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 or print framed

When framing your drawing, I would always advocate going to a specialist framing shop which will usually offer excellent advice on what type of frame or mount will compliment your artwork. These days it’s easy to buy a frame off-the-shelf in a shop or to order a standard sized or bespoke frame online. The problem with this is that they aren’t likely to be made with conservation grade materials and may cause damage to your drawing in a matter of just a few years.

Some online framing companies won’t tell you what type of wood your frame is made from, or whether your mount has been treated to remove acid. They may only supply frames with static-attracting acrylic glazing and not real glass which is expensive to ship safely. In contrast an experienced framer who you can speak to in person will have many more options to offer. Here I’m going to explain all of the choices you may be presented with.

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 a frame and mount in a style and colour that will compliment décor.

The importance of the glass and the mount (mat)

A drawing made on paper is obviously very delicate and should always be framed behind glass to protect it. Unlike a work in oil or acrylic on canvas, their paper surface is easily damaged, whilst the drawing medium isn’t fixed in a hard film of dried oil or acrylic and then varnished. Additionally, any pigment used in a work on paper (chalk, pastel, coloured pencil, watercolour and so on) will be more vulnerable to fading which is why drawings are always protected behind UV-deflecting glass in museums.

Framed pencil portrait

However if the glass were to be in direct contact with the drawing then it might smear any loose graphite or charcoal, whilst moisture condensing on the glass would be absorbed by the paper and could cause mildew to grow. Therefore a drawing should also be framed with a mount, which is a piece of thin card with an aperture cut in it (usually on a bevel) to reveal the artwork. This sits behind the glass and creates a vital gap between glass and drawing so that air can circulate and the paper can ‘breathe’.

CHOOSING A MOUNT (MAT)

A mount is sometimes known by the French term passepartout. In North America it’s called a mat, and the process of mounting a drawing is called matting. If you really want to frame your drawing without a mount (this is known as a ‘close framed’ picture)  it’s important to ask your framer to add a spacer to maintain a gap and keep your drawing separated from the glass.

Here’s an example of the results of poor air circulation in an incorrectly framed drawing. ‘Foxing’ is the name given to those familiar reddish brown stains that appear on old paper. They are caused either from natural iron within the paper or from fungal spores, both of which naturally exist within the paper. However the damper the paper becomes (and the more acidic the paper) the more likely that the iron or spores will trigger foxing marks to grow on it. By ensuring a gap between drawing and glass and keeping your artwork in a dry environment you minimze the likelihood of foxing eventually ruining your drawing.

Foxing on a drawing

How the mount is assembled

Your framer will sandwich your drawing between the front picture mount (with the aperture) and a back mount (or barrier board) to which the drawing is fixed with little paper corners or acid-free tape, before sealing the frame with the back board that holds the mount in place. To protect your drawing from potential damp damage reaching it through the back board, a good framer will add a waterproof sheet of polyester or aluminium foil as a moisture barrier between back mount and back board. Be aware that even a cold external wall can cause mildew in a backing board that’s in contact with it, so requesting this is a really good idea.

Framing picture diagram

Although the mount traditionally traps the edges of your drawing all the way around, it is sometimes fashionable to reveal these edges by having the mount aperture cut larger than the drawing and simply affixing the drawing to the back mount to keep it in place. This is called ‘floating’ the drawing.

The importance of using a conservation grade mount

Cheap, ‘budget’ mounts are made from acidic wood pulp. Not only will this acid quickly discolour a mount and turn the core to an unattractive browny yellow colour where the edge is cut around the aperture, but it will also leach from the mount into the drawing itself where it may eventually create brown stains known as ‘mat burn’. When acid is absorbed from the mount into the drawing paper (known as ‘acid migration’ or ‘acid transfer’) this increases the likelihood of foxing developing. Here you can see an old mount whose core has been badly discoloured by acid. The paper it’s faced with has also yellowed, whilst acid has leached from the backboard around to the edges of the mount.

Acid damage to a mount

A mount is considered to be of a minimum conservation grade when the pulp used to make the core of the board has been chemically treated to remove its ‘lignins’, which are the substance that binds cellulose together. These lignins are what actually turn paper yellow as they degrade and release acid, particularly when exposed to UV via natural light.

Ideally the ‘facing’ and ‘backing’ papers which are applied to the mount should also have their acid neutralized. A good mount will be further neutralized with a bath of calcium carbonate that will create an ‘alkali reserve’ to protect it against future acid absorption from the atmosphere or from contact with acidic materials.

Note that a mount that simply calls itself ‘acid-neutral’ is not the same as one that is truly acid-free. This type of mount may simply have been given an alkaline bath but may not have been properly bleached to remove lignins.

The ‘back mount’ which the drawing is fixed to should also be lignin free. This is sometimes known as a ‘barrier board’ because it protects the drawing from absorbing acid from the back board which may be made from untreated MDF or hardboard (in ‘museum’ framing the back board used would be acid free too) Additionally, it’s worth checking that your framer uses acid-free tapes to put the mount together.

Here are the different types of mount that you may be offered. They will usually come with smooth facing papers but most ranges will also offer some with a slight texture.

CREAMCORE BOARD (budget):

These are the cheapest type of mounts, made from wood that has been mechanically pulped but not chemically broken down and bleached. Creamcore boards are not always cream in colour originally but they will certainly turn a browny colour within a year or two.

WHITECORE BOARD:

Whitecore boards are made from bleached, lignin free wood pulp and should remain white. However they are not considered conservation grade because they are still faced and backed with acid-containing papers.

If you want a mount whose core is black then these are also readily available, though they are less likely to be made from treated woodpulp.

CONSERVATION WHITECORE:

These will be made from lignin-free wood pulp and acid-neutralised facing and backing papers, and hopefully also given an alkali reserve. A good conservation whitecore mount should be perfectly adequate for framing a domestic picture, although it’s important to protect them by not hanging them in direct sunlight.

COTTONCORE/MUSEUMCORE:

The most expensive type of mount, this may not be available from a high street framer. It is made from cotton fibres and faced with cotton facing and backing papers. Cotton naturally contains no lignins and is therefore considered to be the highest archival quality. Museum grade boards will usually have been given an alkali reserve unless intended for framing photographs whose surface can be degraded by an alkaline mount.

Standard mountboard thickness in the UK is 1400 microns (1400 micron board = 1.4mm) Avoid anything thinner, because 1400 microns is considered the minimum conservation standard. 1650 (1.65mm) micron board is considered museum quality, although boards are also available up to 3500 microns (3.5mm) thick. If you visit a museum or art gallery however you’ll notice that their mounts are considerably deeper even than this, in order to create the maximum breathing space for the artwork. Therefore two or three boards will be sandwiched and bevelled together. You can achieve the same effect by stacking or ‘stepping’ boards, so that the edges of both are visible. Next we’ll look at some of these stylistic options.

MOUNT STYLES

Before considering all these varied and sometimes elaborate options I should say that there is nothing wrong at all with a simple, bevelled white mount! It can look very nice and artistic, although I would always advise making sure that the mount is thick enough to allow for good air circulation and considering sandwiching two boards together for this purpose or adding an extra ‘spacer’. If you are framing a chalk or pastel drawing or anything else with a similar ‘loose’ media then a mount with a depth of 5-6mm (1/4 inch) is considered optimal.

Framed pet portrait

Different aperture shapes

These days framers have computerized cutters and you can get a frame cut in any shape you want including an oval (traditionally very popular for portraits), a shape that combines a rectangle and oval, or a rectangle or square with rounded or stepped corners.

Stepping

Stepped mounts feature two or more layered boards, one with an aperture cut wider than the other so that both are visible. These may be referred to as ‘double mounts’, or ‘triple mounts’ if using three layers. Creating a stepped edge to white or cream boards makes a nice bit of extra visual interest. Layering coloured boards also creates a nice effect because it gives you a border created by the exposed white core of the upper board.

Stepped mount boards
Stepped mount boards

Instead of stepping two identically coloured boards you can use different colours that compliment each other, such as two shades of blue. To create an impression of a strong border around the aperture you could use a light colour like a white or cream layered over a dark one in a mid to dark grey, or even a smart black.

‘V groove’ bevels

This is a popular effect which most framers will offer. It’s created by a routing tool which cuts a ‘v’ shaped bevel around the aperture of the mount, typically set back from the opening by around 1cm / 1/2 inch. A V groove is often combined with some stepped layering, with the groove running around the aperture on the top mount. Sometimes a double V groove may be added.

Mount with V groove
Mount with V groove and stepping

Slip mouldings and embossing

Sometimes a deep mount will be given a decorative edging called a ‘slip’. A mount finished this way is called a ‘slip mount’. A slip is made from a piece of timber or plastic, covered in gold or silver gilding or painted black. It may be in the form of a small decorative moulding, or just an angled edging piece that just faces the sides of the aperture.  A slip can look particularly smart when it echoes the same colour as the main frame.

Mount slip on a frame
Embossed mount

Above is an example of an embossed double line pressed into a mount. It’s not as wide or deep as a V groove and creates a subtle effect. Some antique frames may have elaborate embossed patterns framing the aperture of their mount.

Decorative ‘French’ lines

On antique frames you’ll sometimes see ‘French lines’ are lovely borders and infill panels handpainted in watercolour around the aperture of a mount – the mount suffering from acid damage which we discussed above has a lovely example of French line decoration. Some framers offer the addition of machine-painted line borders in a variety of colours.

MOUNT COLOURS

Off-white and cream mounts are the most popular as they are completely neutral and can go with any room décor, but if your drawing is in monotone you should be able to use any colour that works with your interior (for a coloured drawing you’ll obviously want a shade that compliments the artwork too). Subtle and fairly neutral grey-blue mounts, heather, dove grey, deep grey and navy are all colours I’ve seen used very successfully.

If you choose a pale coloured mount and you are framing a drawing on white or cream paper, ensure there is enough contrast between the two. An ice-white mount won’t look good with an ice-white drawing, but a cream will enhance it. If your drawing is on cream coloured paper an ice-white will look nice.

Before buying a coloured mount, make sure to ask the framer about the ‘blue wool scale’ or ‘BWS’ rating. This scale which runs from 0 (highly fugitive) to 8 (completely lightfast) tells you how quickly the colour of your mount may fade. This will vary not only between brands of mountboard but also their various colours, depending on the pigments used. A board should score at least a 3 on the BWS, although 5+ is the minimum for cottoncore boards. Less than this will mean that your mount will eventually fade and will need replacing after a number of years.

THE SIZE OF THE MOUNT

Whatever the size of the artwork, a standard minimum width for a mount is considered to be about 5cm / 2.5 inches all the way around. Most commonly the mount will be of equal size all the way around, but sometimes it can be greater at top and botton (for a portrait format image, where it is known as ‘bottom weighting’) or at the sides (for a landscape). Here’s an example:

Mount with bottom weighting
Some people like to use something called the ‘Golden Ratio’ to work out the most desirable area for the mount in relation to the image. A golden ratio is based on the Fibonacci sequence and suggests a ratio of 1.64 as the most pleasing relationship between the two. You can find an example on this website and a handy calculator to work out the golden ratio for your drawing.

Although I certainly agree that a very narrow mount for a large artwork isn’t very pleasing, I’m not completely convinced that one calculated to a ratio 1.64 is always the perfect size just because I’m also very fond of quite a wide mount. I think that this can look really nice with a small drawing and a wide mount is often employed in museums and galleries to give a small work more prominence. The larger the drawing, the less it probably needs a very wide mount.

The relationship between frame size and mount size

A golden rule here is said to be that the frame and mount should never be the same size, and the mount should always be wider than the frame.  In particular a thin frame looks much more elegant with quite a wide mount than with a mean one.

CHOOSING A FRAME

The only hard and fast rule about choosing a frame style for a drawing is that traditionally, drawings are very rarely framed with extremely ornate frames. Even in an art gallery or museum the fanciest golden frames with cast plaster mouldings are reserved for paintings and drawings are framed more simply, because they are usually small and delicate. Very ornate mouldings would overwhelm and dwarf them and the scale would feel wrong.

Framed equestrian portrait

As a general rule of thumb I feel that a drawing pairs best with a frame of a similar vintage. If you’re framing an old drawing or one made in a very traditional style, then a more decorative and old fashioned moulding can work well. If you are framing a drawing in a modern style then a simple contemporary frame in a timber or painted finish, or a thin and plain metallic frame will suit it better.

Although people generally match the style of their frame to the décor of their room (a more ornate frame for a more traditionally furnished room and a simpler one for a more contemporary style), it’s also possible to deliberately create a striking contrast. For example an antique drawing (or something like an old family portrait) in a fancier frame can still look great in a room furnished in a modern style. As long as the style of the drawing and the frame are harmonious, this is fine.

Slip frames

Above we talked about the ‘mount slip’ that can be used to finish the edge of the mount’s aperture. Often, larger slip mouldings often used to add extra width to the frame itself by running them around the inner edge of the frame where they ‘slip’ under the rebate and are held in place. This is known as a a ‘slip frame’. Adding a slip to a frame is a way of adding extra interest and detail to a frame, and it is commonly used to add a bit of gilding to a frame of plain timber. In the frame below a silver frame slip and a matching mount slip have been used in conjunction.

Slip mouldings

Some very elaborate frames may have fancy slip mouldings that are more like a second, inner frame than a simple ‘trim’. These pictures are framed with large slips and the one on the left is actually a double.

Slip mouldings

How to pair a frame with a mount

To avoid overkill, I wouldn’t pair a more ornate moulded frame with a terribly elaborately layered mount. If you’re using lots of stepping and ‘v’ grooves, or gilded filets and slips around your mount aperture, these effects will look much nicer with a simpler frame moulding.

This is not to say that gold and silver frames are not absolutely appropriate for a drawing – they are absolutely fine as long as the moulding isn’t very over the top. I generally prefer a silver or pewter frame with a cooler mount colour for a pencil drawing because it echoes the silvery graphite, although I also think a golden frame paired with a more warmly coloured mount such as a heather colour can work. I’m not keen on a very dark frame (plain timber or black) paired with a dark mount such as a bottle green or navy. Instead a dark frame looks very smart when contrasted with a lighter coloured mount, whilst a very deeply toned dark mount is better set off by a bright metallic frame.

CHOOSING YOUR GLAZING

Here are some various terms to be aware of when it comes to selecting your frame’s glass. You may be offered a number of different products which depending on the manufacturer may combine any of these different attributes. For example a make of ‘water white’ glass may also advertise a degree of UV protection and a reduced reflection percentage.

FLOAT GLASS (budget):

The cheapest, standard type of framing glass. It has a slightly greenish hue due to iron impurities in the glass, or iron oxide additives.

‘WHITE WATER’ GLASS:

This is glass that is completely colourless and clear, due either to a low iron content or the addition of something like manganese to offset the green tinge of float glass

UV-BLOCKING/ CONSERVATION GLASS (OR ACRYLIC):

To qualify as a true conservation glass a product should deflect 99% of UV. This is in contrast to some makes of glass that might offer between 40 and 95% UV reflection. Glass or acrylic that blocks 99% of UV can have a slightly yellow tinge depending on the brand, because of the way it filters out a bit of the blue/violet light from the spectrum.

MUSEUM GLASS:

This will offer both 99% UV deflection and an almost completely anti-reflective surface.

ANTI-REFLECTION GLASS (OR ACRYLIC):

This type of glass is given a special coating that diffuses light as it passes through it. The percentage of reduced reflectivity may vary between different products.

ANTI-GLARE GLASS (OR ACRYLIC):

‘Anti-glare’ is cheaper than ‘anti-reflection’ glass and is not coated but instead etched in order to scatter and diffuse light. It’s not as crystal clear as anti-reflection glass and I don’t recommend it.

About acrylic glazing

Lightweight and safe acrylic glazing is something you might consider for a very large artwork. However since it’s unusual for drawings to be made on this scale the advantages of acrylic glazing are possibly limited, unless you are an artist shipping framed prints to customers. It is naturally more reflective than glass which is why I’d never advise buying basic acrylic glazing that isn’t also ‘anti-reflective’.

The disadvantage to cheap acrylic is the way it attracts dust like mad. If you order an acrylic frame from an online framer it will come with a plastic sheet stuck to the surface for your to peel off yourself before inserting your artwork. However once you do so it will immediately cover in dust that is hard to get rid of! If you get a drawing framed with acrylic glazing in a good framing shop, your framer may use anti-static acrylic and will have anti-static tools to remove dust before sealing the frame.

WHERE TO HANG YOUR DRAWING

As well as framing with a Conservation mount and maybe also UV-deflecting glass, it’s really important that you choose a position for your drawing that will minimize exposure to damaging conditions. Here are some tips.

When you are handling a drawing before taking it to a framer only do so with very clean hands. Try to handle it as little as possible to avoid contaminating it with the natural oils and acids that exist in our skin.

Above we’ve discussed all the problems that can befall a drawing that suffers from excess humidity and sunlight. As well as making sure you use a mount or a spacer, you therefore need to be very careful where you hang your artwork. Direct sunlight is completely inadvisable even if you’ve gone for a museum grade cotton mount and UV deflecting glass, because the latter doesn’t filter out all of the visible light spectrum – just the bit that does the most damage. Additionally if your drawing is in coloured pencil or coloured chalks, the pigments that they contain may start to fade quickly in full sun. If possible, hang your drawing in a place that is mainly in shade.

To avoid warping and buckling, don’t hang a drawing near to a source of heat such as a radiator, fire or cooker. But most of all, remember that damp really is the enemy of paper! Make sure not to hang your drawing on a damp or newly plastered wall and I personally wouldn’t hang any original artwork in a bathroom. You even need to be careful of a cold exterior wall. If you are storing a drawing that you don’t currently want to display, don’t keep it in a garage, attic or shed.

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