Notes from the Studio

Frames II

After I posted my original article about frames I had an interesting visit with an upscale framer. Regrettably, his frames are out of my league. But his advice is not.

We talked about corners. He said to worry less about slight corner separation, and cited examples of fabulous museum frames that have massive corner separations—well, OK, but they are very old, and some have been through a few wars.

He stressed the importance of no shortcuts in the finishing process. It is the finishing that can make a frame look good 100 years from now.

He described how I can improve the mid-priced frames I use, making them look better over-all, and reducing the brightness of the gold paint to increase harmony with my subdued colors. His suggestion was to apply tinted paste wax, let it set until tacky, dust on some ash or household dust (ick), then gently buff the frame. It will take some time to find the specialized wax he recommended, but I’ll blog my opinion on the result at a later date.

Links to some of USA’s best framers—enjoy…. read about how they do corners. You’ll never look at frames the same again! great pictures about the many steps in applying finish to frames.

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Three main factors determine the cost and quality of frames: Joinery, finishing and material. Don’t be fooled by terms like museum quality, custom, or gold leaf. Anyone can use these terms.

Joinery: The best frames have what are called “closed corners”. That means the frame is constructed first, then the finishing is done. You should not be able to see the mitered joint. The best frames are built like fine furniture, with corners joined by splines, mortise and tenon, or recessed dowels or screws.

Mid-quality frames often have stapled corners, and then they are finished like the better frames. These look great, and are used most frequently. But over decades, or with handling, the corners may separate slightly.

Lower quality joinery techniques include what is called “chop”. The framer purchases prefinished moulding (some of it is truly high quality), cuts it, glues and staples the frame together. The better framers will fill the mitered corners to create the illusion of a closed corner. Chop frames can get very expensive, but they have the advantage of being very stylish and individualized to your décor.

Perhaps the worst joinery has a little plastic plug that straddles the mitered corner. This is not a very stable corner.

Finishing: The best wood finishes are done in many stages, just like fine furniture. Gold finishes also involve several steps. But what you need to be aware of are the different definitions of gold: The best gold finish is genuine gold leaf, up to 24kt.  It may be applied smoothly, or it may be antiqued.  It is expensive and time consuming to apply well. It is gorgeous.

Mid- to lower-mid quality frames usually use what is called “gold paint leaf”, often shortened to just gold leaf. If it doesn’t have karats it is not the real thing. Gold paint leaf is an acceptable finish. It can look fine. Just don’t be deceived about what you are getting.

Lowest quality finishing generally lacks luster and depth.

Materials: Again, fine furniture construction applies. Quality hardwoods last longest. But softwood pine and barn wood have their place for rustic paintings. The artist may know in what country the frame is assembled, but will rarely know where the wood originated or under what conditions it was milled and finished. 

Manufactured wood is turning up, mostly in low quality frames and moulding. And then there is plastic.… It doesn’t bear discussion.

I would say, “You get what you pay for” in frames, but it is just not true. Mid-quality and chop frames can command very high prices. It is up to you to understand the quality possibilities and realities.  Ask your artist about the frames he/she uses, and understand that artists have to choose their line of frames based on what their collectors are willing to pay.  If you want a Cadillac frame you may have to buy it later.

In my next Blog you’ll get links showing you how the best framers actually make and finish frames, and inside scoop from an anonymous framer.

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More Color

Echoing color around your painting increases color harmony. That can be done in a variety of ways.

Some artists tone their canvases, allowing bits of that tone to show throughout the painting. Edgar Payne did that a lot.

Another method is just to repeat a color appropriately throughout. Color, value and temperature are modified by their surroundings. If you use this method adjust value and temperature to suit the situation. For example, blue-gray in the mountains can be repeated in the middle ground or foreground shadows, but you may need to warm it a bit, or darken it. Keep it in the same color family.

Still not sure? Think of the volume of objects in your painting: Trees are spheres, trunks are columns. Spheres and columns receive reflected light. Depending on the color of general light, your trees might be backlit in a cool slightly lavender tone or a warm orangey tone. Be subtle. This reflected lighting will give form to objects while moving color around your painting.

Set aside assumptions. In painting, a green tree can graduate to soft orange as its background transitions from one color to another. Robert Wood did this to great effect. Not only does this solve value and temperature problems, it also is a way of moving color around your canvas.

Look closely at how great artists handled various elements in their paintings. Studying original paintings is best, but art books and magazines, and online galleries and museums are also good resources. Use a magnifying glass. Enlarge your screen image.

Artists to study:

  • Edgar Payne – for complimentary color schemes, neutral colors, composition & focal area.
  • Neil Welliver – energetic colors, and use of paint as line and pattern.
  • Vincent Van Gogh – same as Welliver
  • Stephen Eugene Mirich – for close color harmony and a limited palette
  • Glenn Dean – color harmony and composition

Interesting Blogs:

      Keith writes about the process of thinking about and creating art.


  • American Art Review Magazine
  • Design and Composition, by Nathan Goldstein. An excellent book. It includes color theory.
  • Color in Contemporary Painting, by Charles Le Clair. Another great book.
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Color is the most challenging aspect of painting. There are no rules, only theories. The use of color may be guided by emotion, intuition or intellect. It may be based on local color or wild imagination, and it may involve personal or public symbolism. Color can be an effective tool for advancing your ideas. Or, it can undermine your entire painting.

Following are some random notes I will use in teaching a private color workshop. You might find them helpful.

No matter how realistic a painter you are, painting is an abstract process:  You are taking your view of a three-dimensional world and applying it to a two-dimensional surface. A certain amount of translation happens.

There are different theories about color. I consider myself a Tonalist (with my close color harmony and mixing on the palette) influenced mostly by traditional and mildly by Impressionist color theory.   Impressionists, the French ones, at least, did most of their mixing on the painting, or they just laid pure colors side by side and let your brain mix them.

Convey your message with color harmony or disharmony. Push beyond simple representation of local color to amplify the quality and character of your subject. This might mean intensifying color, but it could just as well mean reducing intensity, as I do in my quiet landscapes.

Four ways to reduce color intensity:

  • Add the hue’s compliment (always reduces the hue’s temperature, but you can control the amount of temperature reduction by your choice of compliment. Suppose you want to reduce the intensity of distant green trees: Alizarin Crimson will be a very cool compliment, while Cad Red Light will be a warmer compliment. Your painting will tell you which is needed.)
  • Add white (this tints the color, lightening the value.  White usually cools the hue.)
  • Add black (produces a shade of the hue, darker in value)
  • Add neutral gray (helps retain the original value. Paynes Gray, a blue-black, is not neutral. Ivory black is a better choice for shading.)

Next Blog: More about color and moving it around your painting!

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