To Frame or Not To Frame?

Debbie S. Jackson Wagers wrote recently with this question:

“Could you address framing original artworks? It can be so expensive to frame. What are some solutions which are simple and fairly inexpensive, yet professional? Should unframed be an option?”

I know this is a concern for many artists, and I’ll admit right off the bat that I don’t have the answer. Of course . . . it depends upon the work! Works on paper should always be framed. However, I must say my peace as a former museum curator and educator: FRAME YOUR WORK! Framing not only makes the work look more professional by adding the finishing touch, framing actually protects the artwork. The Abstract Expressionists of the 1950s and Hard-Edge Painters of the 1960s exhibited their canvases without frames for aesthetic reasons. However, they’re a nightmare for curators and a conservator’s dream. Having something around the edge protects even the sturdiest canvases from nicks and dings.

In my opinion, it is fairly easy to tell when an artist doesn’t use frames for the sole purpose of saving money. The work looks cheaper (not less expensive–cheaper). If you’re not going to frame your work, make sure it’s for the right reasons.
By the way, well-known artist Faith Ringgold was concerned about the cost of shipping canvases (with or without frames) early in her career. This led to her soft paintings and eventually the quilts she has become known for.

Image: Faith Ringgold, The Purple Quilt, 1986. Acrylic on canvas, tie-dyed, pieced fabric border, 91 x 72 inches. Private Collection. (c) The Artist.

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5 comments to To Frame or Not To Frame?

  • How about addressing the choice of frames too while we’re talking about it? I like something that doesn’t distract from the painting and early on I used simple wooden frames. Later as my work became more abstract I felt that simple brushed metal worked best. So I’m curious; what’s your professional insight about the material, style and colors used to frame? And would you prefer to see common color and style used in every piece of an artists’ work – or at least across a current body of work?

  • Good question, Susan. Again, there are no right or wrong answers. As a former museum professional, I prefer understated frames that protect the work and let the eye focus on the artist’s genius. I have a strong dislike for mats that are painted or laser cut with a design. It seems too cutesy or not serious. Of course, there will always be a need for the decorative gilt frame around more traditional works. Me? I’m contemporary at heart. Having said this, there are artists who are known for their frames, which are truly an extension of what is inside (John Marin, Maurice Prendergast come to mind). This can be very effective when done correctly. I think it’s nice to see similar frames throughout a single artist’s work–especially (particularly) when hung in a one-person exhibit. They can make the work look even more cohesive and more coherent. Some artists use framing as their signature. Unfortunately I can’t give you any one name right now, but I’m thinking of a photographer who uses glass or Plexi with giant bolts at the four corners (no “frame” to speak of). It makes for a handsome presentation and works with her extra-large photographs. (Dang! Sorry I can’t recall who she is.)

  • Alyson, Thank you so much for your wise advice this past year I have thoroughly enjoyed reading! I have you on my public blogroll on my blog site to encourage my artist friends to check you out! Happy Holidays Have a BLESSED New Year and one of my goals for the new year is to take one of your online classes so watch for me! Terri L. West

  • So Alyson, that then begs the question. What is your opinion about framing fiber art? Of all types, but specifically quilts also.

  • Great question, Lisa. I have no aversion to fiber art being unframed. I have an unframed quilt hanging on my kitchen wall. At the same time, there is something magical that happens when you put a frame on something–especially with fiber art. Because fiber art is often associated with functional work, it is often denegrated or unappreciated. To some, a frame says “art” is more important than function. This is something to consider. Having said that, I realize that there is some fiber art that is simply impossible to frame because of its size or aesthetic. Interestingly, my mother who owns a quilt store does not like unframed quilts at all. Go figure. I was just at the Hotel Teatro on Friday and fell in love with the historical costumes that had been framed and placed in the lobby and restaurant. These are life-sized costumes, so the frames are enormous. What an impact! With today’s giant houses with giant walls, why not?