Fashions in frames

Your frame can’t be all things to everyone, but it’s helpful to know where it stands in the currents of fickle fashion.
Me, with the usual assortment of plein air event frames.

I keep an inventory of frames in my garage in the common sizes in which I paint en plein air, ranging from 6X8 up to 18X24. This takes up considerable space and represents an even more considerable investment. Inevitably, despite careful management, there are some losses—damaged frames, sizes I no longer work in, or—the worst—frames that have gone out of style.

Some go back twenty years. These are black and gold with corner medallions and carving, and I only use them in a pinch. Still, I keep them. The moment I get rid of them, they’ll be back in style.
Picture frames aren’t usually considered a fashion item, but like everything else in the home, they are tied to décor trends. There were elaborate Baroque frames, simple mid-century frames, and modern, minimalist frames—and many subtle shifts within each of these periods.
Apple blossom swing, by Carol L. Douglas. Courtesy Camden Falls Gallery. This is a favorite frame style, but it must be built in two sections.
The current plein airframe is usually a gold, silver or dark wood slab frame with minimal ornamentation. It’s widely available and easy to use. But does it actually reflect modern tastes in decorating? Well, yes and no. Look through Elle Décor’s pages at the frames and artwork. While metal finishes are making something of a comeback, farmhouse chic (which means barnwood) is still pretty popular. There are more ‘frameless’ and all-white frames than there are metallics.
The question isn’t what we like, but what our buyers want. My age cohort still loves gold frames, but we’re a shrinking market. Millennials say they want minimalism, low-maintenance and modern, with wood and stone surfaces. Mid-century modern and rustic may be fading overall, but they remain strong influences in this group.
Breaking dawn, by Carol L. Douglas. This is a frame syle popular in the Canadian Maritimes.
There are regional differences. My Canadian friend Poppy Balser and I navigate the shoals of cross-border framing every year. Nova Scotians prefer a simpler style with a plain white liner and thin fillet. To our American eyes it looks cheap (it’s not). Our heavy gold plein air frames look tacky to them. I’ve come to love the Canadian frame, but it’s hard to get here.
There are limits to how trendy one can be at plein air events. Oil and acrylic painters generally work on boards, so mass-produced floater frames don’t fit. Even if we were to switch back to canvas, they must be carefully positioned and then screwed down. That’s too hard to do on the back deck of a hatchback. Metallic paint is fine because it can be patched, but gilt and fine wood surfaces are too fragile to move around in a car over bad roads. In most shows, frameless isn’t an option.
Drying sails, by Carol L. Douglas. This frame was an old standby for many years. It clashes with nothing, but clients sometimes complain that it’s too dark.
I’ve been coveting Taos by King of Frames for over a year now, ever since I saw it at Jane Chapin’s house. It’s simple, elegant, and too pricey for a plein air event frame. For the second year in a row, I’ve reluctantly passed on it.
Frames are as subjective as the paintings they contain, but they send strong signals to buyers. You can’t be all things to everyone, but it’s helpful to know where you stand in the bigger currents of fashion.

The most expensive lesson I never learned

Sometimes it’s cheaper to let the pros do it.
Clary Hill, watercolor, by Carol L. Douglas
If you ever work in watercolor or pastel, you know the framing cost for those media is much higher than for oils. That’s because they’re fussy and difficult to frame properly. I occasionally use both in the field but not for events; I can’t deal with glazing and spacers in the high-tension moments at the end of a show. The worst injury I’ve ever sustained as a painter happened when I was levering a large sheet of glass into a frame. It snapped under its own weight and sliced my hand. That kind of thing makes you cautious.
Last autumn I did a residency at the Joseph Fiore Art Center. The result was eight oils and eight watercolors, all 24X36. One of each will be on display at the Maine Farmland Trust Gallery starting next week; later this year the whole set will go to the Jackson Memorial Library. It’s difficult to find a frame that works well with both oils and watercolor, but after much searching I found it in a deep, shadow-box moulding from Omega. I ordered enough material for sixteen frames. It has been sitting in the corner of my studio for a month, waiting for me to find the time to start.
Clary Hill, oil on canvas, by Carol L. Douglas
If you’ve done a lot of framing you should be wincing by now at the cost of this venture. The moulding was $800 for the stock alone. I went out yesterday to find the proper glazing material for the watercolors. (It’s easier to find a picture framer than a chain clothing store in my neck of the woods, and that’s how life should be.) The glazing would be between $90 and $140 per picture, depending on what I chose. Each watercolor would also need foam core, mat-board and spacers.
But being professionals, they wanted the frame in hand before they started cutting into their expensive materials. I’d have to return with it this morning.
Glade, watercolor, by Carol L. Douglas
“Then what,” I asked, “would the cost be to assemble the whole thing right here?” The price they gave me was only marginally higher than the materials cost. Bam! I’m dropping off the test picture this morning and they can do the fiddly bits. If it looks as good as I expect it will, they can do all eight of the watercolors.
I can usually copy most things I’ve seen built, and I take pride in craftsmanship, but I’m always working with home tools. I don’t, for example, have a power stapler; I join corners with careful gluing and brackets. Their joiners and staplers don’t just make things faster; they result in tighter, neater work. And while making things is fun, it’s hardly what you want to do when pressed, as I am right now.
Float, oil on canvas, by Carol L. Douglas
I’m in a point in my life where my scarcest asset is time, rather than money. But it’s never occurred to me to hire out work I can do myself. Still, maybe there are times it’s better to let the pros do it.
“I need an admin,” I whined to my upcoming portrait client yesterday afternoon.
“Virtual assistants are the thing. And usually at an attractive fee, too,” she responded. How that works, I don’t know, but perhaps it’s time to find out.

Swanning-around song

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,   
But I have promises to keep,   
And miles to go before I sleep,   
And miles to go before I sleep. (Robert Frost)
Full stop, by Carol L. Douglas

Route 3 from Augusta to Belfast is my least-favorite nighttime road. I love my Prius but it’s a small car. I’ve avoided any deer in its quarter of a million miles; I do not want to hit a moose. But inland and over is the quickest route from Ocean Park to Castine, ME. I struggled to see as the road wound and dipped around lakes and hills. As I approached Belfast, I saw a skunk doing his little shuffle on the shoulder of the road. He was small and it was late. Had I hit him, both of us would have been grieved.

Luckily, I only drive this way once a year, on the way from Ocean Park Art in the Park to Castine Plein Air. Since I love both shows equally, the late-night drive is a necessity.
Russel Whitten took a short break to give a painting lesson on his way into the show and sale.
I finished framing yesterday with enough time to paint the small study at the top of this post. Rarely is that last painting worthwhile. I’m tired and rushed and should be cleaning up and preparing for the next event, instead of trying to crank one more painting out. That’s particularly true when doing two events back-to-back. In this case, I was more than happy with the results.
Framing on the road.
I can frame quickly because I work in standard sizes. I keep a log on my phone of the frames I’m carrying and the ones I’ve used so far. I’ve included a small photo essay about the tools and materials for framing. It’s the unglamorous part of plein air events, but it’s very important.
A glazing-point driver is a necessity for the serious plein air painter. This one is made by Fletcher.
I used to carry a cordless drill, but this old fellah is more accurate and lighter.
All the hardware I’ll ever need is in this case.
It is the collectors who make plein air events possible. In Ocean Park, Jean C. Hager-Rich has been a loyal supporter since the beginning. She tries to be the first in, makes quick decisions, and supports everyone with impartiality. A collector like Jean can set the tone for the whole event.
Equally important are our hosts, who open their homes and their lives to us for several days each summer. And then there are the volunteers, whose titles may be grand but whose tasks tend toward the humble.
After leaving Ocean Park, I zoomed around in the hills for what seemed like hours (because it was hours). I arrived at my hosts’ house shortly before 11. Harry met me at the door, concerned at my late arrival. Normally his wife is here to greet me, but she is swanning around the Eastern Seaboard. In the last three weeks, she has zoomed from Maine to New Jersey to Montreal, back to New Jersey, and then to Pennsylvania. She is returning to Maine today.
I need to recruit her as my wingman; clearly we are soul sisters.

Sometimes things don’t go as planned

A whole pile of potential. Stock cut for seven frames.
I chose a thin, contemporary molding for my show at Roberts Wesleyan’s Davison Gallery, because it’s a sleek, contemporary space. I had a feeling this frame stock might be somewhat slender for such large pictures, so it was no big surprise when I released the clamp from the first frame I’d glued and the joints peeled apart in my hand. No matter how strong the glue, wood is heavy and a tiny contact surface can’t support a lot of weight. (Frame shops use V-nailers or underpinners to join miters, but they start at around $1200, so aren’t appropriate for the casual framer. And in most cases, glue is sufficient.)
I prefer doing this job in my outdoor wood shop but it was 12° F. when I started. The glue would have frozen instead of setting. Next best place: my studio. The tools you need (in addition to a miter saw) are a drill, wood glue, strap clamps, a paintbrush to assure you’ve applied the glue evenly, and a mallet to tap the corners down so the two sides are flush with each other.
We’re a one-car family and my husband was off playing his bass. That might have been a real problem, but I was saved by technology. I visited a big box store’s website, identified the correct flat corner braces, found a store that had enough of them in stock, and bought them online. They texted my husband’s phone when the order was ready for pickup. He collected them on his way home. It was a matter of two hours to install the plates, and now I’m relatively certain that these frames could survive a minor earthquake.
You’re not going to get that mending plate on there straight without carefully marking and drilling pilot holes. At this point, the joints have been glued and clamped; the mending plate is the icing on the cake.

Interestingly, the depth of the molding wasn’t even from piece to piece, but as long as the mending plate was the same distance from the edge, I was happy.

I’ve posted about how to make frames before. If you can cut an accurate 45° angle (which is as much about having a good saw as it is about having woodworking skills) you can make decent frames in a home workshop. Affixing mending plates to a thin molding is a bit trickier, because they must be aligned perfectly so that they don’t show from the front and don’t impede installing the painting from the back. The only way I know how to do that is by careful marking and drilling pilot holes.
Two hours later, a whole heap of happiness. I can curse the never-ending winter or thank God I have a spare room in which these big frames can rest until they’re needed. Which will be tomorrow morning, of course.
Despite the supports, I’ll affix the hangers to the stretchers, not the frames. No sense tempting fate.


Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Now, if I can just remember my paint

View from Owl’s Nest.
Anyone who thinks the life of an artist is all glamour ought to try doing the framing, wrapping and pricing before a show. It’s done, and my painting tools are packed, and I’m ready to leave for Maine in the morning.
Painting tools for three people, plus my teaching supplies (in the pink bag). My trusty Prius is going to be stuffed full.
I store my paint in my freezer.  That occasionally results in my forgetting it. (I’m thinking of tying a bandanna to my backpack as a mental cue.) Usually, my forgetfulness results in nothing more annoying than an afternoon sketching rather than painting, but it would simply not do to take off to Maine for a week of teaching without paint.
So it’s off to Maine tomorrow, by easy stages. Sadly, that means I will be too late to attend Rockland’s Summer Solstice Street Fair, but if you get there before me, be sure to go.

And the paintings, wrapped and ready to move.
And if you haven’t signed up for my Rochester classes or Maine workshops, what on earth are you waiting for? August and September are sold out for my workshop at Lakewatch Manor in Rockland, ME… and the other sessions are selling fast.  Join us in July and October, but please hurry! Check here for more information.

Rolling out my Q&A column

These are a few of my favorite things…

My media advisor suggested I do an occasional Q&A column. Today I was texted this great question, so no time like the present:
MM writes: I have an opportunity to show in NYC in June. My big (5’X4’) paintings have been taken off their stretchers and rolled. I am planning on making some frames and mounting the paintings on PVA on Masonite board. I’m not sure how to varnish them. They’ve been dry for months, but appear duller than when first executed.
Dear MM: First off, I question your strategy of mounting the canvases on Masonite. It’s terrifically heavy, and you are working with large canvases. I recommend you re-stretch the canvases.
As you’re framing them immediately, you can get away with lighter stretchers than you would typically use, so long as the stretchers are firmly secured to the frame itself. (You can screw them together from the inside; just make sure you don’t trap the canvas or break through the outer wall of the frame.)
I would not varnish them until they are secure because they are already stiff from having been rolled.
Oil paints don’t really dry in the sense that, say, your laundry or your hair does. The solvent—turpentine or mineral spirits—evaporates in a matter of hours, but the oil and pigments react with oxygen over time to form a hard surface. This process is called oxidation, and while most of it happens soon after you lay down your brush, the process never really stops.
A varnishing orgy for one of my students.

What you are seeing as “dullness” is the result of that oxidation. It is efflorescence, sometimes called blooming. You can avoid this to some degree by strictly following the “fat over lean” methods of traditional oil painting, but all paintings benefit from judicious varnishing.

Because the process of oxidation is slow and ongoing, you should wait several months to varnish. The idea is to put on a removable layer so that conservators can keep the layers separate when the world finally recognizes your genius.
I generally wipe down my paintings with Winsor & Newton’s Artists’ Picture Cleaner before applying a coat of varnish. However, you must watch carefully to be certain that your paint isn’t lifting while you’re cleaning. And I have a strong preference for matte varnish. The best of these are a combination of beeswax and varnish—use any reputable brand that you want. Apply a thin layer with a broad flat brush. Check it after it dries to make sure that the varnish isn’t “sinking,” and if it appears to have done so, apply another thin layer.
Never use your varnish as a medium, or vice versa. Varnishes are designed to be removed with solvent; this lead to problems like this. And just spend the money to buy a pre-made varnish. (If you doubt the wisdom of that, visit the Albright-Knox and see how badly some of those mid-century masterpieces have aged.)
Having said all that, I happily imagine that some conservator will write to tell me I’m doing it all wrong. Which is great; that is how I have learned everything I know.
Of course there’s still time to join us for a fantastic time in mid-Coast Maine this summer, check here for more information. There’s still room in my workshops.