Printed images are everywhere, from the Toulouse-Lautrec lithographs hanging in the Art Institute of Chicago, to the new media images on exhibition at the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art, to photographs and editions on display in collector’s homes. Understanding how fragile these works are and noticing the variety of framing techniques being used by museums, private collections, and commercial galleries, I began to wonder what “good” framing actually means. And what are the best ways to protect these images?
To help answer this question, I sat down with Deborah Wood, an independent curator working with the Art Institute of Chicago’s Department of Prints and Drawings, to learn about the issues she encounters most often. Considering Wood’s advice, we developed a top-five list of useful tips that can help collector’s better understand mistakes framing prints and the long-term impact on works on paper.
In Wood’s experience, thinking an expensive framer will automatically be a good framer, is by far the biggest mistake. Many framers are not professionally trained in handling and preserving printed artworks. All too often, flashy and expensive materials that look great are recommended, and actually cause damage to the artwork over time.
Don’t fall for the “expensive is best” trap. What is most important is that the materials and services you are paying for account for the object’s future. Look for framers with conservation or museum backgrounds and listen for recommendations geared toward protecting the integrity of the work.
It’s also a good idea when buying a work that is already framed to have it inspected by a professional framer. In some cases, works framed by dealers and artists are meant for short term display, are more cost conscious, and reframing is expected.
When matting a work on paper, it is recommended that the material be pure cotton rag mat board and not contain wood pulp. Cotton is what museums prefer and is more historically proven, although there are newer products available which are chemically buffered wood pulp based mat boards, which are intended to trap acid away from the artwork. Wood pulp based products are inherently acidic and can damage the work over time causing unsightly yellowing or browning of the paper, known as “mat burn”.
Backing boards are the rigid material used to support the artwork from behind. This is where many framers fall short using a combination of mat boards, foam core, fiberboard and/or cardboard. Wood pulp based boards and foams are acid containing products and should never be allowed to come into contact with a work on paper.
Hinging is the process of attaching paper to a backing board so that the paper is securely held in place, while being allowed to move naturally within the frame. As temperature and humidity change throughout the seasons, so too does the shape of the paper inside its frame. The mistake is applying too many hinges, which can restrict movement and cause stress to the artwork, sometimes leading to excessive buckling or tears. In most cases, two hinges applied to the upper corners is sufficient, and should be made of acid free paper and removable water based conservator’s paste.
Never allow the use of modern tape as a fastening device! Masking, clear, and packing tapes, applied with abandon since their invention in the 30s are known to the conservation community as “job security”. They contain acidic glues not intended for long-term use, and their materials become brittle, brown and sometimes permanent reminders of poor framing.
Framing mistakes also include the choice of glazing and where the art is destined to hang. Unfortunately, what allows us to see the work on paper is destined by nature to destroy it, so considerations of lighting and the restriction thereof are crucial.
Resist the temptation to bathe your printed work in direct light. Whether it is illuminated by sunlight or by an artificial light source, they all contain damaging ultra violet rays, which will cause your work to discolor and become brittle over time. Not surprisingly changes are hard to notice since they happen gradually. After years of exposure, when it’s time to donate or sell the work, owner’s are shocked to learn how much the work has degraded and how severely fading affects value.
Technology has thankfully produced several solutions for reducing UV light exposure, without having to keep your works on paper in complete darkness. There are UV covers for light bulbs, UV filtering glazing, windows manufactured with UV blocking characteristics, and even film that can be applied to older windows to cut down on the harmful rays. The most recommended solution is to use UV filtering glass when framing, and reduce light exposure in general.
Don’t let claims that the inks used in the artist’s process will never fade, reducing the need for UV filtering glass. Conservators have yet to discover colored commercial pigments guaranteed not to fade for any reason. And keep in mind, UV filtering products have a limited lifespan and may need to be replaced over time to remain effective.
Finally, it is absolutely necessary to know how your printed work was created and with what media. This information is crucial for long-term care and preservation. New media prints can look like they were made with commonly known materials but react very differently. If you are not sure how something was printed, Wood suggests thinking conservatively and assuming that it was made with a water-based material, common for many printed images such as photographs and digital art.
Should you ever need conservator, it would be beneficial to know the exact process or ink type that was used. Identifiable materials can be researched and even traced back to their manufacturer to obtain vital information, which can save an artwork.
– Authored by Alexandra Senycia, Intern, BMS Art Consulting