Decorating with gesso frames

gesso frames
gesso frames
Three gesso frames, the two on the left are antique old, the one on the right is more recent.

What is a gesso frame?

It’s not hard to spot an antique gesso frame at a flea market or estate sale. Look off to the side, maybe behind quite a few other things. It will be hiding there. Frames with gilt gold that has dulled and gesso that has gotten chippy aren’t given prime display space. And usually they aren’t given a prime price either, which makes them all the more attractive. These aren’t the high value frames carefully cared for and prized by collectors. Those you will find at high end dealers and auctions. The chippy lovelies you find at a flea market are the ones from the Victorian era that framed art and photographs owned by average households. 

A gesso frame is a wooden frame that has applied ornamentation and detail made from a molded chalky, plastery white material. Gesso is a basic artist material. Painters use gesso to prime canvases. Molded gesso was an inexpensive and versatile material for frame makers that had the added advantage of “tooth”–it provides good adhesion for either paint or gilding size if it was to be covered with gold or silver leaf. Molded designs can be as simple as a rope border or highly intricate with small flourishes and flowers.

old gesso frameYou know you have gesso frame with some authentic age if you flip it over and the wood looks old, there is evidence the art was held in place with small nails (not staples), the hanging hardware is screw eyes (not more modern sawtooth hangers) and the chipped edges of the ornamental decorations on the front are  are white (not wood colored).

There are some frames out there that look like gesso, but are really from the 1950s and 1960s when French Provencial was a hot decorating trend–think paintings of Renoir-inspired ladies, impressionist ballerinas or European landscapes with lots of pinks and blues. They’re pretty ornate around the edges, are usually painted white and gold and may a web of cracks in the heavy paint and finish. There’s nothing in the world wrong with these frames, in fact, they are quite charming. But don’t be fooled into thinking one of these much later frames are antique-old.

Repairing a gesso frame

It is possible to do a home repair on a gesso frame. The Polka Dot Closet has a fabulous DIY blog post on how to do it. Her technique using polymer clay and epoxy putty is simple and pure genius. This works great on your average thrift store frame. Restoration of a true antique frame is best left to a restoration expert.

Decorating with gesso frames

stacked antique frames

Antique frames as art themselves

Lindsey Ballard of has a thoughtful tutorial for creating a wall display of stacked vintage frames. She paints her frames and gets a great look. As with all antiques, the question of whether or not they should be painted is an open question with passionate defenders on both sides. It should be noted that if you paint a gilt frame, you have pretty much eliminated any antique value it has. But things should be used and loved, right? So if to use and love it, you want to paint it…

Antique frames to spotlight collections

frames in frames
Photo by S6 Photography/Jennie Beard

Antique frames are a great way to showcase a collection of things you love. Photographs, plates, pocket watches, paper ephemera, baby clothes or anything you can stick on a wall with a nail or a tack look right at home arranged on the wall inside an antique frame. British blog features a lovely framed photo arrangement designed by prop stylist Hansley Beard

The larger the frame, the larger the items you can collect in it. I’ve hung a collection of floral plates inside a massive chippy old frame. Branches with Christmas ornaments?Don’t mind if I do. But I use faux plants so I don’t mess with the paint on my wall. Add micro fairy lights? Yes please, for a frame on a horizontal surface where you can hide the battery pack. The nice thing is that if you aren’t squeamish about making holes in your wall, one well-placed frame can be changed seasonally. 

Antique frames with added function

Tarah from transformed an old dresser mirror that needed more reassembly than a piece of Ikea furniture into a functional jewelry holder. Although her frame was all wood, you can use the same techniques with a gesso frame. Add extra interest by spray painting the chicken wire before you install it.

Other ideas:

  • Memo board: mount a sheet of cork to piece of foam core board cut to fit the opening of your frame. Use framer’s points if you have a framing gun or tiny brads to hold it in place
  • Distressed glass mirror: a well-aged frame with a good patina is begging for you to create a distressed mirror. Get a sheet of mirror cut to fit the opening with these instructions from HGTV.

Are you using vintage frames in your home? Share them with us on Instagram using our #vintageunscripted.


You may also like

1 comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *