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Technique: Matting and Framing Drawings

Technique: Matting and Framing Drawings

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Presenting works on paper requires special consideration.

by Daniel Grant

The subject of framing works of art—whether or not to frame, what kind of frame, how much to spend, and who pays—occupies a lot of time for art dealers and even more for artists. As a financial fact, frames contribute significantly to an artist’s overhead, yet there is no denying that they serve a variety of purposes: They protect works of art; they distinguish art from everything else around it; and they make the work appear complete and help collectors imagine how it will look in their homes. In fact, it is rare to see a drawing, print, or watercolor on display without a mat and frame.

2002, by Graydon Parrish,
charcoal and white chalk,
24¾ x 15¼. Courtesy Hirschi
Adler Galleries, New York, New York.

Artists and dealers face two issues when exhibiting drawings, which are sometimes treated as mutually exclusive. The first is how to use frames in such a way as to present drawings as substantial and complete; the second is how to mat and frame drawings in a manner that will protect them from moisture, excessive light, and a host of airborne pollutants.

From an Exhibition Standpoint
“In general, I don’t put works behind glass next to paintings,” says Louis Newman, the director of David Findlay Jr. Fine Art, a New York City gallery. Drawings and other works on paper generally recede in the presence of paintings, whose colors are more likely to stand out. When a big canvas is nearby, a drawing will often be taken as a preliminary study for the larger work, regardless of the content of the two pictures. Still, sometimes a drawing and painting share a wall, and Newman says that in this case, the gallery might paint the wall blue to neutralize the effect.

The Nancy Hoffman Gallery in New York City has painted the walls when exhibiting drawings even when no paintings are present, also to “offer a bit of contrast to the paper,” according to the gallery’s director, Sique Spence. The wall paint is apt to be a shade of gray—”just a bit of contrast. Red would be overly dramatic,” she says. However, that kind of drama is regularly found in galleries of works on paper in major museums, where walls may be green, violet, or some other color that contrasts sharply with white paper, especially since the lighting is often much lower in these rooms than in others.

Hanging drawings poses another set of problems for artists and galleries. It’s common to see a single large painting on a wall in a commercial gallery—a visitor’s attention is immediately focused from afar—but “you don’t want one drawing, unless it is absolutely enormous in scale, holding up a whole wall,” Spence says. “The drawing is likely to get lost in scale.” The more customary approach is to group a number of drawings, enticing the viewer to move closer to get a better view. The obvious drawback to this exhibit design is that it suggests that the individual pictures are not substantial works of art in themselves and need others around them to fill them out.

2002, by Graydon Parrish,
charcoal and white chalk,
23 7/8 x 16.

Finding the most appropriate mat (if there is to be one) and frame requires considerable care. Overly thin frames might not be strong enough to hold everything together, while very ostentatious ones can overpower the art. Jill Weinberg Adams, the director of Lennon, Weinberg gallery in New York City, notes that she prefers a “straightforward presentation. I don’t take a small drawing and put an enormous mat and frame around it to make the drawing look more substantial”—an approach with which most dealers agree—but there are certain mats and frames that heighten the drama of looking at the picture. Newman uses a deep bevel mat, eight-ply rather than four-ply, because “eight-ply gives the image more presence,” he says. Fillets, or spacers (usually wood, rag board, or plastic), between the frame and glass have the effect of deepening the image and attracting a viewer’s eye as well. Newman avoids metal frames, which he associates with posters, choosing instead lightly stained hardwood frames that are more commensurate with original fine art. He also eschews black frames as “funereal, and they pull the eye away from the work.” In addition, he has applied fine linen or silk on the mat itself in order “to soften the color of the cardboard mat, and it gives a halo effect without distracting from the image.”

Mats are not always used in the framing of drawings. Although their main function is to keep the drawing flat and from drifting toward the glass, many artists, dealers, and collectors prefer to show the edge of the paper itself, especially when it has a rougher, handmade quality. In these instances, the drawing is attached to the backboard and simply floats within the frame; fillets are often used to create the extra space between the paper and glass that the mat would otherwise provide.

Graydon Parrish and his
framer work together to
create these mats, which
feature ink lines and
dry pigment.

Mats are also a source of decoration, adding or offering contrast to the central image. At times, the mat will be a color different from the paper, and the mat may contain designs and colors complementing the drawing. Graydon Parrish, who creates drawings and oil paintings in Amherst, Massachusetts, and exhibits at Hirschl Adler Galleries in New York City, uses a framer who draws in border lines on the blue-gray mats, and some of these lines are filled in with dry pigments applied with a watercolor brush. There is a considerable amount of back-and-forth between Parrish and the framer, as the two experiment with different line thickness and mat and pigment colors, and the extra work figures into the price: between $800 and $900 per frame and mat on drawings that sell on the average for $20,000. Framing and matting charges that run about 4 percent of the entire cost of the artwork are within the norm of the gallery world. Newman says his rule of thumb is “no more than 10 percent of the work’s price for the frame.”

From a Conservation Standpoint
On the face of it, art dealers and art conservators should have a lot in common—both groups want art to look good, if for somewhat different reasons. Badly illuminated matted-and-framed drawings will not appeal to potential collectors, and those same factors are likely to cause long-term damage to the artwork itself. The two groups sometimes part company when it comes to the business of finding the right mats, frames, and lighting for drawings. The reasons are more than economic; they also reveal the lack of a clear understanding about how to protect drawings. Everyone is quick to repeat the mantras of products labeled “acid-free” and “archival,” which suggest proper care and an artwork’s longevity, but these terms are to art what “all-natural” and “organic” are to food—well-intentioned, higher priced, and ultimately meaningless, since there is no federal standard for what these words are required to mean.

Conservators speak not only about framing and matting but also the entire “frame package.” That package typically consists of backing material (acid-free corrugated cardboard or polystyrene-cored board, often called Fome-Cor); a backboard that may be called “conservation board” (high-quality cardboard and paper made of chemically refined wood pulp) or rag board (made of cotton or linen stock); the drawing itself; a window mat (again, rag board, buffered rag board, or conservation board); covering glass (including regular glass or acrylic glazing materials, such as ultraviolet-shielded Plexiglas, Lucite, and Acrylite); and the encompassing frame (wood, metal, and plastic), which can—but need not—be made airtight when sealed on the back with polyester film (Mylar), metal foil, or other impermeable materials. “Airtight” does not mean, however, that a work of art can be placed in any environment, such as a humid bathroom, and remain protected.

Many of the materials that framers use are described as acid-free, but that may not offer sufficient protection to artwork. It is common to see, for instance, a brown core just under the top layer of a so-called acid-free window mat, where the window has been cut out. “If the mat board has a core that has wood pulp, it won’t remain acid-free,” says Leslie Paisley, the head of paper conservation at the Williamstown Art Conservation Center in Massachusetts. Wood pulp contains lignin, a natural glue that holds wood fibers together but turns brown and more acidic as it ages. The acidity will reach through the surface of the mat to the paper, causing it to darken in spots.

This installation photograph
of the Lennon, Weinberg Gallery
in New York City shows how
the director, Hill Weinberg Adams,
spaces framed drawings on
the wall so that each one
looks important.

Hazards lurk all around. A mat that is perfectly acceptable to conservators may turn acidic from backing material that contains harmful wood pulp if it is in direct contact with a wood frame, absorbing acids from the wood. Some woods are more acidic than others—poplar and ash are less likely to cause conservation problems than oak, for example—and often some buffering material is needed between the mat and frame. Artists must go beyond claims of “acid-free” to ask specific questions of those who would mat and frame their work about what these products actually contain.

Some framers simply do not carry the highest-quality conservation materials. “Framers are profit-driven and know that they can’t charge exorbitant prices,” says Karen Pavelka, a professor of paper conservation for the graduate program of preservation and conservation studies at the University of Texas at Austin. “They may not use mat board with good-quality fibers, for instance, or they will mount the artwork using pressure-sensitive tape, which isn’t very strong, doesn’t let the paper expand and contract, and is very difficult to remove. Framers can inflict a lot of damage.”

Acidity, which causes paper to become stained and brittle, is the most common long-term problem with improper matting and framing materials. A less visible but no less problematic area is adhering the artwork to the backboard, using what is referred to as hinges. (At times, drawings are held in place with corners, made of sturdy, acid-free paper or Mylar folded into triangular shapes and adhered to the backing.) The various materials used as hinges include archival tape and linen with a type of envelope glue; what makes them archival are the claims that they can be removed without damaging the artwork (unlike masking and transparent tape).

Those claims, however, are not accepted by all conservators, who often look beyond the issue of getting the picture matted and framed to when the drawing will be removed from the mount. “You may be able to take off archival tape within a few minutes of applying it without any real damage, but if it has been on for some time, it will not come off easily without taking some of the paper with it,” says Margaret Holben Ellis, the director of the Thaw Conservation Center at the Morgan Library in New York City. Additionally, although paper expands and contracts with changes in humidity, tape does not have that flexibility, causing paper to buckle where it comes into contact with tape, sometimes leading to tears. Linen hinges have more—although not exactly the same—elasticity to “breathe” with paper, but its glue has the potential of staining the paper, “and you have to use a lot of water to take it off. It’s like steaming a stamp off an envelope, and that water can damage the paper,” says Ellis. The preferred method is long-fibered Japanese paper, which is adhered to the paper and the backboard through a wheat or rice starch that is applied with a brush. “It is very strong and entirely reversible with not much water,” she says.

The materials used in conservation matting and framing are somewhat more expensive than ordinary frame-shop supplies, but what one actually pays for is the increased amount of time and labor involved, especially in cooking up an adhesive paste, brushing it on, and waiting for it to dry. Artists who are do-it-yourselfers may be able to learn these techniques through organizations’ Web sites and books (see sidebar). Conservation materials are available at art-supply stores, book binderies, and library-supply outlets, as well as through catalog companies.

To preserve drawings from the harmful effects of ultraviolet light, conservators recommend placing drawings away from wall areas that receive strong direct sunlight, as well as away from lamps. In addition, ultraviolet filters might be placed over the windows, or ultraviolet Plexiglas in front of the work itself, to shield it from the most harmful effects of the light. Plexiglas is lightweight and almost unbreakable; however, it holds a static charge that may lift the paper or bits of the drawing material. Larger pieces of paper (40″ x 60″) have more movement than smaller ones, and they are more apt to be pulled toward the Plexiglas, requiring a larger fillet (perhaps a 3/4″ spacer as opposed to the standard 1/4″) to keep the paper and glazing material separated.

There are also ultraviolet coatings that one can apply to windows, retarding the most severe effects of strong sunlight, as well as accordion-shaped blinds that allow a certain amount of light and heat to enter a room while reflecting high heat. Hardware and home-decorating stores have many of these products. If not, call a local museum to find out where to get them. Darkening the wall with paint, by the way, adds a certain drama and may reduce some of the glare that takes place in galleries where the light bounces off white walls. However, it does nothing to reduce either the ultraviolet rays or the overall amount of light in the room.

For better or worse, exhibitions in galleries last only a few weeks, after which the drawings return to storage or someone’s private home, where the longer-term problem of preservation actually begins.

Daniel Grant is the author of, among other books, The Fine Artist’s Career Guide, How to Start and Succeed as an Artist, and The Artist’s Resource Handbook (all Allworth Press, New York, New York), as well as many newspaper and magazine articles. He lives in Amherst, Massachusetts.


American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works

1717 K St., N.W.,

Washington, DC 20006

(202) 452-9545

Northeast Document Conservation Center

100 Brickstone Square

Andover, MA 01810-1494

(978) 470-1010

Professional Picture Framers Association

3000 Picture Place

Jackson, MI 49201

(800) 556-6228


Care and Handling of Art Objects, The, by Marjorie Shelley (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York).

Care of Prints and Drawings, The, by Margaret Holben Ellis (Altamira Press, Walnut Creek, California).

Caring for Your Collections, edited by Arthur Schultz (Harry N. Abrams, New York, New York).

Curatorial Care of Works of Art on Paper, by Anne F. Clapp (The Lyons Press, New York, New York).

How to Care for Works of Art on Paper, by Roy L. Perkinson and Francis W. Dollof (out of print).

Matting and Framing Works of Art on Paper (American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, Washington, DC).

Matting and Hinging of Works of Art on Paper, by Merrily A. Smith and Margaret Brown (out of print).

Preservation of Library and Archival Materials, edited by Sherelyn Ogden (out of print).

Watch the video: How to Mat and Frame Artwork: DIY (August 2022).