Matching the appropriate frame for art, or photography is much like the Eliza Doolittle Principle.
In the 1964 classic film My Fair Lady, Audrey Hepburn’s character of Eliza Doolittle is introduced dressed in rags and living hand-to-mouth on London’s streets. Her beauty is somewhat apparent to us; but it is impossible for those around her to see.
Enter Henry Higgins, an arrogant phonetics professor who vows to “make a duchess of this draggle-tailed guttersnipe”. He teaches Eliza to speak and act like a lady, dressing appropriately for every occasion. By the time she is introduced to society, her beauty has become obvious and she is admired for her style and grace.
1. So what changed for Eliza?
Her innate beauty was always there, but her environment, attitude, and presentation changed.
Similarly, the visual impact of art can be enhanced powerfully by an appropriate frame, which brings out the artist’s true vision. A poorly chosen frame distracts viewers and robs art of its inherent beauty, making it difficult to discern for even the best-trained eye. As artist Nancy Guzik has aptly noted, “When a frame and a painting come together, their song can either be harmonious or discordant.” A good frame on a good painting is like a good marriage, and well worth the cost.
When it comes time to frame, the artist wants his intended vision appreciated, the collector wants the picture to look great, and the framer wants to be admired for his artistry. By definition, an artist produces work that primarily shows sensitivity and imagination.
A Santa Fe gallery that represented the Armenian-born artist Ovanes Berberian acquired 50 of his small plein air studies: Recognizing their potential, the gallery director carefully chose a framing style and finish for each painting, adding this cost to its retail price. To their surprise, all 50 sold within three months. Like Eliza Doolittle, the paintings had not changed, but their presentation had. They became little pearls in a sea of competitors, and indeed they were so appealing that half of them sold to other artists.
2. A few tips to get you started
The challenge is determining how the frame relates to the artist’s vision. Because this is subjective, there are no absolutes, but there are several aesthetic cues that can ensure the artist’s intent is not suffocated or destroyed.
The first cue is the painting’s style. Impressionist works generally require frames with softer detail of carving with more subtle finishes. Traditional realism is best in frames that help contain the shapes and weight of the painting, so detail in carving and rich finishes are often best.
Second, the feeling or atmosphere a painting evokes provides crucial clues. Is it a light, airy image of women carrying parasols on a beach? If so, a softer, lighter frame should be used. A bold, colorful image with strong design can handle more distinct carving, richer finishing, and a frame with greater mass.
Third, good execution is critical: If it looks like a frame was carved with an axe or finished with a broom, it is probably not right for a work of fine art. And finally, cost is often, but not always, a useful indicator of quality. Just as a wise woman on a budget can find flattering fashions, a $100 frame from down the block may be infinitely more tasteful than a carved and gilded frame from 17th century France.
There is a reason that customers in framing stores become agitated or confused when confronted with the “wall of a thousand samples” it is lack of knowledge and experience.
First to be considered when selecting a frame is whether you are framing a decorative item or a piece of fine art. The leeway for “play” and experimentation is greater with a decorative piece because you have decided that is its purpose and, yes, it can match the sofa or drapes as the piece is part of an overall design. Fine art, however, demands framing for itself, preferably within the context of the period in which it was created.
For the past 25 years there has been a movement to retain period frames with period art. This pertains to art whether it was produced in 1540 or 1980, to reflect the design and sensibility of the period.
The basic molding profiles were developed during the Italian Renaissance (14th century to about 1580). The first frame design was the PLATE, which was simply four pieces of flat wood cut and joined to make a frame. Later, decorations were added in the corners of the frame, usually rosettes or a pattern of incised or painted lines. The next development was the CASSETTA, which employed the “plate” as a panel with the addition of a “lip” and a “cap” molding. Ornamentation was then distributed over the panel, lip, cap or over the entire frame surface. The BOLECTION, or reverse/receding frame was the third shape developed. This molding completely covered the joint between the frame and panel. As with the preceding designs the Bolection was later decorated as well. The last important frame shape was the profile known as the CARLO MARATTA, or “scoop” frame.
Despite the variations in ornamental decoration, these four shapes constitute the basis of framing design from the Renaissance to the present day. Compressed or widened, with or without decoration, gilded or painted, if you take a moment to look at the frames surrounding works of art you will be able to identify these shapes. You can quickly become familiar with the profiles and longer confused by the “wall of a thousand samples” because there are only four.
So, Eliza Doolittle, thanks for the lesson. With the right mix of decisions and a skilled artisan, the inherent beauty of your artwork can be coaxed out for all to enjoy.