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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 13, No. 9

More Than What Meets the Eye: The Art of Custom Framing

by Kristine Berey / June 4, 2008

The urge to preserve and protect precious images and objects is an ancient one, with the earliest examples of picture frames dating back to Roman times. “The framing of artwork goes back almost four millennia, when architectural borders enclosed areas reserved for paintings or mosaics on monuments and tombs,” says Jacqueline Hébert-Stoneberger, one of the owners of the Beaux Arts des Amériques art gallery. “As practical needs changed, frames became decorative boundaries which served to protect and emphasize a work of art.”

It was in the Renaissance, with the rise of oil painting, that the craft of framing evolved along with the art it was meant to protect. As society and painting styles varied through the centuries, frames also reflected the spirit of their time.

In the first half of the 20th Century, with the rise of photography, mass production, and the abstract expressionism of the 60’s – when artists presented their work unframed for stylistic and financial reasons – framing became less popular. “In more recent times, as manufactured frame styles became more varied, frames have enjoyed somewhat of a renaissance,” Hébert-Stoneberger says.

The greater the value of an artwork, the more it requires a professionally made frame. But only imagination limits what people want to preserve, says Lee Ann Matthews-Hemsworth, of Art Rebel. “We recently created a shadow-box for three children’s bedrooms,” Matthews-Hemsworth said. The client, the children’s mother, wanted to include birth announcements, articles of clothing and other objects of sentimental value. Matthews-Hemsworth has incorporated hockey sweaters, trophies, keys and even a cell phone into shadowboxes, frames designed to display three-dimensional objects without casting a shadow over them. “Anything goes into a shadow box,” Matthews-Hemsworth says.

The role of the frame is to draw the viewer’s attention to the artwork, says Judy Meade, of Art-en-Ciel. “Once it gets you to look at the picture it has to direct you inwards into the work.” When framing is well done, there is no danger that it will overpower the painting, Meade says. “The biggest mistake people make is under-framing or choosing a mat that is too small. The mat gives you the space you need in which to see the painting.”

Ultimately, choosing a frame or mat is an intuitive decision, Meade says. “Over-framing happens when you don’t respect the art. If you take your cue from the artist, you can’t go wrong.”

Framers can be compared to piano tuners, who have a love of music and a love of the piano and who frequently play the instrument, but who are not professional musicians.

Reg van Nes, of Gemst art gallery, believes that a framer must have an artist’s instincts. “Framing is an art because we are enhancing art in the style the artist intended while bringing into play other arts, like design and decorating, all in keeping with the client’s personal esthetic.” There are intuitive judgments to make, van Nes says. “You try to match the lines and style of the frame with the artwork. It’s not enough to know whether a painting is figurative; it could be medieval, contemporary, futuristic – the framing must be compatible with the spirit of the work.”

Like Meade, van Nes believes that mats play a fundamental role in the perception of an image. “A mat gives you space between the frame and the wall so you can appreciate your artwork without interference.”

A common mistake is to request frames that match the furniture. Those clients are gently told: “Just because your piano is black lacquer, your picture frames don’t have to be black lacquer.” At the same time, it’s important to consider the environment where the painting will be displayed, van Nes says. “A painting over a couch should present a whole with the furniture. People often hang artwork too high, treating the painting as a completely separate thing from the room. If it’s in a dining room, where people are sitting down, the artwork should be hung lower so it can be enjoyed. It is part of a still life that you are creating.”

Jacqueline Martin is an artist and director of La Guilde Graphique, an art gallery exclusively devoted to original works on paper. She sees framing as a mixed blessing. “Original prints must be seen directly. Collectors usually keep them in drawers in a cabinet meant for that purpose. But framing is necessary to display the art.” Martin says the right setting provides a context that can transform the merely beautiful into “a magnificent work of art. When you see something framed you understand it better.”

Framing may be an art but it is also a science. A good framer must know his chemistry, especially when dealing with art that also represents a serious investment. John Campbell is a third-generation framer at Campbell Gallery, where restoration is also done. “When I was a kid and watched my father working, he was using hundreds of different products. Now I can choose from thousands, and the quality of the products is very high.”

The most important thing in framing, Campbell says, is that anything that touches the work must be chemically neutral. “For longevity, prints and works on paper need glass, the backing board must be cotton based, all the paper used acid free. I don’t carry non museum quality mat boards anymore; what’s inside is what’s outside.” Depending on what a client wants to spend, he can choose regular glass, Plexiglass or special non-reflective glass that blocks UV rays.

Sometimes clients resist the concept of covering a photograph with glass but Campbell thinks it’s necessary. “People love to touch art and it’s the last thing you want them to do.”

Pleasing clients is sometimes challenging but always rewarding, Campbell says, especially when they call and tell him what a difference their frame made. “They tell me people come to their home and say ‘Wow! I never noticed that painting before!”

(c) La Scena Musicale