Guest post by Catherine Jo Morgan, The Heart Painter
In talking with gallery owners and other artists, I've found two different approaches to framing paintings. Some suggest "just anything to get it on the wall"—in other words, cheap mats and frames. The expectation is that the buyer will have the painting reframed to suit personal taste soon after purchase; the initial framing is so temporary that it's unlikely to damage the artwork.
Yes, cheap mats and frames can indeed damage the artwork. This is because cheap mats, mounting boards and non-archival ways of mounting the artwork put acidic materials in contact with the artwork. Eventually—even within a few months—acid begins to migrate into the artwork to age and discolor it.
Cheap temporary framing is a significant problem only if the painting isn't sold and reframed promptly. However, it's easy for the buyer to procrastinate, and sometimes the artist or gallery doesn't warn the buyer that reframing should be done as soon as possible. One gallery owner even told me that "once the painting is sold, that's the buyer's problem."
As an artist, I think it's also my problem.
What Is Archival Framing?
Archival framing—also often called "conservation framing" or "preservation framing"—aims to prevent damage from the start. Every aspect of the framing process is designed to protect the painting over the long term. Of course, the artist is responsible for making the art with archival materials and methods, or at least explaining when this is not the case.
"Getting it on the wall as cheaply as possible" vs. "museum framing" are two extreme points of view, with plenty of gray area. On a scale of one to 10, with "cheap and dirty" at one and "bar no expense" at 10, here's where I fall:
On this framing continuum, I'm at about 7.75—maximum archival value for moderate cost.
My current position is definitely toward the archival end of the scale, and I look for good long-term value for the collector. If you buy a framed painting from me, that should be it—for decades—unless you opt for a different frame to suit your personal taste.
The painting is ready to hang, protected from dust and moisture by the dust cover on the back of the frame. The foam board is acid-free, and the mounting and mat boards are either all cotton or very well buffered against acid. This is to keep the acid in ordinary cellulose from gradually migrating into the painting, which creates dark spots or turns it yellow, brittle and fragile. Since airborne contaminants can also damage paintings over time, the ideal archival mat adds additional protection from air pollution.
The framing package—foam board, mounting board, painting and glazing—is taped around the edges with a special acid-free tape that prevents dust from entering. The whole package is held in the frame with points that hold just the right amount of pressure, but are easy to remove. Too much pressure on the back of the artwork can eventually damage it.
Framing Art: First, Do No Harm
Use the same age-old principle used in medicine for framing: "first, do no harm." Whatever is done to protect the painting must not harm the painting. Though it’s an obvious sentiment, it's easy to violate it unintentionally.
- Reversible Framing
You should frame painting and photographs to prevent harm in the future, but later on, the painting may need reframing. Whenever artwork is mounted to a mounting board or mat, the attachment must be reversible—in other words, you must be able to remove the artwork from the mat.
Using household cellophane tape to adhere a painting to a mat can be just as damaging, as peeling off the tape later on will leave a sticky, acid-laden tape residue—and the acid has already been working its way through the paper.
Archival framing starts with mounting the artwork using the correct hinges that are not only acid-free, but removable with distilled water. This method of attaching artwork to mounting boards is not expensive, but it does take special materials, some instruction and practice.
- Archival Mats
Mat boards are important for paintings that need the protection of glass or acrylic glazing; the mat not only presents the art nicely, but keeps the glazing from touching the art. There are many different types of mat board, but archival mat board is generally made from cotton or alpha-cellulose.
The same mat board is often used to mount the painting behind the mat, and additional backing is generally foam board. The archival choice—acid-free mount board—costs about twice as much as regular.
Choosing a Framing Package
- Selecting the mat board can be part of the creative process.
Sample mats can be used to find the right color, shape and size mat board for the painting. Many exhibitions, however, require that artists display paintings only with white or off-white mats and simple frames; I often follow these guidelines.
However, if a black mat makes a big difference in making the painting's colors sing, I use a black mat and offer the painting matted but unframed. I chose a black mat, for example, for painting of a single heart, called "Thrive."
- Some paintings want a frame that connotes intimacy.
Sometimes a painting seems to fit better in a more intimate mat and frame. This small oil pastel painting, "I Will Give You Everything," was inspired by the words that began my 44-year-long relationship with my beloved life partner.
It's an intimate painting that needs to be framed accordingly.
- Some paintings want dramatic framing.
On the other hand, some paintings seem to benefit from a more dramatic presentation. Nielsen Bainbridge makes twice as thick 100% cotton rag archival mats that provide extra protection from air pollution and other contaminants.
Some of these mats show off smaller paintings in a dramatic way. At right, for example, the painting, "Divine Play," is only 5x7 inches, but the vertical frame is 14x11 inches. I've sometimes framed an 8x10 inch painting this way, too—putting it in a vertical frame 20x16 inches.
How to Find Good Frames
Several years ago, I began a quest to find good gallery frames—simple, modern frames for showing paintings in exhibitions. I was amazed at how difficult it proved to find frames of good quality. Time after time, I ordered sample frames or an assortment of "frame corners," only to find that the mitered corner joints didn't fit properly, or that the frames had gouges or scratches, or paint that flaked off. I tried frames from several major art supply retailers to no avail.
Finally, I found a reliable source of good quality, American-made frames : Frame Destination. I've been ordering frames from FrameDestination.com for several years now.
Frame Destination was founded by a photographer, Mark Rogers, who faced a similar problem of finding good frames—and decided to solve it for others as well. I've been very happy with the quality of the frames, which are sold at a reasonable price, and like the fact that the wood is selected for renewability. Their delivery times and customer service are also excellent, and the site includes a useful glossary of framing terms.
If you'd like to save some money by doing your own framing, I recommend ordering the framing materials and supplies directly from Frame Destination.
The bamboo frames from Dick Blick are also quite handsome; when I can’t find a frame in the light, natural color I prefer at Frame Destination, the bamboo frames are a reasonable alternative. The Nielsen Bainbridge unassembled wooden frame kits I tried were also well made and easy to store.
The pre-assembled Bainbridge frames I have tried didn't satisfy me, however. Their design would put pressure on the artwork, keeping it from the natural expansion and contraction it needs to have—pressure can lead to wrinkling. Quality control for some of these frames also seemed to be a problem, perhaps because manufacturing is outsourced to factories abroad. The frames I buy from Frame Destination, on the other hand, are made to order in Texas.
Archival Framing Resources
If you're interested in collecting art for your home or office—or even donating it to your local doctor or hospital—you might want to learn more about archival framing from these sources:
The Library of Congress: A brief guide to conservation framing
Image Permanence Institute’s Guide to Preservation
Sharon Yamanaka: The Benefits of Archival Matting and Framing
Joshua Cripps: How to mat a print in an archival, conservation-safe manner (video)
Nielsen Bainbridge Artcare Technology
Would you rather pay less—for example, for archival matting but a cheap frame—since you nearly always reframe new paintings, or do you love the idea of buying a painting that is ready to hang?
This post first appeared on HeartPainter.com and was written by one of our customers, Catherine Jo Morgan. Ms. Morgan has no affiliation with Frame Destination except as (in her words) a very satisfied customer.