The art and craft of framing fine art – Part 2

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In this two-part series, master framer, Deborah Hill, shares valuable information regarding frame selection, the “ideal” frame, craftsmanship, client/framer relationships, and how to avoid making regrettable choices.

If you are like me, selecting a frame for a painting is not one of your favorite things to do. I’m happy to paint the painting…and I have a certain sense of confidence when doing so, but selecting a frame that perfectly enhances the painting…forget it! One might say, “You’re an artist, you work with color harmonies all day long…and you feel inadequate when it comes to framing your own work?” Yep!

Framing is like landscaping around the house. It’s all about presentation, and we all know that presentation can make or break the deal; so, this interview with master framer, Deborah Hill is significant because it opens up the blinds somewhat and sheds more light on something many of us artists, and even collectors of art, struggle with.

So here’s Deborah Hill to help us…

Deborah Hill


Deborah, tell us what a plein air frame is, because they have sure become popular.   A “plein air” painting is done outside. Usually this style of painting is finished in a limited amount of time resulting in a loose, simplified and smaller sized painting. The typical “plein air” frame is usually gold or silver, about 3”wide and has minimal detail. Cassetta means “little box” in Italian, referring to the frame profile, having a wide flat panel and raised inner and outer edges. Painter and frame maker Hermann Dudley, returning from Europe, brought this design back to America. His adaptation of this design became known as the American Impressionist style. In time the Cassetta style transformed into the “plein air” frames of today!

All of these are Cassetta style frames, or “plein air” frames. A raised outer edge links with a flat panel that merges into a raised inner lip. A simple, clean, traditional look helps lead the eye into the painting.

Fillets are a very small moulding used to finish off the liner or mat edge. They come in a multitude of finishes and profiles.


How do you pronounce fillet?   This has long been debated. I believe you “fill-lay” a fish and cut a “fill-et”. The easier way, is to use the more technical term… “ that little wood thingy!”

Does it really come down to personal taste?   Yes, no, and maybe! It’s about the art, not the couch! Frame the painting for the painting! Your taste in art is probably not too different from the style of home, the clothes, and the car you drive. The color palettes are probably similar too; that is a basic guideline, but not always. You can have a historical home and hang Modern art in clean, slick frames, and it can work!

How can the uninformed determine whether a frame is of quality? Any advice for them when choosing a frame?   I am a traditionalist when it comes to frames. For frames that are manufactured from a distributor, cut to size and sent to the framer, ask if they are made of wood. Are the finishes consistent? Is the veneer real wood or paper? Are the high gloss lacquer finishes flawless? Does the composition gold look like 22kt gold or is it sprayed on paint. Ask to see the top of the line frames and then ask to see the sale bin frames…study the differences. Cheap frames will come back to haunt you…distracting from the art, possibly warping, and will just look cheap!

When buying hand made, closed corner frames, check to see if the finishes are consistent? Can you see the corner seams? Are the gold lay lines straight and the same width? Is compo being used, or are the details carved or cast? Are the sides finished nicely? Some of the great frame makers were very proud of their frames and sign them. Whistler signed his frames with a butterfly motif, Pendergast signed and dated his frames. I carve my hat signature, date and number on the frames reverse side!

“Our Lady of Guadalupe” is framed in an Italian Cassetta frame with a sgraffito panel, and a bead and sausage detail on the inner lip.

When buying ready-made closed corner frames, look to see that the corners are not cracked or cracking. This will only get worse over time.

The top corner sample is composition leaf, the bottom is 22kt gold. Composition leaf can appear to be flatter in color, while 22kt gold has depth, richness and luster.

The top frame is sprayed with paint, while the bottom one is 22kt gold. Note how the light strikes the frame, bringing out the depth and richness of the gold.


How are frame prices determined?   Each element of the frame package is determined separately. Does it have a gold fillet? How wide is the linen liner? How many stacked frames? What kind of finish, 22kt gold, or a simple sprayed finish? Glass, mats, mounting, labor and any custom work are all separate charges. Each frame is priced individually for the materials and work required. The price of a frame can be less, same as, and at times more than the purchase price of the art. I have a client whose children’s artwork is only framed in 22kt gold!

Does one get what they pay for when it comes to frames?   Yes, if you are dealing with a reputable framer who is using the best products and knows conservation materials and techniques needed, you are in good hands. Look for a framer offering a wide range of corner samples, from budget lines to 22kt gold. If you frame for the art, the painting may not need to be reframed again during its life time!

“Cross the Abandoned Town” by Tong Lou, is a large painting and very strong in presentation. Hill chose a wide reverse scoop moulding, and details found in the patterns of the blanket were carved into the frame. A black, with red rubbed finish, worked best with the painting.

“Alamo Night” by Rod Chase, is a beautiful night scene. The Alamo stands strong and alone in the dark, no people, and no city lights. Hill chose a traditional profile…a dark brown finish with a heavily antiqued gold lip edge, giving age to the frame. Hill wants the viewer to go right to the center of the painting, allowing nothing to distract the eyes. The color choice and antiquing give the frame an aged appearance.


Is there such a thing as the ideal frame?  The ideal frame is the one that enhances the painting, and does not distract. The frame should draw your eye into the painting. If something about the frame distracts your eye back to the frame, remove the distraction. The framer needs to show the client how the correct frame brings out different things in the painting, which makes framing the next piece easier. When the client begins to understand the need for the correct profile, scale and finish of the frame, the cost becomes secondary.

“Antonio’s Fields” by Daud Akhriev, has beautiful rich colors and patterns. The painting has a wonderful flow, as seen in the patterns of the plowed fields. Hill chose a reverse scoop profile and a rich brown finish with a composition gold leaf lip. To continue the feeling of the flowing fields on the top edge of the frame, Hill carved a simple, rounded dart design on each of the side and bottom rails. The positioning of the carved areas was very important in keeping the viewer’s eyes moving within and around the painting. A very subtle difference, but very effective.


When should a painting not be framed?   Hardly ever! But, here is an exception.

On a trip to Santa Fe I walked into a gallery and there was a massive 15’ x 10’ triptych hanging on a large wall. The three paintings were gallery wrapped and the artist had done a beautiful job of painting the scene to continue around the edges. No matter where you stood in the gallery, the painting continued to flow perfectly from one panel to another. It was stunning! To have framed this piece would have ruined the flow of the painting and the artist’s intention. Usually when an artist paints around the sides, the intention is for the piece not to be framed. Floater frames are designed in an “L” shaped profile so when installed on a painting; the paintings sides are exposed yet still protected.

Should you save the “original frame” that the artist chose?   After World War II the thinking was – out with the antiques, in with the new slick modern look. In the 1970’s, the Museum of Modern Art in New York removed most of the period frames on the turn of the century paintings and dismissed them as “fluff.” The museum has spent years trying to replace them. In 1979, a seminar was given presenting the “frame” as an art form and placed it in a historical context. The picture frame had been disregarded and undervalued in its significant relationship to the painting. Today people are becoming aware of the frame’s importance. Each new owner of a painting will usually reframe a piece as a way of showing ownership. I would suggest they consider saving those old frames.

How do we go about finding a good framer?   Call me! First of all, ask if they are a current member of the Professional Picture Framers Association (PPFA). Do they have a Certified Picture Framer (CPF) or Master Certified Picture Framer (MCPF) on staff? Is the design area clean and organized? Ask how and where your art will be stored. Ask a friend, whose framing you admire, where it was done. Shop the store BEFORE you bring in your painting. Listen in on the framing consultation going on with another client. If you hear the words “never and always” being spoken by the framer, run! As you have noticed, my answers are not black and white. There are guidelines to framing a painting, not absolutes!

What’s the most enjoyable part of framing?   Making my clients cry with joy when they see their piece! The presentation and seeing their reaction, is the best! Hearing “this looks better than I thought!” is very nice.

I also enjoy the discovery part of an item I am framing. If I have book plates to frame, I’ll read the book. Doing work for the State Capitol I will go to the capitol to take in the environment. Framing family history, I want to hear the history of the family pieces being framed. Sometimes, I will get a feeling that a great design is within reach, and a little “mind roladexing” needs to happen, so the ideas can rise to the top, I will ask the client for a few days to let the ideas develop. This has resulted in amazing frames being created!

You’ve created some pretty spectacular frames. Do you have a favorite?  You want me to pick my favorite child! …My “Georgia O’Keefe’s Red Poppy Stamp Sheet” frame that won First Place and Popular Choice at the International PPFA Framing Competition was great! The shadowbox frames of our military and law enforcement officers are an honor for me to do. I had one project where a law enforcement officer had been killed in the line of duty. The wife wanted the officer’s items divided into a shadowbox for each son. I could not work on this piece during the day, it was too personal. In the evenings I would stay and work on it, praying for him and his family. Recently, a Joseph H. Sharp painting came in the shop, the client was thrilled we could get a replication of an original Sharp frame for the painting. When it was finished it looked like it could be the original frame! I have a long list of favorites!

Georgia O’Keefe’s Red Poppy Stamp Sheet


You’ve also won a lot of awards for your framing work, is there one you’re most proud of?   I have been blessed to win multiple framing awards in my career. The “Georgia O’Keefe’s Red Poppy Stamp Sheet” is right up there! My Mom was with me when I won, making it even better! In the design I used traditional materials, with a modern design. After winning I made five “limited edition” copies to sell, keeping the original for myself! It was a turning point in my framing career by confirming that I AM GOOD at what I do! I created my personal motto of “Strive for Excellence” which I continue to live by! The win made me want to learn even more. Looking up to the “big boys” of framing and striving to play in their field, I took the prize money and went to Santa Fe to learn the art of gilding from Marty Horowitz. Stepping up my knowledge and skills to the next level…22kt Gold! My whole viewpoint of framing changed to a more sophisticated level. For the last 18 years I have attended the West Coast Art and Frame Show, filling my days with framing classes taught by the best in the industry. A few years back I took a class on “How to Think More Creatively”. I became a crazed framer with all these new framing ideas and designs. I even created a frame and work of art out of 363 toilet paper rolls. Shortly after the creativity class, I took a photography class, which opened my eyes to…stop, look, and see beauty in the simplest things. This knowledge helps me to see the subtle details in a painting, thus making all the difference between a good frame and a great frame!

I imagine you work with all types of people. Are you pretty good adjusting to all those different temperaments?   Yes, for several years at the West Coast Art and Frame show I took a class on the Psychology of Selling. From the salesman side, it was very interesting to learn how each person has certain preferences when buying. For me it is a nice challenge to adjust my selling style to accommodate the client’s preferences. I have clients who will  ask a lot of questions, which challenges me. Most clients find framing very entertaining and truly enjoy the experience. Some clients dread it, thinking it’s difficult, but in the end realize it is not that hard, eventually coming to enjoy the experience. The veteran art collector knows the importance of the correct frame and has a pretty good idea which frame will work. I enjoy them all.

Describe the ideal client?   Tall, dark and handsome!

Do your clients generally give you a free hand or is there often a lot of compromise?  Both, I have established a trusting relationship with many of my clients. In the beginning, you help educate your clients on “the what and why” of framing. As time goes by it becomes more about the creative side, because the conservation side has become a given. Some clients have a definite idea what they want when they come in. We work together to get to the correct frame while fully respecting their ideas. Some clients come in with just a vague idea that we build on together, and some come in and just say ”do your magic!’ and leave.  I really enjoy when a client returns, sees their piece for the first time and says, “It is better than I thought it would be!”

What is the most common mistake people make when choosing a frame?  Thinking they can’t afford the right frame. I will show and explain the best frame for the piece, FIRST, then discuss the price. If the price needs to be adjusted, I start removing the “small stuff” until the client is comfortable with both the design and the price. It still amazes me when I do this how many times the client will approve the first frame. They realize the value in choosing the right frame for the piece and the money becomes less important. You can ruin a good painting with the wrong frame and make a bad painting good with the right frame!

Is it difficult for you to frame art you don’t like?   No, because I try to design something into the frame that enhances a detail in the painting. If I had to pick a type of art that challenges me, it would be portraits. You don’t want to match the clothes or the background because that’s where you will look…and hair color is too varied. I consider how the model is dressed…casual or formal? Where will it hang, kitchen or living room? Most portraits are of contemporary people so a traditional frame with an American Impressionistic styling is my first go to. However, thinking outside the box, can cause amazing things to happen!

Are you selective about which jobs you will take on?   I should be! I have framed children’s art to a cannibal’s jade ax from South America, and pretty much everything in between! If it is outside of my expertise of framing, I will make recommendations. We have a paper conservator and an art conservator we work with. Super large pieces can be a challenge because of weight, and the manufacturing of the frame in the shop… but removing ceiling tiles has been handy!

Do you frame work for out-of-state artists?   Absolutely! We have an artist who travels the world and wherever he is, he drop ships his paintings to us, so interstate shipping is not a problem!

“Morning in the Water Valley” by Wang, depicts an area of China. The frame is slightly scooped with a simple profile, black with red rubbed finish. Carved into the composition gold lip area are soft rounded edges, giving an Asian feel to the frame.


What advice do you have for artists when selecting a frame for their work?  We, as framers and artists usually cannot afford the frames our clients can, so buy the best you can afford! Putting a cheap “slap it on there frame” detracts and lessens the quality of the painting. The client may pass it by because something doesn’t look right, but they’re not sure what it is. Again, find and build a relationship with a good framer who can help you with your framing selections!

Any final words?   Art first! Budget second! Then find a great framer and build a relationship with them!

Thanks, Deborah, for your time, and for sharing your expertise with us. It is much appreciated.

If you missed Part 1, here is the LINK.


To contact Deborah Hill: or

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