Fran Larsen, San Ysidro Shadows, watercolor with acrylic & varnish, 32 x 42, Contemporary Southwest Galleries. painting, southwest art.
Fran Larsen, San Ysidro Shadows, watercolor with acrylic & varnish, 32 x 42, Contemporary Southwest Galleries.

By Dawn Dorsey

Is a frame a necessary evil that protects a painting, or is it almost as important as the painting itself? Gallery owners and framing experts agree that framing is a crucial factor, but just how big a role it plays depends on whom you ask. Most agree that these days framing, like the art market, is being influenced by more knowledgeable consumers.

“An unframed painting suffers in the marketplace,” says Steve Savageau, Savageau Gallery, Denver, CO. “Frames have a compelling influence and tend to make a picture seem larger.” Roberta Brashears of Nedra Matteucci Fine Art in Santa Fe, NM, agrees. “People can’t imagine how a painting without a frame will look on a wall, so it’s almost impossible to sell.”

Jack Morris, co-owner of Altermann & Morris Galleries, Houston, TX, says that a frame can enhance the image itself. “A well-designed and well-constructed frame can raise the value of a competent but ordinary work of art a notch or two in marketability and increase the potential for selling by 50 to 100 percent. The right frame can make all the difference … just as a bad frame can diminish the value.”

Miguel Martinez, Shadowland, oil, 30 x 40, Contemporary Southwest Galleries. painting, southwest art.
Miguel Martinez, Shadowland, oil, 30 x 40, Contemporary Southwest Galleries.

Selecting the right frame seems to be a critical decision. “It’s important that the frame and painting succeed as a package deal,” says Jinger Richardson of Legacy Galleries in Scottsdale, AZ. “The frame should not compete with the painting.”

“If a frame detracts from a painting, you’ll never be able to sell it. However, if the frame is basically neutral—clean and simple—the work is able to stand alone,” says Sandy Hunter of California Art Gallery, Laguna Beach, CA.

At Contemporary Southwest Galleries, Santa Fe, paintings by some artists, including B.C. Nowlin and Poteet Victory, are intended to hang unframed. Gallery director Leslie Bryant says, “The importance of the frame depends on the look of the piece. It’s all image and color. In the case of Fran Larsen, for instance, the frames are actually part of the work and very important. And Miguel Martinez designs his elaborate gold frames to accentuate his paintings.”

Detail of a W. Skor frame with distressed wood, deep carving and deep gold gilding, W. Skor Frame Co., Inc, Bridgewater, CT. southwest art.
Detail of a W. Skor frame with distressed wood, deep carving and deep gold gilding, W. Skor Frame Co., Inc, Bridgewater, CT.

Paintings are usually framed by artists, with galleries asserting varying degrees of direction. Richardson says they ask the artist to replace the frame if it is not to their liking, offering as well the names of good framers. Occasionally, Brashears says, artists use simple wood frames that the gallery replaces with traditional gold-leaf frames. Hunter says that most artists are open to suggestions. But, Morris says, “usually artists have already determined what they want.” Savageau, whose gallery also houses a frame shop that comprises about 50 percent of his business, prefers doing his own framing. “If an artist frames, it’s usually with economy in mind, and often we have different ideas about how it should look.”

Framing trends include an increased demand for high-quality gold and period frames. “Collectors are no longer happy with cut-and-joined frames and standard linen mats. They are more discerning and want quality carved frames that are gilded by hand,” Savageau says.

Everyone is seeing more gold, especially, as Bryant observes, burnished gold. And using gold seems to make good business sense. “We find we have to change fewer frames if we use gold,” Richardson says.

Sherrie McGraw, Nicho Design, oil, 71⁄4 x 9, Nedra Matteucci Fine Art, Santa Fe, NM.  painting, southwest art.
Sherrie McGraw, Nicho Design, oil, 71⁄4 x 9, Nedra Matteucci Fine Art, Santa Fe, NM.

Morris attributes part of the popularity of gold frames to eastern buyers who are entering the western market in increasing numbers. “Although they are adopting the imagery, they have a preference for more finely finished gold frames. Their style of living and decorating is not as rustic as in the West. They live in flats, not on ranches,” says Morris.

Although there is a movement away from bare wood in general, Richardson points out that some paintings, particularly wildlife and western subjects, simply need wood frames. But, she says, today’s wood frames are touched with gold or carved and tend to be less rustic. Morris says wood is still the best choice in certain instances, such as for works on paper or maps displayed in a conservative business setting.

Richardson and Brashears agree that one of the biggest trends is the absence of linen or silk liners, with the gold of the frame going right to the edge of the painting. Richardson says some 80 percent of the paintings in their gallery are framed in this manner.  Some, however, still prefer the look of a liner. Morris concedes that it’s a matter of taste, but he prefers the gold lip and liner because he thinks they provide a resting place for the eye.

Savageau says that one of the offshoots of the increased savvy of collectors is the heightened popularity of period frames. For instance, reproductions of frames used by the Taos Founders, with gold leaf and simple corner carvings, are finding their way back into contemporary use.

Regardless of the style, framing is expensive. A 24-by-36-inch, good-quality rustic wooden frame with gold lip and linen liner adds some $250 to $500 to the cost of a painting, says Morris. Add gold leaf and the price climbs to as much as $1,000. Hand carving and 24K gold can easily cost $2,000 to $3,000.

Occasionally, despite a gallery’s best intentions, the buyer doesn’t like a frame. Although all galleries say they will reframe a painting to please a customer, it’s not a practice they encourage. “If someone really doesn’t like a frame, I give them a framing allowance. I tell my clients up front that I don’t get involved in framing,” says Hunter. Bryant agrees. “If a person doesn’t like a frame, we try to work with them. Usually we send them to a frame shop and let them deal with it.”

If you have a painting you want to sell, is it a good idea to expend the time and money to reframe it? Should galleries reframe secondary market pieces? Theories range from almost always to almost never.

Richardson says they replace all older frames. “Most are falling apart anyway. If you take off the old frame and replace it with a nice gold one, you can see a $2,000 to $3,000 increase in value for a $300 to $600 investment.”

“We reframe about 50 percent for resale,” says Brashears. “It updates a work, and a nice simple frame can make a big difference.” The gallery also frames works by early Taos and Santa Fe artists in carved and gold-leaf period frames.

Hunter, who handles some early California art, reframes only if the frame is really bad and a new one will help. “Framing adds so much to the cost that it might price a customer out of the market on a certain piece. It’s expensive, and if the buyer doesn’t like the frame, you can’t trade it out. You can easily spend $500 on an 18-by-24-inch handcarved corner frame with 3-inch molding.”

Morris says he reframes if a piece is not appropriate as it stands. “Recently a customer brought in a drawing by a top-flight artist, but it was framed in brown wood with an old-style suede liner, both of which were dark. The frame was detracting from the piece, so I recommended a lighter frame and liner, and I believe it will increase its chance of selling. A couple of years ago, however, we had an E.I. Couse painting with the original frame designed by Couse and built by a famous maker. It had a bronze-like surface treatment used in the late-19th century, before electric lights, to reflect candlelight. Of course we left it on.”

This historical consideration often makes reframing a touchy subject, says Savageau. Some frames say something about the era in which they were rendered, though they may be out of fashion now. Frame historians often advise collectors to keep the original frame, even if they store it in a closet.

Scot Levitt, director of paintings at Butterfield & Butterfield, San Francisco, CA, says the auction house almost never changes frames maybe once every four to five years or 2,000 paintings. “One theory is that when something looks fresh out of an old house it might bring more than if it’s all cleaned up and new looking. It doesn’t hold as high a value to the buyer, who assumes a dealer is involved.”

Also he believes it is usually safer to leave paintings “as is,” so buyers can decide how they want them framed. Of course, there are often historical considerations; he points out that auction houses process so many works of art that there is little time to reframe.

Featured in June 1997