4 Elements of an Attractive Picture Frame

Written by Tim Smith of Carter Avenue Frame Shop
Updated January 21, 2016
artwork in frame on wall
Experts say a good frame won't detract from the picture it's framing. (Photo courtesy of member Mohammed R. of Shrewsbury, Mass.)

One highly rated provider explains the most important elements to choosing a frame to display your artwork in way that compliments the art itself.

Designing an attractive framing presentation for your art is neither rocket science nor a one-frame-fits-all formula. Good design begins by taking many related elements into account including the art itself, its surroundings and your taste. 

Of course, the most intangible factor is the imagination and creativity that can make the difference between ho-hum presentation of your art and truly inspired design. Below are four elements to consider when choosing a frame.

1. Picture frame color

One of the biggest design mistakes that people make is allowing the framing to take the visual interest away from their art. Good framing design adds to the overall presentation of your art, but it shouldn’t be allowed to steal the show.

Color selection is one of the most important and sometimes misunderstood elements of framing design. Whether you are drawn to tropical colors, black and white or some palate in-between, few things have more immediate impact on your artwork than the colors that surround it. For that reason, frame design almost always begins with choosing a mat color.

Mat selection is very important because it provides the visual space in which your art will be displayed. It is crucial that the mat color does not overpower your artwork. 

First, you need to understand that mat colors often do exactly the opposite of what you might expect intuitively. For example, using a light mat on a dark image does not make the image lighter; it actually intensifies the dark color. Dark mats often overwhelm lighter images.

To enhance the focal point of the art, it is best to use mat colors that coordinate with the background color(s) of the art. Unless the tints and hues of your mats coordinate with your art, they will compete for attention with the art. 

Ideally, the intensity of the mat color should be similar to the dominant colors of the art. In other words, dark pictures need dark mats, and lighter pictures need lighter mats. Of course, there are always exceptions. Certain art pieces are best served by neutral colored mats or deliberately contrasting colors.

2. Scale for picture frames

Why do clowns riding tiny bicycles look so funny? Because the bicycles and riders are wildly out of proportion with one another. The same thing can happen to your artwork if you don’t pay proper attention to the scale when choosing a framing design.

Artwork varies from images with lots of delicate detail to images that have a single strong visual element. Some pieces are tiny and some are huge. The scale of the frame and the width of the mat must be matched to the visual strength and the scale of the art. 

Strong pieces need strong frames and wider mats so the frame does not look spindly and the art isn’t crowded in the frame. Special care must be taken with delicate pieces since they can be overwhelmed by frames that are too dark or too large.

Size isn’t the only measure of an image’s strength. If you had a postcard from Harry S. Truman, its historical interest may dictate stronger framing than the souvenir postcard you got from your uncle in Florida. Conversely, your oversized modern art poster may call for a very simple frame.

3. Style of frames

As much as you would like your modern geometric abstract to fit into your room filled with antique portraits, framing it in a gold Victorian frame is not going to do justice to your abstract. Similarly, a frilly feminine figure study will not look good in a shiny angular metal frame. 

The historic period, overall feel and style of your art often give hints to the type of frame that will be appropriate. Some pieces lend themselves to different treatments such as a Rembrandt poster that could be framed simply as a show poster or rather ornately to reflect the style of frames used on Rembrandt’s originals. 

Sometimes mixing styles can be very interesting as long as you’re following our cardinal rule about not letting the framing take over the artwork.

4. Textures and patterns of picture frames

You don’t have to be a great connoisseur of wood to realize that the different grains and textures of a molding have a huge influence on its overall appearance. For example, the rough grain of an oak frame is often best suited for casual, outdoorsy pictures. The texture of a maple frame, by contrast, has a completely different feel.

The same goes for the mats. Different textured mats can make either a more dramatic or subtle transition between the art and frame. Today there are a wide variety of interesting textured mats and frames.

Sometimes patterns in the art can be tastefully mirrored in the frame design to great effect. If there is a strong architectural element in a building, for example, sometimes using a frame and/or fillet with a similar pattern can bring unity to the whole package. 

Strongly patterned frames can be very dramatic, so they must be used with care. Sometimes our when our customers fall in love with strongly patterned frames that are clearly inappropriate for the artwork they came in to frame, we suggest using those frames on mirrors. There is no frame on our wall that would not make a great mirror somewhere.

Once all of these elements come together, we’ve reached the end of a successful framing journey. There is nothing more satisfying for us than working with you to select a framing treatment that sets off your art, draws rave reviews from your friends and, most importantly, gives you years of enjoyment.

About this Angie’s List Expert: Tim Smith is the owner of Carter Avenue Frame Shop, providing custom framing services in the Twin Cities area. Since 1985, Carter Avenue Frame Shop has specialized in custom picture framing designs, picture and photo preservation and an eclectic art selection. They are also a recipient of the 2012 Angie’s List Super Service Award.

As of Jan. 21, 2016, this service provider was highly rated on Angie's List. Ratings are subject to change based on consumer feedback, so check Angie's List for the most up-to-date reviews. The views expressed by this author do not necessarily reflect those of Angie's List.