How to Display Art on Paper

Read advice from the following professionals on displaying works on paper:

How have standards and options for framing works on paper changed in recent years?

I think the standards have always been, first, to protect the work as much as possible and, second, to make sure that anything done to the work on paper in the framing process is as reversible as possible. However, as more people become aware of conservation framing, the more general its use. Conservation framing is no longer reserved just for that $40,000 Rembrandt print. —Paul Schaff, professional framer at Wellage and Schaff Fine Art Services

Customers are much more sophisticated and knowledgeable now and expect archival framing when they’re looking for framing services for their prized original works on paper. Archival materials include 100-percent acid-free, pH-balanced backing substrates; linen paper tapes; cellulose paste; archival mats; and conservation or museum-grade glass/glazing. —Litsa Spanos, Chris Morris and Craig Valentine, professional framers at Art Design Consultants (identified through the rest of the article as “Art Design Consultants”)

One standard has never changed: that is, works on paper must be framed with archival materials and methods. Acid-free products must be used, and the paper must be mounted in a way so that it can be easily removed for future conservation. New options for framing include floating the paper and matless framing. —Michael Chesley Johnson, artist

Both artists and consumers have begun to see the value of framing using acid-free materials. Because of that, the manufacturers have expanded the range of products to accommodate the demand for quality matting supplies. —Michael Skalka, Chairman, ASTM International, Artists Materials

I think a lot of artists who work on paper have had to deal with several issues.

  • The reflectivity of glass makes it difficult to see the entire image from different angles.
  • The weight of framing with glass and the fragility of the glass make shipping and storage challenging.
  • The cost of framing paper with mats and glass is usually higher than options with canvas and board.

These issues have been the catalyst, I think, for some new methods of framing. Many artists have adopted methods of adhering the paper to alternative surfaces (board, canvas, matboard and foam board, with adhesives like gel mediums or acid-free rice glues) and then sealing the work with a varnish to protect the paper from the environment. Once the paper has been applied to the new surface, traditional types of framing for boards and canvases are employed. According to Michael Townsend of Golden Artist Colors, the bond created with these materials is pH neutral (acid free) and permanent. —Jean Pederson, artist

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The options for glazing have increased in recent years. Here you see the difference in clarity between acrylic glazing (left) and acrylic museum-grade glazing (right).

 

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From left to right: standard conservation glass, museum-grade glass and conservation reflection-control glass. The museum-grade glass is invisible.

Have styles changed as well?

There are many more products available today than there were several decades ago. For example, when I started in the 1970s, there were three choices of archival matboard: white, antique white and cream. Now there are hundreds of choices. Also, the industry now offers many more archival mounting and glazing choices. —Paul Schaff, Wellage and Schaff

Styles have definitely changed. Now mats are wider and much more neutral in color (goodbye to colored mats that will date the art so fast). Frames are less fussy and tend to be more modern in feel. Bright golds are also a thing of the past. Clients are looking for frames that can work in a variety of environments from traditional to modern. —Art Design Consultants

Framing without a mat, especially for pastels, has become fashionable. With the addition of nonreflective glass, a pastel can easily be mistaken for an oil painting. I’ve actually overheard salespeople use this as a selling point in some galleries. (They aren’t helping us retire the misconception that pastels are a less worthy medium than oil!) —Michael Chesley Johnson

It appears that styles for frames have changed. Complex matting and framing will always be cost driven. However, the rule should always be that the framing complement the work of art, not supersede it. The Internet has provided consumers with more choices in framing. However, when price dictates so much of the demand within the marketplace, a distinct difference can be seen between high-quality framing stock and framing that, upon quick inspection, looks good but, when compared with top-of-the-line frames, appears to lack the luster, details and finish found on better frames. The strategy has become to look for the best frame at a reasonable price, but that’s difficult to do on the Internet, where buyers can’t physically inspect frames they wish to purchase. So references by fellow artists or consumers become an important factor in selecting where to purchase frames. —Michael Skalka

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This watercolor is matted with a liner that matches the gold color of the wooden frame. (Courtesy of Wellage and Schaff Fine Art Services)

I think there’s a lot more openness to mixed media today, and that has opened the door to new ways of working on paper.

An artist’s style is a part of who she is and what she wants to communicate. Using the new tools and mediums available, artists are creating new ways to make their mark, incorporating the frame into the work on paper. —Jean Pederson

What are the hard-and-fast rules for framing works on paper?

The one true rule that needs to be followed by all who frame works of art on paper is to do nothing to the work of art that isn’t reversible. Nothing permanent should be adhered to an original work of art. So contact adhesives, dry-mount materials, tapes that aren’t intended for matting purposes or many other pastes and glues available should not be used. This puts the onus on the consumer to demand framing techniques that safely preserve works of art on paper. These practices, along with acid-free boards for both the backing board and the mat, go far in assuring the longevity of a work A lot of professional framers need to learn how to hinge works of art so that the mounts don’t cause damage. —Michael Skalka

It all comes back to the question, what are your intentions?

Watercolor societies will have hard-and-fast rules for their exhibitions and usually require white or off-white mats with simple molding so that the artwork is the center of attention. Most galleries that I’ve dealt with prefer simple, lightweight framing with no glare, which complements the image. —Jean Pederson

Of course every project is different, but there are general rules for a framer to follow:

  • Always erase and remove graphite pencil lines around the edges.
  • Choose hinging tapes wisely (based on the paper’s weight).
  • Use distilled water when working with wheat or rice paste.
  • Always wear white cotton gloves to protect the art from fingerprints. —Art Design Consultants

The most archival way of framing a work on paper is to use the “T-hinge” method. Small hinges are constructed of tape (using linen tape and rice paste is the method touted in books, but I use artist’s tape), and these are used to suspend the paper from an acid-free backing board. For a small painting of 9×12, I use only two hinges. By having just a few points of contact, the paper is allowed to expand and contract under humidity changes without buckling. —Michael Chesley Johnson

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Chris Morris, master framer at Art Design Consultants (ADC), has applied a hinge on hte back of a valuable print on mulberry paper.

 

FRAMER TO ARTIST: Candid Advice From Paul Schaff of Wellage and Schaff Fine Art Services

  • Artists’ most frequent question: “How much will it cost?” Artists don’t want to pay $150 for a frame if they’re selling the piece for $250. You often see bad examples of framing at art fairs because artists or photographers sometimes can’t afford proper framing.
  • Independent framer’s lecture: At a chain store, the employees are generally not very experienced; the framers are subject to corporate procedures, with decisions determined by a computer. If the computer recommends something that the artist/customer doesn’t agree with, the employee has to call the manager to override the computer.
  • Why use an independent framer? Support small business, even if the place is a hole in the wall. An independent framer can have access to thousands of picture frames. In the end, you’ll get a good product at a competitive price. If you go to a chain, you’ll get a selection determined by the home office of that chain. Remember the old saying: “penny wise and pound foolish.”
  • Wood frames: Look for frames made from good, clear, straight-grained, real wood. Avoid photographed (imitation) finishes that are bonded to the wood.
  • Standard archival guideline: The classic mounting materials are wheat paste on rice paper, but the resulting fragile bond is, in fact, designed to break. The framing industry next came up with archival tape. The standard guideline is that whatever you do has to be easily undone so that the work on paper can return to its original condition. You don’t want to have to try to scrape a print off some backing. Everything must be acid-free.
  • Dry-mounting: The old rule was that you never dry-mount anything valuable. Now, however, there are archival dry-mount products that are reversible, such as Bainbridge’s Artcare Restore foam board. The new dry-mounting will loosen its bond if you heat the backing; the backing will then release the paper.
  • Flattening wrinkles: If a work is wrinkled, it’s possible to lessen those wrinkles by putting the paper under a dry-mount press. When a work comes to us rolled up, we unroll the paper and let the paper relax; then we press it. The work can also be dry-mounted using the reversible process mentioned above.
  • Floating versus matting: When you float the paper in a frame with hinges, you have little control over it; you’re at the mercy of the paper. A mat, on the other hand, will flatten the perimeter. Photos in particular always want to curl; you may want to consider the reversible dry-mounting mentioned above before floating them.
  • Matting: There are now hundreds of archival options to choose from. Remember, matting should complement, not overwhelm, the artwork. In addition, many people prefer traditional proportions where the sides are equal, the top is slightly larger and the bottom even larger.
  • Picture groupings: When hanging a group of pictures, you can opt for a geometrically precise hanging using the same frame throughout. This is good for a static collection such as a series of contemporary prints. Or, you can go for a more organic look, hanging a variety of artwork framed in varying frames in a random fashion. This is good for a growing, eclectic collection.
  • Metal frames: Manufacturers are constantly coming up with new profiles and colors. Try to avoid using theubiquitous gold, ¼-inch face by 1-inch-deep metal frame.
  • Wood frames: Wood frames, whether stained, gold, or silver, tend to look richer and have a more custom look. They can also be just as inexpensive as metal frames.

    how-to-display-art-Paul-Schaff-at-Wellage-and-Schaff-Fine-Art-Services.jpg

    Left to right: Cherie Haas, associate editor, “The Artist’s Magazine”; Maureen Bloomfield, editor-in-chief, “The Artist’s Magazine,” and Paul Schaff at Wellage and Schaff Fine Art Services in Cincinnati

  • Installation: If a home is poorly insulated, avoid hanging works on paper on outside walls because moisture, cold and heat can migrate to the picture. The point is to make sure the environment is stable. Avoid direct sunlight because of the heat and ultraviolet rays. Don’t hang artwork above a radiator or over a vent.
  • Museum Glass: It’s a terrific product—it eliminates virtually all reflection and glare while remaining optically pure. Many of our customers are upgrading their collections to this product after trying it for the first time.
  • Spacers: Without exception, there has to be space between the glazing and the artwork. You don’t want condensation to activate the pigment and you don’t want the piece to stick to the glass. If the glass is next to a pastel work and you try to lift the glass, you’ll find that the pastel sticks to the glass. You’ll have to send the piece to a conservator, who will try to lift the glass without damaging the pastel. The same is true with photos.

What special considerations are required with a pastel on paper? How do you recommend artists frame pastels on paper?

The medium is very delicate—especially if it hasn’t been sprayed with a fixative. Never allow the glazing to touch the surface of the piece. Don’t use plexiglass, as it picks up a static charge, which can lift up the pastel. —Paul Schaff

It’s so important to always use a trap or padded mat on original pastels on paper. This assures that the pastel dust will fall behind the mat rather than in front of it. We also recommend spraying pastels (with the permission of the artist) to keep the dust in check. Of course, all pastel artists know that spraying can alter the color of their work slightly, but they ultimately make the final decision of whether “to spray or not to spray.” Also we want to remind artists to please double-check to make sure their work is signed and, if it’s an abstract, to note the orientation. This keeps some of the guesswork out of the framing process. —Art Design Consultants

Unless you saturate the pastel painting with fixative—which I don’t recommend!—some dust will inevitably dislodge. A light coat of fixative is all you need to hold down most of the dust. To prevent any remaining dust from collecting on the glass or on the mat, spacers placed between the artwork and the mat are necessary. This will create a gap behind the mat into which the dust can fall out of sight. In the case of matless framing, the spacers go between the artwork and the glass. Although some exhibitions require that pastels be framed with plexiglass (or other acrylic glazing), I don’t recommend that, either. The plastic can create a static charge that will attract pastel particles and create a hazy effect, making it difficult to see the painting. —Michael Chesley Johnson

The use of acrylic spacers to separate the glazing from the surface of the work of art is the most important factor in framing pastels. Spacers are made of a clear acrylic extrusion that’s nearly invisible when mounted correctly. This assures that electrostatic action doesn’t draw loose particles of pastel as easily to the inside surface of the glass as it could if the pastel and the glazing were nearly touching each other and only separated by the depth of a 2- or 4-ply matboard. Without the spacer, the inside of the glass takes on a hazy appearance and diminishes the crispness of the pastel painting. In addition, the glazing should be selected to have anti-static properties. While more expensive, this glazing helps to minimize deterioration of the pastel from static charge buildup.

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The little balls adhere to the acrylic glazing on the Left, but not to the acrylic museum-grade glazing; hence, a pastel would benefit from acrylic meseum-grade glazing.

In addition, the artist should transport pastels very carefully. Keeping movement to a minimum helps to preserve pastel works. Pastel paintings are one of the most complex and damage-prone types of art to transport. I highly recommend avoiding any postal or express mailing of pastels. The opportunity for severe loss of color due to vibration and shock are high with any moderate-to-rough handling of pastels, even when sound framing techniques are used. —Michael Skalka

What influences you to recommend that a work be floated rather than matted?

Does the composition of the work seem to flow off the edge of the paper rather than be contained within its confines? Does the edge of the paper look as if it deserves to be exposed (one example of this is deckled edges)? Paul Schaff, Wellage and Schaff

If an artwork has a wonderful edge, I always recommend floating it on top of a mat. This technique really shows off the fact that it’s an original and gives the piece more of a dimensional look, especially if the art and mat are padded. —Art Design Consultants

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This lithograph is floated rather than matted. The artist, Colin Bloomfield, has a bachelor of fine arts degree from the University of Wisconsin.

When a work of art has an irregular shape that the artist intends to be seen, the work should be floated rather than matted. Also if artwork bleeds off the edge of the surface, that should immediately indicate that the work should be floated. —Michael Skalka

I love edges and paint my images to the edge of the paper. If I use traditional mats, my lovely edges, which are part of the composition, are compromised. If I had a choice, I would prefer to float all of my works on paper. —Jean Pederson

How do you treat the back of a framed work on paper?

The backing board, which is often simply acid-free foam board, is all I use for the back of the framed piece. I attach a paper label—with the painting’s title, inventory number, year created and my signature—to it with double-stick tape. Alternately, I may simply write this information directly on the board. I know framers like to use brown paper to seal the back of the frame, but since I swap work in and out of the frames frequently, I skip this step. —Michael Chesley Johnson

The framing industry provides high-quality inert materials to place on the back of a framed work of art. Some of best materials available are corrugated plastic sheets. They can be cut to size, are lightweight and provide great puncture protection for works of art. Small screws with grommets can be used to secure the backing board to the frame. With metal frames, the corrugated plastic can be used as a final layer in the matted package. —Michael Skalka

Seal the back of the frame to protect against insect infestation and foreign matter infiltration. Paul Schaff, Wellage and Schaff

We always use 100-percent acid-free mats, substrates (mounting materials) and a duster (kraft paper backing). —Art Design Consultants

What mistakes do artists who frame their own works sometimes make?

When artists frame their own works, they often do so as an economic decision, but I advise them not to make any framing compromises such as choosing nonarchival materials and methods that can’t be reversed. The person buying the artwork should also be advised as to how the work was framed. Paul Schaff, Wellage and Schaff

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Glass requires the expert handling of a professional. Here, Mary Hericks, from Wellage and Schaff Fine Art Services, positions a piece of museum-grad glass.

When driving in the points for framing pastels, it’s easy to dislodge pastel dust that then gets onto the mat and glass. One trick I use is to lift the back end of the point driver (I use a Fletcher point driver) off the painting so the tool doesn’t bang against the frame; the point driver is spring-driven, rather like a staple gun, and can cause quite an impact. By having only the “business end” in contact with the frame, you minimize the vibration. —Michael Chesley Johnson

The lack of preparation in obtaining framing materials is perhaps one of the biggest mistakes artists can make when doing their own framing. Some of the issues include using permanent adhesives to tack down art to matboards, using electrical tape and masking tape to secure art, selecting brown cardboard box material for backing boards, and buying cheap acid-laden lignin matboards constitute some of the greatest “sins” that artists fall into when framing. Many artists do this when they have a pending show approaching; they quickly pull together a mass framing project using materials at hand rather than take the time to plan and purchase good, long-term matting supplies. —Michael Skalka

Over-framing is something that I see a lot of—too many crazy-colored mats and frames that overpower the image. —Jean Pederson

The number one mistake that artists make when they frame their own works is using inferior materials and not using quality products. Artists (many of them younger and new to the art scene) sometimes don’t realize that buyers of fine art/originals are very sophisticated. Clients want to be assured that a professional has framed the art. Ultimately, an artist will be able to sell work at a much higher price if it looks professionally matted and framed. Here are some big no-no’s:

  • Don’t use duct tape or masking tape to hinge.
  • Don’t allow the glass to touch the art.
  • Don’t use cardboard backing.
  • Never use thread or speaker wire on the back.
  • And don’t buy the same standard-sized catalogue frame that everyone else has. Potential clients want to know that what they’re buying is unique and different and that thought was put into creating a beautiful piece of art, frame and all! —Art Design Consultants

Would you tell a story about working with a piece that was damaged because it was badly framed?

Needing to reuse a particular frame, I unframed a pastel, only to discover that the framer had taped the painting thoroughly around each edge to the backing board. I was able to save the painting, but I was surprised that the framer, who I thought was educated on framing works on paper, had done such an amateurish—and potentially fatal—job. As much as you may not want to insult a framer by telling him how a pastel painting should be framed, it’s better to be safe than sorry. —Michael Chesley Johnson

Years ago, I insisted that a poster I had professionally framed be mounted on a board with hinges and then matted to create a crisp boarder. The framer chose to dry-mount it to a cheap lignin board. The value of this limited-edition poster plummeted since I’ll never be able to separate the board from the work of art. While I still have the piece, I dread taking it apart to examine its condition. —Michael Skalka

Years ago I painted a lot of oversized watercolors, and framing was a big issue. I opted for adhering the paintings to a ridged acid-free surface with heat-activated membranes. The framer left the paint in the heat press overnight to make sure it was flat and well sealed. What really happened was ripples, lots of ripples baked into the paper forever. —Jean Pederson

We presently have two Audubon prints with a restorer because they were glued down with rabbitskin glue to cardboard. The restoration will cost the owner several thousands of dollars. Paul Schaff, Wellage and Schaff

We had a client who found some incredible and very sentimental vintage photos. She wanted to display them proudly along a winding staircase in her main foyer in time for a major family reunion. As we inspected them, we discovered that all the photos were stuck to the glass and were deteriorating from the backing, which was full of acid. The client ultimately had to take them to a restorer, who charged her a great deal to repair them. Although we ended up framing them beautifully, it was a very stressful situation for our client. —Art Design Consultants

Associate editor Cherie Haas edited the original version of this article for the April 2013 issue of “The Artist’s Magazine.” You may Click here to subscribe to  the print or digital version of “The Artist’s Magazine.”


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