Art Frames Conservation

  • Frames conservators who work in this studio preserve and restore frames for display. All frames receive a technical examination before going on loan or on exhibit to assess surface condition, structural integrity and general appearance. The most common treatments include replicating missing decorative elements, and cleaning, gilding, and toning frame surfaces. Conservators in this studio are also responsible for constructing new frames when current frames are considered to be historically inaccurate or can no longer be used.

    NARRATOR: The Smithsonian American Art Museum actively conserves its extensive frame collection. This American frame has been separated from its painting for conservation. Martin Kolter is the museum’s frames conservator.

    MARTIN KOLTER: The frame is an excellent frame, but it had many missing pieces. Almost the whole perimeter edge had to be rebuilt.

    NARRATOR: The first challenge is to restore the frame’s structure. The missing elements are recreated by molding similar design motifs from adjacent sections. A layer of talcum powder keeps the clay mold from sticking to the frame. Dental casting material fills the mold. The cast replica is then shaped and sanded to fit snugly into the area of loss and secured with a thick gesso paste. After layers of gesso are applied, a color clay material called bole coats the casting. While bole comes in a variety of colors. Black and ocher were chosen for this frame. These colors will shine through the gold leaf on the gilded surface, matching the rest of the frame’s decorative components. One of the final steps is to apply gold leaf. Gilded frames go back more than 700 years.

    MK: Originally, gold leaf was a way of maximizing the light. There was a bouncing of light off of this reflected material that illuminated the painting.

    NARRATOR: A think liquid called gilder’s liquor helps adhere the leaf and pull it down onto the surface. Burnishing the surface then melds the gold with the other layers, revealing subtle colorations.

    MK: Burnishing is the finish to the surface. The gold becomes even more transparent. You’re seeing these colors coming through. We’re fortunate. This museum has a wonderful collection of frames that really mirrors the history of the United States.

    NARRATOR: The frame is now ready to go back into the gallery to complement the appropriate painting’s style, composition, and design.
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