Framing & conserving a painting
I don’t offer framing for my portraits, however I hope you will find some of this advice on framing an painting useful. Feel free to contact me with any questions once you’ve received your portrait and I’m happy to make suggestions.
The information on this page relates largely to oil paintings. Watercolour paintings are framed in a very different way, so if you need advice about framing a watercolour, skip to the relevant section here. Whilst watercolour paintings are framed behind glass, just like pencil and charcoal drawings, oil paintings traditionally are not.
Framing an oil painting:
WHY OIL PAINTINGS HAVE ALWAYS BEEN FRAMED WITHOUT GLASS
Oil paint has been around for many centuries and pre-dates the availability of large sheets of glass. Paintings on historical or biblical subjects were typically very large and so traditionally glass framing (which was also extremely expensive) simply wasn’t used. Unlike watercolours , drawings and any other media created on paper, oil paintings once fully dry are much less vulnerable to damage. There is potential for the glass to damage the paint when it has been applied thickly if ‘spacers’ are not properly employed to separate the too. Glass traps moisture behind it, potentially leading to rotting in the canvas if the painting is unable to ‘breathe’. Where famous painting such as the Mona Lisa need to be kept behind glass for their own protection, they will be monitored within the frame for temperature and humidity.
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 no rights or wrongs. Of course you’ll want a frame colour that compliments those within the painting, however a typical frame in a neutral metallic or wood finish will generally go well enough with any colour of paint. Your framer will choose a selection of frame samples to hold up against your portrait and help you find one that you like.
My top tip when visiting a framer is to show them a photo on your smartphone of the room you are going to hang or place your portrait in. This will help them to suggest appropriate complimentary colours and give them a sense of what sort of frame (traditional, modern, etc) will suit your decor.
Some framing options
Unlike a drawing, a painting is framed without a mount (or mat, for those in North America) The boards serve the purpose of creating a space between drawing and glass to prevent the latter from damaging the former and to allow air to circulate. A painting which is framed without glass has no need of this. However in a framer’s shop you may see paintings framed with what look like an inner mount, such as in the image below.
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.
You will frequently see ‘box’ or ‘tray’ frames (sometimes also known as a ‘shadowbox frame’ or ‘floating frame’) 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. Typically the frame and the painting canvas are the same depth, so that the frame doesn’t protrude further than the painting.
The shadow gap between frame and painting may be only a few millimetres or up to an inch or more for more of a statement, as in this picture. 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.
TO FRAME OR NOT TO FRAME?
If you got to an art gallery or museum you’ll notice how many contemporary paintings are not framed at all, and are simply hung directly on the wall. The fashion for hanging paintings without a frame really stems the perception of contemporary art since the mid-20th century as something that should speak directly to the viewer with no frame creating a barrier between the two. Here’s a fascinating article you may enjoy on the topic of the aesthetic of the frame.
Whilst your painting may not be intended for a gallery, hanging it directly on the wall does certainly give a more contemporary look which you may prefer if your home decor is more modern. If you intend to do this when you commission a portrait, make sure to let me know so I can use a frame with a greater depth (this will look better on the wall than a thin frame) and critically to ensure that I use a frame that has been made using a ‘gallery wrap’ – meaning that the staples have been applied on the back of the wooden frame instead of on the sides.
WHETHER TO VARNISH?
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 an oil painting will feel dry to the touch after a few weeks 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, 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 proved less popular in contemporary art. 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.
It’s important to 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 for some time in a damp garage and sadly the paint was flaking off beyond any repair. Mould will easily get into the paint or the canvas in a damp environment and movement combined with expansion in the wooden frame caused by drastic changes in heat or humidity will both cause cracking and eventually paint loss. So here are some ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’ to remember:
How to care for an oil portrait
- DON’T hang the painting above a radiator, near a working fireplace, an oven, or any other source of heat. Remember that a painting placed in a room with a working fire will need either varnish or glass to protect it from smoke damage discolouration (and 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). Avoid using ‘picture lights’ attached to the top of a frame. Paint pigments can be 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.
Framing a watercolour painting:
Oil paintings and watercolour paintings are very different and need to be framed in very specific ways. This is both due to the different surface materials they are created on and the way the different types of paint bind their pigments together. The binder in watercolour paint which is mixed with the pure pigment is usually gum arabic instead of an oil binder.
Gum arabic is more stable than oils but, but offers less protection for the pigments it binds against damage. As watercolours are created on paper instead of canvas or board and are furthermore not protected by dried oil or varnish, they are more delicate and protection behind glass is needed. In turn this necessitates the use of a mount, or mat, to separate painting and glass and allow the circulation of air between.
Older watercolour paintings are terribly vulnerable to fading as the pigments break down from exposure to UV (particularly certain reddish-hued pigments) so it’s very important to avoid hanging them in direct sunlight. Find a shady spot on your wall and don’t hang it too close to an artificial light source if possible. Even modern watercolour paints can be vulnerable to fading, so if you are particularly concerned, you can get a painting framed with a type of glass that blocks UV light. It’s more expensive but reasonably effective for a certain length of time and is used widely by art museums and galleries, along with special lightbulbs that emit less UV light. There is also a UV-blocking varnish spray known as ‘UV Archival Varnish’ which can be used on watercolours and pastels, but be aware that this may change the appearance of the paint finish. Make sure to go for the matte variety.
Although watercolour paintings are usually made on thick paper specially treated to avoid it buckling when wet paint is applied to it, extremes of heat may trigger warping of the paper. Therefore the advice given above about avoiding extremes of climate or humidity apply to an even greater degree with a watercolour painting.
Generally speaking, any advice relevant to framing a pencil or charcoal drawing is also applicable to framing a watercolour, as they are framed in a very similar way. So for more advice on mounts, frames and conservation please follow the link to the ‘Framing Drawing’ pages, below.