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Hazards Frame Art Preservation

February 06, 1993|PATRICK MOTT

Do you love fine art? Take this handy test and find out.

You're rummaging around in your attic, in the same corner you discovered that lost Stradivarius violin last year, and you uncover a pretty nifty painting of sunflowers that, by golly, happens to be signed "Vincent." Right away, you:

A) slap it in a nice frame with wood matting and no glass to spoil the view;

B) throw bleach and acid all over it.

If you checked A, you can probably claim to be an art lover, if a slightly misinformed one. The only difference between A and B is that B will get the job done quicker. (If you checked B, incidentally, you're under arrest.)

It's one of those pesky little paradoxes of life: framing a piece of art, an act that's supposed to protect, can actually destroy if it's done improperly. In some cases, in fact, you'd do better to stick a painting--or a photograph or an etching or even a poster print--to the wall with bubble gum.

To frame it right, however, it's necessary to know your enemies, and Rita Chemers, owner of the Chemers Gallery in Tustin, knows them well.

"The primary reason for framing," she said, "is to protect a piece of artwork. But there are fine works of art on people's walls out there that ought to be worth anywhere from $5,000 to $50,000 that, because they're improperly framed, are virtually worthless."

Enemy No. 1: dirt. Framing a piece of art behind some kind of glazing--generally glass or Plexiglas--"is a necessary evil," said Chemers. It's a barrier, true, but without it everything that floats, flies or oozes through our atmosphere can get at the art, and if the art is produced on paper, there's no way to clean it once it's soiled.

Enemy No. 2: light. If you think sunburn is a rotten reaction to exposure to unfiltered ultraviolet rays, consider what UV does to art. Over time, it bleaches it. Colors wash out and fade, and the scene looks like it might appear if you were beginning to black out as you stared at it.

Glass is inexpensive and can be an acceptable shield if the art isn't worth much or is exposed to very little light. But if it's a piece you really care about, you'll want to cover it in more expensive Plexiglas, possibly even a specific type known as UF-3 Plexiglas, which filters out all UV rays, Chemers said.

Enemy No. 3: acid. This one is sneaky; you have to know where it lives. It's in such common materials as cardboard, wood and many types of paper products. When any of these come in contact with the piece of art, acid immediately reacts with any ambient light and begins to "burn" the work, eventually turning it brown. To avoid this, Chemers said, cardboard backing and wood matting should never be used. A type of acid-free matting made from cotton, called rag matting, should be used instead.

Matting serves a dual purpose, also keeping the art from coming in contact with the glass. If this happens, the work "sweats," and paint or ink can transfer from art to glass.

The aesthetics of framing are much less complex. In fact, the entire process can probably be encapsulated in a single maxim: If it looks good to you, then you've framed it correctly. There are, however, a few vague guidelines.

Chemers said that if there are only a few pieces of art on your walls, the artwork should complement the colors elsewhere in the room. That doesn't mean, however, that a frame needs to pick up colors in the artwork itself.

"If you like green and yellow and the picture's red and blue, that's OK," Chemers said. "It's your taste, and you should have what you're comfortable with."

If, however, the walls are covered with art, color coordination isn't paramount, Chemers said.

There are also no ironclad rules concerning frame types, Chemers said, although a piece of art (or a reproduction) from the Regency period, for instance, would look at home in a Regency frame.

The least expensive frames usually are metal, jointed at the corners rather than constructed in one continuous piece. Handmade wood frames, which can be gilded, are made jointed or non-jointed, the non-jointed types being the most expensive.

At the Chemers Gallery, frames are priced by the foot and range from $5 per foot for some types of metal to $150 per foot for handmade wood frames.

If all this has caused you to hold your head and curse your ignorance for subjecting your artwork to the ravages of nature, don't despair.

"All is not lost if you've framed improperly," Chemers said. "A restorer can do what's called bathing the paper, which will bleach out the acidity and burns and restore the original pH of the paper."

Prevention, however is still best. Careful and proper framing may be more expensive initially but, as they say, you can pay 'em now or pay 'em later.

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