Framing Kevin Courter in Compound Polyptych

A customer recently commissioned Kevin Courter to paint three cottages on his rural northern California property, then had us frame the three 8 x 10’s. Here it is:

The idea was to create a frame alive to the soft edges as well as architectural subject matter. Given the vernacular cottages, we had to keep it simple but still worthy of the great admiration, felt by both painter and patron, of these charming structures in their locale, and all the wealth of memories and meaning they hold for the family that’s enjoyed them. The over all flat form of the profile was felt suitable to the relatively shallow depth of field and basically flat landscape populated by vertical trees, as well as the strong horizontal composition of the whole piece. It’s a very simple flat with a cap molding, all the profiling done with a 1/8″ radius.

The flat inner, or sight, edge of the frame made sense in terms of the frame construction, lending itself well to the dividers.

Polyptychs are interesting in part because of the trick of creating unity out of distinct parts. Japanese printmakers have done a lot with this idea. As you can see in this example from my portfolio, while the three panels create a whole scene, compositionally each panel also stands on its own.

We chose quartersawn white oak for its wild, rustic quality and stained it Medieval Oak which matches the burnt umber used in the shadows. While the frame thus has an overall shadow quality to spotlight the painting, the wonderful play of sunlight in Kevin’s pictures prompted our choice of a gilt oak slip to surround each panel. So the frame carries out the interplay of light and shadow that makes these images so appealing, but is on balance a shadow presence around the picture.

The metal plate at the bottom of the frame is engraved with the title of the piece, “My Three Sons,” and Kevin’s name.

Re-framing Thaddeus Welch

Thaddeus Welch (1844-1919) was one of the great historic California landscape painters. This classic bucolic hillside scene by Welch came in recently, the customer looking to free it from a typical period compo frame which he rightly judged to be pretentious and unsuitable to the rustic spirit of the painting.


Here it is in its new quartersawn white oak frame in a dark stain matching the shadows and sympathetic with the forms of the hills, with simple fine beading to pick up the delicate line work in the painting (especially the trees)—and much more suitable to the spirit of nature that so moved Welch.


Re-framing a Sydney Yard Watercolor

A follow-up to the last entry, here’s a wonderful example of a watercolor by one of California’s premiere early watercolorists, Sydney Janis Yard (1855-1909). This is a frame we’ve used before, for other, similar California watercolors — by Percy Grey — but this job offers the re-framing aspect to the story.

The “before” shot demonstrates the typical conventional contemporary framing approach for this type of piece. The silk mat and curly-cue gold frame seem intended for nothing but projecting an air of sophistication around the painting. The glaring white mat contrasts so much with the deep shadowy tones of the painting that it actually interferes with the eye’s ability to adjust to the light the artist captures so effectively. In so doing, it spoils the painting. The incongruous framing not only fails to serve the painting itself, but creates a harsh divide between the painting and its surroundings. The gold frame may not look too bad in the photo above, but is a production compo molding nailed together. One corner was already broken. The frame didn’t hold up to scrutiny — or to life (see detail below)!

Corner of old frame

What the painting needed instead was a dark frame, quiet and soft in profile, with just a halo of gold to highlight it on the wall while continuing and sustaining the spirit of the picture into the architectural realm.


Titled “Under the Oaks,” the painting’s rustic spirit — completely ignored by the previous framing —  and of course the oak trees Yard painted called unquestionably for an oak frame. (The protective aspect of the oak frame is another level of meaning for a depiction of oak trees sheltering a shepherd.) This is a simple 2-3/4″ wide scoop in our Century Series (No. 308.2) around a 3/4″ ogee liner oil gilded with 23 kt leaf. We stained the scoop a burnt umber (our Medieval Oak stain) matching the shadows — the frame being a shadow effect around the painting, to draw your eye to the lighter painting. Two fine reeds at the sight edge of the dark molding echo some of the fine details in the painting. A closer view of the frame:

No. 308.2 (“Michigan”) — 2-3/4″ with 3/4″ gilt oak ogee liner

Taking the time to craft the frame well with splined closed corners (finished after joining) and attention to finishing off every detail actually has an aesthetic effect, a sense of caring made tangible, not conveyed by digital photos.

The piece is framed archivally by using a hidden, or “gasket,” mat under the liner. It’s purpose is to separate the picture from the glazing (in this case u.v.-filtering acrylic). The rabbet is lined with a metal tape to isolate the acids in the wood from the watercolor paper.

Thank you to Montgomery Gallery, where this beautiful painting is available.

Framing Historic California Watercolors

We’ve recently had the pleasure of framing several watercolors by notable California artists working in the early twentieth century.

Maynard Dixon (1875-1946):

Chris Jorgensen (1838-1876):

William S. Rice (1873-1963):

Marjorie Stevens (1902-1992; available through North Point Gallery):

Lorenzo Latimer (1857-1941; these available through North Point Gallery):

Davis Schwartz (1879-1969):

Re-framing Hanson Puthuff

The landscape paintings of Hanson Puthoff (1875-1972) made a major contribution to California’s rich heritage of landscape painting. Unfortunately, his pieces did not always find their way into frames that do them justice. Here’s one example we had the honor of re-framing this week, taking it out of a machine-made, gold painted compo setting and putting it in a handcrafted, carved quartersawn oak frame. Here it is before and after:

 A well-made, simple home. A 3″ bevel profile (canvas is 11-1/2″ x 15″) with a 45 degree carved chamfer sight edge. Close-ups:

Here’s a profile view of the frame:

Re-framing a New—and Much Larger—Rosa Bonheur

Last year we re-framed a couple of paintings of stags, both by premiere nineteenth century French wildlife painter Rosa Bonheur, which I blogged about here. We just did another one, and at 48″ x 36″ it’s considerably bigger than the first two. First, here it is in the compo exhibition frame that we were to replace:

And here it is now:

Given the log house setting it’s going in, our solution leans more to the rustic than it might have considering the highly formal (I generally use the term in reference to form, not sophistication and refinement) treatment of the subject matter. But having the frame come out of the same appreciation of the beauty of nature and handcraft that the painting does—especially in contrast to the original frame—more than makes up for whatever formal refinement we left out of the profile. (For a more formal profile on a similar painting, see the earlier entry on re-framing Bonheur stags, here.) I stand by it as a far more sympathetic setting than was the old frame, and far more successful at the primary job of a frame, which is to help us see the picture. Any rejection of pretentiousness and false luxury in art is a step in the right direction! Taking a picture from an exhibitionist presentation to one in harmony and sympathy with the picture is fulfilling one of my favorite William Morris phrases: “for beauty’s sake and not for show.”

This is a compound frame with a mortise-and-tenon flat, a carved cap-molding and carved and gilt liner. After that wonderful reward of the framer—the moment when you finish fitting the picture and turn over the completed piece to see it—Trevor and I were struck by how the highlights were enhanced. Is it the gilt liner, the darker frame, or the combination? Beyond that, I can’t add anything that I didn’t say in the previous Bonheur re-framing example.

Here’s a corner detail:

Trevor Davis gets credit for making it. Here’s the proud craftsman—giving you a sense of the scale of the piece, too.

“Als Ik Kan”: Hephaestus’s Imperfect Frame

If the Arts and Crafts Movement can be said to have a motto, it is surely “Als Ik Kan.” First assumed by William Morris—more famously in its French form, “Si Je Puis”—it was further popularized by Gustav Stickley through the marks on his furniture and in his magazine The Craftsman. What does the motto mean, where did it originate, and why did these re-framers of art find it so significant?

The words are Dutch and mean literally “As I can,” but some say translate best into English as “If I Can” or “As Best I Can.” In any case they imply the virtue of hard work toward a goal that is simply one’s best effort, though inevitably falling short of perfection. (Stickley’s label at left implies not only earnest effort and admission of imperfection but the responsibility for correcting his imperfections, should the customer be for any reason dissatisfied.) They were invoked as a direct repudiation of the post-renaissance understanding of art—real art, great art, the masterpiece, art that’s worthy of museums and art history books—as something produced by individual genius and reaching perfection. Countering this ideal, in “The Nature of Gothic” John Ruskin drew attention to the “rude and wild” character of Gothic buildings—the trait he called savageness. This was no mere personal aesthetic preference on Ruskin’s part, but a deeply moral matter; part and parcel of the fact that nearly everyone in the middle ages engaged in the arts, this “savageness” was an expression, Ruskin argued, of the Christian spirit that built the Gothic cathedrals. He said, “…to every spirit which Christianity summons to her service, her exhortation is: Do what you can, and confess frankly what you are unable to do…” The corruption of art in his time, Ruskin believed, was manifested in large part by the rising arrogance of specialized “fine” artists and architects who turned their backs on the imperfections redolent in the arts practiced by the whole people. Far from elevating art, the misguided standard of perfection deprived it of its fertile social soil. In truth, “no good work whatever can be perfect, and the demand for perfection is always a sign of the misunderstanding of the ends of art.” The italics are Ruskin’s.

William Morris "Si Je Puis" tile at Red House.

William Morris “Si Je Puis” tile at Red House.

This treatment of art and architecture is fundamental to Ruskin’s conceptual re-framing of Art. The tyranny of perfectionism was visible to Ruskin, not just in painting and building but in the arts in their true sense of the work of making, inherently expressive of the mind and condition of humanity. To this extent, Ruskin’s study of the Gothic was truly a critique of commercial industrialization in which workmen were not artists and artists were not workmen, a system bent on turning men into mere operatives working with a dehumanizing accuracy and precision:

    [I]f you will make a man of the working creature, you cannot make a tool. Let him but begin to imagine, to think, to try to do anything worth doing; and the engine-turned precision is lost at once. Out come all his roughness, all his dulness, all his incapability; shame upon shame, failure upon failure, pause after pause: but out comes the whole majesty of him also…

Hephaestus, the “flawed god” of craft

Far from selectively interpreting historic architecture to support his complaints against his own times, what makes Ruskin’s ideals so compelling is that they are painstakingly based on observation and deep understanding of the history of material culture. Indeed, as an ideal for restoring art to a sounder, historically proven basis, it is important to note that the notion of the imperfect craftsman goes at least to antiquity, embodied for example in the ancient Greek “flawed God” of craft, Hephaestus, who was club-footed and homely, perennially sweaty and dirty from his work—work which produced, nonetheless, civilization itself. 

William Morris, in his wanderings through the National Gallery, and primed by “The Nature of Gothic” (he called it “one of the very few necessary and inevitable utterances of the century”) came across the early 15th century portrait (at the top of this post)—believed to be a self-portrait—by Jan Van Eyck, “Man with a Red Turban.” As an antidote to the sterility and misguided perfectionism of academic painting of Morris’s own day, Van Eyck’s portrait leaped out at Morris as an achievement in acute, honest and truthful observation.

Detail, Van Eyck’s “Man With a Red Turban”

While many would identify the modeling and rendering as something near perfection, the irony, recognized by Morris, was that Van Eyck’s achievement came about through his embrace of his innate human imperfection—an embrace evident in the carefully depicted flaws in the artist’s skin (right). (Note their contrast with the icy, porcelain skin in the portrait by the French academic Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres below.) Van Eyck’s acknowledgment of his imperfection is also evident in the words he carved in the top of his frame (in archaic Dutch written in Greek characters)—”Als Ik Kan”. One aspect of this acceptance and even celebration of imperfection is the sense of freedom, playfulness, joy in labor and humor it enables: the “Ik” in the motto is a pun on the artist’s name, Eyck. (The explanation published by Stickley includes that “it has something of defiance and humor, as if offering a covert challenge to less skillful limners.”) 


Detail of Ingres portrait, “Princesse de Broglie”


As a frame-maker, I can’t help pointing out the flaws in the top and bottom members of the frame—the pegs which time has exposed as the underlayment of gesso and clay have loosened from them. I point these out not for reasons of technical fussiness but because of the story they tell, which is key to understanding the centrality of picture frames in the Arts and Crafts mission of re-framing art. These exposed pegs themselves expose a recent innovation by artists like Van Eyck whose expertise in rendering was forcing them to refine the panels they painted on. Up until this time, paintings of this size had been done on a single solid panel—in northern Europe, usually oak—which were recessed, carved down, in the middle, leaving the edge raised to form a frame (see Robert Campin painting, below). This is a key point in the story, central to Arts and Crafts ideals, of the primal unity of frames and paintings and the demise of that unity—a story I won’t go into here but invoke only to show how artists in Van Eyck’s time still saw frames as inseparable from their paintings. (Morris would not have failed to appreciate the painter’s interest in his frame as a lesser, decorative art nonetheless worthy of artistic effort.)

The problem, increasingly frustrating to the increasingly refined skills and naturalistic aims of Van Eyck, was in shaping these raised moldings on the two sides where the straight elements of the molding profile ran across, not with, the grain. Carving a suitably refined profile across oak grain was simply too hard. The artist’s solution to this (“confessing frankly” the limits of his skills confronted with the nature of materials) was to raise and mold just the vertical sides (in this case) of his panel, then make separate lengths of molding for the top and bottom, shaped with the grain, just as the side edges were molded, and to attach the top and bottom lengths to the panel with pegs. With this innovation, Van Eyck raised the standard of refinement for his moldings; as a lesson in frame design, the frame’s sculptural interpretation of the picture’s forms is exemplary. (One great aid to this step up in refinement was the use of hand planes.)

Robert Campin painting on solid panel

Robert Campin painting on solid panel

You can see, in contrast to the earlier Campin painting here, done in the older, single-piece method, how closely Van Eyck’s moldings relate to the subtly modeled, undulating forms of the man’s face and turban. 

I probably risk over-emphasizing this framing innovation as an object of Van Eyck’s declaration, but can’t help recognizing how the statement preemptively addresses the critics of the artist’s innovation and craftsmanship—of his imperfect but joyful humanity. Convinced of the rightness of this improvement in the frame, Van Eyck accepted its imperfect necessity for driving pegs through the face of the frame, which he undoubtedly knew time would someday expose. It was a compromise solution—an imperfect one he would “confess frankly” in the words he carved on the frame, right over the center peg and “framed” themselves by the other two pegs! Serving at least to preempt future critics of his framing method, the words more importantly pronounce a spirit imbuing the artist’s labors. In so doing, he passed down to us the motto that embodies the humble folk spirit and obstinate vitality that would guide the Arts and Crafts movement—a spirit literally engraved by the frame-maker Jan Van Eyck in the art of the picture frame.

See Stickley’s explanation of his motto, here.


“Kevin Courter: From Dusk to Dawn” is posted

The last of Kevin Courter‘s paintings for his upcoming show, “From Dusk to Dawn,” is in, and it’s a great example of a theme he’s been having a lot of fun with for the last few months. This is called “Evening’s Solitude,” and it’s 8 x 16. The frame, No. 1.4 CV, is one we use often, as it’s so versatile, simple and effective.

Hope you’ll put the show on your calendar. It opens Saturday, February 26, with a reception for the artist from 4 to 6 in the evening.

Framing J Bond Francisco

Recently framed this John Bond Francisco , designing the setting to echo playfully with the massive green frame at the center of the painting. This little oil, 12″ x 8″, depicts the artist’s San Francisco studio around the turn of the century. The frame profile’s a No. 16—a plain flat mitered frame with a chamfered (45 degree bevel) sight edge. Chose a flat profile to go with the relatively shallow depth of field and flat object—the painting—that’s the focus of the piece. But the angles and design of the stove suggested the chamfer. A bit wider than I normally would’ve used on a piece this size, but in keeping with the proportions of the depicted frame on its painting. Going as green as the frame in the painting would have sacrificed the harmony of painting and frame, but rubbed green paint in to the grain of the oak to resonate with the frame in the picture.The liner is oak with gold leaf. All is simple as the room depicted—simple, but fun!