How to get your artwork exhibition ready

How to get your artwork exhibition ready

This week’s blog is a reworking of one I wrote a couple of years ago. As we prepare to go back out into the world and show our artwork in public, having that work “exhibition ready” and by that, I mean presenting it in the best possible way, is essential. Ask yourself this: would you buy artwork that was not well presented? Highly unlikely, I suspect.

Your work needs to be framed and displayed with the correct attachments to reflect the quality of your art. Present it badly and it will make your work look cheap or worthless. If you are taking part in a group exhibition through an art group/club/league, be warned, if your work isn’t presented well it may not be included and I have seen this happen. I have seen work refused for having dead insects lying in the bottom; for mounts being marked or dirty; and for the hanging hooks and metal/cord not being attached properly. So, avoid the upset, possible embarrassment, and potential loss of sales by getting it right from the start. 

Gather together what you need: frame; towel; artwork; bendy knife; paper towel; cleaning cloth and window cleaner. One common mistake that I see when people are framing their own work is that they go to a local charity shop and pick up a frame which looks ‘about’ the right size, take it home and swap out what’s there already for their own work. If the charity shop frame is exactly the right size with exactly the right size mount card as well, that’s great, but all too often, I see gaps around the edges where the aperture of the mount is slightly bigger than the artwork. Would you buy work mounted like that? I doubt it. 

The next thing to check is what state the mount card is in. If it has marks all over it or has become discoloured, don’t use it. Again, would you buy something that looked old and damaged? Now for the glass. The inside, i.e. the side facing the work, needs to be cleaned properly. Buy a good glass cleaner and make sure that there are no smears.

Having got a clean mount of the correct size and cleaned (and dried) the inside of the glass, next you need to attach your artwork to it. If your artwork is the same size as the outer edge of the mount, then you can simply place the artwork in the frame with the mount on top.

Normally, though, the artwork is smaller than the outer edge of the mount so needs to be attached to stop it moving. It is no good hoping that it will simply stay in place all by itself (it won’t), so the top of your artwork needs to be fixed to the mount card.

Depending on the size of your piece you simply need to attach one or more strips of tape from the top of the mount onto the back of the artwork and then one long strip to help keep those strips in place.

Never fix all four sides (or any side other than the top). There is moisture in the air which the paper and mount card will both absorb, but at different rates, so if you fix all four sides, the paper will soon start to crinkle. by attaching just the top side, you allow the artwork to expand and contract behind the mount card, whilst remaining flat.

Once the artwork is attached to the mount put them both into the frame, add a sheet of paper as a backing sheet. This will act as a barrier between the backing board and your artwork to protect it from the acid in the board which, over time, will damage it.

Fix the backing board into the frame by bending down the little metal plates (which most frames have) to keep all the parts together. Once assembled, before you start to fix everything in place and seal up the back, check that no hairs or specks of dust have become trapped inside. 

The next stage is to cut a piece of brown paper, slightly smaller than the inside of the frame which you then attach with brown artist’s/framer’s tape. This helps to stop dust from getting in through the back of the frame. It also stops people (including you) from catching their fingers on the metal plates and generally makes the finish look professional. Spend the time to make the back look finished, just as (hopefully) you did with your artwork itself.

The next biggest issue is stringing your artwork. Some art groups don’t like you to wire your paintings, and only to use picture cord. This is generally because people don’t know how to wire properly and so leave sharp ends which can cut the people hanging their work. Done properly there is no reason why picture wire should not be used to hang artwork. After all, that is what it is sold for!  Below I will share how to use both wire and string.

These methods apply to both paper artwork in glass frames and works on canvas. By the way, I always place my canvases and framed works on a towel when stringing them to protect the frame or canvas from getting damaged.

You will need:

Ruler
Picture cord (not string) or picture wire
‘D’ rings and screws (not screw ‘eyes’ – these protrude from the back of the frame, pushing the work from the wall)
Pencil
Flat blade knife (to lift the metal fixing plates in the frame)
Brown paper
Brown framer’s paper tape (about 25mm wide) (self-adhesive or gummed)
Drill and bit or sharp bradawl
Screwdriver appropriate to the screws you used for the ‘D’ rings.
Plastic or masking tape (if using wire)
‘Bumpers’ – see below (optional)

Place the work face down (making sure you know which way is ‘up’!) and measure the height of the artwork from top to bottom. Divide by four and from the top, make a mark the frame a quarter of the way down on both sides. This is where you will be attaching your ‘D’ rings. Do take time to measure and mark; don’t just guess it.

Place the ‘D’ rings at the marks and use the drill and bit (or bradawl) to make pilot holes for the screws. Without these, you are likely to split the frame when fixing the screws and driving them in is also much easier with pilot holes.

Once the screws are securely in place take your string or wire and feed it through the ‘D’ rings on both sides, leaving the string or wire on its roll.

If you are using wire, you should have about three inches (8 cm) of wire ‘poking out’ through the ‘D’ ring at the wire’s free end. Feed the wire end through the ‘D’ ring twice and, pulling tightly, wrap the wire over and over itself layering each wrap neatly next until you get to the end.

Do not leave the wire floating around; it needs to go to the end.  Place a piece of tape over the end of the wire to stop people cutting themselves on it. Then go to the other side, pull the wire tight, and cut the wire with a three-inch end.  Repeat the process as before, ensuring that you pull the wire tight, so it does not sag. There should be not more than about one inch ‘play’ up and down at the centre of the wire when strung tightly.

I have used another artist’s incorrectly strung work to demonstrate using cord. Here is how not to do it.

The string should never show above the work and these are not the correct rings to use for hanging pictures. As you can see here, I have replaced the eyes with proper ‘D’ rings.

A note here. These works are relatively small, so I have used ‘D’ rings with one screw hole. For larger works you can buy ‘D’ rings with two holes, which stops them from moving under the weight.

With, cord you start off the same way but once having passed the cord through the ‘D’ ring twice you need to make a series of knots to keep it in place. A piece of tape at the end of the knots will ensure that they don’t unravel but the same principles apply here. The string must be tight.

It is a good idea to put a rubber or plastic ‘bumper’ on the two bottom corners of the frame. This both protects the wall from any slight marks the frame may make, and also helps stop work from moving on the wall, although if you hang pictures with two hooks, this will always eliminate this problem. As bumpers have a habit of coming off, usually they are only added when the picture is to be hung in its final ‘new home’.

Finally, you need to clean the front of the glass. You may need to do this again before you hang it as it does not look good to have finger marks on your work.

Common mistakes I have witnessed at art group/club/league level include:

the ‘D’ rings being placed halfway down the frame so, of course, the work would never sit properly against the wall;

Little bits of string being used to make a loop hanging from the middle of a picture; and

Commonly, the wire or cord not being tight enough, so the pictures hang below the hook and the string or wire are visible.

At the end of the day, if you present your work well, people will want to buy it because you have shown that you value the work. If you use a grotty frame with a marked or discoloured mount; dirty glass with debris trapped behind it; or the work is badly strung; people are simply not going to want to buy it from you. If you present your work in a professional manner you will increase your chances of making that sale.

A final word about framing oil paintings. Most do not need to be put under glass if they are painted on canvas, panels or board. Glass is used to protect artwork from moisture and sunlight. The varnish applied to a finished oil painting is sufficient protection.

Remember, though, that varnish should not be added for at least six months after the work is finished, to allow the top layer of paint to harden sufficiently. Oil paint never actually dries but it will form a hard outer layer, so until that forms, do not varnish it.

There are some exceptions. If your oil painting was done on paper or thin card, the glass is there to protect the substrate. The painting itself does not need the protection but the substrate does.

If, for some other reason, you decide that you want your oil painting to be placed under glass you will need to use blocks or a mount/mat. This is essential, not a decorative touch.

The mount/mat or blocks create space to stop the artwork touching the glass, which is why it is used with photographs and watercolours. If the oil paint is thick the mount/mat or blocks will need to be thicker, too. The space is essential because it allows air to circulate in the frame and helps to prevent condensation, which can cause mould and/or mildew, and also stops the artwork from buckling.

I had someone question me on this at an exhibition I hung a while back. They rightly pointed out that many museums and galleries do place oil paintings behind glass. They do this to add an extra layer of protection, particularly when the works are valuable, and/or they are concerned about vandalism. In these circumstances, they use conservation or museum glass, which is often non-reflective and contains filters to protect the work from light.

I understand also that in the past oil painters living in cities also used glass to protect their works because of the pollution levels around them. There are always exceptions, but the general rule is that works on paper go under glass. Works on canvas, board or panel don’t need glass as the varnish coat used, in both oil and acrylic, is all the protection they need.

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