The art and science of fantastic frames
Photography: Craig Wolfrom
“People think of framing as a decorative thing, but it’s a science, too,” says Gail Severn, proprietor of Gail Severn Gallery and Severn Art Services.
Framing is also an investment, and with thousands of molding choices and hundreds of mat treatments, how do the pros decide how best to encase a worthy piece of work? They start with the design elements.
“What colors are in the piece? What style does the client like?” asks Pat Robinson, who owns Blue Heron Workshop with her husband Harold Webb.
“Some art pieces with interesting edges shouldn’t even be matted,” says Robinson. “Instead, they’re ‘floated,’ with space to spare between the art and the molding to isolate them visually. Mats are more common, though, and the pros choose colors that echo or complement colors in the art.”
But remember, advises Severn Art Services’ manager, Cathy Ryle, “while color may be attractive, your tastes may change; you won’t get tired of a white or off-white mat.”
To spice up a white mat, the pros often use a colorful under mat; the visible edge around the artwork makes it “pop.” For subtle paintings or photographs that won’t stand up to added color, a thick mat—8-or even 12-ply instead of the typical 4-ply—adds what Robinson calls a “shadow dimension.” This delineates the art and draws the eye in to provide what she refers to as “visual strength,” and what Ryle describes as “a sense of importance.”
Pros also wrap mats in fabric, from silk to burlap, to add texture, sophistication, rusticity—whatever will strengthen the impact of the artwork. Bigger mats are in fashion now, which Ryle likes because “they don’t crowd the art.”
Both Ryle and Robinson emphasize that while stylistic elements of the art take priority, they also want a finished piece to work in its environment.
For example, a vividly hued, one-of-a-kind acetate cartoon cell may look fantastic with a bright under mat, a white 8-ply over mat, and a dark molding with a rectangular profile for a bold, graphic look. But if the piece were to be hung in a rustic room, Ryle would suggest an alternative: a bright under mat, a dark over mat, with a natural maple molding. The molding and mat would draw the eye to the art, and blend it harmoniously with its surroundings.
Scott Harder, proprietor of Scott’s Frame & Mat, revels in the artistic possibilities. He’s been known to hand-carve and stain a molding to echo the lines in a Picasso.
“There’s no one right way to frame something,” he contends. He helps clients by suggesting “several of the right choices.” Harder’s second rule, an addendum to his first, is, “Don’t do anything to the art that you can’t undo.”
Archival materials can conserve art for generations. They are now the industry standard, and include cotton-rag mats instead of old-fashioned acidic paper mats (which caused yellowing), and acid-free backboards and hinges. Especially valuable work is affixed to hinge board with mulberry paper and wheat paste, inert ingredients used by framers for more than a thousand years.
Because ultraviolet light leaches pigments and deteriorates paper and fabrics, professionals use 97% protective Plexiglas. They prefer it to UV-protective glass because of its weight and durability. It’s also safer for both artwork and the people around it because it won’t shatter in the event of seismic activity, whether the tremor is caused by tectonic plates or a rowdy six-year-old.
Rather than skimp on backing and mat quality, collectors on a budget should cut costs on decorative elements. Moldings range from $5 per foot to more than $300, and a thriftier second choice can easily be replaced later. Using black-core mats or painting bevels can add visual interest and eliminate the cost of a double mat. Finally, if a piece isn’t too large or won’t be hung in a high-traffic area, glass offers a practical alternative to Plexiglas at one-third the price.
Saddletree Gallery’s Jerry Hadam is helping customers personalize their own digital images with a “painterly-like effect,” made possible by advances in computer technology.
“The trend of the last four or five years is for people to create art from their own images and produce them on canvas,” he says. “The surface of the paper, canvas, or watercolor gives it a more artistic appearance. The quality of the printing has increased longevity to the point where a properly done print should last for 100 years or more.”
Hadam says that any images can be printed—old photos, new ones—as long as they are not copyrighted.
“I have been scanning and restoring a lot of old black and white photos lately, and the quality is amazing.”
Another word from the pros: Not everything needs to be framed. More canvases these days feature sides that are just as elaborately finished as the front, explains Severn. “Sometimes our job is talking customers out of framing a piece of artwork!”
But she also cautions that there is more to it than just picking colors and mats for a favorite print or canvas. “While choosing a beautiful frame for the piece is important, there are many more technical issues that need to be considered for the longtime preservation of an important piece.” And that’s when the experts need to be consulted, if you want to hand your art down to the next generation.
In the interests of research, Betsy Andrews took a home-framed 1958 Disney celluloid to the experts. After a few enlightening hours, her investment not only looks amazing, but will last for another 50 years and beyond.