Japanese woodblock prints are made of different types of paper, can range from organic inks to modern synthetic pigments, some are backed whereas some are still “loose”, and can come with and without margins. In this we’re going to give some brief overviews to help you make the best decisions for your newly acquired handmade (and possibly rare and antique) work of art.
We ship all of our woodblocks in toploader heavy duty plastic sleeves. While the manufacturer claims these are “archival”, it should be noted that almost all plastics will eventually break down due to light, heat, and humidity. We ship our prints flat in these folders so as to protect them during transport, but also as a way for our customers to keep the prints safe in the time between receiving the print and getting it framed. These folders will protect them from moderate humidity, creasing, folding, soiling, and moderate puncture (please don’t try to damage the print!). They are NOT UV protective, so do not use them for display or in bright sunlit spaces.
If you are going to be storing your print it is recommended that you store it in a place that is room temperature without significant humidity. Keep the print stored flat and preferably not touching any surface where moisture can linger. If you are going to use the plastic folders that we shipped the pieces in, we recommend going to a local art supply store and purchasing acid-free cotton rag paper that you can create a folder to hold your print(s), and then placing that entire folder within the plastic sleeve. This will separate the print from the plastic while providing protection against UV. It will also enable you to easily insert and remove the piece should you wish to.
Another solution if you prefer to keep your prints is archival quality folio binders with hard covers and acid free archival sleeves. These will allow you to easily store your prints in a book that is easy to bring out and display, but will keep your prints safe from harm.
There are a number of factors that go into framing antique Japanese woodblocks.
First, you need to use acid-free materials (backing, matting, etc.) and the glass or plexiglass needs to be UV protective. Anti-glare glass is an option, but it can often dull the colors, so it’s not necessarily recommended.
Second, there is important information within the print that is often in the margins and should be displayed. Numbering, publisher and artist information, editions, etc. will often be found in the margins, and if that is covered up by the matting, it makes it harder to authenticate and appraise your piece, should you want to sell it or insure it.
Third, even with UV glass, fading can occur, so make sure to not place your piece in direct sunlight, but also you don’t want your matting to be covering part of the image of your print, thereby leaving a “fade line” that can ruin your piece. If you plan on matting the piece, instruct the framer accordingly.
With smaller pieces it is often nice to “float” your print so there isn’t any matting, thereby showing off the margins and the print in its entirety. With larger pieces it is often enough to simply instruct the framer to have the matting cut back enough to leave the margins showing enough to display information and to not cover the image. A double-mat (with a dark inner mat) or a dark-core mat can often let the piece stand out and stand apart from the matting and the frame without being overwhelming.
When you select a frame, it doesn’t matter if the frame is huge and intricate gold, or simple flat black wood. While some people like to have an asian styling using bamboo, it is not necessary in our opinion to overload the piece with more “flare”, the piece will tell its own story.
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.
We highly recommend you read this article/study about sun fading of Japanese woodblocks and the results of different glass types.
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.
Storage in Display Folios
There is a school of thought among collectors that prints shouldn’t be framed and displayed on the walls, but instead protected in folio books/boxes and brought out to admire. I can appreciate this desire to protect the artwork, and admire the thoughtfulness. However, I personally do not subscribe to this belief. I believe that art should be cared for as best as you can, but unless you’re a museum, you should hang your art as it is supposed to bring you joy each and every time you pass by it. There are a number of archival storage boxes and folios that you can easily purchase through art supply stores to suit your needs, and I’m sure they’re all quite good.
But do consider this: when you welcome someone into your home, that person is going to want to learn more about you; when you have your favorite art on the walls in plain view, you are letting that guest see into a window of your soul. And as we can agree, as lovers of Japanese ukiyo-e and shin-hanga, this art can give expression to many of our innermost feelings. Embrace it.