Watercolor Painting Framing Tips

Since my job is to choose frames for paintings on display at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, I’ve seen all varieties of framing dos and don’ts. As you search for the perfect frame, here are some questions to ask yourself to help you get the job done right:

Are the frame-to-painting proportions pleasing?
A frame can be too large or too small. A too-small frame doesn’t give the painting the importance it deserves—this effect is as bad as the overpowering effect of an oversize frame. This is especially true if the watercolor is matted.

Choose a frame that’s deep enough to hold the painting with mat and glazing. This seems obvious, but some frames aren’t built to hold a mat and glazing.

Don’t be shy about giving the mat some breathing room. A 16 x 20-inch painting needs at least a three- to four-inch mat. Often, an oversized mat can help set off a small piece (see the example at right, top).

Choose a frame that complements the size of the piece after it’s matted. If you’ve added a four-inch mat to a 16 x 20-inch watercolor, your new dimensions are 24- x 28-inches. For these dimensions, a one to two-inch wide frame would look fine. Any wider may look overpowering.

Your eye can usually tell if your painting is out of proportion to the frame. But if you’re in doubt, you can always check it with the “one-third method,” a commonly used technique for determining the correct frame-to-painting proportions. The premise: Your frame shouldn’t take up more than one third as much area as the surface area of your painting. For example, if your painting is 16 x 20-inches, the surface area is 320 square inches. The frame, therefore, shouldn’t be more than 170 square inches or between two and three inches wide.

Does the style of the frame complement the painting?
A common mistake I see is a “too loud” frame. This makes me, the viewer, confront the frame first, not what’s inside it. The painting should be the star. An example I see a lot in museums is impressionistic paintings in Louis XIV frames. The discord created when these ornate gold frames fight with the vibrant colors of an impressionistic painting reminds me of a singer singing a beautiful song off-key. While the frame may be beautiful in and of itself, its pairing with an impressionistic painting spoils the appearance of the piece.

The impressionist artists themselves chose white frames for their work. This framing combination makes the paintings sing harmoniously, but the look was very avant-garde in the 1860s. Many people felt white frames didn’t fit with their décor, so dealers reframed the paintings in the Louis XIV frames to sell the work. Of course the artists weren’t happy about this. As a compromise, some artists would use beat-up, paint-spattered Louis frames with hardly any gold to be found. The next time you go to a museum with a good collection of impressionistic paintings, look at the frames—I hope you’ll see a lot of white ones, or perhaps frames that have been painted by the artist as an extension of the painting . I’m sure you’ll notice that frames chosen by the artist fit much better than a gold Louis XIV frame.

Does the color of the frame complement the painting?
Should a frame be gilded (gold, silver or metal leaf), painted a color or left as natural wood? The answer isn’t easy because there really are no hard-and-fast rules. All these choices have merit—the question is when to choose what. Gold complements many images and there are hundreds of shades to choose from. Toning can make a gold frame look old, distressed or brand new. Gold generally looks great with portraits—if the colors in the portrait complement the shade of gold. Many portraits from the turn of the 19th century (photos retouched with either watercolor or charcoal) are right at home in natural wood or faux-finished frames painted to look like wood.

A silver frame complements a monotone piece, a photograph and most prints. But again, I emphasize, there are no hard-and-fast rules. If you gain anything from this article it is that personal taste rules.

What is the subject?
When selecting a frame for a museum piece, I often consider the origin of both the artist and the piece of work. Since most of you are framing your own works, the artist’s origins will probably be 20th-century (or 21st), North America. But because many of you travel to paint, the origin of the subject matter may come into play when you’re selecting a frame. For example, a painting of the Italian countryside would look completely appropriate in an ornate Italian-style frame—possibly gilded with articulated corners (see the detail at right, bottom). For a still life or landscape painted in the Netherlands, a dark ripple molding would look fine.

American three-part Victorian frames lend themselves gracefully to the conversion from oil painting to watercolor. They provide a dramatic and rich depth to the work inside the frame, and they’re usually large enough to accommodate a nice size mat.

Of course, some watercolors will only look correct to the eye in a contemporary frame, which you can find at your local frame shop.

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Matting Matters
If you go to a museum and look at the prints and works on paper, you’ll notice one thing: the absence of strong color in the mat. Most curators feel a colorful mat is a distraction to the art, and therefore go with cream, antique white or very soft neutral white shades—thinking these neutral choices make the image in the frame look more important. This is OK sometimes, but I also like color. Color can work very nicely with a watercolor. I’ve matted watercolors with colored mats for people (and myself) with beautiful results. My advice is to choose color wisely. Go for tones that are either dominant in the image, or that draw out subtle colors in the piece—a color that seems to bring it all together. And keep in mind that stark white can be a killer if the white in the piece is not as stark as the mat color.

Most importantly, always use acid-free mats and acid-free backing. Your painting must be enclosed in an acid- free environment. I can’t stress this enough. In addition, make sure you use Japanese paper hinges and wheat starch paste to hinge your painting (attach it to the mat). This is the most archival method. If the framer tells you he uses linen hinges, tell him you would like the Japanese paper/wheat starch system. If he won’t or can’t do this, go somewhere else.

That Glazed Look
Whether to choose Plexiglas or real glass again depends on your situation. Both have advantages; both have drawbacks. Plexiglas scratches easily; however, it’s very lightweight. Glass can be cleaned with regular glass cleaning fluids, but glass is heavy. Plexiglas can’t be cleaned with glass cleaning products. The weight of real glass is something to consider on larger pieces. No matter which choice you make be sure to choose glazing which blocks out the harmful UV rays—both glass and Plexiglas come in varieties that offer this benefit.

The bottom line: Become as knowledgeable about archival methods of protecting works of art on paper as you are of choosing the perfect frame. If you have put your time and emotion into producing a beautiful work of art, put the same energy into securing its future.

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Jean Easter is the Frame Specialist at the Indianapolis Museum of Art and has her own business, Easter Conservation Services in Indianapolis, where she does frame conservation as well as matting and framing. She’s a Professional Associate of AIC, a member of the Society of Gilders and is an Arts Council of Indianapolis Creative Renewal Arts Fellow.  This past summer she studied with the frame conservator and frame curator at the National Portrait Gallery in London, England.

This article originally appeared in the Autumn 2000 issue of Watercolor Artist.

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