Framing for Plein Air

“A frame should be such in character and tone as to be a transition from the wall into the picture. It should not be seen for its own sake, neither for its simplicity nor for its “gingerbread.” When we have seen a well-framed picture, we never recall even the presence of a frame, and that is true of either a good or bad picture. The arrogant statement that a good picture “looks well in any frame” is not as true as the statement that a good picture well framed becomes more beautiful.”   

quote from Carlson’s Guide To Landscape Painting by John F. Carlson 1973.

With regard to plein air painting, I try to keep my paintings in standard sizes. Working on canvas board helps with that.

Standard sizes in frames are 8 x 10, 12 x 16, 16 x 20, 18 x 24, 24 x 30, 30 x 40.

It’s also best for the artist who is working plein air (outdoors) to stick with a size that they can comfortably capture the light before it moves. There’s nothing more frustrating than chasing the light.  The plein air painter can capture the true feel of the color and light in the atmosphere outdoors and then finish details in the studio. My ramblings here about framing that pertain to smaller size paintings.

There are many ways to approach framing a piece of art. First of all, consider what the art is made of. Paper should be framed under glass. So if the art  is on paper such as watercolor paper, pastel paper or print making paper, buy a frame that will require a mat and has glass. Framing art on paper has a whole other set of choices on mats and types of glass which I’m not covering here.

If the art is on canvas, canvas board, Masonite, heavy acid free cardboard, or something solid, it does not need to be framed under glass  Oil paintings and acrylic paintings should probably not be framed under glass. Plus, an oil painting takes a year or so to dry thoroughly. I believe in letting an oil painting breathe. 

One other thing while it’s on my mind. Don’t place your framed fine art on a wall where sunlight will hit it. “Something bad will happen!”

With reference to my landscape paintings, the smaller ones are all oil, on either canvas board, or on linen canvas that has been glued to acid free book making board. My suggestion are:

  • Easiest but not cheapest thing to do is take it to a good framer


  • Take the painting to Michaels or someplace where they sell frames. Most plein air frames are plain brown, black or gold. No glass and no mat. Hold the painting next to frames and see what frame look best. You’ll know the best choice instantly.


  • Do some research and go to Jerry’s Artarama or Dick Blick and see what they sell to artists. Try to find something close to that at Michaels or order a frame from Jerrys, Dick Blick etc.

I was using my own advice at Michaels the other day and was holding my painting titled Spring in Bloom next to the brown and black frames – they looked way too heavy. Finally a fairly light colored gold frame caught my eye and it looked best with my painting, but it came with a mat and glass. I bought the frame and got rid of the mat and the glass.

Spring in Bloom framed web

Another quote from Carlson’s Guide To Landscape Painting by John F. Carlson 1973: 

While there has been a strong leaning in recent years toward white and natural frames. I do not believe that anything is more beautiful or more sensitive than a fine gold frame. The exception is in the case of water colors or pastels, which, because of their delicacy, look best in a light frame. Gold leaf, properly toned with the desired color-cast, is a surface that seems to form the transition from wall to picture for any painting in oil;

With all that said, nothing is set in stone. Hopefully this will give you an idea of what to look for when pursuing a good looking frame.

Lastly, since I do a lot of work on a larger scale and intend to get bigger with my landscapes, my large paintings are on stretched canvas or cradled birch. They are not necessarily standard sizes. I like to carry the art and paint around the sides, giving one the opportunity to frame it if you want or hang it as is. I guess you might call this gallery wrapped even though it’s actually painterly wrapped.

I have found with my large figurative work in the past, that metal leaf and brush leafed frames have always looked best with my work. I’m not sure that’s going to be true with the landscape. This is new territory. I would love to see what you do with your framing.



1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s