Painting & drawing blog

HOW TO FRAME A PICTURE

A GUIDE TO FRAMING PAINTINGS AND DRAWINGS

Any advice on how to frame your artwork appropriately is dependent on what sort of medium it has been created both in, and on. Different types of paint and drawing materials have different properties which critically affect their future stability, whilst the materials they have been painted or drawn onto (paper, canvas and so on) likewise have different conservation requirements. Therefore it’s important to frame them correctly according to whether they were made with oil, watercolour or acrylic paints, with a drawing medium such as graphite, pastel or charcoal, or a printed medium such as a photograph or a print. In this article we’ll consider both important conservation advice for framing each type of painting medium, and also the different visual options which will show your artwork off best.

WHERE TO FRAME YOUR PICTURE

I generally advise visiting a specialist, experienced picture framer to get your artwork framed rather than buying a frame off the shelf, if possible. Independent framing shops are usually excellent at advising on what sort of frame will suit your artwork. Take a photograph on your smartphone of the room that you plan to hang the painting in and this will help the framer to suggest a frame that will suit your décor. To help you know what to expect when visiting a framer, let’s look at how different types of painting and drawing should be framed, before moving on to some purely aesthetic considerations and how and where to hang your artwork.

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 they pre-date the availability of very large sheets of plate glass. Once fully dry oil paint is less vulnerable to damage than a drawing or watercolour created on paper and so whilst protection behind glass would give protection against dirt and various household pollutants, glazing isn’t considered necessary. If there’s no real conservation need to glaze a painting it is best avoided because the reflections in the glass inevitably detract from the viewer’s experience. If you did wish to glaze you could reduce this problem by buying non-reflective glass, which we will discuss more further down.

Framed oil painting

However, there is another very important reason to avoid glazing an oil painting, and this is the length of time it takes oil paint to truly dry. Oil paint consists mainly of one or more pigments, mixed with an oil binder such as linseed oil. The painting dries as the oil oxidizes and 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 and oil used in each, the ratio of oil-to-pigments and how thickly the paint layer has been applied. Although your painting may feel dry to the touch after a week or two, it takes several years for most of these changes to take place (in fact it can take decades – up to 70 years – for the painting to be regarded as fully stable!)  Whilst this movement is still occurring the painting will be vulnerable to cracking and flaking in the wrong conditions, particularly if it’s exposed to extremes of heat, cold or damp.

Framing a painting without glass for at least the first few years after its creation allows it to ‘breathe’, discouraging the condensation which could occur if it were placed within a hermetically sealed frame and which could causing rotting in the canvas and damage to the paint layers. After these first few years there is much less movement so technically you could re-frame it with glass if you wanted, provided you  were very careful to hang your painting well away from any sources of damp and that you used ‘spacers’ to keep a good gap between your painting and the glass. Many delicate or valuable oil paintings in museums will be framed behind glass for their own protection, but you can see below what a huge gap is created between glass and painting to allow for air circulation.

Framed oil painting with spacer

Framing a painting with glass would provide increased protection against the dust and soot in the home environment, although if your painting is varnished and you are careful where you hang your painting then household dirt shouldn’t be a major problem even without glazing. Dust your painting gently with a soft artist’s brush or a makeup brush regularly to avoid a build-up. Never use a cloth to do this, and don’t use water or any cleaning products.

Below, we will look at different types of frame options and how to choose a frame that suits your oil painting.  Jump to: frame choices ›

FRAMING WATERCOLOURS

Also applies to gouaches, ink drawings, or any artwork created on paper including giclée or lithographic prints

Watercolour paintings and other artworks that aren’t made on canvases are very different to oil paintings. Created on paper they are obviously vulnerable to damage when handled and to extremes of temperature and humidity which may cause buckling and or fungal damage to the paper. These various considerations have resulted in the convention firstly that watercolours should always be framed behind glass in order to safeguard both the paper and the unvarnished, vulnerable paint against damage, but also that they should be placed behind a piece of card called a mount. In North America it’s called a ‘mat’ and the process of mounting the artwork is called ‘matting’. French the mount is called a ‘passepartout’, which is also a term sometimes also used in English-speaking countries.

Framed watercolour painting

GLAZING

One advantage to the requirement to glaze a watercolour painting or a print is the opportunity to use UV-deflecting glass rather than standard glass, known as ‘Float Glass’. Watercolour paintings are particularly vulnerable to the fading of their pigments because the Gum Arabic medium that binds their pigments doesn’t offer them the same protection as oils or acrylic mediums. Printing ink is similarly at risk.

Float glass has no light deflecting properties and nor does ‘White Water Glass’ which you may also be offered. This is a very clear glass without the very greenish tint of Float glass. UV filter glass – which is standard in museums – is more expensive than these two options but you may prefer to invest in it to protect your artwork. Sometimes it is sold as ‘Conservation Glass’, or ‘Museum Glass’ combines anti-reflective properties (see below) but gives a slightly orange caste. A cheaper option is acrylic which is also available with UV protection.

It’s important to remember that UV glass only protects against UV light and not against the rest of the light spectrum. The best may offer 99% protection against UV but even this won’t give you near-complete protection against fading colours. This is why even museums which us the most expensive conservation glass will also display vulnerable watercolours in darkened rooms for short periods only. The very best way to achieve this is to keep your picture out of direct sunlight as much as possible. You’ll find more information about how to hang your painting in a suitable position at the bottom of this article.

Regular ‘Float’ glass is extremely reflective. However there are types of both glass and acrylic available in Anti-Reflection versions to reduce the problem of reflectivity making your artwork difficult to see in direct light. Anti-Reflection glass and acrylic are given an optical coating, whilst the cheaper and slightly less effective Non-Glare or Reflection Control glass and acrylics are chemically etched and roughened. This last product however has a slightly ‘fuzzy’ appearance, in my opinion.

Acrylic alternatives to glass are a good option if your artwork is very large, being extremely lightweight and therefore safer and unlikely to bow. The main disadvantage of acrylic is the static charge that it attracts, particularly when the framer unpeels the plastic sheet that’s stuck to it in the factory to protect it from scratches. There are anti-static acrylic options available, but these are typically only the most expensive type of ‘museum’ grade acrylic sheets.

A good picture framer will have an anti-static brush and other materials in order to remove static from the internal side of the acrylic sheet before framing with it. This is important because for artworks with ‘loose media’ – for example charcoal or chalk drawings, especially those that haven’t had a fixative spray applied to them – the static may actually pull particles away from the paper and onto the acrylic. Once you’ve got it home and on the wall, acrylic will attract household dust much more than glass sheet will. Keep it dusted with a microfibre cloth to remove this.

MOUNTS (MATS)

As well as the conservation benefits that they bring and the practical purpose of trapping the drawing in place, a mount/mat sets the drawing off nicely in visual terms by giving it a border to separate it visually from the frame and by adding some extra width and height, as drawings tend to be fairly small.

Section through a frame
Framed watercolour paintings

With an aperture in the middle to reveal the painting, the mount serves to separate the glass from the paper, allowing it to ‘breathe’ and discouraging condensation and moisture. The painting is placed behind the opening in the card, with another piece of mounting card known as the ‘back mount’ placed behind to which the drawing is secured with photo pockets (tiny triangular envelopes of card placed at the corners) or acid-free tape. If tape is used it shouldn’t be applied all the way around the paper as this may cause it to cushion or ripple. The more space between the glass and the painting, the better. Mount board is typically only 1.4 mm – 3mm thick (approx 1/16″ to 1/8″)  so you may consider using a double or triple mount to create a deeper gap, or ask your framer to add a ‘spacer’.

Sometimes people may not want to utilize a mount, for aesthetic reasons. For example there is a modern fashion to frame watercolour paintings in a way that displays the whole painting including the edges of the paper by simply affixing the work to the back mount. This way of making the whole work visible is known as ‘floating’ the image. If you are framing a print, it may be that you want the unprinted paper around the printed part to be visible, to serve as a border. If you don’t want a mount for these kinds of reason then this is fine, but to protect the paper from moisture becoming trapped in it make sure to ask your framer to include a spacer between back mount and glass.

If your painting doesn’t go right to the edge of the paper it was made on, an attractive alternative is to trap the paper behind the mount in the traditional way, but to allow some extra space between the edge of the drawing and the mount so that the edge of the painted area is visible, as below.

Framed watercolour painting

One important factor in the long-term preservation of any artwork framed with a mount is that it should be archival quality.  A mount made from card that’s not PH-neutral or acid-free will eventually leave brown marks on the paper behind it known as ‘mat burn’ where the acid has leached into the paper. When specifying that you want an acid-free mount, it’s wise if possible to request at least the higher grade of ‘conservation’ or ‘archival’ grade board made from 100% wood pulp. This is because some mounts which are sold as ‘acid free’ are made from regular, un-purified wood pulp that has been given an alkali coating, but through which the acid will eventually leach out. An even better option would be ‘museum grade’ or ‘rag board’ which is made from cotton, or a cotton cellulose mixture. Cotton fibres are naturally acid-free and lignin-free whereas wood pulp needs to be chemically treated to eliminate these components.

THE BACKING BOARD

Backing boards (see the diagram above) hold the mount and the back mount in place from behind. Made from hardboard, MDF, corrugated acid-free boards or fluted polypropylene they are also available in a conservation grade. Conservationally-aware framers may also add a sheet of polyester (known as Melinex TM) or aluminium foil to create a moisture barrier between artwork and backboard. This will prevent any damp present in the wall from damaging the paper. Lastly, a ‘bumper sticker’ may be placed on each of the four corners of your backing board. This is a little foam pad used to create added space between backboard and wall, to ensure air circulation.

Conservation factors are very important in correctly framing a watercolour but how do you choose which frame and mount will suit both each other and your artwork? Below we’ll look at various factors to consider. Jump to: frame choices ›

FRAMING DRAWINGS

How to frame an artwork on paper made with graphite pencil, charcoal, or pastel

All the advice above about framing a watercolour painting applies to any drawing made on paper. Always frame with a mount (mat) between the glass and the drawing, or ensure that your framer uses a spacer to create a gap between glass and artwork. In the case of drawings this is even more important: not only to prevent moisture damaging the paper but because contact with the glass may cause soft pencil, charcoal or pastels to rub off or smudge. In the case of pastel and chalk drawings a gap of 5-6 mm between the glass and the artwork is ideal, so for drawings in this medium consider always using a double or triple mount rather than a single sheet. A deep bevel can be given a striking metallic finish, as with the equestrian portrait below.

One familiar problem with any work created on paper which is particularly noticeable with a drawing is that of ‘Foxing’. Foxing is a term for the brown spots which may appear on the paper such as in this example, below.  Interestingly although foxing is a big problem in the conservation of old artworks created on paper, the reason for its occurrence isn’t entirely understood. Possible causes include fungal growth, or the presence of iron or copper in the paper pulp which eventually oxidizes. There is general agreement however that the way to prevent foxing is to avoid excess humidity and to allow the paper to ‘breathe’ by framing with a mount. Acid from cheap mounting boards that leaches into the paper also encourages foxing, which is more likely to appear on acidic paper when significant humidity is present. This is another good reason to make sure you opt for a ‘conservation’, ‘archival’ or ‘museum’ grade mount.

Framed equestrian photo
Foxing

PREPARATION

If your drawing isn’t immediately going to be framed, or you simply want to ensure that it will be protected against future handling, you could consider using a fixative spray to lightly coat it and keep the medium adhered to the paper. This might be particularly worth considering in the case of pastel or chalk which will smudge at the slightest touch. In my experience the best fixative sprays are Daler-Rowney’s Perfix, or Winsor and Newton’s Artist’s Fixative Transparent Spray.  To avoid creating blotch marks in your paper spray slowly at arm’s length. You could either stick to one short coating or for fuller protection, wait five minutes until your first coat is dry and give it another light spraying.

FRAMING PAINTINGS MADE IN ACRYLIC

Acrylic paint is again very different to oil paint. It’s water-soluble, with the pigment suspended in an acrylic polymer emulsion instead of an oil. It therefore dries via the evaporation of its water content and will be fully dry within a couple of hours, and is thus much more stable than oil paint at normal temperature. However despite its increased flexibility in stable conditions, as acrylic paint may soften in heat and stiffen in cold conditions it is actually even more vulnerable than oil paint to cracking as a result of any temperature extremes. Therefore the advice above about hanging your artwork in an environment with constant climactic conditions is even more important.

Framed acrylic painting

To glaze or not to glaze? This is perhaps a more difficult question with an acrylic painting than with artworks created in other mediums. In favour of glazing is the fact that acrylic paint is similar in chemical structure to decorator’s emulsion paint and attracts dust in the same way, and also that in temperatures above 30° Celsius (86° Farenheit) acrylic paintings may start to actually absorb any dirt present on the surface of the paint body.  Therefore whilst an acrylic painting doesn’t necessarily require glazing to protect its surface, a frame with glass will discourage dirt from collecting on the painting and being absorbed into it.

However many would argue that glazing an artwork increases the risk of moisture damage by trapping moisture between the glass and the paint. If you do choose to frame with glass, make sure that your framer uses ‘spacers’ to keep a gap of at least 5mm (1/4″) between glass and painting. A good option could be a modern ‘box frame’ like this one above, with a deep gap between glass and frame.

Arguably, from a visual point of view your painting will likely look better without reflective glass in front of it. If you frame without glazing, just keep it dusted it using a soft artist’s brush or a makeup brush, and never use a cloth or apply any water or chemicals to it.

FRAMING PHOTOGRAPHIC ART

Since photographs are usually printed on paper, all of the advice above pertaining to framing a watercolour or a drawing is relevant here so please refer to those sections, above. In the case of photographs it is really essential that the photo is given a spacer to hold it back from the glass. This is because in moist conditions the surface may become sticky and if it bows enough to make contact with the glass it may stick to it causing irreversible damage.

When framing a photograph it’s well worth considering investing in UV-reflecting glass. Please refer to this section on glazing

Framed photographs

Aesthetic options when framing a picture

Now that we’ve covered the practical necessities of framing, how do you choose the right frame to suit your artwork, with many options on offer? The bottom line is that there’s no absolute right or wrong in framing – it’s a question of personal taste and 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 or frame and mount to compliment the colours within it. If you aren’t sure, a framer will offer good advice. However, here are some of my personal tips and golden rules that I follow myself which you may want to consider:

  • As a general rule of thumb feel that an artwork pairs the best with a frame whose style matches its own age. For example a painting in a very modern style will likely better suit a less ornate, more modern style of frame whereas an older artwork will suit a more old-fashioned/traditional frame.
  • You’ll probably want the style of your frame to broadly match the décor of your room, be it traditionally decorated or in a more modern style, but not necessarily. For example, an old painting in an old gilded frame can look very striking in an otherwise very contemporary interior for a deliberate contrast. As long as the style of the artwork and frame are in harmony with each other, they can hang well in a room that isn’t decorated similarly.
  • For graphite pencil drawings, silver compliments the artwork better than gold because it echoes the silvery quality of the pencil lines.
  • It’s not common to find a drawing framed in a gallery or museum with a very ornate frame. Conventionally, simpler frames are used for drawings than for paintings. Metallic finishes may certainly be used but fancy sculpted mouldings may distract from your drawing.
  • If you are framing an artwork created on paper that’s left largely exposed (as with a pencil or charcoal drawing) you can of course choose a coloured mount/mat. However if you prefer the typical option of an off white or cream mount, ensure that there’s enough contrast with the colour of the paper your drawing has been completed on. If the colour of the paper is close to white, go for a strongly off white or cream mount to give it some contrast. An ice-white mount can look lovely but will only work well if your paper is fairly creamy in colour to ensure sufficient contrast.
  • When framing with a mount, a very wide mount will look best with a thinner frame. A very wide frame and very thick mount paired together may not look very elegant. Equally, a very thin frame and a very narrow mount isn’t a great combination.
  • If your frame is wide and you want a fairly narrow mount, follow the golden rule that frame and mount should never be an identical width. One should be wider than the other. This will look much better visually

Whether you are framing an artwork with or without a mount/mat there are a huge variety of styles to choose from. Let’s look at some available options for both.

Picture frame examples

FRAME OPTIONS

Although they vary stylistically, frames are relatively uniform in construction. They are nearly always made from wood, aluminium  or sometimes a stiff plastic like polyproprane. A very ornate frame however will not usually be made from carved wood but from moulded plaster, which is then attached to a timber frame and then gilded. Traditional frames all consist of a moulding with a rebate (or ‘rabett’) cut out of it to fit around the artwork. This little overhanging lip will cover about 1/4″ or 6mm of the artwork all the way around. Most frames are rectangular or square but oval shapes were historically popular too – although finding these as a bespoke option in a framing shop may be difficult. You can buy them online however in a range of sizes or search in antique shops.

Linen liners – for paintings framed without glass

As discussed above, if you are framing an artwork on paper you’ll frame it with a mount (mat) whereas an oil painting and usually also a work in acrylic would normally be framed without, because it isn’t necessary from a conservation point of view. However the visual break between painting and frame that a mount provides may really enhance your artwork and for this reason people often frame an oil or acrylic painting using a ‘linen liner’ which mimics a card mount and draws the eye into the focus of the framed piece.

A linen liner simply a piece of timber covered with linen which is glued down to it and  usually left unpainted. You can see an example below. The edges are beveled or sometimes given a tiny moulding that runs around the aperture. Usually this edging is gilded. As an alternative to the linen-covered liner you may see a plain liner as in the second image below, where a flat, gilded fillet  of timber runs around the artwork, separating it from the ornate outer frame. A liner isn’t actually part of the frame but is a separate section that can be added to a frame by slotting it into the ‘rabbet’ or rebate. You can see one at the bottom of the image of frame samples hanging on a shop wall, above.

Picture frame with linen liner
Painting frame with mock timber mount

Box frames  – for paintings made on canvas or board

A more modern framing option is the box frame, also known variously as a tray frame, shadow box or floating frame. Here a tray is created with a timber border fixed to a back board. The frame is typically fairly slim but the gap between painting and frame may be very wide, as below. At other times the gap may be very small with only a slim shadow between frame and artwork.  It’s a modern alternative: a way of framing and yet not framing, that gives definition to the image. More commonly in museums and galleries they will not have any glazing, but the box frames you can buy for domestic hanging may well have glass.

One particular advantage to the box frame is that it allows display of the sides of a canvas where a feature has been made of them in some way – for example where an artist has used a ‘gallery wrap’ and continued the painting all around the sides. Drawings are less likely to be displayed in a way that reveals the edges of the paper but if you actively want to display a drawing this way, then a box frame could be used.

Painting in a box frame
Painting in a box frame

More about mounts/mats

What size should the mount be, in relation to the artwork? Mounts are typically a minimum of 5cm (2 inches) but there’s no maximum size and sometimes artworks may be framed with mounts that are much wider than the image itself, especially in a museum or gallery. You can see some examples below. A very wide mount can really give prominence to a small painting or drawing and it looks very artistic. Museums and galleries will often utilize very thick plain mounts created with unusually deep board. You can also achieve this using triple or even quadruple boards which are stuck together and beveled or given a gilt filet edging.

In North America you’ll see multiple layers of mount (mat) board referred to as ‘2-ply’, ‘3-ply’ and so on. This just refers to the number of layers used. If the bevelled edge around the mount isn’t given a metallic coating the inside of the board will be visible, and most mats are available with a white core, black core, or standard (cream colored) core.

Picture frame with wide mount
Picture frame with thick mount

Usually the border created by the mount is the same width all the way around but sometimes it can be irregular and longer at top and bottom than at the sides, as in the image above. This is known as ‘bottom weighting’. One golden rule people tend to follow is that the frame and the mount should never be more or less the same width – one should be substantially wider than the other. So if your artwork is on the large side and you don’t want to add too much extra space around it with a mount, make sure it’s at least wider than the frame.

Picture frame with mount
Picture frame with mount
Picture frame with mount

From the simplest, modern off-white beveled mount to the most highly elaborate, there’s no end to the variety available. As mounting boards are very thin – even if sold as ‘extra thick’ – they are immensely adaptable in visual terms and they can also be layered in a way that ‘stacks’ or ‘steps’ them so that the edges of each board is visible around the opening. You can choose from different colours, metallic edging, embossed patterns, or ‘v’ groove bevelling around the aperture. One lovely feature you’ll sometimes see with an old watercolour painting like this one below is a painted edging of banded lines and painted infill panels in watercolour paint around the opening. These are known as ‘French Lines’ and ‘French Panels’. If you are framing your own watercolour, you could consider creating a similar border yourself.

French lines
French lines

The mounts in the image below are among the most elaborate I’ve seen. Apart from the central picture they all employ a ‘double moulding’ whereby the mountboard  itself has a smaller, inner timber frame moulding running round the aperture.

Picture frames with double mount mouldings

Here are a number of different ways to frame the same drawing! The images were created using a site called eframe (no affiliation to this site) which allows you to order a bespoke frame online by customizing your frame and mount choice. You can upload a picture of your artwork to visualize how it will look with different frames before you order.

Example of a framed drawing
Example of a framed drawing
Example of a framed drawing
Example of a framed drawing
Example of a framed drawing
Example of a framed drawing

Hanging fixings

‘D’ ring fixings are used to hang your frame and should be screwed into the back about 1/3 of the way from the top. Double ‘D’ ring fixings used for larger heavier frames are just the same, but have two screw holes for extra security. Strung between the D ring fixings on either side of the frame, your framer should put low-stretch polyester cord. Wire or nylon cord may be offered but these may deteriorate over time and become brittle and liable to snap.

Conservation – where to safely hang your artwork

Environmental damage is a genuine danger to any artwork. It doesn’t necessarily take many decades to occur! I’ve seen a painting stored in a damp garage for a year whose paint nearly all flaked off, and a drawing completely ruined 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

Humidity

Damp is undoubtedly the enemy of any artwork: creating buckled paper, mildew, rotted canvases and flaking of 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 might have a known damp issue. 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 cheaper prints for this room and make sure you have an extractor fan to remove excess moisture from the air.

Temperature

Continuously warm temperatures are not generally a problem for an artwork in the absence of humidity – although as mentioned above acrylic paintings may soften enough over about 30° Celsius/86° Farenheit to absorb any dust sitting on their surface. The real problem occurs with regular temperature variation, which causes paint layers alternately to shrink and then expand. This is when the layers become unstable and paint flakes may start to fall off. Therefore the more constant the temperature your home is kept at, the better. Avoid hanging an artwork over or close to a source of heat – a radiator, oven or fireplace (which will also cause soot damage) and a kitchen is really best avoided. Don’t light a candle near it as these will release soot into the air. Avoid ‘picture lights’ which are mounted above a frame to illuminate an artwork, and don’t shine a spotlight onto it either.

Light

Always avoid hanging an artwork in direct sunlight. Although the lightfastness of pigments that are used to make paints has increased in recent years, even some modern pigments are still prone to fading in direct sun. For older paintings it is even more important to keep them on a shady wall.

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