Framing Artwork: 101

written by Rebekah Jacob.

Don't underestimate the frame. Trust me on this. Think about it: You invest in a work of art because you love it, value it, wish to protect it, and enjoy displaying it. Therefore, the frame is the key component to protecting and presenting it. With that in mind, here are the tips and guidelines I suggest to art collectors.

First, a little context: You could argue that frames achieved their design height in 18th-century France. King Louis XV was aptly dubbed the “Sun God” for his obsession with gold. He hired only the best craftsmen to design, build, and ultimately gild exquisite frames for the portraits, mirrors, and fine paintings adorning the walls of his palace, Versailles. 

This European trend of high-end, well-designed “fancy frames” crossed the Atlantic and influenced wealthy New Englanders and Charlestonians in their quest to present rare paintings in their elegant homes. Some of Charleston’s most exquisite gold-leaf frames can be seen at the Gibbes Museum, including private collections elsewhere in Holy City.

As Charleston progressed, so did its art and its frame aesthetic. In a revolt against traditional portraiture and sentimental, swampy landscapes, 20th-century modernists like William Halsey and Manning Williams applied a more simplified framing architecture to their work. William Halsey, for example, took one-inch strips of plywood (often found in the mill waste bin) and often painted the frames with a distinctive color from the painting: reds, greens, blues, and black.

As the burgeoning art market continues to grow and diversify in Charleston, art galleries do more consulting on framing styles. But before you get to this stage, do a little prep work. I talked with two of my favorite framers in town to offer these gallery-level tips, guidelines, and trends for framing your artwork in the very best ways:

#1: Invest wisely. Create a budget proportionate to the artwork, and do the math up front. Basic frames cost about $10-$13 per foot, yet more exotic woods, metals, and gold-leafed materials cost between $45 and $110 per foot, or more. Be sure to invest in UV protective glass or plexiglass to filter harmful sunlight; otherwise, the art may fade. If you frame your art well the first time, and preserve the work with the proper filters, this will prevent you from having to invest in framing again down the road.

#2: Have your art professionally appraised. Unless you know precisely what it is worth, it is difficult to budget for framing. Then, invest a day or an evening visiting an art museum and a few fine art galleries. Take notice of how their frames look on their walls, which are usually in a setting similar to a home or office. A frame shop can be a confusing place to begin the process, simply because their walls are covered in thousands of framing samples. 

#3: Use a reputable frame shop. (We love Havens Fine Framing in Mt. Pleasant) Ask gallery owners and fellow collectors for recommendations. You're looking for shops that handle, store, and secure artwork properly. And if something unlucky should happen, say during shipping, their business insurance is sure to cover the damage.  

#4: Select a frame that complements your home's interior, your life, or your workplace. When selecting a frame, how it interacts and works with the art must work in your life or profession. For example, a white mat and black frame on a black and white photograph may be visually harsh for the room. Alternative finishes include natural wood, white wood, or even a dark walnut, maple or acacia. Consider the colors of your wall, your flooring, perhaps the upholstery of your favorite furniture, and especially how lighting affects these colors during different times of the day or night.

Frame shops have infinite samples of frames and matting you can sample. Ask if you can borrow or purchase samples to take home or try out in the actual room and wall you plan to display the art. Remember to look at the frame in various lighting before taking your art back to the frame shop for a final decision.  

#5: Add value. As I explain to RJG appraisal clients, once artwork is framed attractively and properly, its value may increase significantly for two reasons: First, constant reframing can damage or decrease the value of your artwork, simply from excessive wear and tear. Second, because expert filtering safeguards your artwork, it extends the life of the piece. Akin to fine automobiles, jewelry, even real estate, that which is built to last is certainly more valuable. Never "nickel and dime" the framing process. And frame it so you love living with the art work on a daily basis.