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Designing Your Picture Framing

Wait. Wait just one minute. Don’t go out and buy that stuff. You’d be making a mistake. Resist the urge. Sit down and take a look at what you’re framing. That’s what it’s all about. The art of picture framing is about the framing of art, so that’s where it starts—not with the frame!

One of the most common errors novice framers make is to buy the frame before they’ve done their planning, thinking that framing is a little like baking a cake: gather the ingredients, then follow a list of instructions. It’s not. Every frame job is unique and has to be planned for individually, which means making decisions that will guide how you present a specific piece of artwork. You might look at the composition without regard to anything else, but often proper designing means more than just focusing on the artwork.

It can, in addition, mean making the framed artwork fit into a particular setting. And this dual obligation helps narrow the parameters by which design decisions are made—which is a good thing. You will find that anything you do to narrow your design decisions makes them easier.

Reading the Artwork

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Figure A-1: The dominant value of this artwork consists primarily of shades, so the framing should also consist primarily of shades

There are over three hundred color choices in matboard alone. Add to that an almost limitless variety of frames and the potential combinations are virtually endless. Where do you start? Well, a good place is with the composition itself. First, you will want to “read” the artwork. What is its dominant color value? What is its dominant temperature? How would you characterize its style?

A color’s value is where it falls on the whiteto- black scale. When it falls more towards white, it’s a tint; when it falls more towards black, it’s a shade. In between are tones. Some artwork is composed primarily of tints, like scientific botanicals, pastel prints and watercolors. Other artwork is composed primarily of shades like deep-hued sunsets or dark and brooding expressions rendered in oils. Often it is possible to look at a given artwork and detect its dominant value. When selecting colors for your framed presentation you will want to select colors that share the composition’s dominant value (Figure A-1).

A composition’s temperature is the predominance in the piece of either warm or cool colors. Warm colors are oranges, reds, yellows, browns, golds—the colors of autumn. Cool colors are violets, blues, greens, pinks—the colors of spring.

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Figure A-2: Honoring the dominant temperature of the artwork means letting cool colors enhance a cool composition.

Naturally, the composition will have a mix of colors, but you will be looking for the temperature that predominates. When selecting colors for your framed presentation you will want to select colors that share the artwork’s dominant temperature (Figure A-2).

In addition to value and temperature you will want to consider the style of the composition. Is it Contemporary? Classical? Rustic? Pastoral? Modern? Does it strike you as a slice of Americana or is it richly ethnic? Does it evoke bright, positive, upbeat feelings, or dark and brooding ones?

The question of style is particularly relevant to the selection of a frame. The contoured and finished length of wood that will be your frame is referred to as a moulding. Highly ornamented frame mouldings do justice to Classical artwork. Streamlined mouldings in solid colors best enhance compositions with a Modern feel. Rustic or pastoral compositions are complemented by wood mouldings—oak or maple, even barnwood.

Contemporary artwork is enhanced by flat or box mouldings. Selecting a frame moulding that shares the style of the artwork is a key ingredient to effective presentation and is a major part of “reading” the artwork (Figure A-3).

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Figure A-3: The question of style is particularly relevant to the selection of a frame.

But what if your reading of the artwork is different than that of someone else?

Not to worry. The way you read the artwork is uniquely yours. You must have the courage and confidence to go forward with your interpretation.

At the end of the day the framing of art is an art itself. At some point the framer’s interpretation of the art’s message and purpose must come into play, and it’s unlikely that any two framers will interpret a composition exactly the same. But that doesn’t mean that one or the other is wrong, just that each have a different set of parameters when it comes to evaluating the art’s meaning.

Designing well means, first, defining your parameters for a given piece of artwork, and then following the parameters you’ve laid out. Picture framing is not following a pre-set recipe; it’s like creating a recipe yourself.

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