My Early Experience with Frames
In 1989, my last year in art school, I purchased a painting done as a demo for class from one of my favorite professors, Arlo Coles. He was an incredible impressionist painter – very expressive and deliberate with his colors and brushstrokes.
He never really sold his work though – he was content to teach and paint and not at all business minded. He told me he thought about selling his work in galleries but wasn’t sure how to go about approaching them.
Consequently, expensive framing wasn’t on his mind.
He taught me how to find frames made in Mexico for $20-$30. Those could then be painted or patinaed to look good on our work. That is what he used on the painting I purchased as you can see in the photo above.
Even though I started selling my work in high-end galleries before I finished school (The Outlaw Inn Gallery in Kalispell, Mt and the Hole in the Wall Gallery in Ennis, Mt), that framing mindset sunk in and held on tight.
My framing saving grace in the 80’s and 90’s was my friendship with Ed Sanders.
My favorite frames were made by Ed – a master craftsman. They were works of art themselves. They also cost a lot more than the ‘made in Mexico’ type frames.
I was selling my paintings in Santa Fe, Cherry Creek, Aspen, and at the Broadmoor, but instead of using Ed’s frames exclusively I kept searching for less expensive alternatives.
There were three reasons I kept using inexpensive frames:
1. There didn’t seem to be any framing consistency with the big-name artists I admired (like the inexpensive chop frame I saw on a $50,000 G. Harvey painting at the Legacy Gallery in Scottsdale)
2. I would spend $400-$600 on one of Ed’s beautiful frames and the collector would change it out anyway
3. As an artist I rarely noticed the frames since my focus was on the paintings
So, I was constantly searching for ‘alternative’ framing options and spent way too much time trying to make cheap frames look good. Kristie and I even tried our hand at making frames ourselves for my one-man show. It was a huge waste of time and money when I should have just been painting.
Settling for Mass-produced Frames
In 2004, an ad by King of Frames (I think) showed some nice-looking frames for about a 1/3 the cost of what I was used to. I ordered a few to try out and they looked great. An 8×10 cost me about $80.
When the frames came in I noticed their logo sticker was loose, and on top of another logo. I pulled their sticker off and discovered Omega frames.
With some stealthy sleuthing I tracked down the company, gave them my tax I.D. and purchased those same 8×10’s for less than $30. Wow, that was crazy cheap.
There was a catch though!
Instead of high quality wood molding like Ed’s frames, Omega used resins and fillers around scraps of wood to make everything straight and smooth. The poor craftsmanship caused cracked corners to be all too common, especially going from humid Indiana to dry Colorado.
Sometimes the frames would show up cracked even before I used them. Fortunately Omega was easy to work with and would quickly send me replacements. I reasoned that even if I had to replace a frame now and then it was still much less expensive than other frames.
Occasionally, especially after Ed passed away, I would try out some other frame companies. However, many of those frames, even high end ones, ended up with cracked corners just like Omega. A 36×48 frame that I had custom made a few years ago cost me almost $700 – yep, the corners cracked after a year or two.
So, I settled for Omega.
For about 10 years I rarely saw anyone else using Omega frames – now they seem to be everywhere.
The Showdown: Mass-Produced Frames vs Quality
At the Oil Painters of America Show in Cincinnati I noticed a fellow selling some beautiful looking frames, so I bought an 8×10 for about $115. A lot more than a now $40 Omega, but it was too beautiful looking to pass up.
That fellow was Michael Graham – the owner of Masterworks Frames.
Then at the Plein Air Convention in Santa Fe I saw him again and purchased several more. When I looked more carefully at the construction I was amazed at the difference between Omega and Masterworks.
Here’s the back of an Omega frame:
And here’s the back of a Masterworks Frame:
The Omega corners are glued and reinforced. It’s good, but has obviously led to a few quality issues.
Masterworks Frames are screwed tight from two directions – the best quality I’ve seen in a long time. And the wood is solid.
The gold leafing isn’t composition leaf like you see on most gold frames – it’s 12k, 22k and 24k gold.
Due to a question I received during our August Q&A Webinar I gave a quick impromptu review of Masterworks Frames. You can see that review here:
Back in the late 90’s during a show at the Greenhouse Gallery in San Antonio, Mark, one of the owners, placed a 24k gold leaf frame on my 18×24 painting of roses. That $1000 frame added $2000 to the usual cost of my painting.
I was in shock. That seemed like way too much to pay for a frame – the lesson still didn’t sink in.
Oh, I’ve thought about using real gold leaf many times since then, especially when I see one in person and realize how beautiful real gold looks compared to composition leaf. I’ve gone back and forth so much about framing that it could make you dizzy. I’ve simply struggled with justifying the expense when framing preferences among collectors has seemed so arbitrary over the years.
Recently, while at a show at the Broadmoor Galleries I had a chance to talk for a while with John, the owner. That conversation helped me finally understand why I need to pay closer attention to the framing.
My Conclusion About Frames
Framing isn’t an afterthought – a frame completes the painting.
The frames I purchase, whether the collector ends up keeping them or not, reflect what I think about my art. If I believe in my work, then the quality and presentation of the frame needs to reflect that.
Ed tried to teach me that a long time ago, but I was too focused on and enthusiastic about painting to pay attention. The irony is, if I had listened more closely it would have saved me time that could have been spent painting because I wouldn’t have been chasing after the next framing cure. The solution had been right in front of me all along.
That isn’t to suggest that gold-leaf frames are the answer to every situation. There are too many wonderful ways to frame our paintings to list them all here. What we surround our painting with becomes an extension of the painting – it should be chosen with the same care with which we choose our brushstrokes and colors.
Framing isn’t a ‘one-size-fits-all’ proposition and Omega frames are still an option for certain artists. But in the future, if you turn my paintings around you’ll likely see the Masterworks Frames stamp instead.
Now that you have a good handle on frames, want to explore paintbrushes?
Click HERE to read about our Ultimate Paintbrush Experiment!
What are your thoughts on frames?
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Love the look of your Masterworks frames! When you frame your paintings yourself, how do you back them? And how attach them to the frame? Do you do plein air competitions with the better frames?
Great questions Joan. I’ve just started framing regularly with Master Works in the past few months, and that conversation with John was last month at a plein air event at the Broadmoor for the gallery artists. Taking my sunflower painting in one of Master Works frames to leave at the gallery is what spurred the conversation about framing. John and the directors all loved the frame – in fact Jamie, one of the directors just made an order from them based on my showing them how beautifully crafted they are. I still have some Omega frames here (more than 20 of them), but I will probably use them for gifts to friends and family – not sure yet. I do know I will be slowly transitioning out the frames on the paintings that are in the galleries right now. As far as attaching them and what I do to the back, since I paint on panels I don’t need to protect the back and I use clips screwed to the frame that hold the painting in. I have not made the back look fancy before, but I may need to think about that as well. And, yes, if I do plein air or other events I will be using quality frames like the ones from Master Works.
This has been so helpful.
I’ve never framed my art I’ve always used cradled boards and painted the sides. The real reason being the cost of frames and thinking that painting the sides is good enough. With a great piece of art a frame can really make it look even better, my next move is to head down to a framer.
Thank you for a great article.
Bill, this was very helpful, do you do anything to the back of the painting frame after you have painting mounted? Also one of the reasons I like your membership so much, is all the extra informant you give us. So so good…….
Luckily, my husband makes solid wood frames for me when I need them ( he has a professional framing tool which takes up a lot of space in our garage, along with his other wood working items.) I’ve sold a few paintings and done many for friends and family so, he does some basic frames, not the fancy ones. It’s nice to know about masterwork if there ever comes a time I want a fancy frame!
I absolutely agree that the frame is an extension of how one feels about their work. I felt it but never put it to words! Thanks for the affirmation!
What beautiful frames! I have always found it tricky as well. Taste differs between buyers, even if they agree to like your art! I find there is a big difference in taste between the US and Europe (I am in the UK) and as I’d like to sell to both it is hard to find something that caters for all. But the answer, I suppose, must always lie with the art work. The art work will decide which frame will best suit it. So my own vision for the painting is what leads my choice. But I do keep the ‘taste thing’ in the back of my mind. Just a little bit.
I like what you said about framing completing the painting. My friend has created a lot of her own artwork and I want to hang some of it up in our home, but I don’t want it to look incomplete. I’ll have to have some custom frames made to accentuate her work.