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Bellanca side view unframed painting

To Frame, or Not To Frame?
Advice on Hanging and Exhibiting Paintings in Your Home

Dear Mrs. Biddington,

At a recent charity auction, I bought what I think is a good contemporary oil painting on canvas. Can I hang this picture unframed, or must I frame it? (It's leaning against the wall for the time being.)

If my painting needs to be framed, how do I go about selecting a frame that looks right? (I stopped by my local framers for inspiration and left hopelessly confused by the vast selection of options offered.)

What advice do you have when it comes to framing and hanging contemporary paintings?


Dear Chris,

How, or if, to frame a painting is a significant decision. A quality frame represents a substantial expense. A poorly chosen frame can ruin the appearance of the painting, while an appropriate one can make it shine. I'll try--if you'll forgive me a small jest--to frame the issues for you.

Can an oil painting hang safely without a frame?

Providing that the stretcher, (the wooden structure on which the canvas is stretched), is solid and reasonably thick, then the painting can be wired to hang without a frame. Since artworks are much safer on the wall than on the floor, we would suggest your doing this immediately while you debate whether or not to proceed with framing. (Please refer to the notes at the end of the article for specifics on wiring a painting properly for hanging.)

This unframed approach to exhibiting a painting means that the viewer focuses entirely on the artwork itself--both the good points and the flaws. Since the edges where the canvas wraps around the stretcher are usually studded with nails or staples and enhanced with paint dribbles, the unframed presentation is somewhat raw: It is like seeing the artwork in the artist's studio or in an informal show rather than in a gallery where a more finished presentation is the norm.

Pros: Wiring is inexpensive and easy. It allows the artwork to stand entirely alone.

Cons: Wiring offers no protection or reinforcement to the painting. If the stretcher is not sturdy enough, the weight of hanging may cause it to warp, sag or split. An unframed artwork will surely provoke your more fastidious friends to ask when you plan to frame it.

Stan Bering side of paintings Interesting exceptions: A few artists make paintings that are meant to hang unframed. In the photo of Todd Bellanca's studio (at the beginning of this article), we see a deep canvas with a clean crisp side that gives a sculptural look to the unframed piece. In the group of paintings shown at the right, another painter has made an effort to deal with the sides of his paintings by continuing the colors around the edges of each work.

Of course, most paintings do NOT have finished sides, so let's consider the possibilities for framing a typical painting to achieve a polished presentation.

What Kind of Frame to Choose?

Napierala framed painting

While frames offer structural support and protection, paintings are reasonably safe once they are mounted on the wall. So, the primary judgment in framing paintings is a visual one. The frame gives a more finished look to the painting and helps define the boundaries of the artwork. This result can be achieved subtly or emphatically.

The wooden frame on this Jim Napierala abstract painting (left) shows how understated a framing job can be. The painting floats against a background with a bit of space between it and the surrounding white molding. This basic floater frame stops the eye and presents the artwork in an inconspicuous, but buttoned-up, manner.

Van Deren unframed painting

The more a frame draws attention to itself, the more it distances the viewer from the artwork and turns a painting into an object. These three examples at the right show a large Nancy Van Deren abstract painting first unframed, next with the addition of a handsome traditional gilt frame, then finally with a geometric silver one.

Van Deren gilt framed painting

The fine, substantial carved frame gives the artwork a grand and formal appearance, and also brings out the warm gold and red tones in the painting. (The red bole ground peeking through the gold leaf amplifies this affect.)

Van Deren gilt framed painting

For a completely different look, a crisp silvered wood molding reinforces the artwork's cool blues and greens and lends the painting a more architectural, modernist appearance.

In this instance, both framing choices present the painting appropriately (but differently), and this painting shows nicely unframed, too. Here the decision would be largely one of personal preference guided by the style of your home decor.

What Width of Frame Works Best?

Lisa Dinhofer unframed painting The proportion of the frame to the painting can be adjusted to alter the appearance of the painting. This small, unframed painting by contemporary painter Lisa Dinhofer becomes a jewel-like object when fitted into its wide antique wooden frame with gold border. (The artist herself chose this antique frame to complement this piece; on occasion, she discovers an interesting frame, then fashions a canvas to suit it.)

Lisa Dinhofer wood and gilt framed painting Providing a small painting is strong enough to hold its own visually, a large frame can be useful in reinforcing the importance of an artwork. In a purely practical sense, a wide frame can make a small work big enough to hold a larger expanse of wall. Remember, the greater the proportion of frame and its visual importance, the more a painting becomes transformed into an art object. (See this wide, intricate Stanford White frame for an example of a painting subsumed by gilded wood.)

In framing a medium or large size contemporary painting, less is more. A narrow (3/8 or 1/2 inch) floater molding can properly present even a very large artwork. Rule of Thumb: When in doubt select too thin over too thick. Surrounding a large expanse of canvas, a heavy molding tends to read as clunky.

What Framing Material Works Best?

Floater Frame Molding

You may have noted that these examples all use wooden frames. While metal frames such as stainless steel or aluminum may be suitable for works on paper, metal can be difficult to pair with paintings on canvas. In general, wooden moldings with their many options of sizes and finishes offer the best choices for a home environment. Wood framing is available in a price range that can accommodate nearly all budgets.

Rule of Thumb: Consider the frame as background. Unless an eye-catching frame completes the painting to perfection, try choosing instead a simple molding with a subdued finish. A low key frame lets your painting be the star.

Good luck with your project!

Augusta Biddington

materials for wiring a painting
How to Wire a Painting for Hanging
2 eye screws of appropriate scale (When inserted, they should pierce the stretcher about one/half inch--enough to hold securely but not enough to weaken the stretcher; err on the small side.)
Woven picture wire. (Enough to cross the width of the painting plus 6-8 inches with a strength sufficient to support at least twice the weight of the painting.)
1) Mark 2 points on the inside of the two side stretcher bars about 25% down from the top of the canvas.
2) Screw the eyes into the stretcher being careful not to apply pressure to the stretched area of the canvas.
3) Measure a piece of wire the width of the canvas plus 6-8 inches.
4) Thread the wire through the first screw twice then neatly wrap the remaining wire around itself.
5) Pull the wire across the back of the painting so it is not quite taut (allow about 1 inch of give), then repeat the threading process on the second side.
6) To hang the painting, use an appropriately strong hook, i.e. one that can support double the weight of the painting. If the painting has a center stretcher bar, avoid it by using two hooks spaced about 3 inches apart. The painting should hang as flush to the wall as possible.

Ask Mrs. Biddington Archives:
Ask Mrs. B--Cleaning Paintings & Works on Paper
Ask Mrs. B--Framing Prints & Works on Paper
Ask Mrs. B--Lace Restoration
Ask Mrs. B--Lace Cleaning
Ask Mrs. B--Liquidating an Estate
Ask Mrs. B--Humidity & Fine Objects
Ask Mrs. B--Roseville and Removing Spray Paint
Ask Mrs. B--Care of Doll Hair


The thrill of the auction is over--for the moment. With art & antiques, pleasure also comes from acquiring the specialized knowledge involved in their preservation. Even experienced collectors may not know exactly how to care for fine art. At BIDDINGTON'S, upmarket, online art auctions & art gallery, our in-house oracle on fine art preservation and restoration procedures is Augusta Biddington. Mrs. Biddington is an old hand at old things. Unfortunately, Mrs. Biddington is no longer able to provide answers to specific questions.

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