Art Frames Conservation

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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