The art and craft of framing fine art – Part 1

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Deborah Hill is a master framer. In this blog post she shares with us her expert knowledge regarding frame selection, the “ideal” frame, craftsmanship, client/framer relationships, and how to avoid making regrettable choices.  (Click images to enlarge)


Back in the day, that is, the day of the ancient Egyptians, when painting on tomb walls was the “in” thing, someone decided it would be cool to separate those individual scenes with stylized geometric patterns, lotus flowers, and palm leaf designed panels.When the Greeks came along, they developed an architectural style which gave us the acanthus leaf, the Greek key, and the lambs tongue. Following the Greeks, the Roman designs evolved from bordered frescos and mosaics, with highly exaggerated acanthus leaves, cherubs and animals, to free standing panel paintings. The first “frames” were actually panels in which the painting area had been hollowed out, giving a raised “frame rim” to the outside edge of the panel. Later, these raised rims were built from separate pieces of wood…bringing strength and protection to the panel painting itself.

So thanks to the Egyptians and the many other important historical periods of design that followed, we are where we are today. We have all of them to thank for the idea that a painting even needs a frame…and what about all the anxiety we experience when facing the prospect of framing a piece of fine art? Am I alone here? I think not.

One person who thrives in this challenging environment of frame design and helping clients with their frame choices is, Deborah Hill. She is a master framer extraordinaire…only one of seventy-one in the entire world. She was awarded Master Certified Picture Framer (MCPF) status in 1997, when she was in the first group of twelve framers taking the exam. Eight passed, she was one of them.

Deborah Hill


Deborah, how did you get into framing and what makes the profession so appealing to you?   At the age of 14, I was in the home of the local art gallery owner sorting the mailing list for the upcoming school art show. I observed that they lived in a modern home, had 300 pictures hanging in the living room and had white shag carpet that was clean!  From these observations I concluded that being in the art business would be a great job! In high school, I enrolled in a vocational work study program, and began learning the craft of picture framing at the same gallery! It was the beginning of my lifelong career as a framer. The appeal of framing is, you are framing something new everyday, meeting interesting people, and traveling to different locations. You get to see some amazing homes where your framing will be hung. Every framing project is unique and has its own challenges. It is very interesting and exciting to watch a client’s reaction when they see the finished piece for the first time. It is an immediate feeling of satisfaction and happiness, knowing you helped make their framing experience enjoyable! Framers, make people happy!

How would you define art?   Art is the creation of something tangible that the artists have envisioned in their mind.

“Lisa’s Cousin” by Cesar Santos. The client wanted to match the “Mona Lisa’s” current frame, which is a 7″ wide Italian frame. Hill kept the Italian style but reduced the size, keeping the project within the look and budget the client needed.


Art or Craft

Is frame making a craft or an art?   Both! It is a craft in that you are required to have special skills, especially manual skills. These skills range from cutting multiple types of material on several different pieces of equipment, be it a table saw, mitre saw or a mat cutter; also knowing the proper and safe way to use a multitude of power tools and a variety of specialty hand tools; and that is just for the basic framing job!  Specialty jobs, like multi-angle frames, custom finishes and 22kt gold all have their own set of tools and skills needed to produce a quality product!

It is also Art. You can have all these skills but if you cannot visualize how to improve the aesthetic quality of a piece of art you are framing, all can be lost. By having a good sense of color, knowing different periods of historic design, thinking outside the box, studying frames in general, all help in choosing the correct frame for a work of art. You can choose the wrong frame and ruin a beautiful work of art, just as you can choose the right frame and improve a not so beautiful piece.

The client wanted to honor her Grandfather’s military service. The Grandfather had photographed the Nose Art of B-29 aircraft, in order to document the planes he had repaired. Hill custom designed and milled the frame profile, giving it a fuselage shape and finish, even down to the rivets made out of nails! Some of the photos were magnified, using magnifying sheets, so that the Nose Art details could be seen.


You are a Master framer. What does that mean and what are the qualifications?  Being a Master framer still gets me taking out the trash! In 1986 the framing industry’s trade organization, the Professional Picture Framers Association (PPFA) began the Certified Picture Framer Certification (CPF). This is a 150 question multiple choice exam taken in 3 hours, focusing on skill and knowledge of the framer. In 1997, the Master Certified Picture Framer (MCPF) exam was created. The MCPF exam emphasis is on preservation framing of various media. The exam consists of framing four items: paper, canvas, textile, and an object. The judges deconstruct your framed pieces, judging on conservation practices. Then, in front of the judges, you take a hands on, 90 minute framing exam, where you are given “something” to frame! You must complete and pass both exams. The MCPF designation is the highest and most prestigious professional credential in the International framing industry.


In 1997, I was in the first group of twelve framers taking the exam, eight-passed, two being from Texas. (I was one of them.) Since then seventy-one people internationally have become Master Framers.


In the hands of a master

Is there a noticeable difference between a frame built by a master framer and one built by the typical frame shop?   Yes, as a master framer I have invested time, money, and energy into my craft, resulting in an attitude that “good enough” is not good enough. A Master framer pays close attention to the subtle details during the design process, and during the manufacturing of the frame. The Master framer uses  quality products, applies conservation methods, and incorporates techniques in finishing that have been around for generations.

What inherent talents are needed to be a good frame maker?   LISTEN, LISTEN, LISTEN! A good frame maker needs the ability to hear and understand the framing needs of the client. Also, you need a genuine desire to help people, visualize an idea, create something of beauty, have good manual skills, want to learn more about the art, have an eye for color and design, and want to push the design to the next level.

How much of your job is intellectual versus intuitive/emotional?   The intellectual part is to know the rules and guidelines, to “do no harm” in the proper conservation and preservation measures used in framing a painting. The intuitive/emotional part is great for designing. When a client first presents the art to me, I have an emotional reaction to it, be it excited, feeling challenged or even bored.  I instantly take in size, colors, scale, and subject matter. I “listen” to all of that, apply years of knowledge and experience, and ask the client if they have any ideas. I take this information and start picking out frames. I will first go to what I feel is best for the painting.

As a frame maker, what is your responsibility to the customer and the artist?   My first responsibility is to the art. DO NO HARM! My responsibilities to the client are very similar to the artists. I don’t find myself differentiating between the two. To the client or artist I may have to explain and educate in order to help solve their framing wishes. My responsibility is to respect the work through proper conservation…and to enhance the work by selecting the proper period, profile, proportion and finish for the frame.

Why frame art?   We framers need the work! A carefully selected and skillfully made frame protects and enhances the painting it surrounds. A frame protects the painting and edges. The frame protects the paintings that are being transported, provides a substrate to install hardware for hanging on the wall and separation from the environment in which it hangs…and what is believed to be the most common purpose, to enhance the painting.


Making important decisions

Is it important for you to have the original painting in hand before creating a frame design?   Yes! You can get a better feel for the size, the colors and the tones. Sometimes you think a frame will be perfect and then when put with the painting it doesn’t work at all. You then may discover that another frame you were sure would not work, does!  It helps having the actual painting to see the scale of the details and the subtle tones within the painting.

“Study: Arrangement in Umber” by Justin Hess. The simple, clean profile complements the shapes and lines in the painting. The dark finish, with the soft waxed patina, draws the viewer’s eyes to the light edges in the painting.


What do you look for in a painting that helps you decide what molding, size, and finish to select?   The first things to consider are the location or area depicted in the painting, the scale of the work, the details and the colors. Then you begin breaking all those areas down into finer and finer details. Is the painting bold, bright, hard edged? Then a large scale frame with strong color could work. Is it a small pastel colored, floral painting? Then a smaller, more delicately detailed frame in a warm lighter gold tone would look best. Remember, each painting brings its own characteristics to the framing counter. Thus its frame must in turn compliment, enhance and bring out the painting for which it is made. This can be very challenging in that several frame styles may work, or only a few. Having a knowledge of historical frame styles has been a great help in determining what frame will look best. I also have a few gilder friends, “the Big Boys”, Adair, Horowitz and Munn, that I call for help or confirmation.

Does the style and subject of a painting determine frame choice?   It can, so can the environment in which it will hang. And last, but not least, the framing wishes of the client.


Learning from history

Are there some basic rules you follow that guide your decisions…when to use a particular style and size molding, liners, etc?   It is interesting to know that historical frames made in different areas of the world have their own qualities and characteristics. Italian frames have Scrafitto, the scratching of decorative designs through a painted panel revealing the underlying gold. Spanish frames have large sculptural carvings, corner ornamentation and color. Both Italian and Spanish frames have dark finishes due to the dark colored clays used in their gilding! French frames that most people know are the result of the “Louis” kings. These frames are  highly  decorative, Baroque in details, corner cartouches and center medallions. More is better!  Dutch frames are a soft black and used a tortoise shell as a finish. As the Dutch people turned more Protestant, decorative styles became simpler and more subdued. Tortoise shell was readily available then, but highly illegal now! The Hudson River school frames were created for the grand American landscapes painted by Church, Bierstadt and Durand. These frames have nature inspired compo ornamentation in the corners. Also the use of the large wide ogee and cove shapes help draw the eye into the grand landscape paintings they surround. There are no hard rules, but guidelines.

When should one use a wide molding versus a narrow one?   This depends on the look you want. A small 5”x7” painting can have a 4” wide frame and look fabulous as long as the profile, color and details all work with the art. You can put a thin metal or a floater on a large piece if you want a more modern, clean look. Are you trying to “fill the space with a small painting? Are you squeezing a big painting in?

What other factors guide your frame selection decisions  Gut reaction and first thoughts! I have been doing this for a “few” years and have acquired knowledge as to what will probably look best. You can look at things like-does the painting have a softer feel, then a more feminine style frame may work. Are there lots of buildings with squares and rectangular shapes, then a blocky frame profile may work. Massive paintings can carry a massive frame but too small of a frame can look flimsy and cheap. To juxtapose a modern painting in a Louis 13th frame may work or putting a traditional landscape in a simple, modern profile can work. Happily the options are endless!

“The Tour de Frame Wall” shows several classic French frames.

How do you judge what finish works with a particular painting?   You look at the colors – are they bright and clean? Are they grayed and cold? Are they soft and warm? Just because the painting is a winter snow scene doesn’t mean one should go for the silver finishes. You can try a gold, or a soft warm silvery gold finish, or even wood. When selecting the frame at the framers, they have a wall of corner samples to choose from. It’s FREE to look! Try frames that are the “typical first choices” and then think outside the box! When working with clients, I love pulling frame samples off the wall that are “crazy, over the top, probably not going to work” and laying them on the paintings! Sometimes it can be “scary” and others times… absolutely perfect!

A few of the many profiles of linen liners. From these, custom widths and profiles can be cut/manufactured to size.

Linen liners use to be all the rage but their current use has greatly diminished.  What brought about that change?   Linen liners came into use during the 1950’s. I believe that the thought has been “any self respecting painting must be in a linen liner with a gold fillet!” Decor and tastes change! Today’s liners aren’t your Grandmothers 1” liner with a gold fillet and the gaudy gold frame! Today’s linen liners can be ¼” to 8” wide with a beveled edge or a soft rounded edge. The liner profiles can be flat, scooped, inlayed or wedged. The color choices for linen are no longer just white! The linen liners used today lean to the modern feel, but the traditional ones are still used and have a more updated feel.


Next week Hill will discuss: working with clients, determining frame quality, prices, locating a good framer…and more.


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