The Guide To Framing

Let’s start by looking at what a frame is. Pretty obviously, more than anything it is to keep the artwork flat against a wall and safe from being bumped or crushed. Yet in the act of framing, something happens. Whether we like it or not we have made a statement in relation to the artwork.

Just to divert for one second – by artwork I mean anything that can be framed – a painting, drawing, photograph, collage, a Weetabix packet, whatever.

There’s no choice but to recognise that framing is about proportions and space. The thing you are framing has dimensions and that has to be the starting point. Down through the years, though, some things have been discovered about these dimensions. Or rather, the ratio of the horizontal to the vertical of the frame. Even a circular frame has an aspect ratio. It is square – the vertical is the same dimension as the horizontal. And the same is true for an oval or elliptical shape. There is a height and a width.

You can use these rules that have come down through the ages as a guide to framing artwork. And because those ratios are everywhere, you are influenced by them even if you deviate from them.

Classical Framing Rules

There are classical framing rules, and there is evidence that the rules are hard-wired into our brains. That may be because of the way the world around us is constructed, or because we are part of that designed world of Nature.

Or to put it another way, there is evidence of ‘rules’ of composition throughout nature, and that may be why these rules exist in classical art and design.

The Fibonacci Series in Nature and Classical Design

The Fibonacci mathematical series is simple. Each number in the series is the sum of the two preceding ones It is common to start with zero and one. So, add them, and add the answer to the larger of the two numbers that have just been added.

So starting with zero and one, we add them and get the answer of one. Now add the larger of the two numbers to the previous answer, which is one plus one, which is two. Add two to one and that gives three. Then add three to two and that gives five. And now add five to three and that gives eight. Repeat, and repeat.

0 + 1 = 1
1 + 1 = 2
1 + 2 = 3
2 + 3 = 5
3 + 5 = 8 etc.

Soon the ratio of the larger number to the sum of the larger and smaller numbers emerges.

If we construct rectangles with sides that are in the ratios of the series (1:1, 1:2, 2:3, etc) and set them one on another, and draw a curve to follow the corners of the rectangles, a spiral emerges.

And that spiral is echoed in nature in seashells and fruit and flowers and endless features of the natural world. We see it in the spiral layout of the head of a sunflower. And we see it in a nautilus shell and many other places in the natural world.

fibonacci illustration and its relationship to framing artwork

The Golden Section

In the example above we only got as far as 5:8. But if we keep going, the ratio approaches one that is used in classical art and architecture. The ratio can trace its history as far back as the Ancient Greeks. It is known as the Golden Section, the Golden Mean, the Divine Proportion or the Greek letter Phi.

The ratio is that such that when a line is divided into two parts and the longer part divided by the shorter part, it gives the same result as diving the whole line by the longer part. In this illustration, the Golden Section is the ratio of the blue part to the whole rod when it is also the ratio of the blue part to the green part. And that ratio (phi) is 1.618:1

the golden mean illustrated by a blue and green rod and its relationship to framing artwork

That ratio is used over and over in what is known as the classical tradition of design in art and architecture. Turn the two parts of the rod at 90º to one another and we have the proportions of a room, or a doorway, or a picture frame.

Picture Frames Today

Now fast forward to today. A glance at the picture frames on sale in any store or art gallery will show that there are many standard frames sizes. But they also come in long and thin, short and squat, and every ratio in between. Paintings themselves come in all sizes and shapes. The same with photography.

Film Camera Formats

Between different film cameras there is a variety in the ratio of the longer side to the shorter side of the film. For example, the proportions of the frame of the film for a 35mm film camera – the kind that has been around since the original Leica made by Oscar Barnack at the start of the 20th century, is 3:2, or 1.5:1. There are many ratios of film for medium format film cameras – 3:2, 4:3, 1:1, 6:7, and 6:9. Large format cameras use film with proportions 3:2, 5:4, or any of a number of other proportions.

Digital Camera Sensor Formats

This variety of formats is also found in digital cameras. The sensors in Digital SLRs (single lens reflex cameras) are usually 3:2. The sensors in ‘Point and Shoot’ compact cameras are usually in the proportions 4:3. But there are some compacts that have sensors in other proportions, such as 16:9. Micro four thirds cameras are specifically designed with 4:3 sensors as a standard that can be used by various manufacturers.

So whether starting with film or digital images, the variety of formats means that as often as not the starting point (the image itself) is not in the proportions of the classical tradition.

Making Use Of The Space Around Artwork

If we frame a photograph so that it fits the right to the edge of the paper, then we have no choice about the proportions of the frame.

However, if we set the image within a mounting mat, that can be any size and proportions. Some choices will feel right, and we are likely to make a better job if we know the rules of classical composition.

We may choose to follow rules of classical proportions or we may choose some other proportions. Whatever we decide, we have the opportunity to surround and set off the image and make it look more pleasing to our eyes.

Framing and Mounting Mats

Here are a few opinions that may help. A thick mat with a bevelled window looks a lot better than a mat made of thin paper. Setting the image just slightly above dead centre so that there is more border below than above the image prevents the image looking static or top heavy.

Choose a colour for the mounting mat that registers as little as possible so it doesn’t clash with the image. Stark white can be a problem because it can overpower the image. Off-white is a good choice. 

The Frame Itself

The more you pay for a frame, the more colour choices you have. Cheap frames tend to come in a restricted range of colours. Black can be overly dramatic and can swamp a photograph. White too can fight and overpower a photograph. Mid grey shouts out that it’s a cheap frame.

There is a trick to working with complementary colours and understanding how they work together. Other people have been there before you, and there are countless examples of good colour palettes. Just look at advertisements for classy department stores. Look at the advertisements for make-up because they have a lot of information about colour combinations that work. Then there are exhibitions in art galleries. Look at the walls to see how the colour was chosen to set off the paintings.

Then there are the artists themselves, From about the end of the 19th century, artists often integrated the frame into the painting and it became an extension of it. Looking at paintings and at the frames in galleries makes you see them in a whole new way. This can give you ideas about framing.

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