Framing paintings

I don’t offer framing for my portraits, however I hope you will find some of this advice on framing a painting useful. Feel free to contact me with any questions once you’ve received your portrait and I’m happy to make suggestions.

advice on framing and caring for an oil painting

Oil paintings are framed differently than watercolours, so if you are framing a watercolour portrait then look at the specific advice lower down on this page. Whilst a watercolour is framed with glass and a mount (just like framing a pencil portrait), oils are usually framed without glass. Why is this? Well, oil paint have been around for many centuries and long before glass was available in sheets big enough to cover most canvases (typically large paintings on historical or biblical subjects) so traditionally it simply wasn’t used. Some also argue that glass traps moisture behind it, potentially leading to rotting in the canvas if the painting is unable to ‘breathe’.

Impasto oil paint

Oil paint does not dry through the evaporation of water but through a process of oxidization, as the oil that binds the pigment very slowly reacts with the air. This process takes an astonishingly long time to complete (around 60-70 years) so although after a few weeks an oil painting will feel dry to the touch and will be safe to handle with care, it isn’t considered completely dry for decades until all chemical changes have taken place. The thicker the oil paint (as above) the more potential there is for cracking caused by instability in the paint. The greatest activity happens in the first six months and therefore paintings should never be varnished before this time, and many would advise not placing it behind glass for this period too. After 6 months to a year a layer of varnish can be applied and this is usually considered adequate protection for a painting which is why the only oil paintings you’ll see behind glass in a museum are those considered at risk from the public, such as the Mona Lisa. When a painting is framed with glass for any reason, a spacer will be used to prevent the glass touching the paint itself and potentially damaging it.

Varnishes protect a painting from environmental damage and mean that any dirt adhering to the painting can be cleaned without removing the paint beneath. However they also add a shine to a painting that has been less popular in modern times when we have become used to seeing fairly matte paint. If you want your oil painting to be varnished I don’t advise doing this immediately but on arranging for the painting to be sent back to me after six months, or taking it to a conservator for varnishing.

choosing a frame

There’s an infinite choice of frame styles, and the one you choose (indeed, whether you choose to frame your painting at all….see more on this below) is really a matter of personal taste. With a painting in colour however you of course want something that will compliment the colours within your painting. Oil paintings are also framed without a mount (or mat, in the US) These boards are appropriate for drawings or pastels and watercolours which are framed using glass and they serve the purpose of separating the glass from the surface of the artwork. However, you may see a frame for a painting that looks as if it has a mount around the image, such as this one.

Range of frames
Linen liner

Above right: a frame with a ‘linen liner’ suitable for an oil painting

In fact this is not a mount but is called a linen liner. The liner is fabric-covered timber rather than made of card, as in a drawing mount. It’s will be less vulnerable to dirt and atmospheric conditions than a mount which is important since it won’t be behind glass. As with a mount however a main purpose is to supply a visual break between the frame and the painting and sometimes the edges will be given a metallic finish. The liner sits inside the frame and is clipped to it at the back.

conservation – how to look after a painting

Be aware that oil paint will be adversely affected by extremes and changes in humidity and heat – as an example, I was once asked to attempt repairs to a painting that had been stored in a damp garage and sadly the paint was flaking off beyond repair. Mould in paint or canvas and movement/expansion in the wooden frame caused by both heat or humidity will both cause paint loss and too much light will cause fading pigments. So here are some ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’ to remember:

• DON’T hang the painting above a radiator, near a working fireplace, an oven, or any other source of heat. Avoid using ‘picture lights’ attached to the top of a frame. Remember that a painting placed in a room with a working fire will need either varnish or glass to protect it from smoke (remember that using candles frequently will have the same effect)

• AVOID placing a painting in direct sunlight, or too close to an electric light (apart from LED lighting). Paint pigments can be quite volatile and will fade in intense light.

• DON’T hang a painting on a damp or newly plastered wall, too near to a vent. Never store it in an attic, even temporarily.

• DO gently dust your painting with a soft feather duster, but don’t use any kind of product on it and if it really needs cleaning, take it to a restorer.

to frame or not to frame?

Of course, for a more modern look you may prefer not to have a painting framed at all. Providing that the stretcher (the wooden structure on which the canvas is stretched) is strong enough, a frame isn’t a necessity and since the early 20th century many painters have often chosen to avoid them altogether (here is an interesting article on the debate)

If you choose a stretcher-framed canvas with a bit of a thickness to it (usually an inch at least, to look right visually) it is perfectly acceptable just to put it straight on the wall. You will need screw your rings into the back of the wooden canvas stretcher to string your wire or cord across, exactly the same as screwing them into the back of a frame.

Canvas sides

When a painting is going to be mounted in this way it will be stapled only on the back instead of the sides – this is known as a ‘gallery wrap’. If you plan to hang your painting without a frame, let me know so that I can finish the sides of the painting in white paint, or in a neutral colour that complements the image. I will also be sure to use a deeper canvas – you can read more about your canvas options on the oil portraits page.

framing a watercolour

Framing a watercolour
Framing a watercolour

Watercolour and oils are very different. A watercolour painting should be treated exactly the same as a pencil drawing – framed behind glass, with a mount (or mat, in the US) in between preventing the glass from contacting the painting. They are particularly delicate as they are not ‘finished’ in any way with a varnish or a fixative spray and therefore protection behind glass is necessary. For more information on frames and mounts suitable for a watercolour painting, please refer to the framing drawings page. Watercolour paints are even more vulnerable to fading than are oil paints and I never hang a watercolour (particularly an old one) on a wall that receives direct sunlight – keep it in a shady spot.

box frames

You will see ‘box’ or ‘tray’ frames (sometimes also known as a ‘floating frame’) a lot if you visit a modern art gallery. With a box frame, a plain rectangular wooden frame is created on top of a baseboard, and the painting is placed within it – with a gap between the edge of the canvas so that the canvas edges are still visible. The gap – known as a shadow gap – may be only a few millimetres or up to an inch or more for more of a statement. It’s a way of framing but not framing – giving a bit of importance to the canvas but without a typical frame surround that overlaps its edges. A wooden box frame (they are also sometimes made of thin aluminium) will be any thickness from about 8mm upwards.

Here is a good example ›

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