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Principles of Mat Design

Introduction To Matting Design

Designing Picture Frame Mats to Accent Your Art

Designing Picture Frame Mats to Accent Your Art


Using picture frame mats for your watercolors, pastels or photo prints is essential for preservation and design reasons. Matting is accomplished by mounting artwork behind mat board that has an opening through which the piece will be seen. The mat board separates the artwork from the glass so that condensation doesn’t form.  Condensation will cause the surface of the picture to stick to the glass.

There are also design benefits to surrounding art with matting. It helps separate the picture from its surroundings, which pulls the viewer’s focus to it. Choosing the right kind of matting is imperative, as the wrong color, size or design can detract from the picture instead of enhancing it. The following are the main design techniques you should focus on when choosing mats.


Position of mat window

The mat window is the opening in the mat board through which you view the art. While most art is framed with the picture in the center of the matting, you can find a pieces where the art is obviously off-center. This is usually a personal design aesthetic. Please remember that deviation from the norm, centered, can limit your sales.  Off-center, weighted mats, should be used only when they make an improvement to the appearance of the art..

As mentioned, the most common position of the mat window is the center. However, it is common to position it about a quarter or half an inch or even higher than the center when dealing with large images. This creates an optical illusion of it being centered, especially when the piece is hung higher than eye level. If the mat window is positioned at the exact center, it can create the effect of being off-center and make it seem like the picture is falling out of the frame. This technique is called bottom-weighting. Bottom weighting is sometimes used in smaller prints simply to create a “gallery look”. 


Border sizes

Border size of the picture frame mat refers to the width of the mat on all four sides. Bottom-weighting naturally creates a larger bottom width than the top. Some feel that equal side and top borders can create a uniformity that is distracting when used with Bottom-weighted mats. In this case the top border is made slightly larger than the sides but smaller than the bottom border . However, most pictures are surrounded by equal side borders, top and bottom borders..  Another elegant technique is to have the side borders of vertical pictures wider than the top and bottom borders, while panoramas benefit from broader top and bottom borders. Another technique to consider is making the scale of the mat much larger than that of the mat window.  This isolates the image and dramatically draws the eye to the image.  This creates  another “gallery look”  as it is often used with small prints you see in museums and even in larger works with a square design.


Thickness of the mat

Double matting is sometimes used for its step down effect that leads the eye into the picture. However, it is becoming common to substitute that with extra thick mat board, which when cut, provides a dramatic bevel effect. The window edge slopes into the picture at roughly 45 degrees, and this edge can either be the same color as the mat surface or a contrasting color. The thicker the matting, the more pronounced the bevel will be. Although many museums and art galleries use six or eight ply boards for special presentations, the most common thickness is four ply.

Another point to consider is what color you want the beveled edge to be. This color comes from the “core” of the mat board…the portion of the mat between the top color and the bottom cover of the mat. Although there are a few unusual color cores, most cores are cream, white or black.  The core can be in the same color as the surface or in a contrasting color, which can add drama to the picture.


Color of the mat

While you can use any color for the mat board, white, cream and black are preferred colors, as they work with any art without being distracting. Pure white mat boards work well with contemporary art and photos, while antique art works better with cream matting. In general, the mat color should match the colors in the artwork. However, if you have a high key image, a black mat would look better, as using white or cream can make it look like the picture is bleeding into the mat. The opposite holds true for low key images. Some color photos also work well with black mats. Many photographers like white photo mats with a black core, as it can help separate the art from the mat. This generally does not work for watercolors and pastels that only have light tones, as the black core would be distracting.


The most important rule you need to keep in mind while choosing picture frame mats is that the mat is not the star of the artwork – the picture is.

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