be fixed carefully.

If corrections need to be made, do not use cellophane or “magic” tapes because they will eventually discolor and leave a glue residue. Avoid rubber cement, too, because it inevitably turns brown with age.  White water-soluble glue is preferable and is available either as a glue stick or as a liquid. Sticky notes should never be used on original art because they also leave a glue residue.

Some cartoonists are self-conscious about their drawings and erase all of their preliminary sketches from the inked drawing. From a historical perspective, such roughs give documentation of the creative process. Marginal notes indicating reduction percentages or errors to be corrected should also not be erased.  Cartoons are working art and these notes provide interesting information.

Dating work when it is drawn can save hours of checking later. Use pencil (not ink because it may show through) and note the date the cartoon was drawn on the back.

Finished work should never be rolled for mailing in a tube.  This can damage the edges and loosen adhesive films and pasted-on corrections.  Instead original cartoon art should be placed in a protective envelope before being wrapped for mailing. Cartoons should always be supported with cardboard that is heavy enough not to bend during shipment.  When mailing a number of drawings, several smaller packages are preferable to one large box because of the possibility for damage to heavy oversized boxes.

Cartoons Produced on the Computer

Curators are grappling with the question of what constitutes an “original” when cartoons or comics are created or enhanced digitally.

Some cartoonists create their cartoons using ink and paper, but scan them in order to make corrections or to add text, color or other enhancements digitally. Others create their cartoons directly onto a tablet so there is no physical art (these are known as born-digital).

Because of rapid technical changes, instability of computer files, and potential incompatibility problems with future generations of software, cartoonists should consider making a print of each cartoon they create and/or modify digitally. Having a permanent archive on paper may seem old-school, but it could help to insure that a record of one’s work survives.  Using high-quality, acid-free paper for the prints, signing and dating them, and storing them in a cool, dry place is recommended.

Tips for Preserving Digital Files

Whether the work is born-digital or it was scanned from an analog original, here are some tips as you think about preserving your digital files:

  • Use a consistent file-naming convention that includes your name, title of the work, and the date it was created (or published).
  • Consult the Library of Congress’s “Recommended Formats” for Still Image Works https://www.loc.gov/preservation/resources/rfs/ Note: Their recommended format statements are intended “to inform the creative and library communities on best practices for ensuring the preservation of, and long-term access to, the creative output of the nation and the world.”
  • Consider converting files out of proprietary formats: Open formats are more likely to be supported in the distant future.
  • Make back-ups
    • Back up your devices on a regular schedule.
    • Ideally, you should make more than one backup, keeping one at an offsite location.
  • Make archives:
    • Options: Cloud, Solid State Drives, optical, flash, or traditional hard drives.
    • Test and migrate those archives to new (or different) media every three to five years.
    • Make more than one copy of your archive – if one has a problem, it’s unlikely the other will have the same problem. Consider using different types of storage media for different copies.
  • Store your digital archives in a cool, dry place.
  • Create a Digital Will that lists where your back-ups and archives are located and gives necessary passwords and logins. Put a copy with your will or trust.  Consider using a password management service (e.g. Keeper, LastPass, etc.) and make sure that a family member or the executor of your will has access.

Collecting Cartoons

Provenance is the term archivists and historians use to describe the origins of a document.The provenance of cartoons in your collection is important. Did you trade for them? If so, what did you trade and when?  Did you purchase them? If so, from whom, where, and at what price? Keeping a record of such information will help you (or your estate) in the future when the disposition of the collection must be decided. These records can also serve as an inventory of your collection and may act as the basis for any insurance you may wish to carry.

Many collectors want to place ownership marks on the cartoons they have acquired. Ink stamps on the back of a cartoon should be avoided because they can bleed through the paper and damage the work. The best ownership marks are unobtrusive. They should be placed in the same relative location on each item in the collection. If identification is the goal, initials or numbers lightly penciled in the lower left corner of the back of each cartoon might serve as an ownership mark since any attempt at erasure would leave a trace. If security is the reason you want to mark the pieces of your collection, a conservator should be consulted. Several specially formulated inks are used by some rare book libraries to indicate ownership and are available for purchase by private collectors.

Mats and Frames

If you decide to mat and/or frame your cartoons, use only acid-free mat board. Other mat boards can “burn” or discolor original art due to their high acid content. An acid-free under-mat should be used with colored mats that do not come in an acid-free version. Pressure-sensitive tapes–such as masking tape, cellophane tape, and duct tape–should never be used when matting a cartoon.  Linen hinges may be purchased and many books describe the various techniques for hinging original artworks to mat board.

An alternative to matting is to place original cartoons drawn with ink in clear plastic sleeves made of inert polyester film (such as Mylar). Many photographers use this type of sleeve which is widely available in smaller sizes at photography shops. Larger size sleeves may be ordered from specialty dealers, or rolls of polyester film can be purchased and custom-sized sleeves made.  Cartoons using conte crayon, charcoal or other soft media should not be placed in plastic sleeves because static electricity from the plastic may lift the drawing medium from the paper.

Storage Conditions

Original cartoons should be stored in a cool, dry place. They should be housed in acid-free boxes or in painted drawers. Unpainted wood emits gasses that will discolor paper. “Regular” cardboard boxes are very acidic and they, too, will damage paper. Original cartoons should be protected from dust, light, and possible insect damage. Basement storage should be avoided because many are damp and prone to flooding.

Displaying original cartoons

Hanging framed cartoons on a wall is a wonderful way to enjoy them every day, but improper framing and display can ruin a prized original. The key for long-term pleasure is to mat and frame the work carefully and then to hang it where it will not be damaged.

The back of each frame should be sealed to protect the cartoon from dust, air pollution, and insects. Bumpers should be placed on the four corners of the frame to allow air to circulate behind it.  Often the bumpers supplied by framers are too thin to allow for adequate air circulation. A bottle cork can be cut into 3/8″ to 1/2″ thick pieces and used instead of the commercially available frame bumpers.

Environmental conditions can damage original art even if it has been properly framed.  Sunlight (both direct and indirect) and fluorescent lights are especially high in ultraviolet rays that are harmful to paper, certain inks and watercolors.  Art should be displayed in rooms with incandescent lights and/or weak daylight.  Ultraviolet filtering Plexiglass can be used in frames, but direct exposure to sunlight and fluorescent lights should still be avoided.

Framed cartoon art should never be hung near heat sources or in areas of high humidity. Mold and mildew growth is likely to occur when the relative humidity is 70% or more. An air conditioner or dehumidifier can help to protect original cartoons against the bloom of mold and mildew (which also fosters “foxing” in older papers). Displaying original cartoons involves a tradeoff for their owner: For the enjoyment of living with the art, she or he exposes the work to potential damage from light, heat, and water. These risks should be weighed carefully before deciding which work to frame for home or office.

Appraisals and Donations

Current tax law does not permit the creator of an artwork to receive a charitable deduction when an art work is donated to a nonprofit institution.  The appraised or market value of gifts-in-kind of work by other artists may be deducted.  An appraisal is not necessary for gifts-in-kind valued at less than $5,000 by the donor.  Additional information on appraisals and who constitutes a qualified appraiser is included in the Internal Revenue Service form 8283 which must be filed by persons claiming the deduction of a gift-in-kind valued at more than $500.