How the Wrong Picture Frames Damage Artwork

Written by Mark Rogers

The artwork we collect in our homes becomes a part of our personal stories, reflecting our own tastes and individuality and offering insight to about who we are. Hanging framed artwork in our homes can inspire, calm and remind us about what we find beautiful in life.

It’s pretty absurd, then, that so much of this artwork is printed on material that has an inherent lack of durability. Printed photographs, watercolor paintings, certificates, letters, maps and other types of documentation are all printed on paper, which is easily damaged: torn, stained, faded, stretched or wrinkled. Worse, improper framing and display techniques — which are supposed to protect the piece — can cause or exacerbate any of these problems. Once damage has begun, it won't get better on its own, and it may or may not be reparable. Being aware of the dangers to artwork from improper framing is key to preserving important art or documents in a good state.

Types of Possible Damage to Artwork

Artwork printed on paper can suffer damage from environmental conditions, which can include to the specific storage methods and materials of the frame or external factors such as high (or low) humidity or sunlight.

Acid: Acidity is one factor that causes great harm to artwork and documents. Paper made from wood pulp naturally contains acidic compounds, and these will cause the paper to turn yellow and become brittle over time. Matting and mounting boards can also contain acid, which affects both the boards and the art framed with them. Excessive heat can speed up the breakdown of paper from acidity.

Adhesive: Cellophane tape and masking tape are often convenient to use, but they both cause stains. Even some tapes marked as “archival quality” can cause damage, and these stains on artwork may not be removable.

UV light: Light is a known enemy of artwork and other colorful things — it’s common knowledge that if you leave something out in the sun for a long period of time, its color will fade. The sun’s rays interact with the chemical bonds that make up color in some materials, including printed art, breaking them down and causing the colors to fade.

Moisture: Humidity damages paper by changing the structure of the paper itself and encouraging the growth of mold or mildew, which can lead to further damage and potentially disintegration.

How the Right Picture Frames Protect Artwork

Quality framing practices are designed to minimize all of the specific dangers that can damage printed artwork and documents. Proper framing uses materials designed not to damage artwork while keeping out environmental elements that can cause harm.

Acid-free mat board and mount board prevent acidity from damaging artwork. These materials, often referred to as “conservation quality,” are made from materials that are naturally acid free, such as cotton fibers rather than wood pulp, and further buffered to reduce acidity and maintain a neutral pH.

Special acid-free mounting products, such as linen hinging tape or acid-free hinging tape, prevent the kinds of staining that occurs when using standard cellophane or masking tape to mount photos in mat boards. Dry mount tissue sheets are another alternative for light pieces of artwork.

Glazing, the glass or acrylic material that’s placed in front of a piece of framed artwork, protects the piece from moisture and from being contaminated by touch. It also keeps dirt and microbes out of the artwork. Light is art’s greatest enemy. UV-filter glazing, available in both glass and acrylic, filters the harmful UV rays to protect against sun damage and fading.

Finally, a good frame supports the entire package, sealing in the artwork and keeping everything — the print, the mat, the glazing and the backing — flat, tight and protected. Archival frames minimize the presence of acid or other damaging compounds that can also damage paper. Properly mounting and framing artwork is the best way to protect it from damage while still being able to appreciate it in your home or office.