By Bob Bahr
Artist Jeanne Mackenzie has seen it all in the domain of picture frames. She’s a key player at High Plains Frames, a frame shop in La Porta, Colorado, and an SKB stalwart, present at nearly every Dubois workshop we can recall. She’s watched artists win awards—and not win—at the Dubois workshop’s Small Works show, and sometimes the difference is the frame. This doesn’t surprise her.
Last Fall, as the judges discussed their winners and rationale from the Headwaters stage at the awards ceremony, participants heard a lot about framing. Some paintings lost out because their frames pulled down the painting. Some boosted their appeal through the right frame. Afterward, we sought out Mackenzie to see what she thought about it all. Before she slipped away and back to Colorado last September, we asked for general pointers on framing. It seemed timely then, and, well, timeless as a subject that artists continually need to consider.
Mackenzie’s overriding advice is to keep in mind that the frame is a supporting player and the artwork is the star. “The painting is the main thing,” she says. “So the questions you have to ask are, does the frame detract or seem overpowering? Is it a color that is too much of a clash or a contrast with the piece? If there is too much pattern or texture, it can be an eye-draw that makes the frame also something to look at. The frame needs to complement the artwork, not distract from it.
“Centuries ago, the carved golden frames were a work of art in themselves,” Mackenzie continues. “Artists tried to outdo each other. That was admired then—think of the frames on some of those Titians. If you put that fancy of a frame on a piece today, most judges would not like it. Now they look for simplicity.”
True enough. But not always true. Sometimes, the frame balances the composition with its own complexity. Rusty Frentner won First Place in the Acrylic category with a painting titled “Frog Warts,” and it was placed in a relatively ornate, homemade frame. “The thing about this particular piece is the subtle colors that he used,” said judge John Seerey-Lester. “We also liked the frame; it complements the piece. Each painting is a package—the painting and the frame. Sometimes a good painting can be let down by a bad frame. Here, the frame and the painting worked together.”
Larry Wollam’s pastel pencil piece of a bighorn ram took the top prize in the Other Media category with “a frame that is so simple that you can’t help but have your eye move into the artwork,” according to Mackenzie. “The outside frame picks up the color that’s in the painting. For this dynamic to work, the mat and the outside frame need to be very different. For example, you want a wide mat with a skinny frame, or a skinny mat with a wide frame. I have to have a mat that matches the painting. Most prefer a white to beige mat so the artwork stands out.”
Pushpa Mehta’s award-winning piece “Nature’s Green Energy” was in a frame that had several elements, but was clean and simple overall. “The painting is beautiful—a simple subject and nice, a little jewel,” Seerey-Lester said. “But the framing really makes it something more special. It gives it an extra jewel. A few more jewels in the crown, if you will,” he said with a smile.
Mackenzie agrees. “This works,” she says. “The strong contrast and the boldness of it works. She had a painting with a lot of detail, and this frame contains all that is happening in the piece.”
Mackenzie helped judge the High Plains Framing Award, with the gift certificate prize going to Marvie Tipsword for her watercolor “Henry’s Marsh.” That painting also won First Place in the Watercolor category. Tipsword framed it herself. It flirts with the rustic.
One generally sees more rustic frames out West than in the South or the East. Mackenzie acknowledges how a rustic frame, such as one made out of repurposed barn wood, is a good fit for certain pieces. But the intricate details of such wood mean that the artist has to take care which piece gets matched to such a frame. “You’re seeing some of that rustic stuff come back in fashion,” agrees Mackenzie. “A wide mat can help a highly textured frame. A double mat or even triple mat will separate the frame from the painting a little bit. In terms of style, it’s regional. It’s all gold back East, and black in California. Some galleries only want gold frames. Some only want dark ones.”
One cue to pick up on is your color palette and its effect on frame choice. “If you paint consistently in one color palette, your paintings are always going to look good in one kind of frame,” asserts Mackenzie. “Suzie and John Seerey-Lester always go with a silver frame or something light colored because of their muted palette.”
This doesn’t seem to be getting any easier. Is there one takeaway that artists should get from Mackenzie’s wealth of knowledge?
“Just keep it simple. The collector doesn’t always know what looks good with the painting. It’s your painting, you know what looks good with it, so you choose, but keep it nice and simple.”
“There no real right answers; there are maybe some wrong options,” says Mackenzie. “Simple is better. Elegant is better. Neutral is better rather than trying to put the Wow Factor in the frame and thus making it the star.” Ω