Protection from Damp
Suggestions on how to frame and hang your artworks in a Tropical Country.
This is something that I have observed of artworks in a tropical country like the Philippines. Artworks that are hanging may get mildew and mold damage over time, if not cared for properly. It is because of the very wet weather that we have during the rainy season that dampness takes its toll. (The Philippines has only two seasons: the dry (summer) and the wet season (rainy)). During the rainy months, you won’t find anything dry outside and the air inside your houses can be charged with moisture. Theoretically, framing and matting your artworks should have been enough to protect the artwork. I’ve always thought myself that the glass should be enough to protect from dust and moisture and that the sealing of the opening at the back with tape should do the trick. What most of us do not realize is that dampness can enter the frame from the not so obvious direction, through the surface of the backing. I’ve come across the problem of walls getting water-logged and affecting the house paint during the rainy season before from our Design classes back in college. But I did not correlate the phenomena with the problem with framed paintings until I began closely observing and after “operating” on a damaged painting. I have always taken my early paintings to be professionally framed so I really have no idea what goes on behind the framing. But curiosity always gets the best of me so I opened one. I realized that the water damage started from the back (from the watermarks) and worked its way inside the painting. The contact of the backing or its proximity to the wall surface must be what is causing the water to seep into the backing. To test this theory, I started elevating some newer paintings and some of my mother’s and sister’s framed cross-stitched projects. After ten years, the elevated frames sustained almost no damage while the regularly hanged works got mildew and mold stains. Hanged on the same wall, both quite some distance away from the nearest window.
This cross-stitch of a leopard had its back (the bottom part at least) against the wall.
While this fruit basket cross-stitch, I elevated from the wall with this stick pin used for maps.
I made my conclusion that simply elevating your framed pieces off the wall could do much for its protection. I would recommend something more simple now for this purpose. Use plastic bottle caps. Attach them to the back of the painting with double sided tape to create “legs”. Don’t worry, if you attach it further inside the painting, they will not be seen by your viewers but they would still work their magic. These legs would create breathing space between the wall and your framed piece and will cut off the capillary action between the backing and the wall during the wet weather. For small paintings, one for each corner will do. For larger works, I add extras along the mid sides.
I mentioned earlier that I operated on the framed painting and here is what I found out. Contrary to what we have agreed on, one framer used adhesives to secure my watercolor onto the back mat. A board with a sticker surface was used as a back mat. When I questioned them later, I was told this is standard practice for cross-stitched works and therefore something they don’t think about twice for using on painted paper. They are not familiar with the concept of acid-free materials so I’m surmising this adhesive is probably not up to standard. It did cause a discoloration in the back part of the watercolor paper which later travelled to the front of the painting. (Although I’m probably the only one who can see the “damage” :D) The front two mats were glued to each other using clear tape which also came into direct contact with the painting. As many of you probably guessed, when these office tapes yellowed over the years, the part in contact with the painting also discolored. The painting itself was cut to within half an inch of the painted surface and again secured to the backing with clear tape on all sides. So much for the 3 and sometimes 4 inch allowance I always put on my painting’s margins and for the specific instructions not to cut the said margin. This is just a precaution on my part. I was thinking if I placed this much space between the painted area and the edge, then if they used tape adhesives, I would still have some safety zone between the tape and the painted surface. Anyway, lesson learned. If you want something done right, sometimes you have to do it yourself.
I looked for another framer and luckily found one that was very accomodating. They didn’t question when I ordered a frame without ever showing the painting. Just specified the window for the mat, mat width and frame type. I just asked them to make the back fasteners the kind that you can bend open and close.
Here are some solutions you can try to correct the inside of your framing if you’re not sure about the archivalness of your frame and mat.
1. Coat the inside surfaces that get in contact with your painting with gesso. Gesso is basically made of calcium carbonate – a base substance. By applying a layer of gesso on a mat, you’re creating a buffer layer between your painting and the board making the surface, acid-free. I apply it to the base mat and the top mats on the side where they are in contact with the painting.
2. Use only acid-free tape. Preferably the white paper artist tapes that have a built in adhesive on one side (like masking tape). The brown acid-free gum tapes may be acid-free but the brown paper discolors over time.
3. When attaching the painting, I do not directly glue the painting paper onto the mat nor use tape (even if acid-free) on the painting. I make photo corners and side holders from watercolor paper left-overs. I attach the holders with the white tape to the backboard to keep the painting in place.
Here's a sample of how I mounted and framed the wide format lavander orchids. The holders close against the top mat once you put everything together. One plus side is that should the painting be bought and the buyer not like the frame, you can take it out of the frame with no marks showing on the painting. In effect, you have an archival storage for your unsold paintings.
Here you can see how the holders lock on the painting when you place the top mat (windowed matting) over the painting and bottom mat.
4. Also, make sure that the board used to close the back of the frame is covered with gummed paper tape. I noticed that when you leave this part bare to the elements, it is conducive to water seepage. Bare ply board, because of the exposed fibers. Line this outside side with gummed paper tape. Granted, the paper may also be absorbent. But it is probably because of this absorbency that it ends up protecting the inside of the frame. The gummed paper tape also dries faster than the wood and perhaps sucks the little moisture that got inside out again. Apply the gummed paper tape and make sure to dry it completely before you put the backing on the frame.
To close the back of the painting, use self-adhesive crepe paper. Shown in the picture above is the use of gummed paper tape to close the painting but I have found out later this may not be the best tape to use for sealing the space between the backboard and the painting frame. The gummed paper tape adheres securely only on wooden frames and panels. It will lift when used on carbon composite frames. I found out about the self-adhesive crepe paper tape when I interviewed my new framer framer on why his paper tapes stick so securely when mine lifts when it gets bone dry. Easy mistake to make as both paper tapes look similar at first glance. The crepe paper tape might also be called another name in other stores. So I will include the general description. The crepe paper tape is thicker, has a shinier surface and has a built in ready to stick side. Shown below is the test I did with the crepe paper tape. I taped a corner and an edge and the adherence is still strong after 2 months. So for general closing and dust sealing of the frame, use self-adhesive crepe paper and for covering the backboard area, use gummed paper tapes.
Some concerns that you may have:
Does this method of attaching the painting make it more prone to buckling during weather changes?
After observing for several months, I did not see any buckling on the painting. I was told that this may be due to the fact that the painting is able to expand and contract and move within the holder. Another plus side for not using adhesive directly onto your painting. Here's the wetcanvas forum link where we had quite an interesting discussion regarding framing and matting.
I felt more at ease after having read the input of Rose who also does framing. Thank you Rose.
Is Gesso ok to use?
Something only time could tell. For now, it seems to be working well. Once dry, the gesso did not leave smear marks on the painting. I did not see any mildew on the lavander orchids when I took it out months later. There was also no mildew or any discoloration on the gessoed part despite the wet weather we've been having the past months. I am still continuing the research and hopefully be able to get an expert's opinion regarding this practice.