Alaskan Artist - Elise Tomlinson
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05/08/2006: "Frames - who gets to decide?"

Question: Who gets to decide how to frame a painting once it's sold? For me the frame is an important part of my finished paintings. I use a black outline around all of my design elements and I consider the simple black frame to be the final outline that holds it all together. So, what happens if someone buys a painting and decides to put it in a huge obnoxious pink frame?

There is a certain US copyright law that stipulates:

"...the exclusive rights provided in section 106, the author of a work of visual art...shall have the right—(A) to prevent any intentional distortion, mutilation, or other modification of that work which would be prejudicial to his or her honor or reputation, and any intentional distortion, mutilation, or modification of that work is a violation of that right."

Though changing a painting's frame isn't "mutilation" exactly, I suppose one could write into the sales contract the stipulation that the frame is considered a part of the original work of art.

This question came up with an artist friend who (coincidentally) doesn't like the frame I've chosen for the painting of his that I own. I didn't like the frame he used and purchased it unframed. He doesn't think the frame I've chosen works with the piece. Ultimately it's still his image, though the frames he uses are kindof expensive and would clash with how I've framed all my other artwork. For the record, if it's that important to him I'll change the frame out of common courtesy but I thought it was an interesting question. Thoughts?

Replies: 22 Comments

on Tuesday, May 9th, Howard said

The frame isn't actually the artwork so you can't argue that your work has been mutilated.
With my new work I've gone to a lot of trouble to finish the sides in the same manner as the rest of the painting and make it a point that the work is meant to be shown without a frame. Framing the work may in fact damage it.
Personaly I think stating framing perferances is fine, but it's not really something you have a lot of control over.

on Tuesday, May 9th, Elise said

Hmmm, with your work Howard that makes a lot of sense but it wouldn't for some mediums.

I work on panel now, which is really flat. I suppose I could build cradles for them, but even that wouldn't really work because there wouldn't be a black lip extending out past the sides to create the border.

Would the frame be considered part of the work if you nailed the piece to the frame in the same way that panles are nailed to cradles?

Also, what about people who work in other mediums like paper? I suppose you wouldn't have a lot of control over how it's displayed after being sold, after all, you could say "can't be displayed against a yellow wall" etc. but things like the color of the frame (in some cases matting) the walls, etc. that all really effects how the piece looks.

on Tuesday, May 9th, Howard said

With a cradled panel you could use what's called a shadow box frame. The artwork looks like it's floating inside the frame. There's a gap all away around between the frame and the art. I really like the look of them.
You could always make your own frames to go with the art, making the frame art as well.

There's so much you no longer have control over once you sell a piece, how it's hung, where's it hung, maybe it's not hung at all but sitting in a basement. I'd just be happy it's out there doing its thing.

on Tuesday, May 9th, Rob Roys said


I am thinking this may have originated from me. For the record. I hate palin black frames. I Love slathering art in gold/silver/platinum/jade/precious jewels. The more the better. To me art is an icon-a view to God. Why wrap it in a plain black wrapper? [there are lots of reasons-#1 being you do not share my opinion on framing].

Framing is up to the buyer. If the artist thinks otherwise they should pay for the frame.

on Tuesday, May 9th, Jackie said

E: the frames really aren't part of the artwork, unless, as Howard said, you incorporate the frame into the pieces somehow. Once the painting/artwork is sold, you really can't run around to all those buyer's homes/offices and see if they are following your stipulation.
I think it's fine to sell a painting framed to your preferences, but nothing would really prevent the buyer from changing the frame.

I like Howard's suggestion - of using the floating frame look for panels. Many paintings (well, on canvas stretchers) don't need a frame...and the artist paints the edges of the wrap=around canvas.

I'm happy if I know the piece is hanging on a wall being enjoyed, not stuck in a corner gathering dust. I often wonder about the fate of a large number of pieces of mine my ex accumulated (by buying or as gifts)...since we have no contact. I'd love to get them back if they're being abused - though I don't think she's the type to have taken pleasure in torturing art to get back at me...

on Tuesday, May 9th, Elise said

I think you're right Howard, that as long as the painting is hanging somewhere, being seen and enjoyed (hopefully loved) by someone...then screw the frame.

And Rob, I can see your point about the frame, you see it as being a reflection of the precious nature of the cargo it holds. I never gave my frame preferences much thought before but they probably date back to Rick, who is a hard-core minimalist and never wanted *anything* to compete with the work.

And Jackie…”torturing art”…wow, I had never thought of that…but if you can’t intentionally “distort, mutilate, or modify” a piece of someone else’s art that you own…can you throw it away when you don’t want it anymore? What if you can’t find the artist…you could always just say there was an “accident”. Maybe it has more to do with changing a piece, making it look like crap but keeping the original artists’ signature on it.

on Wednesday, May 10th, Stephanie said

i was recently in a well known gallery that also frames and the works of one artist were all labeled "framed by the artist". i didn't get a chance to ask but i took it to mean that the artist did not want the frame changed...

on Wednesday, May 10th, Kasia said

Very interesting. I have never consider frames that way. But if someone buys a painting can't they do whatever they want with it?

on Wednesday, May 10th, Daniel said

The direct answer to Kasia's question is "NO". Paying for the work does not give away artistic license.

I've run into similiar issues which have eventually led to my frame-free style of paintings. When I have used frames - I've never cared for black frames that looked like "black for the sake of having artist black", I always just used the most minimalist frame possible. As far as gilded framing... It has its place, but I only appreciate it when it has been created by the artist... buying one on sale at the local "Hobby Lobby" cheapens the work. Plus when the frame is made by the artist - it adds to the longterm value of the work, as long as the piece is kept with the frame.

on Wednesday, May 10th, Elise said

Hi Stephanie, I've never actually seen that but I guess it would be a nice way of implying that you’d like your own frame used, without exactly spelling it out.

And Kasia, the laws may be different in Poland than in the US. While the framing typically is up to whom ever buys the piece, the collector isn’t supposed to alter or destroy the piece in any way. Now, I suppose this is mostly an issue for well known artists etc. If your sister-in-law gives you a painting she did for Christmas I’m sure nothing would happen if you threw it out.

And Daniel, I’m not sure what you mean by "black for the sake of having artist black"? In my case I use black because it is a standard color that looks good with all of my paintings equally well because of the dark outlining, that way I don’t have to buy a special frame for each piece, I just buy the standard sizes I use.

I have considered getting a frame building system, just because I think it would save money in the long run.

on Wednesday, May 10th, holly said

I always notice framing devices. Sometimes I wonder what curators are thinking when I see some of the couplings created in museums. Elise, I have your prints in huge black frames (you've seen the photo) and I think they look fabulous. The black works well with the image and with the room in which they hang. The size of them also works well with the boldness of the colors of both the prints and the walls. It took me a long time to decide on a frame, but ultimately, I chose the right one.

And Kaisa, I have a fairly large collection of paintings, drawings, stone sculpture, ceramics, art photography, livres d'artistes, and artist prints in my home and have never had one of the artists insist I display their work in a particular fashion, nor have they ever stopped by to check in on the piece to make sure I've not set it on fire in the back yard or otherwise altered it in any way. I would not do anything like that to any of the art I own, but as far as I'm concerned, I paid for it, it's a piece of merchandise, I own it. I can do whatever I want with it.

on Wednesday, May 10th, Elise said

I love the way you framed those pieces Holly, they look excellent!

And seriously, this was more of an academic/legal question that wouldn't be relavant 99.9% of the time.

I'm referring to what is known as "moral rights"...

Some examples:
alterations being made to works – such as the colours in a painting being changed to suit home décor, or the top of a sculpture being cut off to fit into a building foyer."


Another case that raised issues related to moral rights involved a group of Australian developers called 'Subdivision Art' who purchased an original Picasso print for $13,000 and cut it up into 200 small pieces to be sold separately, at a profit, for $200 each.

or what about this one:

"An example is a work by the American artist Robert Rauschenberg that was made by erasing a drawing by another artist, Willem de Kooning. Rauschenberg spent over a month erasing the drawing. He then wrote 'Erased de Kooning Drawing, 1953' on the work, put it in a gold leaf frame and presented it as his own work. " (though in that case he had de kooning's blessing)...

on Wednesday, May 10th, Elise said

Oh, the above was from vceart website: and is related to Australian copyright law but the laws in the US are very similar.

on Wednesday, May 10th, holly said

I keep trying to come up with instances of other creative works that are "owned" by buyers (such as architecture, literature, etc). For instance, your example about the Picasso piece being cut up (ugh, Picasso *should* be cut up :D)-- this is exactly what collectors have done to illuminated medieval books for centuries, and there is apparently no copyright violation. Why is that? Because the artists of those works are usually unknown? Because they're not pieces of "modern" art? Because they were functional objects of art? What about medieval sculpture that has been taken from its original context, and put in museums? Removing 12th century sculpture from its original context and order destroys the visual language, and therefore the intent of the pieces, and yet it's done all the time. The only people who seem to be concerned about these types of infringements are medivalists and purist collectors. This is perhaps the worst offense to a piece of art (yes, even to Picasso).

The Rauschenberg piece, whether or not he had the blessing of de Kooning, would still be acceptable, I believe, as long as he *did* credit the original creator in the title. I'm thinking of literature here, like The Wide Sargasso Sea, which is the prequel to Jane Eyre-- not written by Charlotte Bronte, and written much later than Jane Eyre, but still using the tools and elements of the original to make it Jean Rhys' own work. She gave Bronte's characters their own histories and culture without their creator's approval, and perhaps far removed from her intent. But is that wrong? (Personally, I really don't care for the kind of attention whoring epitomized by the Rauschenberg example-- "Look at me! I made art by deconstructing art! Aren't I clever?" Bah. The Dadaists did it first, and it wasn't too impressive then, either.)

Your first case, though, the physical alteration of a piece of art by cutting or changing the formal elements of a piece, seems like the slipperiest slope of all. Why anyone would do this to a piece of art-- for the sake of making it fit into a space (as opposed to the other way around)-- just baffles me. And yet, aren't these owners within their *legal* rights to chop and paint and redo? They own it. Now, remember I said I would never do this to something I own. I think there *is* something morally reprehensible about futzing with the actual piece of art, but still, there's that question of ownership that has to be acknowledged. And in light of the serious effect of owners on the pieces of art you've listed here does it *really* matter if the owner changes out the frame? Unless the frame is an integral part of the piece (i.e. the artist made it expressly for the piece, and in which case would probably also be a selling point), I think the owner of the physical work has the right to use whatever frame they like.

Jeebus. Did that make a bit of sense? I'm thinking about too many things right now. Need to go to the store...

on Wednesday, May 10th, Elise said

I think the main reason why older pieces aren't protected in the same way as contemoporary (though it is a total travesty of justice) is because the copyright on them has expired and there is no one left to sue for damages...

Anyway, I can get behind pretty much everything you've said except for: " aren't these owners within their *legal* rights to chop and paint and redo?"

This one I feel *very* strongly about. Now, the law makes exceptions for pieces that are derivatives (as with the Wide Sargasso Sea...though I contend literary works are another animal altogether) but it is wrong and furthermore illegal (US Copyright law, Title 17, Chapter 1 § 106A. "Rights of certain authors to attribution and integrity") to modify a piece of art that someone else has created, especially without re naming it “How I Fucked Up So-N-So’s Painting”.

When I finish a painting it is (more or less) exactly how I want it to look. Now, lets say a millionaire named Joe comes along and buys one of my paintings. He throws big parties every year with lots of important art collectors in attendance and he takes the painting (signed by me in big legible letters) and repaints part of it to match his sofa. Changes the reds to mustard and the hair from purple to green etc. Let’s say that the resulting painting is truly disgusting, and yet, there it is in a place of prominence for all to see, signed by me so that anyone who sees it will think that it is my work, when it isn’t!

Now, granted, I’m not a well known artist and I don’t have much of a reputation to protect, but I can imagine for some artists such a thing could impact their career.

Am I wrong?

As for frames, I personally have never offered advice on how to frame the work and only would offer suggestion if I was asked, because a frame isn't part of the actual work (unless it is created as part of it as you said)...


on Wednesday, May 10th, holly said

OK, that scenario just made me eeeep. So in addition to a copyright violation (which is really interesting to consider in works of visual art), does the artist in a case like this also have recourse to charges of defamation? If the resulting piece, post-alteration, is truly horrific and could conceivably damage the artist's reputation (*especially* if the owner is a bigshot and could show a lot of potential collectors this altered piece), it seems like there is more than just the integrity of the piece involved. And who enforces this? I still have a hard time believeing that someone would do this to a piece of art they liked enough to buy in the first place, but then again, I have no faith that people who collect art necessarily have any sort of taste for what makes it "good." Do you know, Elise, of any case of a private collector being taken to task over this kind of modification? I find this fascinating.

(You never offered *me* any suggestions when I asked about frames... :plain: )

on Wednesday, May 10th, Elise said

You asked me about frames? Ooos...sorry bout that!

On the copyright issue, the new protections haven't been in place very long...since the Vistual Artists Rights Act (VARA) was passed in 1992 but I guess it has been used to negotiate for better contracts and also in pre-litigation. (Also, the rights only extend for the artist's lifetime)

"Significant as it recognizes on federal level the existence and importance of moral rights, whereby an artist retains some protectible interest in a work of art although he or she no longer owns it.

Aims: Encouragement to create and disseminate works of visual art by providing legal sanctions against damage or destruction of the work."

This website has some interesting information about it, such as:

"In 1960 the sculptor David Smith learned that a collector who owned one of his sculptures had "improved" the work by stripping the cadmium red paint from its surface. Unable to persuade the owner to restore the color, Smith disclaimed authorship of the work in angry letters to art magazines." at that time, there was no protection for the artist in this case, though laws already existed in Europe...

"In 1995, due to VARA (the Visual Artists' Rights Act of 1990), sculptor Jan Martin won a lawsuit against the City of Indianapolis and received full compensation for the destruction of his public sculpture, Symphony #1. "

on Wednesday, May 10th,">old crank said

I love you Elise, and your site and of course your art...
But damn, the very question makes my blood boil, in these times of steadily shrinking individual rights and overly proliferating lawyers & litigation. Perhaps I should just say, Artists!! what can one do?! as in Strange Notions, Temperamental, different from the common herd...

on Wednesday, May 10th, Elise said

ah old crank, the "I love you, but"...

I would just like to reiterate here that:

A. I become so overjoyed when someone buys a piece of my art that I wouldn't dream of telling them what to do with it once it's out of my hands.

B. I have never checked up with anyone owning my work to see if they've repainted it or thrown it away or used it for a table cloth or whatever.

C. Though it would make me sad if someone did alter/and or destroy one of my pieces, I would be the last person on the planet to actually sue anyone!

I simply brought up this issue because it came up in a conversation with a fellow artist (and friend) and I thought it would make for an interesting conversation.

Also, I absolutely *love* playing the role of Devil's Advocate!

on Wednesday, May 10th, Elise said

btw, here's another real life case (prior to VARA) the Rutgers Presbyterian Church painted over a mural of Christ painted by Alfred Crimi because the parisioners objected to the showing of too much bare, do you think it would be ok for someone to buy one of my nudes, have someone in the family (or business, office, etc) object to the nudity, so then inexpertly paint clothes on the the figure? Say, burmuda shorts and a tube top?

on Wednesday, May 10th, Jackie said

To me, throwing away a piece of art is the same as destroying it. I mean - what happens in a landfill? Balers/backhoes/slow moldering in an ooze of decay....

It's an interesting debate. I would never want to get involved in suing anyone over artwork either.

Oh - and Holly - I suppose that the reason ancient works of art are not subject to the same copyright laws of today is because they were created before the laws were in existence. That's the way it works with literature, anyway. And all those clip art books by Dover.

I have to admit, while I love going to museums, the fact that entire Greek temples have been dissembled and re-built in museums in say, Germany, for eg. - and that they would refuse to return the temple - is also bothersome. And what of the millions of 'artifacts', which include religious items and parts or entire human remains that lie in collections (or boxes/drawers) all over the world?

on Wednesday, May 10th, Elise said

yah Jackie, it is destroying it, but like Holly said...what are ya going to do about it, or how would you even know? I guess it's best to just not worry about it too much.