Frames for Paintings and Framing Art

I’ve discovered that most every artist’s framing art system is different. It depends in part on the media used for painting, but also individual preferences. Watercolor artists’ paintings, however, are nearly always matted and placed behind glass or plexiglas. But the type, color and size of frames and mats can vary considerably.

Let me share with you the system I’ve developed. You can then decide whether you like it or not.  I recommend talking with different artists whose work you admire to find out how they go about framing their artwork. Take notes, then choose the system that’s best for you.

I wanted frames for paintings and a system that was reasonable in cost.  I wished also to achieve some degree of uniformity so that when my paintings were exhibited together, they’d complement each other. To accomplish this, I adopted a system of look-alikes that allowed me to recycle my frames so I wouldn’t have to purchase any more than necessary.

To support this objective, I don’t encourage buyers to purchase my frames, unless, of course, they plan to keep them.  Most buyers don’t. They’ll generally get another one to match the decor of the room in which my painting will be hung.

shoreline watercolor, watercolor of shore, beach watercolor

Click Picture to Purchase: “Matthews, VA Shoreline (#2)”

Since I price my paintings both with and without frames, they are less without. It’s, therefore, more attractive to shoppers that are interested in my paintings to buy them without their frames. So most buyers don’t purchase my frames. I let them take the painting home with its frame, but I make arrangements to pick the frame up at a later date.

This system which I use to frame my paintings also accommodates the need for moving about the country, since I made a conscious decision long ago to exhibit my work wherever I could. I soon discovered moving framed paintings from coast to coast was cumbersome and expensive.

Deciding where you’ll exhibit your work also affects how you’ll get your paintings to and from exhibit venues, types of frames you’ll need for your art, type of glazing, and even… as you’ll learn hereinafter… the size of mats for your paintings.

Click Picture to Purchase: “Morro Rock from the Embarcadero (#2)”

I believe it’s important to keep art frames simple so they won’t detract from the painting itself, nor compete with other framed work in exhibits. As far as I’m concerned, the simpler the frame, the better. Though you have more flexibility with a solo exhibit, all frames should complement each other.  Therefore, I’ve limited myself to certain standard types and sizes of frames.  This allows me also to select any combination of paintings that are in my inventory for a decent looking exhibit.

The type of frames for paintings I settled on for most of my paintings is what’s generally classified as a “museum” type.  It’s a simple, standard-size, rectangular, natural wood frame you can buy at most any art supply store.  It comes with single-strength glass and little metal tabs/brads/points around the rabbited perimeter on the backside of the frame. There’s a stiff, non-archival backer-board provided with the frame. You simply bend the metal tabs back, remove the backer-board, and install your matted painting. Then you bend the tabs back down to hold the backer-board and matted painting in place. Often I may discard the backer-board that comes with the frame since there will already be a fairly thick foam backer-board on my matted painting. (You’ll need tools to bend these tabs and after a while they’ll break up, so you have to replace them.) Some of these standard frames come with mats, but I couldn’t use them unless the inside dimensions suit my painting. More about this later.

These standard types of frames are very reasonably priced, far less than custom frames. I can go into most any art store and find one that works for me.  When traveling, before I leave town, I’ll contact an art store nearby where I’m going to paint and exhibit my work to ask them whether they have the types of frames I will need. If they do, I’ll get them to hold a few for me so I can pick them up when I arrive at my destination. Thus, I don’t have to ship frames about for exhibits or plein-air festivals. I simply take along some precut mats designed to fit these standard frames.

Once I’ve completed my paintings, I can drop by the art store, pick up the frames, tape the painting to mats I’ve brought along with me, slip them into the brand new frames, and deliver them to the exhibit. I can do all this at a reasonable cost without spending any more time than is necessary. This saves me money and gives me more time to paint!

Since my investment in such frames is not great, I can leave some of them in different places about the country where I’ve chosen to exhibit or paint.  On subsequent visits, I may remove a painting from its frame and take it home with me, leaving the frame behind for a future exhibit. I can do this for any painting that fits a particular frame. I keep a list of frames and paintings I’ve left behind for future reference. This helps me plan for future exhibits and even gives me some idea what sizes of paintings I might want to produce!  It also helps me plan not only for future exhibits but plein-air outings as well.

watercolor of seagulls, seagull painting, bluff painting

Click to Purchase: “Seagulls at Morro Rock”

Standard wood frames are perfect for quarter- and half-sheet paintings.  But for my largest, full-sheet paintings, I use a generic gold metal frame that’s easy to assemble/disassemble. They are also available at any art store, but you often have to tailor them to suit your needs.  My local framer (Carter Picture Framing, Torrance) provides me with these metal frames and plexi-glazing, repairs my existing frames, and cuts my mats. I couldn’t get along without him, ’cause I don’t mess around with this stuff.

These frames that I’ve chosen also work well with the various subject matter I paint: florals, landscapes/seascapes, buildings, and boats. Barnwood frames work well with my grain elevators and farm buildings. Buyers seem to like them, so I always keep some on hand.

Frame sizes are based on inside, not outside, dimensions. Outside dimensions of frames vary depending on their design, but inside dimensions are fairly standard from one manufacturer to another.

For example, the actual width of a standard, nominal 22″x28″ rectangular frame will be wider… 1 1/2″ or more, depending on its design but also the type and size of framing material. Most exhibit managers are interested in knowing the actual outside dimensions of your frame because that’s what tells them what wall space they’ll need for your painting. Be aware that every juried exhibit places limits on outside frame dimensions. But most artists don’t know the actual outside dimensions of their frames! You should! When filling out entry forms for exhibits, they ask you for this information. If your frame is actually wider than what you wrote down on the entry form (or the limits stated in the prospectus), it could be declined. You would not only have failed to get your painting exhibited, but have lost the $ you shelled out for the roundtrip shipping!

Something else you should do when you finish framing artwork is to paste a business card (better still, use a reduced size bio printed on card stock) on the backside.  You might also want to number your painting so it can be more easily identified using the referencing system you’ve set up for all your framed artwork.

Douglas Stenhouse also wrote a book about watercolor painting.

“I decided to write about how I paint, not only to share my observations with others, but also, frankly, to do some self- examination. I wish I had done this earlier in my life! But then, how was I to know I’d benefit from doing so, certainly at a time when I had no aspirations of becoming a professional artist.” 

To learn more about Doug’s Watercolor Painting Book, click here. To purchase a signed copy, use the link below.


Douglas Simms Stenhouse, watercolor artist, transparent water color art, watercolor painter, painting with water colors