The Importance of a Proper Frame

Please do not underestimate the importance of a proper frame for your painting or fine print. Framing is an important design decision that can either enhance or diminish your art viewing experience. The framing decisions you make will not only affect the look of the artwork and the environment into which it will be placed, but its long-term well being as well.
This image shows the importance of a proper frame.
Without a frame to keep this image contained, the compositional elements that make up this image seem to fly out of the picture plane.
This is showing how a frame can make a subject much clearer.
This frame visually refocuses the viewer’s attention to the sunflowers, that make up the central part of the composition, making the painting feel far less chaotic.

How the artwork will be used can inform frame choice. If it is framed for a collection or museum – because it will most likely be moved from place to place over time – the most important consideration is that the frame compliments, enhances and protects the artwork. If it is to be installed in a commercial setting where it is most likely permanently placed, in addition to helping to enhance and protect the artwork, it needs to fit in with the overall design of the room.

Artworks are framed to the work, not the space.
Installation of Modernist paintings at the Philadelphia Museum. Because these works will be moved to different locations over time, each frame is designed to fit the painting rather than the specific space.
Artworks framed to fit the space, along with the artwork.
These three paintings in a corporate collection are framed to fit the art as well as the space because they will not be moved like they would in a private or museum collection.

For your artwork to have the best chance of retaining its value, it is best to be sure that the frame shop you have chosen practices archival framing techniques. Essentially, Archival or Conservation framing means that anything used in the framing of an artwork will not damage the artwork over the long term and will, in most cases, help to protect it. This is most important with works on paper.

This image shows proper conservation framing technique.
This Georgian Bay Art Conservation exploded view shows proper archival framing of an artwork on paper. This would be the standard suggested method of framing a cherished work on paper.

How to find a good Framer?

If you are working with a designer, they will most likely have several framers they regularly work with to recommend for your specific need. If you are not working with a designer, and you feel uncomfortable making this type of decision yourself, a good frame shop will normally have an experienced person on staff who can assist you in making good framing decisions.

One of the best ways to find a good framer is to contact several art galleries around your area that do not have framing departments and ask them who the best conservation framers are in the area. Although conservation framing is more expensive, the extra expense will pay off down the road.

Image of a frame shop.
You will not know if you have found a frame shop that uses archival materials unless you ask the right questions.  The first question you ask should be, “Do you provide framing to the most current archival standards?”

How to help the framer help you get the most suitable frame?

For a framer to be most effective at suggesting proper frame designs for your artwork, it is best to not only take the artwork to the meeting, but to also take:

• Photos of the entire room in which the artwork will reside
• Measurements of the wall onto which the artwork is to be hung
• Information and visuals on how the artwork will be lit.

And if the artwork is to be hung over a sofa, a chest, or a fireplace mantle:

• Be sure to provide the height of the object the artwork is to be placed above
• Provide the height of the wall above the object to the ceiling molding above.

Following are a few things you may want to avoid or at least think about when choosing a frame for your artwork. I was going to call this section “Framing Don’ts” but as with just about every rule in this world, there are always exceptions.


Over-framing can relate to the disproportionately large size of a frame to the artwork it surrounds, or the inappropriate ornateness or finish of the frame related to the period, style, and subject of the artwork. Sometimes, to make a small artwork appear more significant looking, a much larger frame (or mat-and-frame combination) is employed, sometimes to the point of totally overpowering the artwork. I have seen this technique used often on late impressions of Rembrandt etchings. To make them more important looking, a small etching is surrounded by a complex frame, often 10 to 20 times the size of the actual etching.

Two images showing frames that overpower what is in them.
Although the frame above and below are both beautiful frames, both overpower and upstage the artworks themselves and I would consider both of these works to be over-framed. The one above might have worked if the gold had been toned down and not so shiny. The bright gold and frenetic ornamentation makes the artwork inside seem insignificant and hard to look at. The artwork below works well in coloration with the portrait within, but again, its design is so frenetic, the eye is drawn away from the painting. A frame should never take away from an artwork, it should only compliment it.

Same painting as above but in an appropriate frame.
Here is the same portrait as above in an appropriate period frame. It beautifully compliments the painting and after seeing it, you can’t imagine another frame could be better for the painting.


Under-framing is when an artwork is not provided the frame it deserves. For financial and sometimes practical reasons, artists who paint in oil and acrylic on canvas will either not frame or put strip molding around the artwork to protect the artwork’s edges, assuming that the person who buys the painting will frame the work to their own specifications. Some galleries will not frame any of the work they have for sale of this type for that same reason.

These two images show how a simple frame can improve an artworks overall appearance.
The late Constructivist work, pictured above, would not look right on most walls without something around it to contain its chaotic line work. In this case, under-framed is no frame at all. Even a thin strip molding or a simple wood float, as seen below, will contain the line work and improve its overall appearance.

The 50/50 rule

This rule pertains to the width of two-part frame assemblies, that is, a liner to its frame or a mat to its frame. The rule states that both these elements should never be perceptively the same width. So, the mat width on a fine print should never be, or look, the same width as the frame that surrounds it. If the mat was there first and it is decided that it is to be kept, the width of the frame that is chosen for the work needs to be significantly smaller or larger to feel right.

Image showing the problem with a 50/50 proportion.
This is a good example of why the 50/50 rule is important. Proportionally, the top and bottom relationship of the frame to the mat is on the verge of being to close but is still acceptable, where the left and right relationships appear the same and do not look right. The fact that the mat sizes of the top and the side are different might indicate that the frame was being reused. Normally the mat proportions would be the same all around or a little greater at the bottom. When there is more space at the bottom than the rest of the mat, it is said that the mat is “weighted at the bottom.”
This image shows a much more pleasing proportion than the 50/50 proportion seen in the first image.
In this example, the artwork is floated on the frames back mat creating a visual empty space between the artwork and the frame. It shows a pleasing proportion between the artwork, the mat space, and the wide frame. Like above, this is an example of an artwork being used in a preexisting frame evidenced by the larger spaces at the top and bottom than at the left and right of the artwork.
This image shows a better solution than the 50/50 proportion between the mat and the artwork.
Here is the most common proper proportion for a matted work on paper. The frame is substantial enough to support the frame assembly and there is an amount of space between the artwork and the frame that makes the artwork look significant. If you doubled the amount of mat space all around, it would appear less significant and over-framed.


In most cases, like clothes, it is usually appropriate to dress an artwork to fit the room in which it is to be sited. This means the room will often dictate the type of frames that will be appropriate to choose for that space. It is normally inappropriate to put a driftwood frame above a Louis XV gilded commode in a period room.

These images show formal and informal rooms and how the artworks would look if interchanged.
If one is not a collector and the artworks are to remain in the room they are in for an extended period, the frames on the artworks should feel comfortable in the space. Above is a very formal living room and below is a very informal one. As you can see, the frames on the paintings would feel totally out of place if they were switched around.

Keep original frames

Frame styles change with the fashion and period in which the artwork was created. Sometimes the original frame on an artwork does not fit a contemporary space so it is decided that the frame needs to be changed. Separating a period frame from an older artwork can actually reduce the value of the artwork. If it is decided a change of frame is necessary, it is wise to store the original frame so it can be reused later.

There is a lady who owns a major American modernist painting for which the artist personally made and decorated the frame. She personally disliked the frame, so she had the painting re-framed to suit her home and the original is stored at a local art warehouse. The painting is loaned out to museum shows with great regularity and when it is, the art movers take the painting to the warehouse, change out the frame to the artist’s original frame, and send it out to the museum. When it returns, the process is reversed, and the painting is returned to her in the frame she prefers. If she had discarded the frame, she would have thrown away many thousands of dollars in value.

Image showing an artwork with an artist made frame.
This is an example of a frame that the artist made specifically for this painting. Although it might not fit the taste of the person who owns the painting, it would be a costly mistake to re-frame the artwork and to not keep the original as it would actually devalue the artwork.


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For comments about this blog or suggestions for a future post, contact Kevin at [email protected].

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