Art Frames Conservation
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Art Frames Conservation

September 13, 2019


The Smithsonian American Art Museum
actively conserves its extensive frame collection. This American frame has been
separated from its painting for conservation. Martin Kotler is the
museum’s frames conservator. The frame is an excellent frame, but it had many
missing pieces. Almost the whole perimeter edge had to be rebuilt. 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 snuggly into the area of lost 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 ochre were chosen for this frame. These colors will
shine through the gold leaf on the gilded surface matching the rest of the
frames decorative components. One of the final steps is to apply goldleaf. Gilded
frames go back more than 700 years. Originally goldleaf was a way of
maximizing the light. There was a bouncing of light off of this reflected material
that illuminated the painting. A thin 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. 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. The frame is now ready to go back into the gallery to complement the
appropriate painting style, composition, and design.

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  1. Thank you for your comments! I asked our frames conservator and he said that yes, the use of 'like' materials is always preferred, but in this specific example he opted to use a special dental plaster because it allowed for more intense 'double gilding' and because time was an issue. He often uses compo when designing 19th century frames, or when treating existing composition frames. He also often uses gesso paste, which can be cast and carved.

  2. I have a few gilded frames from the Victorian era that need some restoration, I collect Victorian antiques and have for many years, My favorite oil painting is one done by Reginald Baxter of a grey hound, The painting its self is huge measuring four foot high by five foot wide and signed by the artist, I have seen copy's of my painting on ebay, But I have the original and would love to have it professionally cleaned. The man in the video makes it look so easy, I wish I knew how to do it myself….lol

  3. Enjoyed seeing the process of this frame being restored. Sometimes when I'm at a museum I find myself looking at the frames just as much as the paintings. Many times they seem more impressive than the paintings inside them. I thought the gilding part was the most interesting. Didn't know much about it before watching this or why frames are gilded in the first place. It makes sense that they maximize the light and illuminate the painting but I guess its something I never thought about before.

  4. Wow, cool… Most people only think of the art being restored. Very interesting to see the frames restored too! I guess they are art in their own right…

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