Sterling Art Services

Framing Artworks on Paper: 2-D or Not 2-D

by Chris Barnett

Framers develop an acute awareness about both the pictorial importance of papers, and how they encompass myriad structural and material qualities.  The permutations in paper manufacturing processes are vast, yielding diverse materials such as long-fibered and strong yet lightweight Japanese papers;  sturdy watercolor and printing papers; pulpy handmade papers, finely milled digital printing papers or other highly processed sheets.  When used for artworks, the surfaces of papers support expressive articulations through a wide array of media including ink, pencil, paint, photographic emulsions, and an infinite range of other materials.  Processes used to make art with paper may also leave the papers physically changed from the virgin sheet, due to the mechanical forces associated with printing, embossing, drawing and erasing, painting, wetting, drying, crumpling, stretching, folding, or rolling onto a tube for shipment.  Made of once-living fibers, papers can expand and contract with changes in temperature, humidity, or change in surface tension from the application of media such as glue or paint, changes which can enhance our sense of their object qualities, or challenge us in presenting a view of those in balance with their pictorial ones.  All of these realities inform the design when we approach framing artworks on paper.

Courtesy of Lukas Felzman and San Francisco Camerawork

Matted Lukas Felzman photograph from San Francisco Camerawork. This photograph is presented here as a picture.

We know all of these things about paper intuitively from our experiences in the world:  Magazine stock cockles when we spill coffee on it.  A newspaper on an airplane can curl up in your hands because of the desiccated environment.  Certain papers, upon encountering wetness, disintegrate very easily.  In environments which are too moist or too dry, some may distort and never want to go flat again, or can develop other problems such as foxing due to mold growth or oxidization of impurities in the fibers of the material.  So with works on paper, it’s wise to consider a work’s two- and three-dimensional qualities because, whether intended to be seen primarily as one or the other, in many cases they are both.  Whether you highlight all of those qualities in presentation is another matter altogether.  How conscious do you think the choice of paper was by the artist, and how did she register her image on it?  Is the graphic content of a work sufficiently informed by the the material qualities of the paper as well as the way the medium has been laid down onto it, that seeing the whole sheet is warranted?  Sometimes papers don’t want to lay flat, because of the differential in surface tension between areas bearing medium, and raw areas that do not.  Did the medium or process thus alter the paper in such a way that it’s preservation and support within a frame suggest objectification of the work, which leads to question such as should the work be floated, matted, or mounted?  And then what materials and methods do you bring to bear in order to achieve the best result?


Hinged and floated Sparky Campanella pigment print from San Francisco Camerawork.

Sometimes images on paper get dry mounted, which involves an overall adhesion of the back to a substrate such as museum board, acrylic, aluminum, Sintra, Dibond, or foamcore.  This is an especially common treatment with larger format photographs, whether derived from photochemical process or created with pigment printers.  But even with works such as these, it still begs the consideration before honing in on the approach to frame design:  is the intent of the image to be seen two dimensionally?  If not, does the paper have enough body to be attached without dry mounting?  Should the work be hinged instead, and how?  Regardless of the nature of the work on paper, these kinds of questions in turn lead to decisions about whether to float, mat, or find some other means of mounting a paper-based work into a frame.

A pigment print crisply mounted to Dibond makes it all about the surface and its visual information.

A pigment print crisply mounted to Dibond is about the two dimensionality of the printed surface.

I credit Joseph Johnson of Corporate and Museum Frame in Richmond VA for having shared with me early on this perspective which has guided me well:  dry mounting fine art papers (which in the not too distant past was in our industry often done summarily) is akin to stuffing a trophy animal and hanging it on the wall, versus having the live thing.  That said, some works–especially in this era of digital media and processes, in which photographs attain a scale which we once expected only of paintings–clearly beg for mounting.  

What makes us take note of an artwork?  What makes its creation an extension of life, and a testament to it?  When you look at works of art on paper, question how and why the artist may have chosen the paper she did;  how she used the paper, whether in conjunction with other media, or as a medium in its own right;  and whether you find that the resulting work wants to be seen as image, as object,  or as a hybrid so brilliant that the resulting work deserves showing the whole thing in its frame.

Courtesy of Jasmine Sian and Anthony Meier Fine Arts

Beautfiful Jasmine Sian works we acquired many years ago from Anthony Meier Fine Arts, these paper based works are undeniably objects.

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