Framing and un-framing


Dear Artist,

When travelling as a girl with my dad to workshops and demos, I noticed that he always brought a frame. At points throughout the painting process, he’d clip in the canvas and place it on a secondary easel, a few meters from where he’d set up. The idea was to get the composition stopped and distance the maker from his object. In this sliver of detachment, problems could be addressed, decisions made and the potential treasure imagined.


Untitled (Bracco di Ferro)
1983 acrylic and oilstick on canvas with wood supports 72 x 72 in. (182.9 x 182.9 cm)
by Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)

Current trends have anointed a certain kind of painting presentation and made it all but ubiquitous. “Gallery wrap” is a canvas stretched 3 or 4 inches deep that shows the edge wrapped around to the underside of its support. The thicker stretchers can save money on frames, are light and sturdy and help the works take on a sculptural gravitas. Modern looking, the gallery-wraps distinguish themselves as “not your father’s Oldsmobile.”


“Carbon Dating Systems Versus Scratchproof Tape,” 1982 and “Busted Atlas 2,” 1982 by Jean Michel Basquiat, framed for Van de Weghe Fine Art’s 2008 exhibition.

The birth of the unframed painting happened sometime during the last century — think Jean Michel Basquiat’s wonky, hand-built stretchers and the unpolished intimacy they evoke. If process and hand-hewn magic are part of art’s connection, contemporary artists have embraced a painting’s support structure as evidence of authenticity. Often large-scale, gallery-wraps hang fresh like low-relief archival objects. Side drips, edge folds, staples and nail heads are a personal hint to their realness.

The downside of the gallery-wrap’s popularity is its popularity. This closeness and romance — bushwhacked by “unframing” originators — has been perverted by second and third generation facsimile-makers. Go to IKEA or the local discount home store and you’ll find gallery-wrapped giclee canvas prints: plasticized semi-abstracts, robotic florals, Eiffel Towers and text tropes. Go to the local art school and find Jean Michel’s turbulent imitators, deep in the weeds en route to potential innovation. Yesteryear’s flea market find — a little brown bucolic scene made precious in a gilded moulding — has been replaced by huge gallery-wrapped moderns with scuffed edges. Is it time to rethink framing?


On Tuesday night this untitled painting of JMB’s broke the artist’s world auction record, selling for 57.3 million at Christie’s, unframed.

Traditionalists will tell you that good framing never went out of style – a testament to all the framing shops in business today. Paintings are honoured by their frames. Clipped in, a breath is taken as a little distance transforms the painting into a covetable “other.” The work is its own new thing — a graceful object of fascination born to surpass its beginnings in the studio.



“Baby Boom”
1982 acrylic, oil sticks and paper collage on canvas with exposed wooden stretcher and string, 49 x 84 in, by Jean-Michel Basquiat


PS: “I start a picture and I finish it.” (Jean-Michel Basquiat)

Esoterica: When shopping for a frame, try local. Classic galleries haven’t blinked at the ebb and flow of frame fashions and employ skilled professionals who can customize, assemble and finish. If you’re buying in bulk for your studio, they can make recommendations for that, too. Or go vintage. Or make your own. Try a few styles and see your work transformed, overshadowed, wallflowered, taste-made or elevated. “I don’t listen to what art critics say. I don’t know anybody who needs a critic to find out what art is.” (Jean Michel Basquiat)


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“So soon as a fashion is universal, it is out of date.” (Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach)



  1. John Matin made his own remarkable, quirky and extremely appropriate frames for a lot of his work – saw them once at a traveling show in Brockton, MA and would LOVE to see them again. The artwork is fabulous, and those frames gave
    a real kick to the experience of seeing the show – throne I remember most is of tree branches –

    • John Marin made his own remarkable, quirky and extremely appropriate frames for a lot of his work – saw them once at a traveling show in Brockton, MA and would LOVE to see them again. The artwork is fabulous, and those frames gave a real kick to the experience of seeing the show – the one I remember most is of tree branches –

      and here I’ve corrected my typo in his name – should be JOHN MARIN! sorry –

  2. Stella Purdy on

    Thank you! Every artist I have asked “why do you prefer unframed paintings?” answers with “because its cheaper”
    I would have liked to hear “because the painting called for that presentation” I too, think the frame elevates the painting.

  3. I live in Costa Rica and it is not possible to purchase in bulk inexpensive good looking frames. Framing is expensive and very subjective. The buyer might rip off the frame only to put what they like. For shows, I do not frame…leaving that part to the buyer.

  4. Carol Lynn Gilchrist on

    I don’t have any issue with gallery wrapped canvases as it’s a more contemporary look. I have noticed gallery shows where works on paper are unframed! They use nails at the corners (under the work) and secure the corners with magnets and sometimes the bottom corners are ignored so they curl up. When did standards get so relaxed?

    • i saw an exhibit where the scrawled and scribbled, very simply done work was on cheap paper, then hung on a clothesline like a New York scene! when i showed disappointment in their sign in book; the gallery owner took offense. sorry, but appearance does make a difference.

  5. I use a standard black frame and off white mat for my pastels , most galleries prefer this as a standard , my framer makes them up and I install the painting . if the customer wants something else , he can buy the painting and have the frame changed to his needs.

  6. Like your dad–and perhaps because of his influence–I always take a couple of frames with me when I do a workshop. To see the “aha” look in students’ eyes, and often a proud smile, when they see their painting popped into the frame gives me a lot of pleasure. Thanks for the post, Sara.

  7. One other down side to gallery wraps is dirt and dust on the top edge is difficult to clean without damaging the paint layer. If you decide to frame later, it is more expensive because of the depth. Float frames protect the painting and still have a contemporary look. You can have a wider space around the canvas so you can see the painted sides as well.

  8. French Fries look great on paper plates. Ice cream looks tasty in a cone. JMB’s look at home with rags and tags and strings. No right or wrong looks better. You choose and don’t follow the trend follow your heart.

  9. Framing is expensive and, yes, most galleries want framed work. But so often you (the artist) doesn’t get his/her money back for a long time since most galleries work on consignment plus a 30-day payment plan after the sale. For canvases I like a 2″ or more stretcher with the canvas tacked on the back and the edges of the canvas painted all around. Works on paper have to be framed or in some cases shrink wrapped, but the frame makes it more saleable, as like the gallery wrapped canvas it is ready to hang. This has always been a dilemma and something of an issue for me. I like to work on paper as well as canvas and am on a tight budget. Galleries in general do not help with framing costs, and if the work doesn’t sell you get it back with a scratched or dinged frame that you are stuck with.

  10. I can still remember, when i used to sell his work for under 100,000 $ happy days
    Yes i di use this technique from time to time, many kind thanks

  11. I frame by the gut. As I work on a piece, I get a feel for what kid of frame it will need, how I’d like it to look. But I also talk with the framer and get his opinion on my thoughts. It works for me. I like a mat on certain works. Used to make my own strip frames for canasses, very carefully. I am not into ‘rough.’

    Donna Veeder

  12. I’m an abstract painter. When I got tired of frames coming back from galleries and shows damaged, I switched to gallery wrap canvases and cradled wood panels and have never looked back. The latter are not only easier to ship, they’re preferred by many galleries because they’re so much easier to handle than works under glass.
    In the seven years since I made the switch, only one canvas and one cradled panel have suffered damage while in a show or a gallery. In both cases the damage was minor and easily repaired. Compare this to the large pile of dinged and scratched unusable frames I accumulated in the seven years leading up to the switch and it’s easy to see why changing over to gallery wrap supports was the right move. Not only did it solve the damage problem, it saved me a small fortune in the long run.

    • I agree with you Lynn. Shipping and sending canvas is much easier and less expensive than framed items. Buyers need to make their own decisions about framing so that it compliments their decor.

      I consider myself a painter not a framer.

    • I so agree with Lynn Edwards. I have so many frames that have been damaged while in shows. I also have switched over to the deep canvas and cradled panels.

  13. Frames brought my high school art students’ work up several notches in their eyes. We bought a set of large frames for the class and then used different sized mats as needed. Over the years, the students always anticipated the projects that would grace the frames and then hang in the halls of the school where the community and other students admired them. It was a significant expense initially, but as they were used for many years, they turned out to be a fantastic investment. Thanks for the thoughts on this Sarah.

  14. David Martin on

    I buy the majority of “my”frames from either Goodwill or Salvation Army. It requires persaverrance but good deals are nearly always at hand.

    Be patient and don’t forget the tape measure!

  15. I’m not new to art, but I am new to painting. I figure that paintings look better framed, because the frame separates the image from the wall. I also figure that a wrap makes life easier and saves on money and time. So…I do both. My finished paintings are a wrap with a painted faux frame.

  16. I like to think of a frame as a device for setting the world created in the painting aside from everyday life. This was most appropriate for traditional representational painting. Larger, abstract works sometimes feel constrained by frames. As an abstract painter, I have not used frames for many years, but dusting off old work for a retrospective, I find the old portraits definitely need framing.

  17. as we get older it is so much easier to carry the gallery wrap to shows & galleries. Guess I am lucky that I like the look and the painting of the edges to match front & sometimes add a little supprize on the side

    • Janet Bradbury on

      Thank you again for your letter, Sara – I always look forward to reading them. However, I want to give you some critical feedback this time: I find you a little ‘over wordy’ and I had difficulty following your line of thought. Usually I love you poetic style – but there was a little bit of ‘trying too hard’ for me, this time.
      However, it doesn’t put me off looking forward to your next piece. :)

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