Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

August 16, 2013

The terror of white walls

Here is an area where I make mistakes repeatedly, and with the cost of mouldings expensive ones too. So I have been eyeing up other people’s choices with much interest in the past year or so. Here is the problem: Most gallery and household walls including my own are white. White is unfortunately just about the most unflattering hue to present a picture against in my opinion. Imagine the National gallery old masters hung against bleak white walls, even worse imagine them all “gallery wrapped”!

My instinctive tastes are inherited from my parents and I suppose reflect the 40’s and a bit of their parents taste from the 1890’s thrown in. So I tend to frame for an imaginary room with green William Morris wallpaper and possibly gas light. The results when placed on a white wall I have to admit to myself have not been pretty. I have used up most of my poorly chosen moulding and am trying to not make the same mistakes again, but am not exactly confident as to how I should go about it.

Another factor that makes matters worse is that a large 6ft wide abstract in primary tones will look great as just a bare canvas. It is beefy enough to hold its own against that wilderness of white. A 14in by 10 in plein air however does not stand a chance! It needs therefore some protection against the wall surface dominating and this means a frame. Also I need a standard frame I can’t go framing each oil painting separately, especially if they are ever shown together, there is nothing worse than a motley collection of varied frames.

The first thing that occurred to me is that looking at what others do the moulding needs to be quite substantial, around 100mm. Also it needs to be quite simple, no vine leaves! It does however need some depth to it so that it springs from the wall. I have seen quite a few framing jobs that essentially put a 6in white plank around the picture which I don’t like. Another factor is cost I am going to paint the frame so there is no point in buying an expensive moulding. To find a moulding that fulfils all these requirements is not easy!

Firstly some paintings, the usual mix of OK, so so and dire! I really must stop just painting whatever is around on days out. If nothing presents itself then just keep on looking until something does, don’t just paint because that is what you are there to do. Every time I sit down and paint something that doesn’t really grab me the results are poor, it is just time and materials wasted. It is I suppose unreasonable to expect to find a worthwhile subject every time you go out, especially if the light is no good. Better to come back having done a lot of looking and no painting than with dross that wasn’t worth the doing! So I will if I can stick to doing quick watercolour or small oil sketches if I am at all uncertain of the worth of the subject and only set to with the oils on a bigger panel if there is a good chance of a worthwhile painting. I have been pressing on with some larger pictures, they get easier the more I do. I don’t know why I find a 24inch wide canvas forbidding, it seems absurd since I have spent a large chunk of my life painting things 40ft across, but there it is.


Northumberland Avenue, London, Oil painting, city, urban

This is Northumberland Avenue 22in by 16in. Based on my plein air sketch last week and associated photos. I am getting better at transferring the

plein air colour and feel to a subject after the event. First I adjust the photo to look as much like the sketch in tone and colour as I can. This makes the whole

process a lot smoother.


Charing Cross Road, Rain, London, oil painting, urban, City

Another biggy, this is 24 by 18in. I did a plein air of this a year or so ago it was only 7in by 5in done hand held. I was very pleased with it and knew it

would make a good picture. Great fun to paint as I was pretty sure the result would be worthwhile. I’ll put the small sketch below for comparison.


Charing Cross Road, London, Plein air, oils

I really tried hard to keep the feel but not be too slavish in my reinterpreting it.


Sunbury, plein air, oils, Thames, river

Here is a prime example of a painting that I should not have bothered painting! There is nothing particularly wrong, it is just boring and not worth a

painting. A small watercolour in my sketchbook would have done the job. It is Sunbury on Thames 14in by 10in oils.


Sunbury on Thames, knot garden, plein air, watercolour

Here I did the right thing, the quick sketch serves the subject perfectly, which makes the 20mins well spent!


Richmond Hill, Thames, plein air, oils

Driving back from Sunbury I took a wrong turn and ended up going over Richmond Hill. Seeing this who could resist? It was such a relief to be sitting in

front of a fantastic subject. I’m not sure that this does it justice, but the photos I took do it even less! 15in by 7.5in Oils.


Now back to those pesky frames, non frame nerds can back away!



As you see from the dimensions it is quite substantial and stands out from the wall 53mm. It also has a rebate that will take a canvas, many mouldings have a small rebate so the canvas

bulges out the back which makes fixing annoying. My next move is to try and work out what the finish should be. This is far from easy and not something I am confident about, so I

decided to treat it the same way as any commercial job. To this end I built myself a simple gallery space in 3D and hung my virtual pictures on the wall! With today’s technology I can

test different arrangements and see which will do the job best. This should mean less messing around when I come to actually paint them. Fortunately 20 years in the scenic art world has

given me the technical skill to apply finishes professionally. Due to this experience I also can make up the frames, which is just as well as the moulding is too big for any Morso! I’ll put a

series of images to show the development.


Here is my virtual gallery. I have made the computer model of the frames in scale. In olden days when we had deep red wall paper these gold frames were

just the thing… But on white gallery walls they look pretty grim.


Here I have simply painted white leaving the gold as an accent. Better already I hope you will agree. A little dead looking though.


I next tried grey and white as I have seen others do. Quite nice but very utilitarian and the white does not suit pictures with quite dark tones.


The same grey with gold accents. This works better and I will go with this. I can vary the grey depending on the tonality of the picture.


I added a slightly more realistic lighting to my model and tweaked the grey. Next I have to refine in the real world!


Here it is, a terrible photo but you get the idea. This frame has about 10 coats of paint as I experimented! I will I think do a lighter weight version for the

10in by 16in and below but this should look better than my previous attempts in an exhibition environment.


  1. Rob,

    Nice work scaling up. I also like the view from Richmond Hill, great sense of depth and lovely colours. Very clever way to examine framing options. I like the grey/gold combo you’ve settled on. How would you apply the gold, as paint or as leaf?

    I tend to choose mouldings with a well defined lip on the inner sides that offers good scope for painting in a different tone/colour from the rest of the frame. After setting out my criteria for a choice of moulding I found there were very few plain woods that fitted the bill. Like yourself, I prefer to hand finish with a bespoke tone that compliments the painting. Even subtle variations can seem to make a big difference.

    Comment by David Pilgrim — August 16, 2013 @ 4:37 pm

  2. Thanks David, scaling up from a sketch is often harder than you expect, you work hard on the big version and end up far preferring the sketch! Yes I had the same problem in finding plain mouldings, this is actually a white one finished in gesso. I got it from here Arqadia .
    The gold is powder in acrylic glaze with a touch of white in it to take the edge off.

    Comment by admin — August 16, 2013 @ 5:32 pm

  3. Rob – Framing is my absolutely least favourite activity, and I, too, agonize on color choices, wall colors and so on. But I really love your solution for these pieces! I may have to give it a go.

    Comment by Michael Chesley Johnson — August 16, 2013 @ 7:53 pm

  4. Michael, yes not my favourite activity, I am hoping I can just have 3 stock greys, the hardest ones seem to be the very green paintings. Also if I hand finish when a frame gets a scrape then touch ups are easy.

    Comment by admin — August 16, 2013 @ 7:59 pm

  5. That sounds interesting Rob. I’ve used that ‘Goldfinger’ paste once or twice but wasn’t too keen. Might give the powder a go at some point. As for mouldings, is it me or are framers using lighter woods these days? Many seem to only have wide plain wood mouldings in Obeche which isn’t far off balsa wood. I think it’s the same stuff used to make stretcher bars. Some of my older frames are much heavier but I don’t remember specifying a heavy wood as such. The lighter wood makes transport/hanging easier I suppose but the potential for damage from knocks and warping is much higher.

    Framing does seems like a chore and it’s time consuming if you want decent results but I can’t justify the costs for buying hand finished frames.

    Comment by David Pilgrim — August 17, 2013 @ 3:07 pm

  6. The trick with the powder is to mix with neat medium until it is a thick paste then add water very slowly. Store in a jar but put a ball bearing inside so that you can remix as the glaze will separate. You can treat softwood with sanding seal or shellac which will harden it, one more process though. Dutch metal or real leaf is much easier than most people think gold size is easy to apply and once you get the hang of it very quick, I intended to do some but seem to have mislaid my size!

    Comment by admin — August 17, 2013 @ 3:48 pm

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