A Primer on Frames

Kourosh Mahboubian Fine Art
Feb 21, 2018 12:45AM

Think of a frame as the packaging that perfectly finishes a work of art. It has the power to turn a five year-old child’s finger-painting into the masterpiece you display on your bedroom wall. A bad frame can also significantly degrade the appearance of your art.

Framing a piece of art well involves many variables, can get expensive and is usually handled best by an expert. Go to one who specializes in the particular type of frame you’re looking for. The process may seem daunting but the information I’m imparting here will help you get the job done right and the end product will be worth the effort.

The purpose of your frame

Every frame has three primary functions: to protect the art, to focus attention on it, and to give it an enhanced, finished appearance. This is your starting point. For instance, if you have a work on paper, you may want to mount it in an acid free mat and frame it under glass, to protect it. Likewise, your old oil painting may need a majestic gilded frame to make it shine rather than a modern strip frame.

Types of frames

Having set a direction, you now have to choose from the many options. Breaking them down into broad categories for further simplification, we have simple moulding frames, ornate decorated frames, shadow boxes, and unframed art that is mounted on a rigid substrate.

A simple moulding frame is often the best choice for modern art. It is an L-shaped strip of wood or metal that fits around the edge of an artwork. Stretched canvases or other rigid artworks usually don’t need anything more. However, this type of frame can also incorporate glass and an acid free mat when needed. Galleries and collectors often mount works on paper, such as drawings or photographs in an archival, acid free window mat that is then placed under glass in a simple black, white, grey, or natural wood frame. The simplicity of this style makes it versatile and classic.

Ornate frames function in the same manner as simple ones but they have varying degrees of additional carving, gilding and decorative work. Because of this, they can be very expensive. A beautiful decorated frame will add opulence to a room but bunching too many of them together can make a space feel heavy, excessively formal, or worse, gaudy.

A watercolor painting on paper by Donald Green is matted with a floating mount and framed under glass in a simple, classic black wood frame. The back of the frame is sealed against dust with archival paper tape. Eyelets are screwed in and a wire is attached for easy hanging.

A large oil on canvas by Jon Schueler is framed with a very simple, barely visible natural wood strip, as is typical of most canvases by New York School abstract expressionists. http://www.jonschueler.com/

A large oval antique mirror is fitted in an ornate, heavily carved wooden frame. Reflected in the mirror is an unframed contemporary oil painting by David Rankin. To the left of the scene is an, older oil painting by an unknown artist, framed in an elegant but simple gilded wood frame. A Tiffany lamp and kudu horns complete the picture in the entrance hall of an elegant New York City apartment.

The shadow box is a variation of the simple moulding frame that uses wider edges to create a shallow box around the artwork. It is a stylistic choice that is often used with modern art to help isolate the artwork from external visual elements while also reducing surface glare. Adding glass to a shadow box closes the art in, creating the effect of a showcase.

Over the past decade or so, there has been a trend in contemporary art and in photography in particular to mount prints onto rigid substrates like Plexiglas or aluminium, which can then be hung without a frame. The latest variation of this method takes it a step further to digitally print images directly onto the substrate. It gives the art a luminous quality when printed on Plexiglas and a shimmery, three-dimensional one on aluminium. Either way, the effect is dramatic. To avoid problems, if you would like a print that is mounted on one of these materials it’s best to buy it that way from the start. The artist, working with an image lab, will produce a finished piece for you and will typically either sign and number the back of the substrate or provide a signature sticker that can be affixed to it.

Three works on paper by Mel Bochner, framed under glass in white wooden shadow boxes. (Photographed at the Gerald Hartinger Fine Arts booth at Art New York 2017, http://www.harts.at/de/kuenstler/6-mel-bochner.)

Photographs by Niloufar Banisadr digitally printed directly onto Plexiglas and hung without a frame.

(Photographed at the Gallerie 55 Bellechasse booth at Art New York 2017, http://www.55bellechasse.com/artist-profil/77/Niloufar-Banisadr.html)

The mat board

If you plan to use a mat, have it custom made using two sheets of high quality archival board – a top piece for the window and a bottom one for the mount. I like to use 100% rag 8 ply museum board for this. The artwork should be affixed to the mat’s bottom board using paper corner pockets or, if necessary, a couple of non-permanent archival tape hinges that are attached to the back of the art. If the artist’s signature or other significant information is hidden from view in your mat, make sure that the mounting will allow easy access to it at a later date. The window should be measured to leave around 3 – 5 inches of border space around the artwork but the exact amount of border is a matter of personal taste.

The glass

If your frame has glass, you need to decide whether you want to use real glass or an acrylic pane, and if you want it with or without an anti-glare coating and with or without UV protection. Glass doesn’t scratch as easily as acrylic so I prefer it for small frames. However, with larger frames there is a greater risk that it will shatter. For anything bigger than 16 inches in one dimension, I always use acrylic. As for the anti-glare and UV protection, they do cost more but get them if your budget allows you to, especially if the art will be hung in a sunny room.

Your personal aesthetic

Technical issues aside, your personal aesthetic should guide you in every aspect of building your collection. This includes framing and hanging the art. If you are in doubt, keeping things simple and classic is usually a good plan. I also feel that a variety of framing styles used in the same space will make a collection feel more organic. Finally, don’t worry if the frame you have isn’t perfect or doesn’t go well with the rest of your room. You can try it in another room or change it down the road, and your home isn’t an outfit. It doesn’t have to coordinate perfectly.

Kourosh Mahboubian Fine Art