Matisse once described the four sides of a frame as “the most important parts of a picture”. He expressed the view held by artists who see the frame not just as a pretty border that protects the artwork but rather as a mediator between viewer and the art. In essence, the frame effects a transition from the existing physical location to into the realm of the work of art. This holds true whether the piece is work of realism or is abstract.
Despite this important role, the frame that surrounds a work of art is often the most undervalued of antiques. Why then are frames undervalued? After all, the making of an elaborate frame is nearly a lost art, with fine examples increasingly misunderstood and unappreciated. Our contemporary ethic has instilled a preference for minimalist frames while data concerning the aesthetic and historical value of antique and vintage frames isn’t readily available.
This situation actually presents the savvy collector with an exciting opportunity to collect frames at a time when they are beginning to be rediscovered as works of art. Frames can be found almost anywhere, from attics to fine antiques stores and estate auctions to garage sales.
High-end collectors generally tend to prefer hand-carved wooden frames made in the 18th Century or earlier. Such frames exhibit particularly fine craftsmanship, are signed by the maker and often have a documented provenance. Frames like these – especially if European – can cost thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars.
So, paraphrasing the point-of-view of Matisse, “what goes around a painting is almost as important as the painting itself”, and since frames today are available in thousands of styles the choices are practically endless. But there are three important things to think about when framing any work of art:
- Does the frame match the style of the painting, and not detract from it?
- Will the frame look appropriate with the decor of the room it will be hanging in?
- Is it even necessary to use a frame?
Matching The Painting’s Style
The frame will have a huge influence on how people see your artwork because it will always be viewed at the same time as the piece itself. It follows then that it is important to pick a frame that is less eye-catching than your art. At the same time, you also want to avoid frames that are too similar to your painting, especially in color and value.
Having a moderate amount of contrast (using a dark frame for a predominantly light painting) is often helpful not only because it gives a baseline point of reference for the colors within the artwork, but because it also clearly separates the art from everything else in the room. Any colors in the frame should be carefully selected to emphasize or complement colors in the artwork. When in doubt choose understatement rather than overstatement, in both color and contrast.
The style of painting may dictates the type of frame you should select. Abstract, edgy, or modern art most often looks best with plain geometric frames and little or no frills. With contemporary art you can even take more risks with a bolder color for the frame, if plain, geometric, black frames don’t appeal to you.
More traditional portraits and landscapes are well suited and paired with more traditional looking frames. In this case, having some gilt and scrollwork won’t seem out of place. Ornate frames lend an air of importance, so you’ll most often see them used with portraits of important people.
Think About Where Your Artwork Will Be Displayed
Always consider the decor of the room and other artwork already on the walls in your home when selecting a frame. Unless you’re dealing with an especially important work of art, a good frame shouldn’t stand out so much that it puts all other objects in the room to shame. Rooms with darker walls or with lots of trim may work well with an ornate frame. Light and bright environments are most appropriate for clean, modernist frames.
Does Your Artwork Need A Frame At All?
Portraits are the only paintings that should always have frames. Any other subject, on the proper canvas of course, can look very nice without one if it is a gallery wrap canvas. The gallery wrap canvas is one where the canvas stretches all the way around to the back to the stretcher bars, leaving clean canvas edges (no nails/staples exposed). Artists who employ this technique paint the canvas as though the front image is wrapping around onto the edges themselves, or use a solid color all the way around. With the addition of a hanging wire, the painting is complete.