Sam Sanford, frame builder and painter, Austin
can you please catch me up to speed on what, exactly, you do?
Me, Sam Sanford? Or Sanford Art Services? I work full time as a finish carpenter, doing trim, floors, siding, and stuff like that. My art services company does custom framing, installing (picture hanging), repair and restoration, crating and shipping, and anything else art-related that needs to get done.
will you describe your working setup?
Working at home means a lot of shifting things around for different operations. Picture framing takes up a lot of space, and the work progresses in stages – chopping the frames, joining the frames, cutting mats and foamcore, cutting glass, mounting artwork, building spacers or mat walls if necessary, and assembling everything. The working setup would vary according to whatever stage I’m working on, or often there will be a different stage going on on each of several large tables. The tools involved are a miter saw, miter vices, drill, hammer, nail set, glue spreader, glass cutter, straightedges and blades, mat cutter (I use a small handheld pull-style cutter), putty for filling nail holes and various implements for applying putty, sometimes chisels, weights of various kinds (whatever’s handy; I often use stacks of New American Paintings magazine), various kinds of tapes and glues.
do you cut the wood by hand?
I use a 12″ electric miter saw.
what is your favorite tool for frame making?
I love my Rockler precision miter vises. The design has not changed since they were invented, probably hundreds of years ago. I also love my tiny nine-ounce hammer my dad gave me, which I use for driving the small brads that reinforce the frame corners.
when we were in your studio, you said, “A frame is not meant to be looked at.” I thought this was very interesting. Please elaborate on the purpose of a frame.
The primary purpose of framing as I see it is to present the artwork in a way that preserves it against damage and deterioration of every kind. Works on paper are difficult or impossible to clean without damaging them if they get dusty or if a bug poops on them, so they need to be put behind glass. The frame also helps regulate the rate of change of humidity and temperature, which is important for conserving the artwork. What I meant by that comment is that I prefer framing designs where the frame does not compete with the artwork for the viewer’s attention. But of course I am happy to design any style of framing to suit the needs of clients, from the minimal to the baroque.
do you think every painting needs a frame?
Paintings generally do not need frames unless they are on paper. Paintings on canvas or panels should be varnished after the paint has cured fully (can be a year or more for oil paintings). The point of varnish is that it can be removed without damaging the paint underneath – when the painting gets dusty and dirty, the varnish can be removed and replaced, leaving the painting looking new again. Sometimes a frame is desirable for a painting to conceal the edges of the support if they distract from the picture, or simply to make the painting look more complete or be more of a solid-looking object.
do you have any sort of working schedule?
I am always behind schedule, doing things at the last minute, and working whenever I have a spare moment. Right now I work 8:00 to 6:00 most weekdays, so framing gets done in the evenings and on weekends. There have been a few all-nighters since I started working full time.
what is the most time consuming part of it all?
No single part of the framing process takes much longer than any other part, but it all adds up. Start to finish each picture takes five to seven hours.
what is the strangest project you have ever done?
I am currently building a door that is also a picture frame. The shop I used to work at got all kinds of weird jobs, like framing guns or cowboy boots.
what do you see as your biggest strength in your own work?also, weakness.
My biggest strength is my care, attention to detail, and precision. Also my understanding of the principles of art conservation. My biggest weakness is my difficulty estimating how long things will take and getting things done on time.
good frames won’t save bad paintings: true or false?
true, but a good frame can make any artwork more enjoyable.
what have you learned from framing?
That perfection is an illusion.
can you share any tips for those hopeless at cutting straight lines?
Sounds like you are not using the right tools. You need a cork-backed straightedge
when and why did you start painting?
In 7th grade I won a scholarship to take a single semester-long course at Trinity University in San Antonio and I chose painting; I’m not really sure why – maybe because my regular art teacher was awesome, maybe because I thought college math courses would be too hard. I painted for a few years but I didn’t have much fun with it becuase I was frustrated by my inability to make the paint do what I wanted. Also I didn’t really have any ideas about what to paint. The last painting I worked on was a nude self-portrait composed like a landscape rendered in corpse colors; I could never get the paint to blend perfectly enough and eventually gave up. I started painting again at age 24; I had known for a while that I wanted to make things for a living but I didn’t know what. I was playing in a band and got really into poster design, and my roommate had a bunch of oil paints and canvas and brushes laying around. One day we watched the movie “Basquiat” and we all got excited about the idea of being artists; that day I painted a picture of a football player from a newspaper photo and soon decided that I wanted to be A Painter.
can you quickly describe your overall painting “style,” if you think you have one.
I’m not sure about a style. At first I painted from newspaper photos, painting alla prima. I also did some paintings from Xerox enlargements where the printing dots were blown up really large – that was the beginning of my continuing interest in reiterating mechanical processes. At the same time I was working on different ways of making pictures using algorithms derived from fractal geometry. Around this time a good friend was writing his thesis on Gerhard Richter, and he had all of Richter’s books, so I ended up getting obsessed too and I spent a few years making abstracts based on Richter’s squeegee paintings, trying to figure out how he achieved certain effects. When this got boring I began searching for new ways of generating abstract compositions; at the same time I was reading lots of materials & techniques books, and I got interested in the technique of glazing – mixing colors indirectly by applying layers of transparent color over dry layers. After a few experimental abstracts using this technique, I realized I did not understand how color mixing works and so I decided to go back to painting from photos for a while to learn how color works. I also wanted to develop a formal vocabulary that I could take back to abstract painting to make abstracts that had a photographic depth to them. It was natural for me to combine the glazing technique with the three-color system used in mechanical image-reproduction; it took me years to perfect this process-color glazing system. Recently I have moved away from photo-painting and indirect color to make a series of pictures based on the mechanics of fabric production such as weaving and knitting. These paintings are similar to my early fractal paintings in that they are made using algorithms. They aren’t really abstract but they aren’t fully representational either.
The themes in my figurative paintings have been various but they all have to do with the scientific worldview in some way – technology, mysticism, the nature of perception, psychotherapy, UFOs and alien abductions, conspiracy theory culture. I think we are in a period of reaction against the scientific worldview, tending toward mysticism.
how do your surroundings affect your work?
If you mean the physical surroundings while I’m working, I would say they affect my work very little. However I am always strongly affected by the people in my life, by the interests, tastes, and styles of the friends I admire. During the last five years of photo painting, all the motifs were taken from Internet searches and the ideas were derived from books I was reading.
what is your favorite paintbrush?
I take very good care of my brushes and they improve with time like a cast-iron skillet; my favorites are the oldest ones. I have a couple I bought for a dollar each at Miller Blueprint in 2004 that work great and I love them very much.
what is your favorite paint (brand, color, type)?
I pretty much only use single-pigment paints; I don’t like the idea of buying mixtures and I’d rather make my own. For the last five years I painted exclusively in my process-color system so I only ever used three colors. The specific paints I found that generated the best gamut (the range of possible colors in a system) were Grumbacher phthalo blue, Sennelier quinacridone magenta, and Old Holland gamboges yellow. Right now I’ve just started using other colors again which is lots of fun; I’m really into unbleached titanium, Williamsburg quinacridone brown, and venetian red. I’ve been using Gamblin alkyd mediums exclusively for at least five years. I like Gamblin, Williamsburg, Charvin, Old Holland, and R&F paints.
how do you plan a piece before you make it? does it usually/ever go according to plan?
During my photo-painting years, all paintings were planned extensively on the computer – I used Photoshop to separate images into primaries and generate maquettes for each color channel, also to play with composition and try out ideas. Once the final maquette was created digitally, there wasn’t much freestyling during the execution. Of course one must always stay focused on the painting as it exists now rather than on the idea or the plan, and numerous small adjustments must always be made. Experiments in painting are extremely costly so I took very few risks once I started painting. Some pictures were abandoned after many hours of work because they just didn’t look good as a painting. Now I hope to return to a more wasteful, more unplanned way of working, as I have done with my recent fabric pictures.
what is the best size of painting?
30-60 inches per side. I really like square compositions right now.
are there times of day you find it easier to work on paintings?the hours fly by when you’re painting so it always encompasses all times of day. Morning is the best but these days it mostly happens at night.
do you have any painting ideas in your head right now? if so, please elaborate.
One can only ever execute a tiny fraction of the ideas one has for paintings. While making the fabric pictures for my current show, I had lots of other fabric-based ideas I wanted to try. I’m really into motifs where the paint can physically reiterate or instantiate the thing it’s representing, like when you smear transparent reddish-brown paint around to depict smeared blood, as in Seth Alverson’s “Mop” - one of my biggest inspirations in recent years. I am also working on paintings on CRT TVs, where the picture consists of a still image played from a DVD with paint layers added on the screen. I’ve been looking at a lot of photos of Mount Rushmore – I really want to paint some pictures of that.
what other work do you do during the days?
Right now I’m working full-time as a finish carpenter.
do you enjoy working alone?
Yes! I could never be a filmmaker. In schoool I hated group projects. I think teams only work well when they are organized as dictatorships.
what do you do during slow periods?
I have no idea anymore! I would love to go to the beach for a few days….
are you a collector?
Yes! Buying art is the most satisfying use of money, and trading for art is the most satisfying way to dispose of my own work.
how do you balance work/personal projects/social life/etc.?
I wish I knew! My life has been insanely out of balance for years. All I do is put out fires; I decide what to do at any given moment by whatever is most pressing on my backlog of projects. A lot of my friends are feeling hurt right now because I never see them and I hardly even check email or Facebook anymore.
what are you looking for?
The only thing I want that I don’t already have is millions of dollars. Also I would like to make a really great painting one day.
Images by Ann Lowe.