Framing and Care of Prints

Framing a print provides two benefits: It makes the picture look better and it also protects it.

The Frame

A well-chosen frame sets the print off from its surroundings, creating a border between the picture and its background. The frame should be harmonious with the picture, but not competitive, and you can accomplish that by having the frame pick up key elements of the painting.

Its color (or colors) should generally be the same as one of the background or shadow colors in the picture, and one that is a muted version of the most important colors in the image. (For example, if a key color in the painting is orange, you can support that with a brown of a suitable shade, since brown is really a dull orange.) The images at right show variously colored frames.

The first several are harmonious, for example the orange-grey at top echos the light of the painting. The black frame in the middle is too harsh. The bright orange and torquise frames are garish, clashing, wrong. Hold samples of possible frames near the painting and see what effect their colors have.

Similarly, the frame's width should be in scale with the picture and also sizes of significant items in the picture. Large pictures need broader frames. As a rule of thumb, the frame should be at least 8% of the painting's smaller dimension. Often, making the frame's width the same as the width of a key element in the picture leads to a harmonious balance. If a painting is highly geometric, the frame's width may work best as a simple ratio of some dominant width in the painting, such as 2:3 or 3:4 (depending on what ratios appear in the painting itself). For example, the painting Vase & Stones at right uses the ratio 2:3 in several places, so a frame that is 2/3 the width of the dark strip on the painting's lower edge would be a candidate. (I haven't framed this painting yet so I'm not certain.)

Finally, the shape, texture, and surface details of the frame should compliment the painting, usually by again echoing significant elements in the image. For example, a painting with predominantly round shapes or soft edges will often look best in a frame whose corners are softly rounded. Contrast, too, can work here, provided it is subtle and acts as a foil to, not a detraction from, the picture. For most of my paintings, wood works better than metal, and simple works better than ornate.

When a frame is next to a painting, its apparent color, size, and texture will be affected by the painting, so exact color and size matches are less important than how the painting looks when next to the frame. The staff of a professional frame store is often able to show you a selection of plausible frames and help you see their varying effects. A frame is successful when it is pleasant if studied, but does not draw any attention to itself. Instead, it makes the painting look better.


Your print's enemies are physical abuse, light, dampness, and acid. Putting the picture behind glass or acrylic plastic will protect it from accidental gouging. In my opinion, plastic is superior: It is lighter, doesn't shatter, and does not cause damaging condensation. Additionally, it comes is a variety that absorbs ultraviolet light, the most harmful kind.

Oil paintings do not need mats, and neither do photographs of them, provided their surface is not directly against their glass or plastic covers. Frame the print right up to the edges of the painting's image, and minimize the amount that the frame overlaps the picture area. Between the plastic and the photographic surface, at the edges, insert spacing strips to keep the surfaces slightly apart.

Do not keep your print in a brightly-lit spot. If possible, keep it away from sun-light, even strongly reflected sunlight. Incandescent light is much less harmful than either sunlight or florescent (and is also more flattering to my paintings). Conservators recommend a light level of 5 to 8 foot-candles for limited periods of time, less than that if lighting is constant. You can get an approximate foot-candle measure using a camera's light meter: Set the camera to aperture-priority exposure, the aperture to 5.6, and the film speed to ASA 100. Point the camera at a sheet of white paper held in the same location as the art work (while avoiding casting a shadow). The shutter speed will equal the foot-candles.

Don't keep the picture in a humid location.

Acids are found in many paper products. Over time, these can bleach the colors. Ask the framer to use archival quality (acid-free, buffered) mounting board.

With proper care, the photograph will still look good in a decade.

  • The Care of Prints and Drawings by Margaret Holben Ellis, 1987, American Association for State and Local History Press.
  • Matting and Framing of Works of Art and Artifacts on Paper Northeast Document Conservation Center, 100 Brickstone Square, Andover, Massachusetts 01810-1494. Tel 508 470-1010, Fax. 508 475-6021.
  • University Products sells archival mounting and storage products. Tel. 800 628-1912. Fax. 800 532-9281. Service and Questions: 800 762-1165 or 413 532-9431.
  • Kodak technical data on photo conservation
  • List of conservation sources


Vase & Stones
Vase & Stones
Vase & Stones

Too Stark

Vase & Stones

Draws too much Attention

Vase & Stones
Vase & Stones