The content of a picture is a separate world, with a distinct reality, utterly unlike the world that surrounds it. They are, in fact, antagonistic since the picture's very purpose is to draw us away from the world and direct us to another place. (I will have much to say about this in a future essay.) The frame plays a critical role in this process; it is an indispensable element of the picture form, not an inert suspension system. It encloses, protects and contains the magical, potentially spiritual energies latent in the picture, while at the same time providing a transitional mechanism that allows this energy to emanate, like ripples on a pond, outward into the mundane world. At the same time the frame attracts those in the outside world, asking them to give their attention to the content of the picture, encouraging and allowing their entry into the picture. Once within, the viewer is in a sacred space. Thus the picture frame acts as a kind of gate, even as the painted surface acts as a membrane into the pictorial space.
Since the frame is so deeply implicated in the function of the picture it contains, it stands to reason that it must be selected with great attention and sensitivity, not prescribed by law. By what means can this be accomplished?
On one hand the frame must serve as an effective barrier, so it must exhibit visual strength in relation to its contents, that is, some kind of contrast. On the other hand, it must also serve as a passage, so there must be some relation, in terms of colour, texture, rhythm, mass and profile to the picture within. This is the balance, or set of balances that must be achieved–a balance of harmony and contrast. Surely the frame (and the mats) must contain at least some colours, or variants of the colours that are found in the picture; surely there must be some correspondence of surface qualities. Thus a wide white mat is very well suited to a drawing on white paper. A black frame may be perfect for a brush and ink drawing. But for a delicately nuanced pastel in which there is no sign of either black or white, perhaps there could be a corresponding sensitivity and nuance in the colour of the mat, in the textural quality of the framing material. If there is frenetic energy in the boisterous paint handling, surely there must be a powerful perimeter to withstand its force. If there is an abundance of folk motifs and patterning in the content of the work, why not allow a similar treatment of the frame?
The number of possibilities is overwhelming, and there is little guidance–in fact, the situation is rather like that of the painter faced with a blank canvas. I often suggest to my students that they simply try something first and then see what happens. I think this can also work when attempting to select a suitable frame. First just have fun trying out many surprising combinations at the framing shop. Be attentive to your reactions. If one combination suggests in even a slight way that it might be preferable, there is a good chance that it will look wonderful when the job is complete.