The Challenges of Framing Art

All I have to do is say the word “frame”, and I see artists get a dejected, depressed look in their eyes. Framing has long been the bane of painters, photographers, pastelists, pencil artists and all others who work in two-dimensions. Framing art is time-consuming and expensive, and just when you think you’ve found the right frame, your clients let you know otherwise.

Framing costs impact your bottom line and change the way you price your work. Finding a good framer in your area can prove an exhausting challenge.

 Is it any wonder that many artists are moving away from framing?

With all of those hurdles, is it any wonder that many artists are moving away from framing? Many artists who paint in a contemporary style are creating their work on box-stretched, gallery-wrapped canvases that don’t need to be framed. I’m also beginning to see artists who are painting in more traditional styles taking this approach. In my gallery, I have very few artists who are using a traditional frame.

That said, some artwork begs for a frame. Frames can add real elegance to a piece, and many art buyers with traditional homes simply won’t buy work that isn’t beautifully framed.

I frequently receive requests from artists to share my thoughts on framing, and I would like to take the opportunity to do so. I’m also interested in drawing on my readers collective wisdom in the framing department, so if you have some advice or input on the ins and outs of framing, please share your thoughts in the comments.

Finding the Right Frame

Client FrameOften, a client will see piece of artwork, fall in love with it, and then say, “but that frame has got to go.”  Is there anything more discouraging than having to reframe a piece when you put so much time and investment into framing it in the first place? Wouldn’t it be great if you could find exactly the right frame every time?

Well, you can’t. Everyone has different taste and different needs when it comes to presentation. The perfect frame for one buyer might not work at all for another. With that in mind, I suggest you find frames you feel do a great job of accentuating your artwork. For some artists that will be a simple, minimal frame, and for others it might be an ornate, gold-leafed frame. Employ your artistic eye to find the perfect match for your work, or find a framer who also has an artistic eye and have them help you find the right frame. Even though your clients may end up reframing the work down the road, at least if you have a frame you like and can reuse on a future piece.

I would also encourage you to aim for consistency. Sure, not all of your work can be framed in exactly the same way, but if you can keep your framing as consistent as possible, you will simplify the decision making process and your framing will become a part of your brand. I’ve worked with artists who limit their frames to three or four different mouldings.

How Much to Spend on a Frame

Of course, another major consideration is cost. Frames can run the gamut from $30 – $10,000 (and more), depending on the size of the piece and the quality of the frame. Understandably, many artist struggle with  making a big investment in a frame. It can be difficult to pay for framing when you are unsure that the piece will sell. The higher the framing cost, the lower the artist’s profit margin when the piece sells.

I’ve done some research into framing costs, and I found that among well-established artists, those who are selling in the $2,500-$10,000 range, many are spending 7-15% of the retail cost of the artwork to purchase the frame.

Pegging framing investment to retail price is a good place to start, and 7-15% is probably about the right target

I hesitate to give numbers like this because my research is far from scientific (it comes from conversations I’ve had over the last several years about framing and pricing), and because there are many caveats. As the price of the art goes up, for example, the % spent on framing can go down. Still, I think that pegging framing investment to retail price is a good place to start, and 7-15% is probably about the right target.

If your prices are low, you are going to be limited in the frame that you can afford. If you are selling a 24 x 30 at $500, your framing budget would be $35-$75. In framing, you get what you pay for, and you’re not going to be getting much at those prices.

Another interesting way to think about framing cost would be to look at it in reverse. Find a frame that you feel is absolutely spectacular – a frame you would love to buy if money were no object. Take the cost of that frame and divide it by 15% to find out what your retail price would need to be in order to justify the frame.  So, if the frame costs $400, you would get $400 / .15 = $2,666. Now, buy the frame, raise your price to where it would need to be in order to afford the frame, and go out and find a gallery where you can sell the work at that price.

Many successful artists consider framing to be an investment, not an expense.

Changing Frames

What if the frame you’ve chosen doesn’t end up working for your buyer? This happens all the time. You’ll still be glad you invested in a good quality frame – the buyer might simply have passed the work by otherwise. Now you have to figure out the logistics of changing the frame.

Here is how we typically handle the issue in the gallery. I will talk to the artist and find out how much the current frame is worth to them. I then offer that amount to the client as a framing allowance (or discount) against the retail price of the art. The client can then take the art to their own framer, or I will accompany them to our framer if they need help, and select their own frame.

Setting the Price on Framed Work

I am an advocate of developing a simple formula for pricing your work (watch my podcast with Barney Davey on the topic here). Often, artists ask, “how do I account for framing costs in my price?”

When developing the retail price for your work, you need to roll the frame into your formula and make sure that your costs are covered out of your portion of the commission. I’ve spoken with artists who would like to have a base price that would be used to set the gallery and artist commission, and then add their framing cost on top of that. In other words, if they have a piece they want to make $500 on, they would double that to $1,000, in order to cover the gallery commission, then add $150 for the frame. The retail price would be $1,150. When the piece sells, the gallery would keep $500, and then send the artist $500 in commission and $150 to cover the frame.

I can definitely see the appeal of this scheme, but, unfortunately, it’s simply not how the gallery commission structure works. Gallery’s pay commission on the total sale price. So your markup needs to include the frame. If you are shooting to net $500, and the frame costs $150, your retail would need to be set at $1,300.

The only exception I’ve seen to this is when the gallery has a framing business and they take care of the framing costs and markup (the result for the artist would be the same $500 though).

Where to Find Great Frames and Framers

Finding the right framer can be a challenge. We have several different framers that we work with and recommend to customers. We’ve worked with custom framers who create their own mouldings and do seamless corners, and we work with a framer who uses manufactured mouldings. We select the framer based on our client’s budget and needs. I’m especially happy with the service a local frame shop, The Art Department, provides.

Find a framer in your area that has an artistic eye and that offers great service. Get to know the framer you’ll be working with. In many ways, the framer will become a partner and adviser in your art business.

Talk to artists in your area and find out who they are using.

What Advice Would You Give?

What do you think about framing? What advice would you give someone who is struggling with framing? What has experience taught you about framing? Please share your thoughts below.

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