Airbrushing Picture Frames By Lowell Shaw

how to airbrushMagic is the word for the holiday season —  smiles on faces, moods as colorful as the gift-wrapped packages they accompany. Juts as magical are the events of the holidays. Relatives, friends, and neighbors visit more often. We photograph these events, paint or draw pictures as gifts, and save the greeting cards that cheer the season. And what better way is there to preserve these momentos than to mount them in picture frames uniquely embellished with color and design?

Wooden picture frames are sold either finished (painted, stained, or gilded) or unfinished (raw, unsealed wood). Either type can easily be enhanced with sprayed color. I’ve demonstrated that in workshops for picture frames and have decorated my own frames with great results. It’s actually another way of showing off your individuality and making that frame a cut above the rest!

Besides being classified as finished or unfinished, picture frames come in stock or custom sizes. Stock sizes accommodate dimensions that have become traditional in the paper and photography industries. Common stock sizes (measured in inches) are 5 by 7, 8 by 10, 11 by 14, 12 by 16, all the way up to 36 by 48. smaller sizes are available also to hold small photographs, coins or keepsakes. Odd sizes and shapes require custom frames; a picture frame shop is your best bet unless, of course, you plan to make your frames yourself from scratch.


Stock picture frames are available at many retail outlets and large department stores. Some are also carried by your local photo shop, although most photo shops carry a limited selection, as the majority of their customers’ work is generally no larger than 16 by 20.

To determine the correct size of your picture frame, simply measure the height and width of what it is you wish to frame. This will give you the inside dimension or I.D. If the object that you are framing is three-dimensional, consult with your picture frame shop first to determine if special mounting is required.

Once the I.D. is established, you might wish to enhance what you are framing with a colored cardboard border known as “mat”. Mats are usually no thicker than 1/8 inch and are made of pressed paper with a colored surface.

If what you wish to frame has intrinsic or sentimental value, I recommend a special type of mat called “acid-free”, available at art supply or picture framing shops. Acid-free mats are made of cotton or some other pH-neutral material that will not leave a yellow stain, as can occur when certain papers decay. Acid-free mats cost a bit more, but they’re worth the price.

Mats, like picture frames, can also be embellished with an airbrush. In fact, it’s a little easier to decorate a mat because it has a flat and uniform surface. The rules for decorating mats are principally the same as spraying on flat illustration board, except that I would refrain from using a high-track frisket adhesive because the top surface of most mat boards will tend to stick to your frisket and tear. For problem-free spraying on mats, use a’tack-free’ stencils made of acetate or vinyl. They’re available in most art supply stores in pads or by the yard. Any other opaque, stiff paper can also be used for stenciling material, but I find that a transparent stencil allows easier and more accurate placement. Precut them in the usual manner with a stencil burner or craft knife.


Picture-frames except those that are gold-leafed(gilded), are immune to the pulling force of a frisket’s tack. I personally use masking tape and acetate for picture frame stencils and have never had problems with these materials. In fact, I’ve found that masking tape is wonderful as a barrier on three-dimensional shapes. (See my article ‘Customizing Bicycle Frames’, Airbrush action, March-  April 1994.) Masking tape twists, bends, curves and is generally not temperature-sensitive.

As I have already mentioned, preparing mats for spraying is done the same way as working on any other flat board. There are however, some considerations for preparing picture frames for airbrushing. Because the surfaces of picture frames vary, the preparations for painting them vary also.


Almost all raw wood frames on the market today come presanded, ready for painting. But I recommend a light sanding with fine sandpaper anyway. This will guarantee the removal of any foreign substances (introduced by handling), and splinters, providing a problem-free surface to spray your paint on. After sanding the frame is ready for a sealer coat. Sealing is one step you should not skip before painting on raw wood. By passing this step will result in spoiled results – if not, then in months to come.

Wood sealers are chemicals that literally seal the pores of the wood. A wood sealer should be applied for two reasons. The first is to prevent any naturally occurring acids or oils in the wood from staining your painting surface. The second is to ensure proper paint adhesion. Paint needs a surface that is easy to stick to. Clear shellac, cut with denatured alcohol, or white wood primers such as Enamelac or Rust-Oleum provide such as surface. Sealers, thinned according to the directions on the can, can be brushed or sprayed on. Brushing is quicker, so it will cut your prep time. And the undercoats’ minor imperfections will disappear later under the spray from an airbrush. Personally I found that a brushed-on coat of thinned, clear-shellac works best. Because I never know when I might want the look of the wood to be exposed, the brush provides and opportunity for variety that I like having at my disposal.


Coatings on finished frames vary. They can be painted, stained, laminated in Formica, or covered in gold-leaf. Except for the gold-leafed frames, preparation for painting is relatively simple. The finished frames must be cleaned with a liquid cleaner that removes any grease or oil and does not leave a film. Most of these cleaners can be found under your kitchen skin. Ammonia with water, Windex, or Mr. clean work quite well. A light cleaning with rubbing works best, as you don’t want to damage the finish that is there to begin with. Go especially easy on the stained frames, as they are most susceptible to cleaners. Dry them with a lint-free cloth or paper towel immediately after cleaning. Gold-leafed frames are a breed unto themselves. Because of their expenses, applying paint would be an unusual thing to do. But if spraying over a gold-leafed frame is what you have in mind, rather than use a cleaner, according to Louis Shulman of Shulman’s. Frames in Brooklyn, simply dust it off and spray on a coating of clear lacquer or varnish. Gold-leafing is extremely vulnerable to handling and chemicals. Once the surfaces of your frames are cleaned and dried, they are ready for decorating.


Place your frame on a clean table, adequately covered with newspapers or an old bedsheet (preferably one with a pattern that you’ve come to hate). Then setup your airbrushing equipment in the usual manner. Don’t adjust the pressure on your compressor yet, as the pressure you use will depend on the effect that you wish to achieve.

On the following pages, I will offer some spray techniques that will help you achieve some effects that work quite nicely on frames. For each technique, I will recommend an appropriate pressure. For detailing and decorating purposes, you should have the following materials handy: masking tape, clear stencil material, a craft knife, paper towels, Q tips, paint, paint thinner, and medium and fine brushes. Optional materials are paper to tear, small rags, fishnet, or window screen, and ‘found objects’ such as small chain, some wire, paper clips, or rubber bands ‘ practically anything that when it is sprayed through can be used.

Once your equipment and supplies are ready, the decorating can begin. Any kind of paint can be used for airbrushing picture frames. I recommend using a quick-drying paint that doesn’t require toxic or flammable thinner, as you will most likely be painting indoors. I use Creatax Bond- All and have been very pleased with its ease of use and appearance when dry.

The following step-step techniques work very well when decorating picture frames. Keep in mind, however that it’s not necessary to paint the entire frame unless you want to. Partial painting can be an unusual and creative alternative and may even make the frame more of a conversation piece. MAT


Mats when placed around a picture, should highlight or complement that picture. Too often, I see people placing their artwork or photographer in a mat solely for protection. Unfortunately, not enough attention is given to the color of the mat. Mats should enhance the picture, not just surround it. When selecting a mat color, first determine the general overall color of the artwork or perhaps one of its dominant colors. This will provide you with the correct color family to work from.

Once your mat is cut or your artwork is centered and glued on top of it, you might decide how you want to decorate your mat. Remember, because a mat is basically the same as any flat board, your options are many. I would suggest selecting one of the projects outlined on following pages. In fact, if you have already painted your frame, you might opt to continue some of the same techniques that you followed onto your mat. This will provide you with a well-coordinated set. Clear coating is not essential on mats, as you will most likely cover your mat with glass.

When covering any painted surface with glass, keep some distance between it and the glass with a spacer. To accomplish this, simply turn the frame over, insert the glass and tack or glue it in place. Then run a thin strip of balsa wood around the glass where the lip of the frame is. This will prevent the wood from showing when you view the frame from the front.

Next place your matted artwork, with some backing, upside down into the frame. Your picture will now be protected unharmed. If getting balsa wood proves inconvenient, cut 1/8 inch-wide strips of mat board that are long enough to fit the inside dimensions of the frame, or use wooden match sticks after removing the heads. Good luck with your efforts and have a safe and magical holiday!

Continue on Part 2


  1. Airbrushing Picture Frames - Part 2 - Airbrush Action Magazine - June 4, 2014

    […] Read Part 1 […]

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