Since I work for a frame store, I have a lot of opportunities to see the “How-to’s” and “How-NOT-to’s” of framing. We often reframe work that was purchased from artists. Sometimes it is a bit painful to see how the artist has framed or matted their own work, and in the process made preserving their art more difficult, costly, or even impossible. They have damaged their own artwork by framing it themselves! So I thought I’d take this opportunity to share with all you Etsy artists out there (and art buyers) a few of the basics of conservation as it relates to framing artwork. The beauty of original art is that it is one-of-a-kind; as something that can never be replaced, it deserves the very best treatment from creation to presentation.
First of all, “archival” means using materials and methods that will not harm or alter the artwork and that are completely reversible. For example, you can use photo corners to set a photo in place on the backing. Then you don’t need to use any adhesive at all. But if photo corners won’t work for your pieces of art, and so you are going to use tape, it should be labeled “acid-free” or “archival quality” or preferably of a “natural cellulose-base” (this means rice paste or wheat paste which activates with water). This means NO masking tape or scotch tape.
So we hear a lot about acid-free — for paper, scrapbooking, photo-storage, adhesives: what is all the hype about? Acid occurs naturally in the lignin of wood pulp, which is what most paper is made of, and this acid will cause it to turn yellow and disintegrate over time. Using tape, matting, or backing which is not acid-free will damage an artwork, even if the artwork itself was made with archival materials. The best fine art papers and “museum-quality” matboard for framing, are made from cotton, a naturally acid-free material. Cotton papers and ragboard will last much longer than wood pulp products labeled “acid-free”, which have been processed to neutralize the acid.
Be sure to protect your art from both the back AND the front. Both the mat AND the backing should be acid-free. If it isn’t, the acid can leech from the backing into the artwork, so backing your artwork with cardboard is NOT a good idea.
See what happens when backing a document or photo with cardboard — damage to the document AND the mat!
Another important conservation purpose the mat serves is to separate it from the glass. Since glass condenses with changes in temperature, over time this condensation can damage the artwork, as seen with the photograph below.
This photograph was framed without a mat — the photo emulsion is now stuck to the glass and disintegrating.
If you really don’t want to mat it? That’s okay — just make sure that you have some sort of spacer in the frame to separate the artwork from the glass. Another good way to frame a work on paper without matting is to use clear acrylic/plexiglass in the frame instead of glass. Because Plexiglass is plastic, it doesn’t condense the way glass does, and is safe to lay directly on top of your artwork. Whether you choose glass or acrylic for your glazing, look for UV protection. UV protective glazing acts like sunscreen for your artwork to prevent it from fading, which can occur even under artificial lights.
As long as you understand the basics of conservation, you don’t have to pay a pro in order to take good care of your work; just plan ahead, and invest in some good materials to guarantee that your collectors can have your works of art for generations.
- For archival storage and framing supplies: lightimpressionsdirect.com
- For more details on conservation framing:
- For guides on caring for everything from videos to books to textiles:
Michelle Arnold Paine is a painter and art teacher living in Massachusetts. Add to that experience her part-time job as a custom framer — isn’t she the perfect author for a post like this? Leave any questions you might have in the comments below. Stay tuned for Part 2!