Painting & drawing blog
HOW TO FRAME A PICTURE
A guide to how to have your paintings and drawings framed correctly
Any advice on how to frame your artwork appropriately is dependent on what sort of medium it has been created with, and whether it has been made on paper or canvas. To conserve your artwork for the future, it’s really important to frame them in the right way.
In this post I’ll compare the framing requirements for oil or acrylic paintings, or for any type of artwork on paper including watercolours, gouaches, drawings in pencil, pastel or charcoal, or a printed medium such as a photograph or giclée print. I’ll also consider also the different stylistic choices for framing which will best compliment your artwork. You can use the links above to jump straight to any section.
Where to get your picture framed
I always advise visiting an experienced picture framer, rather than buying a frame off the shelf or ordering from an online framing company. Independent framing shops are usually very good at advising you on what sort of frame will suit your artwork.
In contrast, large online framing companies may be very limited in the frames and glass which they offer, with some only shipping out poor quality, static-attracting acrylic that will be covered in dust by the time you’ve finished inserting your artwork. As with ready-made frames bought off the shelf, frames bought online are unlikely to be made from suitably archival materials with the conservation of your artwork in mind.
When visiting your framing shop, take a photograph on your smartphone of the room that you plan to hang the painting in as this will help the framer to suggest a frame that will suit your décor.
Different mediums, different framing conventions:
FRAMING OIL PAINTINGS
Oil paintings are traditionally framed without glass. There is more than one reason for this. Partly, it’s a question of tradition: oil paintings were often extremely large, and pre-dated the availability of very large sheets of plate glass. Secondly, once fully dry oil paint is less vulnerable to damage than a drawing or watercolour created on paper and therefore glazing still isn’t usually considered necessary except for very vulnerable or valuable paintings in museums, where varnish isn’t considered to be adequate protection.
Framing without glass eliminates the problem of condensation forming and causing rotting in the canvas and damage to the paint layers. When you see a glazed oil painting in a museum or gallery you’ll notice that a very deep gap is created glass and the painting. This is achieved with the addition of a spacer running around the edge of the frame, to allow for good air circulation and to discourage any moisture from being absorbed into the painting. Here’s an example.
If you do want to frame an oil painting with glass then a spacer is really essential. Bear in mind also that it’s strongly advised never to glaze a newly finished oil painting. This is because of the time it takes oil paint to fully dry as the oil content in it very slowly oxidises. During this time there is likely to be some movement in the individual paint layers which will dry at different rates depending on the type of pigments used and the quantity of extra oil added by the artist.
It takes many years for all of these chemical changes to take place and for the paint to be considered completely ‘cured’, and before the process is complete the painting is vulnerable to cracking and flaking. Therefore in the first few years after its creation, it is considered particularly important that an oil painting is framed without glass so that it can ‘breathe’. If you really want to frame your oil painting after this period has elapsed, or if you are framing an old painting that’s already had time to ‘cure’, then you can do so.
What are the arguments in favour of framing an oil painting with glass in your own home? Glazing does provide increased protection against the dust and grime in the home environment and might be sensible if you regularly use an open fire. Generally though if your painting is varnished and you are careful where you hang it then regular household dirt shouldn’t be a major problem. Simply dust your painting gently and regularly with a soft artist’s brush or a makeup brush to avoid a build-up. Never use a cloth to do this, and don’t use water or any cleaning products.
FRAMING PAINTINGS MADE IN ACRYLIC
Acrylic paint is very different to oil paint. Instead of being bound in linseed or safflower oil, the pigment is suspended in a water-soluble, acrylic polymer emulsion. The paint dries via the evaporation of its water content and will be fully dry within only a couple of hours, and is thus much more stable than oil paint because the layers of paint all dry very quickly. Therefore framing it with glass soon after completion isn’t a problem.
So should you frame your painting with glass? With an acrylic painting there isn’t a clear cut answer to this question like there is with a work in oil or watercolour. Acrylic paint is similar in its chemical structure to decorator’s emulsion paint and attracts dust in the same way, and in temperatures above 30° Celsius (86° Farenheit) the dried paint may soften enough to absorb any dirt present on its surface. Therefore whilst an acrylic painting doesn’t necessarily require glazing to protect its surface, glass will discourage dust from collecting on it and potentially even being absorbed into the paint itself.
However many would argue that glazing any painting on canvas increases the risk of moisture damage and rotting from trapped condensation. If you do choose to frame with glass, make sure that your framer uses spacers to ensure a good gap between glass and painting. For an acrylic painting a good option could be to choose a modern ‘box frame’ like this one above. A deep box frame will have a large gap between glass and frame to prevent the canvas from absorbing moisture.
From a visual point of view your painting will likely look better without glass in front of it, even if you use anti-reflection glazing (more on this further down). If you do choose to frame without glass, just keep it regularly dusted it using a soft artist’s brush or a makeup brush, and never apply any water or chemicals to it.
ARTWORKS ON PAPER: Framing watercolours, gouaches, drawings, photographs and prints
Watercolour paintings, gouache paintings and any other artworks created on paper are much more vulnerable than paintings made on canvas. Not only is their surface more fragile but in the case of paintings, the pigments are unvarnished and are bound together on the paper only with a delicate gum arabic binder instead of a hard oil or acrylic film. As a result they can more easily damage and degrade. This consideration has resulted in the convention that any work of art made on paper should always be framed behind glass in order to safeguard it.
Whenever glass is used, it’s essential to create some space between the glazing and the artwork within which air can circulate, in order to prevent moisture from condensation being absorbed into the paper. This is achieved with the use of a piece of card called mount which is placed just behind the glass and has an aperture or window cut into the middle to reveal the artwork. This opening is usually cut with a ‘beveled’ or slanted edge. In North America a mount is known as a ‘mat’, and the process of mounting the artwork is called ‘matting’. In French the mount is called a ‘passepartout’, a term which is also sometimes also used in English-speaking countries.
The most basic type of glass used for framing is known as ‘Float glass’. Most off-the-shelf frames will contain either float glass, or cheap acrylic glazing. Float glass has a slightly greenish tinge. In a framing shop you may also be offered the slightly more expensive ‘Water White glass’ which is completely clear in colour.
The best choice for a watercolour or gouache would be the more expensive UV-deflecting glass, sometimes known as ‘Conservation glass’ which is standard in museums and galleries for any kind of artwork made on paper. Watercolour and gouache are particularly vulnerable to fading because their gum arabic binder doesn’t offer them the same protection as oil or acrylic mediums. Printing ink is also at high risk, and coloured pencil drawings may also be affected by fading pigments.
Graphite pencil and charcoal are not ‘fugitive’ in the same way as coloured mediums, and shouldn’t fade from light exposure. However sunlight will eventually cause the paper itself to degrade if it has been made from wood pulp rather than cotton (something you’ll probably only know if you have the opportunity to ask the artist) and over the years it can turn a yellow shade and eventually become brittle. If you are really concerned to protect a drawing in the very long term than UV deflecting glass is worth considering.
Both glass and acrylic glazing are available with UV protection added. Various brands of glass may come with a degree of UV protection (anything from 40% to 92%) but only something labelled as ‘Conservation’ glass will filter out 99% of UV. There’s also ‘Museum Glass’ which will filter the same amount of UV and will also have anti-reflective properties so that you can see your artwork clearly even in bright light. Standard conservation glass may or may not also offer anti-reflection properties.
There are two main methods to reduce the reflectivity of glass and acrylic. Anti-Reflection products are given an optical coating, whilst the cheaper Non-Glare or Reflection Control glass and acrylics are chemically etched and roughened. Non-glare glass can have a slightly ‘fuzzy’ appearance and so anti-reflection glass is preferable.
Why might you choose acrylic glazing as a substitute for glass? Acrylic is more reflective, but may be a good option if your artwork is very large because it is extremely lightweight and therefore is safer to ship, handle and hang. It’s also unlikely to bow which can be a problem with a very large frame. The main disadvantage of acrylic is the static charge that it attracts, and the cheaper the acrylic the worse this problem will be. If you buy a frame online that is glazed with very basic cheap acrylic then when you unpeel the plastic sheet that is put on it in the factory to protect it from scratches it will immediately attract dust that’s hard to get rid of.
If you want to buy a frame with acrylic glazing then a good framing shop is a better option because the framer will use an anti-static brush to remove the static before mounting the artwork. Even once you’ve got your picture home and up on the wall, acrylic will attract household dust much more than glass sheet will. You’ll need a microfibre cloth to keep it dusted.
As well as the conservation benefits that they bring, a mount sets the drawing off nicely by giving it a border to separate it visually from the frame. Mounts also provide the opportunity to add some extra width and height to the image, which may be welcome since watercolours and drawings tend to be smaller than canvas paintings.
A picture mount not only allows the artwork to ‘breathe’ but also prevents the damage that can occur from direct contact with the glass. Mount boards are typically only 1.4 mm to 3mm thick (approx 1/16″ to 1/8″) and so the gap they create may be deepened further by layering two or more boards, or by adding a spacer just behind the glass.
The painting or drawing is placed behind the window mount and fixed with either tiny photo pockets or acid-free tape to another piece of card called the ‘back mount’ which sandwiches the artwork and hold it in place. This is sometimes called a ‘barrier board’ because it protects the image from any acid leaching from the ‘back board’, which holds the mount in its frame.
Soft pencil, charcoal or pastel drawings are the most vulnerable to contact with the glass or acrylic because their pigment remains quite loose on the paper and can easily be rubbed, smudged or lifted off by static (the surface of a photograph could also stick to glass in hot enough conditions). For this reason with such soft media drawings the optimal gap between the glass and the artwork would be around 5 mm/ 1/4″. This could be achieved by using a double or triple mount, or a single mount and a spacer.
If you prefer not to use a mount at all, this is known as a ‘close framing’. It’s okay to do this provided you ask your framer to include a spacer. Otherwise moisture will infiltrate your paper and you’ll end up with mildew problems
Floating an artwork
There is a modern fashion to frame some artworks on paper such as watercolours in a way that displays the whole of the image, including the edges of the paint and even the paper. With this painting below for example the paper is affixed to the back mount, and a bit of space is allowed between the drawing edges and the aperture of the window mount. This way of making the whole work visible is known as ‘floating’ it.
Making sure your mount and back mount are archival
This is so important and it’s the main reason I don’t advise buying a ready made frame in a shop or buying a frame online, because they will certainly be made from budget mount board called ‘Creamcore’ which is not acid-free. Card and paper made from wood pulp contain ‘lignins’ which are the substances within cellulose that eventually degrade, give off acid and turn the paper yellow. When this happens the core of the board which is exposed where the window aperture has been cut will turn an unattractive yellowy-brown colour. Acid may also leach from the mount into your artwork (this is known as ‘acid migration’ or ‘acid transfer’) and cause brownish marks known as ‘mat burn’.
A good quality mount will have been treated to neutralise acid by removing these lignins. Ideally it will also have been buffered with calcium carbonate for extra alkalinity to protect it against future damage from acids in the air, or from acid transfer. This type of treated card is known as ‘Whitecore’ board, but it only considered to be ‘conservation’ grade if the backing and facing papers that sandwich the board have also been treated to neutralise acid. These ‘Conservation Whitecore’ mounts with treated cores and acid-free paper should last for decades without becoming acidic. You can also buy board with a black core, but it is hard to find this in true conservation grade.
Here’s an example of a familiar problem with a work created on paper. ‘Foxing’ is a term for the reddish brown spots that mysteriously appear on old paper.
Foxing is caused by either iron traces or mildew spores, both of which exist naturally within the paper. They trigger foxing spots to grow in damp or humid conditions, and particularly on acidic paper. This is a very good reason to make sure to use a mount to avoid moisture settling on your paper and to opt for an acid-free conservation grade mount to avoid acid transferring to your artwork.
When you visit your framer, make sure that the mount they are supplying you with is at least of ‘Conservation’ grade and that they use acid-free tapes when they assemble their frames and mounts. Although many mounts are described as ‘acid-free’ this can be misleading because they may have simply been given an alkali buffer to temporarily alter the pH of the board, but may not actually have been treated to remove lignins. If so, the core of your mount will quickly yellow like this one below.
The highest grade of conservation mount is ‘museumcore’ which will be made entirely from cotton board and paper. As cotton doesn’t contain any lignins to begin with, this is the only type of mount that is truly acid-free and won’t become acidic in future unless exposed to contact with an acidic material. Museum quality boards may not always be available in a high-street framing shop, but a good Whitecore conservation mount should be sufficient for domestic framing.
If you choose a coloured mount, ask what the ‘blue wool scale’ rating is to ensure that the colour won’t quickly fade. It should have a rating of at least 3 out of a possible maximum score of 8, although only a 5+ rating is considered acceptable for cotton Museumcore board. Less than this, and over a number of years your coloured mount will fade and need replacing.
A note about framing photographs
Good conservation grade mounts will often be given an ‘alkali buffer’, meaning that they will be treated with a bath of calcium carbonate to raise their pH above neutral to an alkaline level. This is ideal to protect most types of artwork but can damage some types of photograph depending on how they have been developed. Therefore when framing a photo you’ll want to check that the mount is only pH neutral but not extra-alkaline. You can buy some cotton museum mounts which have not been alkaline buffered and are suitable for framing photos.
A backing board may be made from hardboard, MDF, corrugated board or fluted polypropylene. If your back mount is acid-free, then your artwork will be protected from the acid present in the backing board for a while. However to prevent eventual acid migration, the back board should ideally have its acid neutralised too. If you have no back mount and just a regular MDF backing board directly behind your artwork…..beware! Acid will leach from it and turn the edges of your artwork yellow in only a few years.
Conservationally-aware framers may also add a sheet of polyester or aluminium foil to create a moisture barrier between back mount and back board. This is very important if your house tends to be cold and/or damp, especially on external walls. ‘Bumper stickers’ may also be placed on each of the four corners of the backing board. These foam pads create added space between backboard and wall, to ensure air circulation.
Aesthetic options to consider when framing your picture
Now that we’ve covered the practical necessities of framing, how do you choose the right frame to suit your artwork? The bottom line is that there’s no absolute right or wrong in framing – it’s a question of personal taste and of what will suit your décor best. If you’re framing an artwork that’s in colour, then of course you’ll also want your frame to compliment both the colours of the painting or drawing, and the colour scheme of your room.
Here are some general tips and golden rules which you may want to consider:
- As a general rule of thumb I feel that an artwork pairs the best with a frame whose style matches its own vintage. A new painting made in a modern style will likely better suit more contemporary style of frame. An ornate and guilded traditional frame is best suited to an older artwork, or at least to one painted in an older style.
- You’ll probably want to match your frame to the décor of your room in terms of whether it is furnished in a modern or more traditional style. However it’s also possible to create a deliberate and striking contrast. For example, an old painting in an old gilded frame can look great in an otherwise very contemporary interior. As long as the style of the artwork and the frame are in harmony with each other, they can still look good in a room that isn’t decorated in a similar way.
- For graphite pencil drawings, silver frames may compliment the artwork better than gold because the colour echoes the silvery quality of the pencil lines.
- Conventionally, much simpler frames are used for drawings or artworks on paper than for paintings on canvas, because they are smaller and more delicate. Even in museums it isn’t common to find a drawing in a very ornate old frame. You can certainly use a frame with a metallic finish, but fancy sculpted mouldings will overwhelm it in scale and style.
- If you are framing an artwork created on paper with off-white or cream coloured mount, ensure that there’s enough contrast with the colour of the drawing paper. If the colour of the paper is an icy white, go for a strongly off-white or cream mount to give it some contrast. An ice-white mount can look nice but will only work well if your paper is creamy in colour enough to ensure sufficient tonal difference.
- Black painted frames and dark timber frames go better with lighter mounts and less well with dark tones such as bottle green or navy.
- When framing with a mount, a very wide mount will look best with a thinner frame. A very wide frame and a wide mount paired together may not look very elegant.
- A golden rule is that the frame and mount should never be an identical width, and the mount should be wider than the frame.
Whether you are framing an artwork with or without a mount/mat there are an avalanche of styles and frame types to choose from! Let’s look at some different options.
Frames may be made from from wood, aluminium or sometimes a stiff plastic like polyproprane. A very ornate frame however will not actually be made from carved wood but from moulded plaster, which is attached to a timber frame and then gilded. The traditional way for the frame to hold the artwork is with a rebate (known as a ‘rabett’) which provides that little overhanging lip that will cover about 1/4 inch/ 6mm of the artwork all the way around. Most frames are rectangular or square but oval shapes were historically popular too and you can source them online.
Here are some popular frame additions:
Linen liners – an option for paintings framed without glass
If you are framing a painting on canvas without glass, then you won’t require a mount (mat). However the ‘visual break’ between painting and frame that a mount provides really enhances an artwork and for this reason people often frame an oil or acrylic painting using a ‘linen liner’ which mimics a card mount and focuses the eye towards the artwork.
A linen liner is usually made from unpainted linen (although they can also be painted), glued down to a piece of timber. This slots into the rebate of the frame and runs around the inner edge just like a drawing mount, although it is usually less wide than a mount. The edges of a liner will often be finished with a tiny gilt moulding that runs around the aperture which is known as a ‘slip’. Slips are used both for linen liners and card mounts.
A liner isn’t actually part of the frame but is a separate section that can be added to it by slotting it into the ‘rabbet’ and holding it there with clips. Sometimes liners may also be made from uncovered timber, either left plain or painted to match the frame colour.
As well as running around the window opening of a linen liner or card mount to give it a nice finish, a slip moulding can also be used to run around the inner edge of the main frame. This adds a bit of visual interest and increases the width of the frame. A slip can be used like this for framing with or without glass, liners or mounts.
You can see an example of a ‘slip frame’ on this framed drawing below. Here a silver slip moulding has been slotted around the inner edge of the frame, and compliments the tiny mount slip moulding that has been used to edge the deep mount.
Box frames – for paintings made on canvas or board
One modern framing option is the box frame, also known variously as a tray frame, shadow box or floating frame. This type of frame is like a simple tray which is usually made from timber and is fixed to a back board. The frame itself is typically fairly slim but the gap between painting and frame may be very wide to create some visual space around the artwork. At other times the gap may be very small and intended just to create a slim shadow gap between frame and painting.
You could think of a box frame as a way of framing, and yet not framing, because it gives some definition to the artwork without competing with it. A box frame doesn’t overlap the edges of the painting and is restrained and simple and usually painted in a neutral colour. It allows for the exposure of the sides of a canvas, where the artist has continued the painting over the edges. In museums and galleries, box frames will be unglazed except where the painting is very vulnerable or valuable. Many off-the-shelf domestic box frames however will come with glass.
It’s not common to display an artwork on paper in a box frame because there’s nothing to trap the edges of the paper, but if you wanted to display a watercolour or drawing in a box frame then you could do so. However choosing a box frame with glass would be advisable, and it would be worth asking your framer to mount your artwork onto some ‘barrier board’ to prevent acid transferring from an untreated back board.
MOUNT/ MAT OPTIONS
Sizes and proportions
If you are framing with a mount, what size should it be in relation to the artwork? Mounts are typically a minimum of 5cm (2 inches) wide but there’s no maximum size and sometimes artworks may be framed with mounts that are much wider than the image itself. A very wide mount can really give prominence to a small painting or drawing and large mounts are popular in museum and gallery framing for this reason.
Commonly the border created by the mount will be the same width all the way around, but sometimes it can be irregular and longer at the top and bottom than at the sides, as with the mounts above. This is known as ‘bottom weighting’.
Some people like to follow what is known as the ‘Golden Ratio’ to work out the width of the mount relative to the size of the image, which is a proportion of 1.618 and derives from the Fibonacci sequence. You can read a full explanation of the golden ratio this website and use their handy calculator to work out the ratio for your own artwork.
Mountboards don’t vary a great deal in thickness and even those sold as ‘extra thick’ are only a few millimetres. They are actually measured not in millimetres but in microns, and to create sufficient airflow a board of 1400 microns (1.4) is considered to be a minimum for conservation standard framing. In a museum or gallery, unusually deep mounts are preferred to create maximum breathing space for the artwork. They are made by sandwiching several boards together.
If you want a nice deep mount for your artwork you can best achieve this effect by asking your framer to stick several boards together before cutting the bevelled window aperture. Alternatively the aperture can be cut straight and finished with gilded ‘mount slip’, like the framed drawing above.
Usually slips that run around the aperture of the mount are very simple, small mouldings, but sometimes they are much more elaborate and become almost like a second frame. Below are some very decorative single and double mount slips.
Colour and styles
From the simplest off-white, beveled mount to the most highly elaborate, there’s no end to the variety of available boards and finishes. They come in every colour, some with smooth facing papers and some with an imprinted texture to mimic linen. These days the aperture of the window mount can be cut into all sorts of shapes by computerised cutters, and can provide varied options such as stepped or rounded corners.
As mountboards are thin they are immensely adaptable and can be layered to create different effects. ‘Stepped’ boards are cut with different sized apertures so that the lower board is visible beneath the upper one. The exposed white core of the upper board gives an extra border around the image. This is often described as a ‘double’ or ‘triple mount’ and can be created with two boards of the same colour, or in two colours that compliment each other such as two shades of blue. A common effect is to use a light board on top with a grey or black board exposed beneath to create a border to the artwork.
Stepped boards are sometimes combined with ‘v’ groove bevelling like this example above.This is when the framer uses a special cutter to rout out a border in a ‘v’ shape around the edge of the image. It’s typically set back about half an inch (1cm) from the window of the mount.
One lovely feature you’ll sometimes see in an antique mount is a hand painted edging of banded lines and painted infills, like the example below. These are known as ‘French Lines’ and ‘French Panels’. If you are framing your own watercolour, you could consider creating an artistic painted border yourself. Some framers may offer machine-printed decorative lines around the aperture of the mount in different colours.
Other features include embossed lines or patterns pressed into the mount. Above is an example of a double-embossed line around the edge of a mount aperture.
Conservation: where to safely hang your artwork
Hanging your work of art in the wrong conditions can seriously damage it. I’ve often seen this and have been asked to to to restore a painting stored in a damp garage for just a year whose paint nearly all flaked off, and to recreate a drawing that developed mildew after it was hung on a slightly damp wall. Framing your artwork is very important but so is the position in which you hang or otherwise display it. Here are some important rules to follow:
Damp is undoubtedly the enemy of any artwork, causing buckled paper, mildew, rotted canvases and flaking paint. If you aren’t currently displaying your painting or drawing, please don’t ever store it in an attic, basement, shed or garage even temporarily! When selecting a place to hang it in your home, avoid any wall that has a known damp issue or is particularly cold. On a newly plastered wall, wait a sufficient time before hanging your artwork the ensure that it has fully dried out. I wouldn’t advise hanging any original artwork in a bathroom – stick to cheap, replaceable prints for this room and use an extractor fan to remove excess moisture from the air.
Keep temperatures consistent
Continuously warm temperatures are not generally a problem for an artwork in the absence of humidity. The exception is acrylic paintings where the paint may soften enough over about 30° Celsius/86° Farenheit to absorb any dust sitting on the surface.
With most artworks the real problem occurs with fluctuations in temperature, which cause paper to buckle and paint layers to alternately shrink and then expand, becoming unstable and liable to flake off. To maintain consistent temperatures, avoid hanging an artwork over or even close to a source of heat such a radiator, oven or fireplace (never put an unglazed picture in a room with an open fire or even candles, which will also cause soot staining). Avoid ‘picture lights’, which are designed to be mounted above a frame in order to illuminate an artwork.
Never hang an artwork on a wall that receives direct sunlight. This should be avoided even if your picture has been glazed with UV-deflecting glass, which helps but doesn’t block the entire spectrum of visible light. Avoiding direct sunlight is extremely important for all artworks but especially for those made on paper which will yellow in sunlight and particularly for watercolours and gouache paintings whose pigments are the most vulnerable to fading.