Framing & conserving a drawing or print
I don’t offer framing for my portraits, however I hope you will find some of this advice on framing a drawing (or a print on paper) useful. Feel free to contact me with any questions once you’ve received your portrait and I’m happy to make suggestions. The advice on this page is applicable to framing pencil, charcoal or chalk drawings, and also watercolour paintings.
WHERE TO GET YOUR DRAWING FRAMED
These days, a framing shop is not your only option when framing a drawing. You can also choose to buy a standard-sized frame off the shelf in many types of shop, or to order either a standard or bespoke sized frame from an online framers. However if you are unsure as to exactly what you want, I’d suggest a taking your drawing to a specialist framing store. These usually offer excellent advice on what type of frame will complement your drawing and which mount will go well with the frame you select.
Additionally, if ensuring that your drawing doesn’t deteriorate over time is a priority then a framer should have the specialist knowledge to advise you on selecting conservation-grade materials. Therefore if you have a professional picture framer locally then I’d strongly recommend that you use them. Below we’ll look at the various options they may suggest so you can feel better informed, as well as considering aesthetic choices for your frame and mount.
If you have a smartphone, take a photo of the room in which you are going to hang your portrait when you visit a framer . This will help them to suggest appropriate complimentary colours and give them a sense of what sort of frame – traditional or more contemporary – will suit your décor.
If you do choose to order a frame online there are many options but I have sometimes used pictureframesexpress.co.uk or eframe.co.uk (no affiliation to this website) which sell both off-the-shelf frames in standard sizes and also have ‘custom frames’ sections where you can choose a frame in any size and fully customize your mount options. Pictureframeexpress is probably the better site because it tells you what type of wood each frame is made from.
With both sites you can view your mount and frame choices and see what they will look like when put together, and even upload an image of your drawing to put behind them. Below, I’ve used eframe to see what the same portrait would look like when framed in different ways.
CHOOSING A MOUNT/MAT
Most importantly, pencil, charcoal or pastel drawings (in fact any artwork created on paper including prints, watercolours or gouaches) should always should be framed with the addition of a mount. This is called a ‘mat’ in North America and the process of mounting a drawing is known as ‘matting’. In French it’s called a ‘passepartout’ and this term is also sometimes used in English-speaking countries too. The mount/mat traps the picture in place behind the glass. In its simplest form it is a single piece of board 1.6mm thick (1/16″) with an aperture that reveals the drawing behind it. Behind the mount and artwork will sit the ‘back mount’ to which your drawing will likely be fixed with acid-free tape.
The mount will ensure that your drawing is conserved over time, because the glass should ideally never touch the drawing directly and because the drawing needs an air gap to ‘breathe’. The mount helps to separate the two, preventing the graphite or charcoal from being rubbed off by the glass and discouraging condensation from damaging the paper by causing mould and mildew to grow on it.
Here is an example of why it’s so important to create that air gap! Below is an example of ‘foxing’ where an old portrait has been ruined by the appearance of little brown marks on the paper. Foxing still isn’t completely understood and is thought to result either from a fungal growth or from oxidization of metal elements within the paper pulp. However everyone agrees that it always occurs in conditions where moisture has been allowed to settle in the paper. This will be avoided if you create a gap between paper and frame, and ensure that your drawing is never hung on a slightly damp wall.
The width of the mount, in relation to the drawing
The width of the mount surrounding the image is a question of personal preference. A minimum 5 centimetres (2.5″) is standard but the mount can be as wide as you like and sometimes it may be even wider than the drawing itself – you’ll see this style often in art galleries and museums and it looks very artistic. If your drawing is fairly small and you want to give it more prominence then a wider mount will have this effect.
Most commonly the width of the mount will be the same on all sides but for a modern look you can also opt for a greater width at top and bottom (or at the sides for a landscape image) as with both of the photographs below. This is known as ‘bottom weighting’.
The relationship between mount and frame widths
Contrast is key here. I personally always feel that a thin frame will look better with a fairly wide mount, whilst a very wide frame may be complemented better by a less generous mount. Whether you choose a thick or a thin frame a golden rule in visual terms is that the frame and the mount should never be the same width – one should be significantly wider than the other.
The conservation quality of your mount
Buying a PH-neutral mount that doesn’t contain acid is really important because over time the acid in the wood pulp that was used to make the mount card will leach out into your paper, causing brown marks known as ‘mat burn’. An acidic mount leaking acid into the paper will also encourage foxing, which is more likely to occur on acidic paper, where moisture is present. Even if you only anticipate your drawing hanging on your own walls for several decades and don’t intend it to pass on to the next generation I would still advise against buying the cheapest option of mount, because the acid and lignin within the core will eventually turn it an unattractive straw-yellow colour that will be visible where it is beveled.
What type of mount should you buy then? I would also be wary of a mount that is simply described as ‘acid-free’, because sometimes these types of mounts are actually untreated wood pulp that have simply been given an alkali coating. Eventually the acid in the pulp will leach out anyway. Instead, I’d advise going for a higher grade of conservation mount. The slightly cheaper option is sold as ‘conservation’ or ‘archival’ grade mount: this is still made from wood pulp but will have been chemically treated to remove the acid. This process is fairly effective, but as an even more reliable alternative you could buy the more expensive ‘museum grade’ or ‘rag board’, which is made entirely from cotton fibres which are naturally acid-free and lignin-free.
All of the above advice applies to the back mount, which is fixed behind your mount and back mount to hold them in place. A conservationally-aware framer will ideally use an acid-free, conservation grade board of some description. They may also place some little ‘bumper stickers’ in the four corners of the backboard: these are little foam pads that will create an additional space of several millimetres (1/16″) between frame and wall to allow for increased air circulation behind.
Drawing mounts/mats come in endless varieties and in just about every colour. A good framer should be able to advise you on a neutral-toned mount colour to complement your artwork and to go well with your frame. An off-white is probably the most popular because it won’t clash with your room décor in any way, but pencil drawings framed with grey-blue or a pinkish heather colour mount or even a deep grey or navy can also look nice.
Whilst the simplest mount will be just a single layer of board with a beveled edge (a cut made on the slant) around a straight-sided opening, there are numerous additional decorative features you could consider. Some mounts will have shaped openings such as ovals, or shaped or rounded corners. Others may have single or double line borders around the opening created with ‘V’ groove bevelling, or with painted ‘French Lines’. Double or even triple ‘stepped’ or staggered edges may be created using a number of pieces of mounting board in either the same or in complementary colours. For example you could have a white board layered over a grey one, to create a grey border around the drawing.
Where a thick edge may be created either by using extra thick boards or by stacking boards on top of each other, a gilt-covered facing may be applied to the edge of the bevel to give a nice metallic finish: you can see some examples of this in the dog and equestrian portraits further down. Where the beveled edge of the board isn’t going to be given a gilt facing, the core of the board will be visible and different options are available to choose from here. White, black and the standard cream cores are the most common but you may come across other colours too.
Above are three examples of some more complex mount styles. The first frame has two layers of bevelled mount in different colours. The next has a thick mount with a metallic-painted thin timber fillet around the opening. The last has everything! An embossed decorative pattern (something you may see on antique frames) several layers of mountboard in different colours and a rounded corner.
Below are some of the most elaborate mounts you’re likely to come across: most of these frames below don’t just face the edge of the aperture of the mount but actually run a small moulding around it to create a sort of inner frame. This has been given a gilt finish, or a combination of gilt and a colour reflecting that of the outer frame
The thickness of the mount
Mounts come in boards that are typically 1.6mm (1/16″) to 3mm (approx 1/8″) thick. If you choose a single, standard-thickness layer rather than stacking two or more boards, I’d recommend requesting a thicker one or asking if a spacer can be added to create extra breathing space. In the US and Canada multiple layers of board are referred to as ‘2-ply’, ‘3-ply’ or ‘4-ply’. In Europe they will usually be referred to as ‘double’ ‘triple’ or ‘quadruple’. Museums and galleries will typically use simple but very thick mounts created of more than one layer. This is partly for the conservation benefit a thicker mount will bring, but a deep mount also looks more artistic and attractive, in my opinion.
CHOOSING A FRAME
It’s really hard to advise on what sort of frame to select because this really is a question of personal preference and there is no right or wrong. The subject of the artwork doesn’t necessarily have to dictate the style of the frame but generally an artwork will pair best with a frame that matches it in terms of its time period: so a very modern or abstract piece could look odd in an old ornate golden frame whereas a very old one might look strange with a very modern frame. In terms of a modern pencil portrait where the clothes of the subject reveal that it’s contemporary I’d suggest avoiding the most ornate type of gilded frame. An animal portrait of course isn’t time-specific in the same way.
Probably the main factor to consider is the décor of the room in question. If your room is traditionally furnished then you may prefer a more traditional style of frame. If you have more modern décor, my advice would be to choose a frame style appropriate to the age of the artwork – a very old drawing could look striking in a modern room within an ornate frame, whereas any contemporary artwork will look better in a simpler more modern frame. As long as the relationship between drawing and frame feels harmonious you can create a deliberate contrast with the general style of the room, if you wish.
What compliments a pencil drawing
If you prefer a metallic frame or one with metallic trim, I’d advise that silver works much better than gold for framing a pencil drawing because it brings out the silvery quality of the graphite. Traditionally, even very old drawings are rarely paired with frames with very ornate mouldings. This is because a very elaborate frame is thought likely to overpower a pencil drawing and detract from its simplicity and charm.
Above are photos sent to me by one of a customer showing her portraits ‘in situ’, and I think they are particularly nicely framed. The first is wooden with a metallic coated stepped detail, the second a smart silver frame with just a little detailing around outer and inner edges. Both have fairly thick mounts in a cream colour that contrasts sufficiently with the off-white of the drawing paper, with a gilded silver bevel around the aperture of the mount which picks up on the silver within the frames and really sets off the drawings.
White and cream-coloured mounts are the most popular but remember that contrast is key here – be careful not to pair an ice-white mount with a drawing made on ice-white paper, or to go for a cream colour that’s too close to the creamy paper colour of a drawing.
Once again, there are many options here, in both glass and acrylic. Acrylic glazing sheet bought from a professional framer is fairly good these days but I still feel that I can tell the difference from real glass and tend to prefer the latter. Acrylic would be ideal for a very large artwork, or for anything that needed to be transported as it is extremely light. It’s also an absolute dust magnet due to its static charge and you’ll need to dust it regularly with a microfibre cloth. If framing an unfixed charcoal or chalk drawing it would be best avoided as the static on the artwork side could be strong enough to pull particles off the paper, if the framer doesn’t use an anti-static brush to remove static when he or she unpeels the plastic covering that comes stuck to it from the factory. I personally prefer the look of glass to acrylic, but you’ll have to ask to see some samples and make up your own mind!
Standard glass is known as ‘Float Glass’. This is terribly reflective, and has the very slightest greeny sheen to it. One option that is completely colourless and which you may be offered is called ‘White Water Glass’. However I would definitely suggest choosing a glass with anti-reflective properties to prevent a glare making your picture hard to in bright light. This is available for both glass and acrylic. There are two grades on offer: ‘Anti-reflective’ glass and acrylic which have been given an optical coating, and the cheaper ‘Non-glare’ or ‘Reflection Control’ which have been chemically slightly etched. The latter is less desirable because it has a very slightly ‘fuzzy’ effect.
One last option is anti-UV glass or acrylic, which is sometimes known as ‘Conservation’ glazing. There is also ‘Museum Glass’ which combines UV and anti-reflection properties, though may have a slight orangey tint. If you are framing a monochrome pencil or charcoal drawing then anti-UV glass isn’t really necessary but for a watercolour it’s a very good idea because it will slow down fading of the pigments. Be aware that this type of glass deflects UV light only – it does nothing against the rest of the light spectrum. The very best way to slow down pigment deterioration is to hang your artwork on a wall that doesn’t receive direct sunlight. More on this just below.
WHERE TO HANG YOUR DRAWING
Even for short-term conservation it’s important important to keep your drawing away from extremes of heat and damp and away from very strong light. Where you hang your drawing is probably the most important factor in how well it will preserve in the long term. Here are some environmental rules to follow:
How to look after your pencil portrait
- When taking your drawing to the framer or fitting it into a frame yourself, don’t touch a drawing with your hands more than absolutely necessary as the oils in your skin can damage it. Wash your hands before handling a drawing even if you think they are clean – it’s very easy to leave grease spots! I spray pencil portraits with a fixative spray once they are finished to ensure that the pencil doesn’t smudge, and then place them in a cellophane envelope so that the customer can keep them protected right up until they are ready to go in their frame.
- Don’t hang a drawing in direct, strong sunlight. This will encourage buckling and warping. Never hang it over or very near to a source of heat like a cooker or radiator and certainly not a working fireplace. Avoid pointing a spotlight directly at a drawing, including those ‘picture lights’ designed to be wall mounted just above a frame or actually clipped onto the top of it.
- Damp is the enemy of any artwork! It will cause mildew, foxing and buckling. Never hang a pencil portrait on a damp or newly plastered wall. If you store a drawing that you don’t currently want to display, please don’t do so in an attic, garage or shed. Avoid hanging a drawing in a bathroom.