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Examining “The Artistic Frame”

Nine frames from “The Artistic Frame: An Inquiry into the Enhancement of Paintings,” curated by William Adair and juried by Clarice Smith.
Nine frames from “The Artistic Frame: An Inquiry into the Enhancement of Paintings,” curated by William Adair and juried by Clarice Smith.
Crowned with Golden Acorns by Susan O'Neill, best-in-show in the exhibit.
Crowned with Golden Acorns by Susan O’Neill, best-in-show in the exhibit. (click for a larger image)

When it comes to frames, store-bought isn’t the only option.

In fact, there’s a long tradition of artist-made frames, protecting and complementing the artwork inside. An exhibit on view now at The Art League highlights the little-celebrated techniques that have been decorating frames for centuries.

The Artistic Frame: An Inquiry into the Enhancement of Paintings,” curated by William Adair and juried by Clarice Smith, is open through this Sunday, December 4. We asked the best-in-show artist, Susan O’Neill, for an introduction:

What techniques can we see in the frames in this exhibit?

Susan O’Neill: The frames on view here use primarily the sgraffito and granito techniques explained in a previous blog post. These century-old techniques enhance and decorate the artist’s frame.

In this exhibition, look for examples of sgraffito — areas where the design has been scratched into the frame to reveal the gold or clay-colored layer (bole) beneath the gold — or granito: areas that are embossed with a stamp or an image. This exhibition shows magnificent examples of these techniques with artwork created especially for these frames, perhaps the opposite of what one might expect.

Detail of Susan O'Neill's frame.
Detail of Susan O’Neill’s frame.

These frames required much patience and attention to detail, from the preparation and application of the frame’s base surface (the gesso and bole), to applying the delicate gold leaf, then burnishing the gold to a brilliant, mirror-like quality, and finally (but optionally), creating an antique patina.

Often the charm and character of the frame are due to years of accumulated dust and dirt, or patina. This patina usually indicates “great age” and can be imitated with various pigments and age enhancing effects — “One man’s dirt is another man’s patina.”

Which came first for you, the frame or the painting? How did your creative process differ from the usual?

In this case, the frames came first. That is not usually how I paint, but I believe that I will now change my methods. I actually placed the canvas in the frames and created the paintings. This was especially important because elements in the frame “play off” or respond to what happened in the painting, and thus the decision-making process was altered by the details, at times subtle, in the frame. This allows the eye to move seamlessly between the frame and the work of art, hopefully working in harmony.

“The Artistic Frame: An Inquiry into the Enhancement of Paintings”
“The Artistic Frame: An Inquiry into the Enhancement of Paintings”

What makes a good frame, in your opinion?

In my opinion a good frame considers the elements in the artwork. Texture, theme, color, and rhythms that appear in the artwork should also be reflected in the frame. A good frame should enhance and compliment the artwork without taking away from the art or distracting the viewer.

If framing a portrait painting, in most cases the width of the frame should be the same as the width of the face. Take note of this next time you are in a museum looking at classical artwork. The size of objects, such as in a still life or landscape, should also be considered when choosing the width and texture of a frame.

Painting and frame (detail below) by James Abbott McNeill Whistler
Painting and frame (detail below) by James Abbott McNeill Whistler

james-whistler-detail

What do you hope people get out of this exhibit?

I hope that viewers come away with a with more enlightened understanding of the importance the frame holds for the artist, along with how it enhances the work of art. I hope that they will enter a museum to notice and consider the frame as well as the art. Very often the artist themselves have designed the frame specifically for the artwork. Notice the images above by James Abbott McNeill Whistler. He designed and painted this frame himself. He even signed the frame. Observations like this will open up an entirely new and inspired viewing experience. Enjoy!

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