Behind the Scenes at the DAM

A Hand-Crafted Frame: The Other Artwork on the Wall

While we generally shine the spotlight on one of our stunning works of art, in this blog post I want to illuminate the oft overlooked frame. Recently, museum supporter Kent Logan loaned a new artwork by Canadian Cree artist Kent Monkman for the exhibition Sovereign: Independent Voices. The painting, titled History is Painted by the Victors, is steeped in historical art references and recreates a painting by nineteenth-century artist Albert Bierstadt. In this setting Monkman’s alter-ego, Miss Chief, is in charge as she paints a military scene around a pristine mountain lake. Each figure’s pose is taken from work by Thomas Eakins, another nineteenth-century artist, which he made as an exploration of the human form. On Miss Chief’s canvas is a reference to a pictographic account of the American Indian victory at the Battle of the Greasy Grass (Little Bighorn) by the Teton Sioux artist Red Horse.

The museum contacted local company Dry Creek Gold Leaf, Inc. to create a frame that would fit the tone and theme of Monkman's painting. To learn more about the artistic process behind hand-carved frames, I reached out to Joan Mast-Loughridge, owner of Dry Creek Gold Leaf.

DAM: Where do you start when designing a frame?

Joan Mast-Loughridge: When we are designing a frame, we start with the art. In his painting History is Painted by the Victors (pictured below) Kent Monkman had included an image of Albert Bierstadt’s painting of Mount Corcoran, which is a historic piece. Additionally, he had referenced several paintings of Thomas Eakins in the figures. Works by Bierstadt and Eakins were of the late-nineteenth century, so we felt a frame style from that period would be appropriate for the painting. While there are a couple of styles that could have been selected, we decided on the French Louis-style frame. The Louis-style frame was taken from designs originally used during the reigns of the French kings.

As the painting is a landscape, the frame was designed to maximize the depth of field, which was also a priority for the period. To accomplish this, we used a traditionally shaped moulding. On these mouldings, the forward edge, or highest point, is on the outside edge of the frame and the moulding descends into the painting. This shape guides the viewer’s eye into the painting and maximizes the perspective.

DAM: Can you tell us about the process of building a frame from scratch?

Joan: When we make our frames, we start with raw wood moulding, which we either buy or mill ourselves. The frame is built and joined in the raw state and the corners are filled. This is called a “closed corner” frame. After the finish has been applied, there is no visible miter line in the corner. This is in contrast to a frame made from the more common, pre-finished moulding. Frames made from those mouldings are cut to size from pre-finished stock and joined, thus the joint at the corners are visible.

After joining the frame, the edges of the moulding are scalloped with carving tools and sanded smooth.

Our hand-finishes are created in several layers, each of which is hand-polished in between. The base coats of gesso, whiting mixed with rabbit-skin glue, is applied by hand to assure a solid seal and surface. Once each of three to four gesso layers have dried, the layer is polished before the next is applied. This assures that the final finish is bright, as the surface is completely smooth and not textured.

The composition ornament is attached to the frame in the selected design.

Next, the red color layers of clay are applied and, again, polished in between.

The polished surface is “sized” with adhesive and the gold metal leaf attached.

The final stages are crucial to creating a finish that enhances the painting. By applying a patina keyed to the colors in the painting, the frame is truly custom to the painting and can present it to its best advantage.

DAM: What’s the most interesting tool you use?

Joan: Perhaps not the most interesting tool we use, but the most crucial, is our eye for color. If the frame finish is too red, green, cool or warm, it will not enhance the presentation of the painting and can, in fact, diminish it. If the frame finish contrasts too much with the painting’s color palette, the frame can dominate and pull the viewer’s eye away from the painting instead of drawing the eye to the painting.

DAM: What’s unique about making a frame for this artwork by Kent Monkman?

Joan: While it was not the largest frame we’ve made, the size of the Kent Monkman painting created a challenge for making a frame. The frame structure had to be built and reinforced in such a manner that it could support the weight of the frame design and the painting. The frame must not only enhance the painting, but it must also protect the painting so structure is one of our priorities in creating our frames. Additionally, even though the painting is by a contemporary artist, which might indicate designing a frame with a more contemporary style, Monkman referenced historic images, which pointed us toward creating a frame with an historic design. 

 All process images: Copyright 2013 Dry Creek Gold Leaf, Inc.

Ashley Pritchard is communications and media relations manager at the Denver Art Museum. Ashley has been at the DAM since 2008 and her favorite exhibition that has been on view here is Yves Saint Laurent: The Retrospective. She gets to peruse the galleries some mornings around 4 am for TV segments and loves having a little quiet time with the art.