If not framed behind glass, pastels could easily be smudged. But other paper-based media, such as watercolour, charcoal drawings and prints would also be open to being accidentally marked or torn, or attacked by insects or mould. Properly framed, pastel is one of the most durable media.
Cheryl Culver, president of the Pastel Society, is a practising artist and an experienced framer who has previously contributed to The Artist on framing techniques. She says that although dust falling on to the surround can be unsightly, she believes the danger is exaggerated, especially where the artist takes steps to avoid it. ‘Artists who use pastels primarily as a drawing medium, like Victor Ambrus, for example, do not apply the pigment thickly and it shouldn’t drop off,’ she says. ‘A light spray of fixative would provide further assurance. ‘Others build up the pastel in layers, but if they work on a more textured surface (see the article Pastel Surfaces, the second in this series, The Artist, May 2013), it holds better. I use lots of pastel, and never use fixative, but as I work on a very rough surface – a pastel primer produced by Golden, rough painted on to MDF – the problem is minimised. When I finish a painting, I bang it very firmly on the back, and any loose dust comes off.’
Although loose dust really shouldn’t be a problem, the choice of framing method can further reduce the likelihood of it showing. The two most popular techniques are to use a mountboard surround, or ‘close framing’, where the wooden frame moulding comes up to the edge of the image. According to Cheryl, the latter has become the more popular, partly for fashion reasons but also because of the dust issue.
In close framing, the painting still needs to be kept from touching the glass. This can be done with a special narrow beading or ‘slip’, often painted gold or silver. Alternatively, thin strips of wood or clear plastic ‘spacers’, which are usually hidden from view, serve a similar purpose, the slight disadvantage being that the edge of the frame may throw a small shadow on to the work. Any loose dust, however, falls out of sight.
Very occasionally, people advocate framing a pastel painting in direct contact with the glass. This certainly solves the dust problem, but raises a number of others. For example, if the painting should slip at all, even while putting it in place, it could smudge.
And there’s a greater danger: ‘People don’t appreciate how the moisture content of a room can fluctuate,’ Cheryl says. ‘If just the slightest bit of moisture gets into a work framed this way, you will get adhesion to the glass. A number of times, people have come to me with photographs to be reframed, which have been stuck so firmly it would destroy them to try to take them off. I wouldn’t recommend this approach at all.’
Glass or acrylic?
The choice of glass is something else to be considered. Most artists use normal picture-framing glass, but there is the issue of reflections. This applies to all paper-based media, including watercolours, drawings, and prints, as well as pastels, and is a concern to galleries.
Cheryl is one of a minority who have switched to using newer types of anti- reflective glass, favoured by museums and conservationists. Other pastel artists who have gone down this route include Pastel Society member Matthew Draper, and the internationally-renowned artist Andrew Hemingway. The best-known anti-reflective brands are probably ArtGlass by GroGlass, and Mirogard by Schott.
One other little-discussed glazing option for special situations is high-quality acrylic. Lighter than glass, it is a potential solution for really large paintings. Piers Townshend, a paper conservator at Tate Britain, confirms that some works in the Tate’s collection have been reglazed with Optium, ‘a low-reflective acrylic with good ultra-violet filtering and reduced static. This also makes them lighter to handle’.
Finally, a word about framing aesthetics. As always with matters of taste, this comes down to individual judgment, and the final choice is often the result of a discussion between artist and framer.
Plain black, white, and gold seem to have a particular affinity with the rich colours of pastels, and pale limed or dark wood are also popular choices.
‘Artists have to frame to suit the picture as they do not have any idea who will purchase their work,’ says Cheryl Culver. ‘They also have to frame to suit a gallery viewing situation and you will often find that artists tend to frame their work so that it sits well when viewed as a group’.
This is an extract from the full feature by Ken Gofton in the July 2013 issue of The Artist