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On Mats, Part One: Their Role And Selection

Mat board comes in a wide range of colours. Choosing the right one can be a daunting process

The role played by the mat in a picture frame, and its importance, may not be immediately apparent. In fact, clients who have not had a piece custom framed before often do not know what a mat is, so before I go any further I should take a moment to define the term.

The mat (sometimes called the mount) is the material which creates the border between the artwork and moulding of the frame itself. Many people assume they are purely decorative, and indeed they do perform an important aesthetic function in giving the artwork some space, but they also play an important protective role by preventing the surface of the artwork from touching the glass. Without a mat to provide separation, the artwork may stick to the glass, particularly if any moisture gets inside the frame - a significant risk for my clients in the Dandenong Ranges. One recently brought me an old family photo in a frame with cracked glass. The frame was unmatted and the photo had stuck to the glass making it impossible to remove the photo without damaging the surface of this precious heirloom.

Choosing Colours & Tones

The aesthetic role of the mat is a little more subtle, but no less important. The main considerations when choosing a mat are colour and spacing. Mat boards come in a bewildering array of colours these days and whilst some of my clients enjoy going through my samples to find the perfect tone to match their art, others recoil in fear the moment I bring the subject up. I tend to be fairly conservative in the advice I offer and my initial suggestion will invariably be a white or off-white board, reserving the use of colour for a double mat where the coloured board creates an accent line around a piece. This is often useful in the case of signed or numbered prints where it is necessary to mat the work with thin border of blank paper around the image as per the framed Jess Johnson print below.

A double mat provides a nice accent line around signed prints where a section of paper white is visible

Of course, a solid colour mat can create an extremely pleasing effect on the right piece. However, as with mouldings, it is important not to distract from the artwork itself and as a framer I feel I have a duty to err on the side of caution. Too many framers allow their own egos to guide their aesthetic decisions. For many, mat board can also be a high-profit item, so pushing elaborate - and often tasteless - matting options can be a cynical money-making exercise. All things considered, I'd rather be prudent in my approach, but fortunately I have adventurous clients who encourage me to do more interesting things!

Just some of the different shades of white available in my basic line of mat boards

Taking a conservative approach doesn't necessarily make it easier to choose the right colour though. In fact, selecting the right white can be more time consuming than simply picking a colour which is already present in the image. The basic line of mat boards I stock come in around 30 different shades of white and off white. This might seem excessive, but it is essential in cases where the work to be framed has a significant portion of paper white showing, particularly at the edges like in the case of the signed David Bromley print below. In such situations, the decision-making process is not very different from choosing any other colour board where your main options are to match, harmonise or contrast. Once you start testing the range of white and off-white boards against the artwork you'll quickly discover that few actually look very good. You might find a handful that work well enough, but only one or two which actually create a pleasing effect with the paper white. Sometimes the key difference will be the texture of the board, but usually it is the subtle differences in colour which make all the difference. For starters, some are warmer whilst others are cooler in tone, but a closer inspection will reveal that there are also subtle differences in tint with varying degrees of green or magenta. It is beyond the scope of this article to go into the reason why this is the case (though it may not be surprising to anyone who has ever had to white balance a digital photograph), but once these differences are noted, the process of choosing a board to go with a given paper tone becomes much easier.

Matching mat board to the paper white can be more challenging than you might expect

Choosing coloured boards is often easier, but can present it own challenges. The sure fire way to pick a coloured board is to select a colour already within the artwork you wish to highlight. It needn't be an exact match, but with a little trial an error you'll quickly find a board which harmonises well enough to bring that colour to the fore. But which colour? There's no secret formula to this and it's often either a matter of experimentation or something which is dependent on the subject matter of the work.

For works of a more graphic nature where one colour predominates, mat board of a contrasting colour will prevent the finished product from looking dull and really help to make the image pop, as per this original piece by Yola & Daria:

This frame has been lined with mat board to create a shadow box effect

As seen in the example above, the use of mat board is not confined to window-mounting works, but can also be used as a backing for works which are float-mounted and as spacers in a box frame.

Width & Spacing

The other factor to consider when choosing a mat is the width or, to put it another way, how much space you'd like between the artwork and the moulding. Again, there are no sure-fire rules to this and many solutions which could be considered more or less satisfactory. Finding the right spacing will be a matter of trial and error, but for most pieces I find that somewhere between 50mm and 80mm works best, as in seen in this framed Chris Conn print:

A mat width of somewhere between 50mm and 80mm works well for most pieces

Note also the irregular shape of the artwork above. In such cases it is nearly always better for the mat to follow the lines of the frame than the form of the art.

A small or more delicate work like the bird by Diana Wiseman below can benefit from a wider mat to give the work some space, preventing it from being crowded either by the moulding or the surrounding decor. It also has the advantage of making the finished piece larger, imbuing it with a sense of importance it might otherwise lack.

A smaller piece can benefit from a wider mat to create a sense of space

For other pieces a thinner mat might work best. The foliage at the edges of the photograph below by John-Paul Aziz creates a natural vignette, drawing attention to the rock in the centre of the frame. Another heavy border would be too much, but a 30mm mat provides just the right amount of separation between the image and the moulding.

Whilst the chosen width of the mat is very much dependent on the nature of the piece being framed, one hard and fast rule I do follow is to always give the mat and extra 10% - 20% weighting on the bottom. This allows the work to rest a little higher from the bottom of the frame. The effect is almost imperceptible at first glance but it is more pleasing to the eye than simply having a uniform width all the way around.

For works which are tall and thin, giving more weight to the top as well as the bottom can create a pleasing effect, but I try to avoid cutting mats weighted heavily on the sides. Although I have seen it done before, in my opinion it never looks very good and can't think of a situation where it would work to the benefit of the artwork.

I hope you have found this brief description of the role and selection of mats to be informative and that you have a better idea of how to approach the subject next time you visit your framer. Of course, the only way to be certain of your choice is to see for yourself, which is why I keep an extensive range of corner samples in my Tecoma store.

In a future post I will discuss the difference between an archival and non-archival mat board and why you should always insist upon archival boards for your frames.

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