An artistic frame of mind - framing as the window to the soul of an artwork

A closer look at the art of framing

In the showcasing and appreciation of a work of art, the creativity and care taken to frame it is often overlooked.

Framing paintings and other art is materially intricate work, demanding a finely tuned eye for design to the smallest detail. The framer must deeply understand the piece and how best to preserve and compliment it.

Framers themselves are artists, and today I explore this with Suellen from State of the Art Framing. We talk about what it takes to do justice to a great art piece, and what it means to have an artistic frame of mind.

Firstly, why is framing so important?

“It’s about making the artwork last,” Suellen tells me, saying that she looks at framing art as a long-term investment to protect it for generations. “It’s about creating an heirloom, so it’s as much about preservation as it is design.”

Suellen says that without a frame, you’re undermining the value of an artwork, as corners can get knocked and it can get damaged.

When it comes to design, what are the most important things to think about?

“First and foremost, the frame needs to complement the art,” Suellen says. “I always say, keep it simple. A good frame should be timeless.”

Suellen is passionate about her craft, and like any artist, is guided by a certain philosophy in her work. “I always try and choose something that’s timeless,” she says, explaining that a frame should be reliable with a beautiful finish.

She tells me she thinks about how it’s going to pass the test of time, and keep from going out of fashion. A white frame for example, Suellen explains, is going to be an issue if it’s put against white walls down the track.

“Framing art is a craft, it finishes the masterpiece, so don’t be afraid to be creative. You can be creative and simple in the same breath.”

For Suellen, framing itself is an art. “All the way down to the finishing and tinier details,” she says. She finds there is constantly opportunities to be creative, like when she can’t find what she needs.

“It requires innovative thinking, too,” she says, “like stacking frames to make something bigger or putting glass in between frames.”

So where does the inspiration come from? For Suellen, it’s the magical landscape of Aotearoa. She draws inspiration from her materials, as well. “I like to use timber – it’s got great wood grain and character.”

Sophia, (2018)

What’s the actual process like?

Firstly, says Suellen, you look at the medium. What are the requirements? Are you framing a painting, a photograph or something completely different?

She explains that the actual framing is a detailed process and requires the utmost care. “There’s a lot to consider – the glass can’t touch the paper because of moisture build up, and it’s really important to use acid-free mat boards.”

There’s plenty more to consider. Suellen says that any work on paper, especially limited edition, needs acid-free protection. You also need to use a special kind of glass that protects it from UV rays.

Suellen loves a challenge, and has had her fair share of tricky projects. She tells me about a particular one that springs to mind, when she framed Scott Dixon’s racing driver’s suit.

“It’s 1.5 metres tall! With fabrics and textiles, you want to make sure it’s reversible, so you can’t use glue,” she explains. She always stitches by hand, and says the fire retardent in the suit was pretty tough to get through.

Suellen had to bring the same level of care and precision to another project – framing original rugby jerseys from the 1920’s. “That was also hand sewn,” she tells me, and I hear her sense of pride in her craft.

When it comes to materials, Suellen prefers to use timber frames because you can easily seal the back. She explains you need to be able to seal them well to protect the artwork.

As an artist, I’m conscious of the evolution of materials over the years, and ask Suellen if there’s been many changes to those used in the framing world. She tells me the material technology in framing art has changed a lot, yes, with framers now having the ability to use computerised cutters.

“But, at the end of the day, it’s still a very manual job,” Suellen says. “You’re still dealing with organic things, like 3D fabrics, textiles and crafts.”

The life of a framer

Suellen tells me that there’s no specific training for framing, you just learn on the job! “But there is a lot of education and support in the industry, which is really important for new people coming in,” she says.

She says the Facebook page (New Zealand Picture Framers Association) is a valuable platform where framers can ask questions of each other, too.

When I ask her what is the most common request she receives from artists and clients, she says, “I want it to look like that!”

How does she respond to these sorts of specific requests? With imagination and playing with materials to get it right, she tells me. “It’s an opportunity – after all, most professional framers are in the industry because we’re creatives!”

“I like to share product knowledge and design ideas with my customers as well, to keep them involved,” she says.

Midnight Rose, (2018)

What to keep in mind when choosing a framer

For Suellen, framing is a passion and an art, and she takes pride in the quality of her work. However, she warns that there are bad framers out there not following the right practices, and she’s hoping that the general public will learn how to spot them.

She says there’s problems with people cutting corners. “In my experience, when people come in for a reglaze, it often turns into a new frame job because the original framing is so poorly done!”

So what should a framer be doing when framing art?

  • Everything should be acid-free, and the framer should be using gloves
  • They’ve got to be careful on ruling paper and when handling paper that’s stiff. 
  • If the piece is rolled up, the framer should let it relax. “I roll one end over the bench, unfurl it into a folder and then slowly close the lid so it’s not under any pressure.

What can I, as a customer, do to help the process?

  • As a client, you should ask your framer to unroll in front of you, and watch them unroll it. Then they should put into a folder, safe and out of the way. 
  • You can ask about mouldings and how to find something similar if they haven’t got the right moulding (you can even stack two together!) 
  • If you’ve got a specific idea in mind, bring photos to your framer.
  • You should be asking your framer questions. After, as Suellen says, if you’ve bought a limited edition, you want to do all you can to preserve it.

Cherishing the art of framing

As an artist, I see my relationship with a framer is really important. There’s something so special about seeing my pieces presented within a timelessly beautiful frame, and understanding the care and process that’s gone into it.

Valuing and respecting the work of framers is essential, for artists and art collectors alike. After all, they play such an important role in preserving and cherishing our pieces of art for years to come.

Download the care and framing guide

If you haven't already. You should download a copy of Sofia Minson's care and framing guide.

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