My tax accountant and I got chatting about frames on one of her trips into the studio last year (not that I wanted to talk about anything but taxes, of course! Ahem, anyway..) She told me a tale of her encounter with another client of hers - a framer. They'd been talking and she mentioned looking for a frame that matched the other frames in her dining room for her son's senior portrait. The framer, she said, looked at her aghast! "You frame for the picture," he said "not the room!"
He's right. So many of us get confused about how to choose a frame and end up with one that doesn't work for the portrait we put in it because we don't look at what really matters - the portrait. So, here's a basic guide of the things I consider when I'm choosing a frame:
What color should it be?
Color is the obvious place to start, since most framers organize their frames by color. As with all of the decisions we need to make, we start with the portrait. Does it tend to warmer colors (yellows, reds, oranges, and browns) or cooler blues, greys, and blacks?
Personally, I like gold or classic wooden frames with warmer colors and silver frames for the cooler themed portrait. Black is a lovely neutral that can work with both.
I also consider whether the overall tone of the portrait is dark or light. Darker portraits can take stronger, dark frames while lighter portraits often need a lighter colored frame.
How wide should it be?
One of the easier decisions in framing is deciding the width (the dimension between inside or portrait edge and the outside wall edge) of the frame. Frame edges come in anywhere between a fraction of an inch up to 4 inches or even wider. As a rule of thumb, the smaller your portrait, the narrower the frame should be. Unless your portrait is really tiny or really massive, in which case you might want to try breaking the rule to see how it looks.
The other factor I consider is the finishing on the print - basically, whether I'm going to use a mat around it. If I use a mat, I prefer a narrower frame than I would use if I wasn't using a mat because the mat becomes part of the framing and adds to the overall width around the portrait.
I usually look for 1 inch to 1.5 inch width frames for portraits under 20 inches. Over 20 inches I consider going up to 2-3 inches in width.
Should it be simple or ornate?
Frames come in all varieties from the very simple wooden surround to the uber-detailed, ultra-ornate work of art. So how do you choose which works before for your portrait?
How complex is the image? Does it contain a lot of detail or is it very simple with one or two elements? Perhaps obviously, a very simple portrait typically benefits from a very simple frame. Rather less intuitively, a very detailed portrait may not benefit from a very detailed frame - sometimes the detail in the frame can clash with the detail in the portrait. Take your cues from the textures in the portrait (lace, fur, etc.) - if the portrait is very textured, it may hold up to a detailed frame - if it is not, you might want a frame which has a little less complexity.
The size of the portrait is going to influence how ornate your frame can be as well. While sometimes you can get away with an ornate frame on a smaller portrait, it's unusual because the frame can detract from the portrait. However, if your portrait is huge (60 inches or larger) the frame would have to be extraordinary to detract from the portrait, so you can use a more ornate frame. (Should you? That's a whole other conversation!)
Look at the medium of the portrait - is it a basic photographic print? An oil enhanced canvas? Or a delicate fine art giclée print? A basic print usually works best with a basic frame, an oil-enhanced portrait can take something more ornate. The giclée print? That will probably suit something in between.
Finally, look at the value of the portrait. I don't mean the price - I mean, how important is it? Will it be the centerpiece of your living room, or will it hang in the rogue's gallery with the other family portraits? A high value portrait will benefit from a higher value (more ornate) frame, a portrait that is intended to complement 20 other portraits in a gallery wall needs a frame that will not compete (notice I didn't say match).
How will the portrait be finished?
Finishing refers to the final presentation of the portrait - will it be behind glass or exposed? (And honestly, this is a post unto itself, but I'll touch on the basics here.)
The primary factor here is the medium - a fine art giclée print is delicate and easily damaged and needs to be framed in a way that protects the print, aka behind glass or acrylic. If you're adding glazing to a print, you need to ensure that the print doesn’t touch the glaze so you'll either need a spacer, which hides behind the edge of the frame to separate print and glass, or more traditionally add a mat - a thick archival card layer which adds another frame to the print. Canvas doesn't need glass at all and can be placed directly into the frame. For photographic prints, it depends on how the print is finished. My photographic prints have a protective finish which gives them an extra layer of protection but not all prints are created equal and some may need the protection of glass. Talk to your photographer!
Where will the portrait be displayed? If it's going to sit on a desk and be picked up frequently, you almost certainly need to glaze it to protect the print. If it's going to hang on a wall and not be touched? You can probably place it straight in the mat.
Finally, what is the size of the print. My personal preference is not to add a mat to portraits larger than 16 inches primarily because the size of mat you need at that size print almost doubles the wall space you need to have to display it, but there are people who disagree with me (shocking, I know!).
How heavy will it be?
Wide ornate frames finished with a mat and glass get heavy fast. Know where your portrait is going to hang and make sure you have a wall or hanging system that can support it!
What do I like?
Who you are and what you like is the ultimate factor here. You might notice, I don't say anywhere in this blog that you must do x, y, and z because rules are there to be bent, distorted, or flat out broken. Sometimes a 4 in x 4 in portrait looks stunning in a wide, ornate frame. Sometimes a light, airy portrait needs a dark frame to ground it. Sometimes you just don't like gold frames. If you get stuck, ask an expert. They'll be able to guide you through the maze.