How to make your art look its best


Dana Tydings says to stay away from colored mats , and get the best frame you can afford — though the best isn’t always the priciest. (Linda Wade Kiang )
May 21

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.

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 role individuals play when deciding how to display art in their homes. “Display of art is subjective,” Leithauser says, unless there is historical precedent for it.

The work of art is paramount. When it comes to displaying art, he says, “There is no right or wrong way to do it.” But “you always think about the work of art.

“Most people have prints, drawings — things with mats and frames,” he says. “You start with your object, with what you own. 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 it.”

Contrary to what many people believe, 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.”

For example, in the current National Gallery show, “Andrew Wyeth: Looking Out, Looking In,” there are three different types of mats, two tones of gray — aspen (lighter) and Cotswold (darker), and an occasional original white mat. “One [gray] mat is darker than the other; both are speckled or peppered with a texture.” The purpose of the frame and mat, when there is one, is to ensure there is “no visual confusion.” Adds Leithauser, “What we want you to look at is the work of art.” Some works, such as “Wind From the Sea,” are in the original frames that Wyeth’s wife, Betsy James Wyeth, selected.

What does Leithauser hang in his own home? “So much stuff,” he says, pausing as if to signal he doesn’t want to spend time talking about his “quirky” little house in Northwest Washington. An artist himself, he has exhibited at galleries in New York and Washington as well as at the National Gallery of Art, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the National Museum of American Art and the Library of Congress. 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 hang or 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.) “That’s the trickiest thing.” 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.

Edleson is a freelance writer.

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