Packing and Shipping Artwork

Packing artwork has been on my mind lately. I’ve spent the last couple of weekends packing up most of my work (10 boxes!) to ship off to a solo show at the Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno, Nevada. And I'm helping to make the boat payment for my local UPS Store owner...

I’m not an expert on packing and shipping artwork, but I have worked as a gallery assistant and I’ve unpacked artwork for a couple of national juried shows. So I do consider myself an expert on how NOT to pack and ship artwork. I have seen some amazingly stupidly packed boxes!

So I thought I would share some observations, tips, and techniques for packing and shipping that I’ve picked up over the years.

Reusable packing materials
First of all, if you’re shipping work that you know will be returned to you (a juried show, for example), then be sure to use easily reusable packing materials. Think about what it must be like at a juried show – there’s work coming in from all over the country, the people unpacking and repacking your work could be volunteers with little or no experience handling artwork – you want to make it as clear as possible for them to unpack your work and repack it after the show.

Avoid using packing peanuts. They’re not good protection because they can settle during shipping. They’re also a complete pain in the ass and gallery assistants hate them with a passion (at least my coworker and I did).

Clear instructions
It’s helpful to mark the spot on the box where you want it opened. As a gallery assistant, I LOVED the anal-retentive artists who sent unpacking and packing instructions (if you’re unpacking 50 boxes, you don’t want to have to think too hard about any of them). Just make it as easy as you possibly can. You don’t want the person who will be handling your artwork to be hating on you because you made her spend 20 minutes picking up peanuts or you wrapped something really tightly in so much bubble wrap that it won’t go back in the box later or realize that she opened the wrong end of the box and will have to spend extra time fixing it when she re-packs. Oh. Sorry. Flashbacks…

So when I pack something that is fairly complicated, I will include instructions. Pictures are also helpful, especially if the instructions are complicated.

Here’s an example of some instructions I wrote up for a fairly complicated package. I had 3 artist’s books in one box, and they had to be put back “just so” in order for them to fit. pdf file (120 KB)


Basically, you want to have as much protection between your artwork and the cold, cruel world as possible.

I pack my paintings in foam core boxes that I make myself. I then stack a few of those boxes inside a cardboard box. I line a larger box with foam and include the smaller box inside. So I basically have the paintings triple-boxed.

packing2a recent batch of foam core (and a few cardboard) inner boxes

Airfloat boxes
I’ve never used them myself, but I have unpacked quite a few. I think they’re fairly expensive, but they might be worth it for you.

The boxes are reinforced, easy to open, and re-usable. The boxes include 3 sheets of foam – one sheet protects your artwork on the bottom, one on the top, and you create a hole in the center piece of foam so that your piece fits snugly into it.

If you have tools and carpentry skills, you can make your own wooden crates. You can also have them made for you. Crates are expensive to ship because they’re usually heavy, but they can be good protection for your artwork, especially sculpture.

If you use a crate, be sure to mark very clearly which screws should be removed to open the crate.

To sum up, here is a basic list of packing tips that I created for local juried show participants:
Protect the artwork from dust and moisture:
- Wrap the artwork with protective, acid-free paper such as glassine or tissue paper
- Cover the artwork with white cotton fabric (recommended for textiles, ceramics, and wood)
- Wrap the artwork loosely in plastic
Protect the artwork from damage:
- If possible, use two containers; a smaller box cushioned on all sides inside a larger box can protect your artwork from bumps and sharp objects
- Insulate the artwork with padding such as bubble wrap, upholstery foam, or Styrofoam. NOT recommended: loose material such as any type of Styrofoam peanuts.
Identify your artwork:
- Include the artist’s name and the title on the back or bottom of the artwork
- Write your name on all exterior sides of all shipping containers using permanent marker
- Cover any paper labels with clear tape
- Identify your container as “FRAGILE” (ask your shipping company for labels)
- Identify where you would like the container to be opened by writing “OPEN THIS SIDE,” or “OPEN HERE”
- Include detailed unpacking and packing instructions

Resources: - inexpensive, re-usable packaging solutions for shipping fine art - archival materials - boxes and plastic bags
For textile artists, check out Lisa Call's post where she explains how she ships large quilts.

This article is excerpted from


Unpacking and Packing Instructions

I just sent a painting off to a show and even though it was just one painting and it seemed like anyone could have done it with no problem, I decided to make a sheet with unpacking and packing instructions. I learned my lesson back in the summer...

Here's a screen grab of the unpacking instructions:
I try to follow all the rules for successful packing:
- 2 boxes (painting wrapped well and snug in inner box, inner box snug inside sturdy outer box)
- no peanuts (I complain about peanuts all the time - even the environmentally friendly ones - they're a complete pain in the ass*)
- everything is loosely packed with minimal taping to avoid someone having to fight to get something open...
- I draw arrows and write "open here" to indicate where I want my box opened
- I write my name on all sides of the box

I like to pack the box and then unpack to make sure it's easy. I take photos of each step and then I create a simple document with the photos and easy to follow steps for each photo.

In this particular case, I was only shipping one painting, so I used a custom-made cardboard box that was lined with small bubble wrap. I put a piece of archival paper on top of the painting to protect it from the bubble wrap. It rattled around a little when I tested it, so I taped some bubble wrap to the sides and top just to make it a little more snug. Then I wrapped that inner box with large bubble wrap.

My outer box was actually a super sturdy, cow-spotted Gateway box (with a handle, even!) that I spied in the trash at my last job. It was the perfect size. I lined that box with some foam and then slid the bubble wrap-wrapped inner box inside. I placed more foam on top and a sheet of foam core for extra protection. I liked the handle, but decided to remove it in case it got hung on something in transit. I taped some cardboard over the hole for extra protection.

I'm in the middle of unpacking boxes now for a show. The artist's galleries are shipping his work to our local art center. I'm very disappointed in their packing! Well, they're actually packed really well, but not for re-use. I suppose galleries are used to shipping things out and not worrying about getting them back... Most of the paintings are wrapped with paper (which is good), but they're heavily taped (which makes it hard to remove without shredding the paper), then they're wrapped with bubble wrap (which is good), but then heavily taped again (same problem - I have to cut it and mangle the bubble wrap), then (God help me) the boxes are FILLED with peanuts. Today I worked for 2 hours and spent a good 30 minutes of that time wrangling peanuts...

*Enough with the peanuts. Seriously, people.

Sorry. Just had to vent!

Anyway, I can't say this enough - if you want your work to come back safe and sound, think about how easy it will be for someone (most likely an unpaid volunteer who might not have any experience handling artwork) to unpack it first and then re-pack it later. The more they have to wrestle with your tape, bubble wrap, peanuts, etc., the more likely it is that they will not re-pack it well.

As someone who has unpacked several national juried shows, I appreciate artists who send packing instructions. It might seem kind of OCD or anal-retentive, but it really makes life so much easier.

By the way, I shipped the above painting to Eastern Kentucky University for a show called Space, Life, Place. It will be on display January 23 - February 29, 2008

This article is excerpted from





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