Custom Picture Framing Basics
By David F. Menne, professional framer, artist and art restorer for over 30 years

Why Custom Framing?

The experienced professional framer has the ability and equipment to perform many different jobs that are not available to the average person desiring to frame a treasured work of art or precious memory. This article will review most of those unique abilities.

Your professional framer is familiar with the basic guidelines and rules of custom framing that help produce a beautiful, well-balanced framing presentation that enhances your work of art without overpowering it or distracting from it. One of the worst mistakes an amateur framer often makes is selecting and designing a frame job that becomes more important than the work of art. The lack of craftsmanship also often distracts from the subject framed.

Your custom framer usually has thousands of frame and mat options available to help make the best choices for you frame job. From these many choices he is able to narrow the selection down to some of the best combinations that will most enhance your subject.

One of the best reasons to use a professional custom framer is that he has the available materials and skills necessary for preserving and protecting your personal work of art for a long time to come. Your well-loved personal item will need acid-free and lignin-free mat and backing boards that do not contain impurities that can damage the art. Did you know that even in low-light situations most items of art on paper could fade significantly over four to ten years? Special UV-filtering Conservation glass can help protect art from the irreversible damage caused by light exposure.

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What’s Next? Select the Right Art!

It may seem obvious, but you need to make the right decision about what to frame and what you plan to do with it after it is framed. If you were in the process of decorating a particular room, it would be best to have a theme before picking out the art. On the other hand, it you have something you need to frame to protect it and because you want to hang it, you need to first decide exactly where you are going to hang it. In either case, these decisions are pertinent to the approach you need to take in framing your item.

Let’s look at the first situation. Lets say you have a new house and you want to start decorating the living room. Or, maybe you have a guest room that you would like to redecorate. Rather than looking around and just picking out this and that item lying around the house, deciding on a theme or subject will add continuity and interest to the room. Color schemes and a particular style choice will help to tie everything together as well as make your framing job a lot easier. You will now be able to select art, colors, and framing that will be at home with the room. A more formal room will require the selection of more formal-looking art pieces and framing approaches. You will therefore take a more symmetrical approach to the placement and arrangement of the art when you hang it. A more casual room setting can accommodate more colorful art and framing styles that can be hung in more unusual and exciting groups.

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Selecting the Right Frame

Lets look at situation that most people find themselves in. You have an object of art, collectable or sentimental item that you want to get framed and protected. How do you decide how to frame it? Picture frames are as limitless in style and coloration as the artworks they complement. They come thin and sleek, thick, wide, narrow, smooth and simple, ornate and embellished, made of woods of all types and there are metals of unique design. So, how do you choose?

First, the frame should be compatible with the work itself. The framing should always enhance the picture and should never overwhelm it. The colors and style should be complementary rather than competitive. Your professional custom framer will be happy to help you select the best options for the item you are framing.

Second, be prepared with information regarding the room you plan to hang your selection in as to its size, the space on the wall available to hang it in, your decorating style, your color scheme and information about any other pieces that you may be hanging it with. You may want to bring along some fabric and wall color samples. If you would like to try to frame it similar to another item in the room, be sure to bring that item along also. Just remember that the frame does not have to exactly match the other frames in the room.

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Why Matting and What is it?

Lets first make sure you understand the term. Many people mistake matting for mounting. We will discuss mounting later. Matting is the paper-like border that is usually put around most types of paper art like photographs, watercolors, prints, reproductions, posters, illustrations, cartoons, and so on. Mats are made of both wood fiber and cotton fiber as well as combinations of other fabric materials. They come in different levels of quality and protective values. Wood fiber mats take about ten times the chemicals to manufacture than cotton fiber mats. Wood fiber mats need to have buffering agents added to neutralize their acidity levels. Cotton fiber mats are more "naturally" archival, and may not require buffering. Cotton fiber mats are made from a "renewable" resource, at least more so than trees. Thus cotton fiber mats are more environmentally friendly.

Why matting? Matting adds "space" around the art that helps to keep the observers eye focused on the art. Along with the frame, it visually "contains" the art. Archival matting helps preserve original artworks on paper. Some archival conservation mats and backings "actively" reduce pollutants. Mats also may be used to help hold the art in place and they also separate the mat from the glass. Did you know that if your glass touches your art it could significantly contribute to its deterioration? One of the reasons it can adversely affect the art is that it does not change temperature as fast as the room and art's environment. The result is that small amounts of moisture will condense on the glass and be absorbed by the art. Sometimes the art, especially photographs, will actually permanently stick to the glass.

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How to Choose the Right Matting

A great frame can enhance just about any piece of art but it could be ruined by a poor mat choice. Today there are a great almost overwhelming number of matting options. Just to mention a few, there are thousands of colors, hundreds of textures, many new mats with printed designs on the surface, thousands of fabric covered options, designs cut into the mat, lines and designs painted on the surface of the mat, mats with fillets and custom-contoured mats cut to fit the shape of the artwork itself. Here is where you most need a professional's guidance and expertise.

Here are a few suggestions and guidelines I highly recommend you consider. They have rarely failed me in my many years of framing experience:

1. Decide if your art is worth preserving. If it is, use the best archival preservation quality acid free matting you can afford.

2. It is better to have your mat width or size a little too large than too small.

3. The mat size should not be too close to the size of the frame. A smaller frame size should normally have a mat two or three times the width of the frame. A large frame often works better with a mat that is smaller in width than the frame.

4. If you use a traditional matting approach, it is normal to have the top and sides of your mat the same dimension and to have the bottom mat width a little wider. Your professional framer should have a chart that shows how much width to add to the bottom mat width based on the overall size of the mat. Some framers try to save time by cutting the bottom mat the same width. One of the reasons I recommend a wider bottom mat is that the art has "visual weight" that tends to make the bottom mat actually look smaller than it is. Most people do not even notice that a mat has been bottom weighted as long as it is not over done.

5. If you are framing a contemporary piece of art, don't be afraid to experiment with various mat widths and arrangements. Being creative with mats can be a lot of fun and direct more attention to the artwork if not overdone.

6. A double or triple mat is almost always better looking than a single mat. Exceptions might be where you use a mat that has a black or colored core that acts as another or second mat when it is cut with a beveled edge. A single mat with a French line drawn on the surface or V-groove cut into the surface usually gives a touch of elegance not achieved with a standard double mat. But a French line or V-groove on the top mat of a double mat may be even better, depending on the artwork.

7. If three or more of the edges of your art are lighter in shade, it is usually almost always better to have a darker or contrasting mat color next to the edge of the art. For a double mat, this would be the inside mat that is right next to the art. If three or more edges are darker, it is usually better to have a lighter mat next to the art.

8. Do NOT pick out a small item of color and use that as the main mat color. For example, if there is a small yellow boat floating on a blue-green lake with a blue sky, do not select a yellow as the main mat color. The yellow would just compete with the boat, or subject of the painting.

9. Whenever possible, I try to use what I would call the background color for the color of the main top mat. This would be the color or shade that is most predominant around or behind the subject of the painting. In the above example, it would be a blue or blue-green color that harmonizes with the blues and blue-greens in the seascape. It is usually the most predominate over-all color or shade. If the above picture were medium to light in color and shade, I would put a dark blue or blue-green second mat next to the art. (For a frame I would try to pick one that had some of the same dark blue or blue-green mat color in the frame.)

10. Never make the mat more decorative and more interesting than the art. I have seen some mats that had more art and design work on them than the art piece itself. That might be OK if the artist intended for the mat to become the art, and if he did the mat art and design work himself. Just don't let your framer do it for the artist.

11. Any mat surface treatments, designs, textures and patterns should relate somehow to the art, and never compete with it.

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Glazing is the protective layer of glass, plastic, acrylic, or laminate that covers the artwork and usually the matting. It helps to protect the artwork in many ways. It is available with a UV (ultraviolet) light screening, which is a coating on the glass or acrylic that cuts out up to 98% of the UV light. Glass also comes with different non-reflective coatings or treatments. Some of the coatings on glass are like the optically coated eyeglasses and windowpanes. These coated glasses are very effective in reducing reflected light and images. Other treatments are more like a lightly etched glass that simply diffuses the light or image.

In my opinion as well as experience through many years of simple observation, UV protecting glass or acrylic will do more than anything else to protect an artwork when it is framed. Archival matting and backings help a lot, but light, especially UV light rays, cause considerable damage over the years. Light not only causes extreme fading of colors, but it also interacts with the acids and other chemicals that might be present in the artworks paper, in the mats and in the frame. It does not have to be direct sunlight to cause extreme damage. This is especially true in the southwestern United States and other areas of the world that have a lot of daily sunlight. I have had prints and reproductions that hang in a north-facing room, with absolutely no direct sunlight entering the room, fade significantly over just five or six years when not protected with UV glass. If you have to choose between using UV protecting glass and archival matting, I would definitely choose the UV protecting glass. A little staining from an acid-bearing mat is not nearly as distracting as a reproduction that has turned pink that was originally mostly blue and green.

UV protecting glass is NOT a cure-all. It does significantly extend the life of most paper art. But if you hang the artwork where it will get direct sunlight, the UV protecting glass will only moderately help. Fading will definitely still occur in this situation. There are also other light rays that cause fading and damage that are not cut out by the UV protective coatings. I still highly recommend UV protecting glass. My personal experiments have shown that under normal indoor environments, UV protecting glass will extend the life of artwork for many extra years.

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In most cases, only a professional picture framer has the expertise and equipment to properly mount certain pieces of artwork with selected tissues that are activated by heat. Photographs and posters as well as some reproductions and prints are best dry-mounted. Some items are best spray mounted or wet mounted. Valuable items are best hinged or floated mounted with special holders and archival tapes. To learn which process is best for a particular artwork takes years of experience and special training.

Mounting can be one of the best processes to help preserve a piece of art. On the other hand, it is also the process that has the greatest potential to literally destroy the art. The use of the proper mounting materials, backings, equipment and techniques is essential to a successful mounting job. I have probably repaired more pieces of art that someone improperly mounted than artwork damaged by any other means. This is truly an area where your formally educated and trained professional framer can do the best job.

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Assembly or Fitting

Proper installation of the art in the frame with the best backings, dust cover and hangers should not be neglected as to its importance. I have seen many pieces of art and frames that fell off the wall and were severely damaged just because they did not have the proper hanging device. If the framed artwork is correctly sealed on the back, it will help significantly to keep out dust and insects that often cause permanent damage to the artwork. Bumper pads and other hanging devices help the artwork to hang flush to the wall, hang level, help to keep the frame from damaging the wall and still allow enough airflow around the framed art. These small but important items all help extend and protect the life of the artwork. The cleaning of the glazing, mat and artwork before assembly are important for a proper presentation. There are many small unseen things that most professional framers do to help preserve you artwork that are never seen unless the owner of the artwork is there to observe it.


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