To frame or not to frame: the artist’s dilemma

To frame or not to frame: the artist’s dilemma

An issue I regularly see artists grappling with is the cost of framing their work. Custom framing can sometimes cost so much it makes artists question whether or not they can afford to exhibit.  On the other hand, if they want a career as a visual artist – how they can afford not to exhibit? Custom framing is of course the most professional option, but it’s not the only possibility. In this article I will set out some cost-effective framing alternatives, and have a look at the pros and cons of each.

Custom frames

A custom frame is when a professional framer builds a frame specifically to suit your artwork. You select the frame colour, style and material, you select the colour and style of the mat board, and you also get to choose how you want your work mounted, and the type of glass used in the frame.


  • You get a frame and mount that is perfectly suited and crafted for your artwork, meaning it looks brilliant.

  • This work is done by a professional, meaning your artwork is presented in a high quality, polished manner.

  • High quality framing can greatly add to the perceived value of your work, meaning buyers are willing to pay more for it.


  • It can be prohibitively expensive, especially for artists just starting out. The cost depends on the type of frame, mat etc you choose, and also the size of your work, but can run into the hundreds of dollars for each artwork.

Your gallery might have an arrangement with a local framer, meaning you could get a discount. You may also be able to negotiate a discount based on volume. Don’t be afraid to ask!

Off the shelf frames

These are ready made frames that you buy and put your artwork in. There’s a multitude of options in size, colour and materials, and a wide variety of quality, so it pays to do your homework. You could get frames from IKEA, for example, but the construction tends to be low quality, they contain Perspex instead of glass, and they don’t sit flat on the wall – but on the other hand, they are super affordable, and therefore a legitimate option for some artists.


  • Much more affordable than custom framing

  • Lots of options, making it easy to find something that suits your work

  • If your work is standard size (such as A3 or A2), this is an easy, affordable option (whereas if your work is non-standard size, you will likely need custom framing).


  • Doesn’t look as good as custom framing

  • There are a lot of low-quality ready-made frames out there, so it’s a case of buyer beware

  • Low quality framing can put some buyers off

  • Some galleries might not accept certain types of ready-made frames.

Google around for options, ask other artists and galleries for recommendations before choosing an off the shelf frame.

Second hand frames

I’ve had several artists use second hand frames, from painting op shop frames in gold to match an exhibition, to using upcycled paintings and their existing frames as the canvas, to painting second hand frames to colour match the few larger custom framed pieces. This isn’t an option that will work for everyone, but if you’re strategic about how you use the frames, it can be highly effective.


  • Affordable option

  • Highly customisable to match the style and colour of your artwork, if you’re prepared to paint the frames

  • Less traditional styles of art can lend itself really well to second-hand frames.


  • Looks terrible if done badly

  • Can lower the perceived value of your work.  

Gallery frames

Some galleries, particularly public galleries and large commercial galleries, have a set of frames that you can use for the duration of your exhibition. They will come in standard sizes and colours, so they won’t be as customisable as you necessarily need, but it will save you the added cost.


  • No framing costs

  • Using a gallery’s frames will help standardise the look of your artwork with the rest of the work in the gallery, which can be advantageous with some buyers.


  • Limited colour and size, making it less customisable for your work

  • Buyers might not be aware the artwork comes unframed and this might reflect badly upon you.

No frame

The big question is, does your work really need to be framed? Have you asked your curator what their expectation is for your exhibition? Is your work designed to be accessible and doesn’t really lend itself to framing? Are you exhibiting in an emerging artist space, where no-one really frames their work anyway?

Framing is not always necessary, so before you frame your work, think about whether you really need it framed. On the one hand, well framed work can raise the perceived value, but on the other, your style might not be well suited to framing. Ask questions, do some research and look at all your options, both financial and otherwise, before making up your mind.





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