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  • Writer's pictureShelley Diamond

Controlling Light Damage

Updated: Sep 14, 2021

Do you own a favorite print, drawing or watercolor that’s faded over time, or a beloved family photograph that’s changed color and turned magenta?

Light may have been the culprit.

Are your works displayed near windows? Are they in direct sunlight at some point during the day? Ouch. In fact, light - both sunlight and bright light from your windows, as well as artificial light from lamps and overhead lighting - is one of the most common and damaging threats to home collections. So, how do you protect objects and works of art from light damage? This is a conundrum, and not very consoling when the whole point of collecting or displaying things you love is to enjoy them. The bad news is that any exposure to light, even for a brief time, causes deterioration. The good news is that adjusting exposure to light can minimize damage and help preserve an object or work’s condition and character over time.

The best strategy for protecting and prolonging things from light is to understand why it’s damaging, identify items most at risk, recognize signs of damage and take proper steps to modulate light in your home.

Why Light is Damaging

  • Both visible light and ultraviolet radiation (UV) accelerate the deterioration of materials. UV is more destructive than other kinds of light. UV is present in sunlight shining through glass (normal daylight) and in many types of artificial lighting (especially halogen, fluorescent and incandescent).

  • Light causes permanent and irreversible damage that affects the chemical composition, physical structure and the appearance of an object or work.

  • Damage is cumulative. It depends on the intensity and duration of exposure. For example, both dim light for long periods and bright light for shorter periods each cause damage.

  • Damage can’t be reversed by conservation treatments. Some visible manifestations of light damage can be lessened, but the chemical or physical damage remain forever.

Most Vulnerable Materials

  • Paper (photographs, drawings, newsprint)

  • Inks, colorants, and dyes (iron gall ink in manuscripts, ink drawings, watercolors)

  • Textiles (upholstery, carpets, needlepoint, curtains, tapestries)

  • Dyed organic materials (dyed leather or wool)

Materials Also Vulnerable

  • Oil and tempera paint

  • Enamel

  • Wood

  • Plastic

  • Parchment

Most ceramics, glass, metal and stone are considered only minimally sensitive, but should be monitored carefully. Light duration guidelines from the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Asian Art provide insight into how museums display objects and works in the safest possible manner.

Common Signs of Light Damage

  • Faded black and white photographs

  • Bleaching and yellowing of paper

  • Faded ink inscriptions

  • Magenta-tinged color photographs

  • Dark and brittle edges of paper in books

  • Faded textiles

What You Can Do

You can take several steps at home to protect objects and works of art and to mitigate sources of light and UV:

  • Always consider where you display your works.

  • Display light sensitive works away from windows. Never display works in direct sunlight!

  • For extra protection, cover windows and skylights with UV-blocking shades, glazing or film. These materials may not block all UV, or provide 100% protection against light damage, but they reduce exposure. UV protection window films are widely available on the internet, even from home improvement retailers like Home Depot. Also consider closing shades during the most intense light of the day (especially south facing windows).

  • Limit overall light exposure (natural and artificial) on your most important or valuable works to a maximum of 10 hours a day.

  • Frame works with UV blocking glass and acrylic and install UV filtering films on glass fronted display cabinets. Most professional framers offer an array of anti-reflective and conservation-grade UV protection glass and acrylic.

  • Use LED bulbs, which produce virtually no UV. As noted earlier, halogen, fluorescent and incandescent bulbs all emit UV. This is especially important if you’re displaying works in a display cabinet or case, as halogen and incandescent bulbs also create heat that gets trapped in enclosed spaces, exacerbating the risk to works stored inside.

  • Place works sensitive to light at least 18” from any artificial light source. Illumination levels are dramatically affected by the proximity of a light source to a work.

  • Try to rotate works periodically. Move them to darker locations within your home or remove them from display from time to time to give them a rest from light.

  • Document each work with a photograph and add it to your home inventory, which I recommend everyone should have. Check the photographs periodically to see if your works are bleaching or have faded over time.

These recommendations are intended to be pragmatic and realistic. You’re not living in a museum, but regardless of whether you define your objects and works as part of a "collection" in and of itself, you want to enjoy what you display at home without worry. So, the best means of reducing deterioration from light and preserving the longevity of your objects and works of art is to regularly review the lighting in your home and monitor them for signs of deterioration.

Not sure about the lighting risk to your property or collection, or what steps to take? If you have questions, I’m here to help. I offer a full range of services for collectors, and you can always sign up for a free 30-minute consult.


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