Studio Craft: Archival, Permanent and Lightfast

Ask the Expert: "We hear the terms'Permanent', 'Lightfast' and 'Archival' all thetime pertaining to art. Assuming they are notinterchangeable, can you please give a clearexplanation and distinguish between thethree?"

A: You're right- these terms get thrown aroundkind of casually in the art materials field. It reallyshouldn't be so, because it's important for artiststo understand the concepts behind theterminology so they can confidently createlasting works of art.


For the purposes of art, "Permanent" means thata material is indefinitely durable underreasonable, ordinary display conditions. If amaterial doesn't meet this standard, we mightdescribe it as "display grade" or "scholasticgrade".

Permanence can be relative depending on theintended use and projected lifespan of thefinished work. For instance, markers are oftenreferred to as "permanent" because they use inkthat can't easily be washed away or erased, butthe colorants used in most markers will fade ifdisplayed for a long time under normal lighting.This doesn't mean that markers are in any waydefective, it just means that they are best usedfor their intended purpose (sketches andlayouts) and are not a good substitute for bonafide artists' paints.


Lightfastness describes the ability of a pigmentto endure normal light exposure for thereasonable lifespan of an art object withoutperceptible color change. Lightfastness is anaspect of overall durability, and an importantfactor in determining if a material is suitable forpermanent art. In order to rate lightfastness of acolor, samples are bombarded with artificial lightto emulate natural exposure and comparedagainst a neutral standard to determine anydegree of color change.

The most lightfast colors can withstand longterm,outdoor display in full sunlight, while othersmay begin to show subtle fading over time.Artists should be familiar with the lightfastnessratings of their colors and choose what'sappropriate for a given project, based on natureand duration of exposure. An outdoor muraldisplayed in full sunlight will require colors withthe highest lightfastness rating in order tomaintain original appearance long-term.Watercolors, on the other hand, are displayedindoors under controlled lighting, and are oftenonly exhibited for planned intervals to reducefading.

It's possible for skilled artists to achieve durableresults using colors with lower lightfastnessratings (e.g. Alizarin Crimson) by avoiding lighttints and very thin glazes applied over white.


Strictly speaking, "archival" refers to materialsand techniques suitable for use with articles of avaluable collection, such as a museum or library.Some art supplies have proven suitable forarchival applications, just as some archivalsupplies are commonly used in the artist'sstudio. This does not mean, however, that allpermanent art materials can be described as"archival"- oil paints, for example, should not beused on paper or unprotected cloth. Alternately,the ink use in archival marking pens can last foryears on items in storage, but may not last aslong if applied to the surface of a painting.

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