Choosing the Right Frame for your Artwork

There are a number of points to consider when framing artwork. The purpose of a frame should be to focus the attention on the artwork, as well as protect it from environmental factors that could affect its appearance over time. Framing is an art in itself and choosing the right one can greatly enhance an artwork.

Apart from a frame’s aesthetic features, it’s important to consider the medium the work is painted in and the support it’s painted on. Understanding their properties will help you accommodate for factors that may affect the artwork if not framed correctly. Here are some points to take into consideration when choosing the right frame.

Material, Colour, and Style

Frames are available in many varieties, meaning there’s plenty of choice to ensure the frame complements the artwork. If framed incorrectly, a frame might overpower the artwork or lack in giving it the presence it deserves. While it’s important to pick a frame that is less eye-catching than your artwork, frames too similar in colour to the artwork, or as busy in terms of decoration, should also be avoided. Think how a frame can present the work most effectively – for example, adding contrast with a dark frame on a light painting can help make the artwork stand out.

Where the artwork will be displayed is an important consideration, but for the best result select the best frame for the piece, instead of matching another frame.

The style of a painting will help to suggest the frame style – for example, paintings with a classical subject matter are well suited to a traditional gold-leafed frame, or an attractive dark wood frame. Lighter or more abstract paintings usually look best in less ornate frames, such as a box frame with a thin border. For paintings with a subject matter somewhere in between, some frames combine traditional and contemporary styles.

If you’re unsure about adding colour with a frame, black or white are always good choices. Both work well with most interiors and subject matters – simple black frames can add depth and drama, and white frames work well with bright coloured works and white walls.

Framing Artworks

Framing Works on Paper

Frames for works on paper should protect the piece as well as drawing attention to its appearance. Works made with mediums such as graphite, charcoal or pastel are more delicate and therefore require more care. Watercolour paintings on paper can also be fragile. These artworks usually look best when framed with a mount, or ‘mat’. Acid-free mounts and backings will help protect the work from deterioration – the materials used should be 100% acid-free. Most good framers now use these materials.

The mount helps highlight the artwork by separating it from the frame and drawing attention to the work. They also help conserve fragile artworks by ensuring that the glass doesn’t touch the artwork directly. This can cause condensation and damage to the paper as mould and mildew could form.

A mount isn’t necessary, but most artworks on paper look best with one, providing a more elegant finish. Some works on paper are ‘floated’ over the mat, in which case a framer will use conversation quality materials to protect the back of the artwork.

The print has been floated in the frame by a plinth, drawing attention to the paper and material aspects of the work.
Beautiful Girl II, 2011, Etching by Tracey Emin
© Thou Art In Hampstead Ltd

Neutral coloured mounts tend to be the most popular, although other colours can add an interesting dimension to an artwork. If you want to introduce subtle colour, consider double matting. A coloured mat is placed beneath the neutral mat, and the windows of the two mats are cut so only about 1/4 in of colour is shown. Artworks can also be framed with a ‘liner’ – usually a piece of wood that acts like a separate inner frame, which is slotted under the rebate around the inner edge of the frame.

It’s also important to make sure the glass has a UV filter. This plays a key role in protecting works that will fade over time if exposed to UV light. Low-reflective types of glass are best as they do not interfere when viewing the artwork. Acrylic glazing, sometimes known as Plexiglas, is much lighter than glass which makes it a good alternative for large artworks. It’s virtually shatter-proof, although it can scratch easily. Available in regular and non-glare forms, it usually provides about 60% UV protection.

Framing Oil Paintings

Oil paintings were never originally framed behind glass, and still today, in galleries and museums, you’ll usually only see an oil painting with a glass frame if it’s particularly valuable or at risk from damage.

The characteristics of oil paintings are important when looking at framing options. Unlike acrylic or watercolour, oil paints doesn’t dry with water evaporating out of it, but instead through oxidation. Oil paintings can feel touch dry and possibly safe to handle after a few weeks, however, depending on the thickness of the paint layers, they often take much longer to fully dry. Most argue that oil paintings should be left to ‘breathe’, and that glass should be avoided.

A protective coating of varnish is key for oil paintings. As well as enhancing the colours, varnish prevents dirt from reaching the surface of the paint and damaging it. It also creates a barrier to prevent the removal of paint when cleaning.

Framing Artwork

Framing Acrylic and Mixed Media Works

Acrylic paint is dries differently to oil paint and this can affect how acrylic paintings are framed. Oil paintings dry to produce a very hard film created by the oxidized oil. Depending on how much the acrylic is diluted with water, the paint can soften in high heat, therefore, if an acrylic painting is kept in unstable temperatures where it heats and then contracts as it cools, it may be vulnerable to cracking.

Keeping paintings away from sources of heat, such as radiators, fires, or ovens, is very important. For some, concerns over the paint film softening is an argument for keeping acrylic paintings framed behind glass.

Mixed media works span across a variety of mediums, so consider what is appropriate for how the painting is composed. Works with three-dimensional characteristics are often left unframed, as are oil or acrylic paintings with heavy impasto. When framing these types of artwork, make sure to take into account any extra dimensions that the materials may be adding on.

Framing Artwork

Do All Artworks Need to be Framed?

Not every work of art needs to be framed. In many cases a frame isn’t necessary at all – some early twentieth-century painters disregarded frames completely. Leaving work unframed means that the viewer focuses solely on the artwork, and it draws attention to the artwork as an object.

Providing that the stretcher is solid and thick, paintings can be wired to hang without a frame. The same applies to painting panels, although they will need a sturdy support fixed to the back. A conventional frame might not suit all works, so don’t be afraid to try something different.

‘Gallery wrap’ is a method of stretching canvas so that the canvas wraps around the sides of the stretcher bar and is secured to the back, rather than the sides of those bars. This leaves the sides of the canvas smooth and free of visible staples or tacks, providing a clean look when the work is displayed without a frame. Artists often continue the painting around the sides, or paint the sides a complementary neutral.

Jackson’s Open Painting Prize 2019 Finalist’s Exhibition at the Affordable Art Fair Hampstead.

Protecting Framed Works

Artworks can be damaged if exposed to extreme changes such as humidity and heat. Mould can appear on canvases, paper, or even in paint itself if its frame expands and allows contact between the artwork and external climate. These adverse effects can also lead to pigments fading and colours becoming dull. Here are a few things to consider when hanging artworks:

  • Avoid hanging works over sources of heat such as a fireplace, heater, or oven. If you are planning on putting artworks in a room with a working fire, they should be framed behind glass to protect from smoke. Burning candles can also cause soot damage in some cases.
  • Certain pigments fade when exposed to direct sunlight. A shady wall is always preferable. Also avoid placing artworks too close to sources of light, unless they are LED.
  • Avoid hanging works on damp or recently plastered walls, especially if they are close to air vents. If the artwork is valuable or sentimental, avoid storing it in an attic/loft or basement.
  • You can gently dust artworks with a soft artist brush, but avoid using a cloth. This can damage or scratch the surface of the paint. Don’t use water or household cleaning products – if the artwork really needs cleaning, take it to a professional restorer.
Richard, our Framing Production Manager

Richard, our Framing Production Manager.


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