How to preserve artwork and a lesson in framing art

Knowing your options is the best investment you can make in enhancing artwork or conserving mementoes.

To learn about the art of framing and how to preserve treasures, New Hampshire Home turned to Sarah Chaffee, director/owner of McGowan Fine Art in Concord.

New Hampshire Home: We all have items that are meaningful and worthy of display. But why is framing them so important?

When considering a frame style, Sarah Chaffee aims to understand the client’s personal style by asking questions such as, will the piece be in a more formal room? Is this going in a camp house? What colors are on the wall where the work will be displayed? “Basically, we’re here to put our clients at ease,” Chaffee says.

Sarah Chaffee: The ultimate function of framing is to protect and enhance an item. Whether a piece of unique art or a family memento, these are the pieces that mean something to us—and that’s what we’re looking to protect.

NHH: What makes a professional framing job stand apart?

SC: At McGowan, we practice conservation framing, which means our first job is to do nothing that would damage the piece—nothing is glued down, no damage is done with any stitching, things like that. Conservation framing is reversible—if you want to change the frame later, your piece is still intact. Second, a professional framer should make the item looks its best. In other words, the framing should not overshadow the piece itself.

But a professional framing doesn’t have to be super expensive. We want our clients to tell us about their needs: whether they be cost or style. I always tell our clients, if the frame is done right the first time, you won’t have to redo it in your lifetime.

NHH: Can’t that be achieved with a frame from a department store?

SC: Department store frames use inexpensive materials that can potentially damage your artwork. If you are looking for the most inexpensive solution, these frames are fine. But your choice is limited to the in-stock styles and is available only in standard sizes. 

I do caution people about using ready-made frames for family photos though. It is important that a mat lifts the glass off the photo. If it doesn’t and humidity gets in, the photo can to stick to the glass—and at that point, nothing can be done to repair that photo.

NHH: What factor does humidity play in framing?

SC: We live in a humid climate, and that presents significant challenges, as moisture can get in the frame and damage either the artwork itself or the mat. For example, we recently opened up a piece from ten years ago and found mildew in the mat.

Critical to preserving a piece is separating the artwork from the glass, as Chris Iverson of McGowan Fine Art is doing here.

You can also tell that a framing job wasn’t done properly when the paper inside the frame or the mat itself has a brown edge. That’s actually an acid burn from the cellulose used in inexpensive mats. We see this a lot with old photos that have been passed down through the generations.

NHH: That’s interesting. You hear a lot about protecting framed works from the sun. But I don’t think I’ve heard about the stresses humidity presents.

SC: Yes, the sun is also a factor. But, since I started many decades ago, the framing industry has changed dramatically. There have been great strides in products available—and the glass is probably one of the biggest ones. That’s an area where I try to encourage clients to spend a little more—to get the UV-glass.

There’s a lot of other kinds of glass: reflection control glass, museum glass. But those generally aren’t my favorite: they still have some type of distortion—either in color or by absorbing the details. And if you’ve paid a lot of money for a piece of art, you want to see what you’ve paid for—you want to see the brush lines and the colors the artist chose.

We prefer the UV-control glass, which gets rid of 97 percent of UV rays—and that’s what’s so important to keep items from fading.

NHH: It must be hard for homeowners to find a safe place to hang a framed item.

SC: Well, even knowing all the rules, I still bend them at my house. You’re not supposed to put anything in direct sunlight or in the bathroom, where it’s humid. But I do—it’s about choosing the right piece for the
right space.

A glasswork piece is perfect for the bathroom. If you must, artwork on paper or canvas can be hung in a bathroom, but keep the doors open and the fan running. What you don’t want is something enclosed in glass where the humidity will get trapped.

Never, ever put any textile or watercolor in direct sunlight. The sun will fade the color in a short period of time. You can completely lose an image in ten years or less.

NHH:  How do you choose the right frame?

Sarah Chaffee, director/owner of McGowan Fine Art in Concord, advises her framing clients to consider a simple gold or wood frame with a white mat. This setup allows the artwork to shine—which, after all, is the reason for the frame.

SC: I think the key to being a good framer is understanding that the goal is to show off the artwork. Some framers get caught up in showing off their skills or the frame itself, but then the frame competes with the art and is too busy.

I’m a plain vanilla framer. I like some shade of white for a mat (and there are many shades of white), and a gold or wood frame. But it’s really about capturing what the client wants. We call it “the taste test you can’t fail.” We find out whether the client has a traditional style, or likes things more relaxed, for example. And then, we bring out some options and narrow it down from there.

If their home has a lot of wood, we might steer them away from a wood frame and offer a contrast—it’s hard to match existing colors exactly and giving a contrast lets the artwork stand out. You want to give a little breathing room between the artwork and the wall.

NHH: What if you’re not framing photos or paintings—flat pieces? What if you’re looking to showcase something that’s dimensional?

SC: We see lots of people looking to preserve things like sports memorabilia or souvenirs. We can cut mats for these and put several items in a piece—kind of like a shadow box. But sometimes, we don’t put glass over the frame, so people can get in close and touch the items.

NHH: It’s good to know investing in a professional frame will pay off down the line.

SC: Absolutely! I’ve heard people say many times, “The framing costs more than the piece is valued at,” especially when the piece is a family heirloom with sentimental not monetary value. But I explain that if you love the piece, good framing will protect it for a very long time. If you look around at the cost of a new piece of art, suddenly framing doesn’t seem so expensive.

Categories: Artwork and Design

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