Can a poor picture frame damage an oil painting?

When you think about how an oil painting can be damaged, there are some obvious answers.

Tears, smoke, and water damage, for example, can all lead to restoration. 

But have you ever considered that the picture frame that is meant to protect a painting could actually be doing more harm than good?

Unfortunately, we’ve seen it for ourselves in the studio. 

So how can picture frames damage paintings, and what can be done to protect artwork?

It is really important for oil paintings to be secure in their frame. If a painting has been purchased unframed, and a frame has been bought that is not made to fit, this could potentially lead to issues.

There should be no substantial gapping around the edges of the painting and when the frame is lifted the painting should not slide to one side. 

The painting should fit comfortably, and be neither too loose or tight in the rebate (the rebate is the groove cut into the frame where the painting sits). If there is some gapping, then silk material or a slip can be added to fit between the painting and frame to make it more comfortable and secure.

If the painting is sitting too tight when it is installed, it will be effectively trapped against the frame. This could lead to the paint surface becoming abraded, and the paint layer possibly flaking. 

Similarly, if the rebate is too rough, the edges of the painting could be scratched. Sanding down the rebate is a practical solution, and again adding silk material or a slip between the painting and frame is an option.

Is it also important to look out for how a frame has been constructed. Our conservators have restored paintings where the nails in the frame have been poorly inserted and are protruding into the painting or the stretcher bars. This is more of a concern if the frame has little depth. A conservator can remove any wayward nails and correctly replace them, to guarantee that the frame is stable and the painting will be best protected.

Take a look at the above example of a nail that we removed after it was pushed at an angle against the side of a painting. What’s also concerning about this frame is the rough metal hanging wire used, with a sharp end. 

If the frame itself is damaged, this can begin to affect a painting. Particular causes for concern would be at the corners of a frame, for example if the joint is broken or split, or if there is unstable decoration that could fall onto the painting. A frame conservator would be able to fully stabilise and ensure no accidental damage occurs to the painting.

A number of private collectors choose to add glass to their painting for extra protection. If your painting has impasto (when paint is applied in very thick layers), it is important to look out for whether the glazing is pressed against the surface of the painting. This could cause losses in the paint if the glazing is removed.

If your frame has been tailor made to suit your artwork, you can be assured that it should be secure and comfortable. If an artwork has been inherited or recently purchased, it is worthwhile to check over the condition of the painting and frame, and ensure that both are as stable as they should be.

If you have any concerns, or would like to speak with our team about your artwork or frame, please contact us and we’d be glad to help.

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