Let image lead when framing art

07/04/2014 12:00 AM

07/03/2014 3:48 PM

How you frame art, whether it be posters, photographs or a rare oil painting, can enhance the look of your home. Details matter. Just ask Mark Leithauser, senior curator and director of design at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

Day in and day out, he oversees the design of exhibits and presentation of the great works on display at the gallery. He analyzes how to make a work of art look its best, from the color of the exhibition walls to the kind of frame or choice of mat and frame.

It’s the same for people deciding how to display art in their homes.

“There is no right or wrong way to do it,” he says, but “you always think about the work of art. … You want the work of art to be the strongest possible thing.” If you use a frame “that is stronger than the work of art, then you’ve detracted from the work of art.” The purpose of the frame is to enhance, not create “visual confusion.”

Contrary to what many people think, Leithauser says, “there is no neutral color. … Gray, black, white – they’re all making a statement. We never use white like the stark white of this paper,” he says, pointing to a document on his desk. “Paintings get little cracks in them as they get older. They look grungy, a little bit sad, a little bit dirty” next to a stark white. “They pop on a gray much better than on a stark, stark white.”

What does Leithauser hang in his own home? “So much stuff,” he says. He collects frames and he has a “salon hang,” a solution for anyone “owning too many pictures and wanting to see them all.”

A salon-style hang typically starts with the smaller works hung at the lowest level, and larger and larger works hung as you move up the wall. It works especially well in houses with high ceilings. (Nine feet is the minimum.) It can have as many as five levels of artwork. It’s “not being a spartan,” he concedes, with a glint in his eye. “You live with what you like.”

Getting the details right:

• Mats: Stick to a shade of white, creamy beige or latte. “Get 50 whites, fan them out, and lay them against your image,” says interior designer Dana Tydings, owner of Tydings Design in Laytonsville, Md. “Choose a white to complement the art.” Avoid colored mats that will compete with the image. To prevent discoloring or staining, choose archival or acid-free mats.
• Frames: Typically, cost for a custom frame is figured by the linear foot. Aim for the best you can afford. Keep in mind there may be a frame that looks just as good for $15 per linear foot rather than $45.

Cost will depend on the type of mat, frame and glass you choose, and size of the piece. If you’ve spent $500 on a piece of art, expect to spend at least that for framing it, Tydings says. More elaborate mats and frames cost more. Expect to pay more for a hand-painted frame than one painted at the factory.

• Glass: Options are regular glass, non-glare glass and museum or preservation glass, Tidings says. If there is any risk of a work fading, either over time or from sunlight or moisture, she recommends museum glass. Non-glare glass tends to have a “milky tone” that can interfere with the image. Rely on an expert framer for guidance.

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