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Everything You Need to Know About Framing Pastel Art!

I love creating dramatic sky paintings, and pastels are a fantastic medium to use to do this. Unfortunately, however, I have had some rather terrible experiences when going to get them framed. Usually I am well organised, so problems can be fixed, for instance, when I need framing completed for art shows and exhibitions I know well in advance when these will be coming round. But when it comes to framing for local art collectors, fixing problems makes for unwelcome time delays.

You may notice I have written local. That is because, no matter how well the framing job is, when sending framed pastel art by post, there is always a risk of movement of dust - and there is very little I can do to stop that. In the beginning of my art career, I made the mistake of sending a framed pastel work to Italy, only to have it arrive with smudges all over the mount and dust on the inside of the glass. I sent instructions to my buyer to relay to a local framer there, on how to clean it up, and luckily all was rectified with minimal cost.

Another time, I sent a large framed work (A2 size) to France, and it arrived with a crack in the glass. Because I hadn't used a specialist art courier (very expensive) the cost of replacement understanably fell to me. Lessons taught the hard way are those most valuable, so I sought to learn more about the framing, and transportation, side of my business.


Ever Fallen in Love?

It was love at first sight. Emotions hit you and you just had to have it. You may have walked away, looked at another website, but with a tingly sense of regret and worry that what you saw would not be there on your return, only to come back and feel relief wash over you, thankful that it could indeed be yours forever. Yes, you have fallen in love with a piece of art. You now know that every time you see it on your wall, that energy will envelope you again and again.

If the artwork is a box canvas picture, you may find you can attach picture cord to the back (if the artist or gallery hasn’t already done this) and you’re good to go. Get a picture hook, take some measurements, and pop it on your wall. If, however, you have a picture on paper, card, or fabric, you will need to think about framing.

My advice would always be to find a specialist framer in your local area. If you are local to me (Worcester/ Stratford-Upon-Avon), I can either supply your picture framed for collection or delivery, or you can get in touch with Chris, a framer in Stratford-Upon-Avon that I trust - If you are further afield, I recommend finding someone that knows their way around a pastel work, and I'll lay out what to look for below. If you want to jump to where I explain specifically what to look for in terms of framing pastel art click here. Or read on for a more in-depth explanation of pastels in general.

What Are Pastels

Firstly, I want to explain what pastels are, and how I use them. You could be forgiven for thinking they are chalk, because that is what they look like. Pastels are, however, made from pure coloured pigment mixed with a binder to form a stick. They have quite a buttery, silky feel when you use them, and yield much deeper and intense colours than chalk ever could.

Pastels are also very expensive. You could spend up to £10 on only one stick of colour. Some of the best pastel manufactures are Unison, Schmincke and Sennelier. Of course, if you want to try out pastels for the first time, you can happily choose a more affordable brand to see if you like them. I would suggest Jackson’s own brand - They will give you a good experience with prices starting around the £2 mark.

I use pastels by making marks on paper and blending (a lot!). I tend to blend in a background colour, then work on top to intensify areas I want to be more, well, intense. I try to get all my blending done first – which is literally marking the paper with the pastel stick, then pushing it around and into the paper with my bare fingers. I get rather messy doing this, and I believe this is how it should be.

After I’ve got the background right, I start on details, marks which can be carefully blended in using fine pointed tools, or just touched with a pinkie finger if they need to smudge, or left raw with the only thing having pushed them into the paper being the stick itself.

To Fix or Not to Fix...

Fixative is a hairspray like substance that is used on top of any art medium that has a likelihood of rubbing off or smudging when touched. It is sprayed lightly over the whole picture and left to dry before more work is added.

I might fix the background, or in between layers, but I would rather not use it because it always changes the colours, and sometimes if you are unlucky, spots can appear where the spray stream is not as fine as you would like it. This has in the past, ruined a beautiful piece of work.

A lot of the time I don’t use it at all, because I find it dulls the colours.

Also, depending on the pastels I'm using, the next layer ‘works’ differently on top of the then coated paper. It just doesn’t feel right to me, so if I don’t want to fix the work, I won’t. And really, I don’t have to, because the paper I use is amazing at doing its job.

The paper is very important, because if you don’t use the correct type, the dust will not grip on, and you will not only waste pastel, but your painting will not be rich with colour, and you will not be able to work a different colour on top of the first. I recommend Pastelmat papers and card. It is the best I’ve used and although it costs a lot (circa £5 for a paper sheet and £15 for a card sheet), it is definitely worth it. Although it looks super smooth, the surface has a very slight texture of fine sandpaper. This is what holds onto the pastel pigment, allowing you to work colour on colour on colour. You really don’t have to use fixative at all, it grips the pastel so well.

In this picture you can see the natural landscape where I was painting on location in the Peak District. I have blended the sky and some of the distant ground, then laid pastel marks on top to show the stones in the foreground without blending at all. The paper grips onto all.

That does not mean, however, that it will not smudge if touched. Pastel remains like wet paint; if you touch it, the paint will come off and you will smear the painting. Even if fixative is used, there is a chance that touching it will distort the painting, so you must be very careful with transporting and framing. When you buy the pastel artwork, it should come with a film of glassine (like tracing paper) taped to it, or wrapped in it so that it does not move. Keeping the glassine from moving is of upmost importance. I tape a piece perfectly sized at the top of the work, smooth it down, then store my originals flat, in a sturdy cardboard folder. When I need to take them to the printers or to get framed for an exhibition, I keep them tightly bound so that they do not move in transportation.

In this picture you can see vertical lines where a careless framer has smudged the artwork - don't worry, I don't use this person any more. In most cases I can correct these mistakes, so not all is lost. However, just bear in mind that when I send pastels to you in the post, I package them very securely. I have a glassine layer touching the painting, then pieces of cardboard sandwiching the paper together, then I tape it tight so that there can be no movement. You must, on receipt of the artwork, open the package very carefully, so as not to create movement that could smudge the work yourself. If you do have an accident, you can always call me directly and I can advise what to do to rectify any problems.

Top Tips

When you find a framer, ask them if they have framed unfixed pastel paintings before. Then ask how they do it.

Also ask if they have a computerised mount cutting machine (here is a picture of a triple mount cut by hand. You can see how the navy border differs in thickness).

Below I outline the best practice, and if the framer you find does not explain these steps, you can either find another one who does, or educate them to do it right…. you may even earn yourself a discount for sharing the knowledge!

1. Create a gap (or gutter) between the visible mount and the picture. Simply put a piece of card, or another mount with a wider aperture, behind the main mount. This allows for any stray pastel dust to fall through onto the invisible mount and not smudge the visible one. See the image below where a framer in the past did not use this gap and had to redo the work.

2. The artwork should never touch the glass, otherwise the pastel particles will stick to it. If this happens the frame would need to be taken apart and cleaned, or worse, it could ruin the painting.

3. Cheap acrylic sheets and plexiglass should not be used due to static, which would pull the pastel particles off the paper. Although there are acrylic alternatives, I do not know enough about them to suggest using them. I recommend using only real glass, and non-reflective if you can afford it (it doesn’t remove absolutely every reflection, but it makes a big difference).

4. Always keep the original covered and without movement. Once the pastel art is behind glass, in the way described above, you are free from the worry of it smudging. Of course, hanging any painting has its own set of rules so that they are not ruined in other ways, and I will go into them in the next blog.

Happy framing


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