In talking with gallery owners and with 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 right away, to suit personal taste. Thus the initial framing is so temporary that it's unlikely to damage the artwork.
Whoa! Damage the artwork? Yes, indeed. 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 "Once the painting is sold, that's the buyer's problem."
Ah! As an artist, I think it's also my problem.
Archival framing -- what is it?
Archival framing -- also often called "conservation framing" or "preservation framing" -- aims to prevent damage right from the start. Every aspect of the framing process is designed to protect the painting over the long term. Of course, it's the artist who is responsible for making the art with archival materials and methods -- or explaining clearly 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 shading in between. On a scale of 1 to 10, with "cheap and dirty" at 1 and "bar no expense" at 10, here's about where I fall right now:
My current position is definitely toward the archival end of the scale. I look for good long term value for the collector -- as free from worry and repair as possible. If you buy a painting from me already framed, 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 paper cover on the back of the frame. Within this protective cover, 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 and creating dark spots or turning 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 keeps dust from getting in. The whole package is held in the frame with points that are easy to bend back if the painting needs to be removed, and that hold just the right amount of pressure. Too much pressure on the back of the artwork can eventually damage it.
Framing art: Primum non nocere - First, do no harm
This is the same age-old principle used in medicine: "First, do no harm."Whatever is done to protect the painting must not harm the painting. Why mention such an obvious principle? Because it's easy to violate without even knowing it.
"Frame now to prevent harm in the future." Later on, the painting may need reframing -- because the frame was dropped and damaged, or simply to suit a new decor. Whenever artwork is mounted to a mounting board or mat, the attachment must be reversible without damage to the artwork. Imagine the other extreme: a painting on paper is just taped to the back of the mat with household cellophane tape. Oops! Peeling off that tape later on will leave a sticky, acid-laden tape residue right on the back of the artwork itself. (Of course all this time the acid from the tape has been working its way through the paper, too.)
So archival framing starts with mounting the artwork using the correct hinges that are not only acid-free, but removable, if need be, by gently moistening them with distilled water. This is really a crucial part of archival matting. It's not expensive, but it does take special materials and some instruction and practice.
Mats 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. On the "archival framing" continuum, we have:
- Paper mat -- the cheapest and most temporary mat because its acidity starts right away to discolor the artwork. By the time the damage is evident, it's done.
- "Acid-free" mat -- alpha-cellulose (wood) fibers, sometimes combined with cotton. The cellulose is acidic, but buffering is added to counter that. This kind of mat is sometimes called "conservation board." It's not as archival as 100% cotton rag, but considered by most to be acceptable for long term framing for fine art. This mat usually costs about twice as much as the cheaper mat.
- Cotton rag mat -- "museum board" -- 100 percent cotton, definitely archival. This mat- usually costs about 25 percent more than an acid-free alpha-cellulose mat.
- Cotton rag mat with additional pollution protection -- even better (Nielsen Bainbridge Artcare™ mats meet this standard.)
The same mat board is usually used for mounting the painting behind the mat. Additional backing is often foam board. The cheapest foam board is "regular," with acid-free foam board -- the archival choice -- costing about twice as much. (Additional resources on archival framing choices and methods are listed at the end of this article.)
The matting can be part of the creative process
I have a lot of sample mats to use in finding the shape and size that the painting seems to want.
Many exhibitions require that artists display paintings only with white or off-white mats and simple frames. So my framed heart paintings follow these guidelines. If a black mat makes a big difference in making the painting's colors sing, however, I use a black mat and offer the painting matted but unframed. I chose a black mat, for example, for this painting of a single heart: "Thrive!)
Some paintings want a frame that connotes intimacy.
Sometimes a painting seems to want a more intimate feeling from the mat and frame. This small oil pastel painting at right, "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 needed 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 100-percent cotton rag archival mats, double thick (8-ply) that incorporate extra protection from air pollution and other contaminants. (These are the Artcare™ mats I mentioned earlier.) Some of these mats show off smaller paintings in a dramatic way.
At right, for example, the painting, "Divine Play," is only 5 by 7 inches, but the vertical framing is 14 by 11 inches.
I've sometimes framed an 8 by 10 inch painting this way, too -- putting it in a vertical frame 20 by 16 inches.
The Quest for Good Frames
Several years ago I began my 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 frames, made in the United States, that are well made. I've been ordering frames from FrameDestination.com for several years now.
Frame Destination was actually 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, 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. (I have no affiliation with Frame Destination except as a very satisfied customer.)
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. A later post here on this Heart Painting blog will offer some additional resources on learning to do archival framing.
The Niellsen Bainbridge unassembled wooden frame kits I tried were also well made -- and easier to store till needed.
I'm not recommending all Bainbridge frames
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.
A few resources on archival framing
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. Here are some good resources:
The Library of Congress offers a brief guide to conservation framing.
Frame Destination offers a more detailed article, "A Consumer Guide to Materials for Preservation Framing..."
Sharon Yamanaka offers a concise but thorough article, "The Benefits of Archival Matting and Framing."
Josh Cripps has a superb video showing, step by step, archival matting and mounting.
I also buy Nielsen Bainbridge Artcare™ mats from Dick Blick.
Frame Destination explains the different levels of mat board they carry and custom cut.
Coming soon here at this blog: Glazing choices.
This will be useful information whenever you buy a framed painting or have one framed. I'll be asking your opinion. Your opinion will be important, since the most archival glazing entails some large price differences.
What do you think about archival framing?
I welcome your questions and comments. Would you rather pay less -- say, for archival matting but a cheap frame (despite its flaws) since you nearly always reframe new paintings anyway?
Or do you love the idea of buying a painting in a simple modern frame, ready to hang?
Do you usually reframe paintings anyway, if the frame is a simple one like the ones pictured here? Would you love to learn how to do your own framing? I'll really appreciate your questions, comments and suggestions.