Choosing the right mat when framing a picture

Peter Wiklund runs us through the choices we have to make when deciding on a mat when framing a photograph or picture.

Writer / Peter Wiklund

Too many photographs today never leave the computer. One way of making them more appealing is to print them out, frame them up, and put them on the wall. It is always a delight to have your own photographs on the wall at home, regardless of if they are works of art or family pictures from the holiday. And it is not likely that you will have too many. There is always a new spot that can be brightened up by your own pictures; the stairwell, the hallway, or even the bathroom?!

Excellent framing cannot save a bad photograph, but a good photograph can be made better by matching it with the right frame.

There are numerous choices to make when framing your own pictures. The most important are size, the mat and the frame. And, for each step in the process, you have the choice of doing it yourself or leaving it to a framer’s shop.

Let’s imagine you’ve decided to do the work yourself. You have a picture ready to frame. The first decision is whether you are going mat your picture or not. There are no hard and fast rules here, it is all decided by taste and, to a certain degree, fashion. In exhibitions these days it is just as common to frame a picture with a mat as without one – it varies with the type of exhibition. A rule of thumb is that the more fashionable the exhibition the less likely it is that you will see a mat.

The advantage of a mat is that it can lead the viewer’s eye into the photograph. The work of art is seen as larger and the image surface gets a neutral space around it, making it easier for the viewer to both attend to the image and to take it in. The disadvantage of a mat is that the mat can isolate the image. This is perhaps not desirable if, for example, you want the viewer to see a series of images. But, if it is a single image that is to be framed, a nice clean mat is clearly recommended. Furthermore, a mat does add to the archivalness of the image, since it creates a layer of air between the picture and the glass.

The basic rules of how big a mat should be is decided by the frame. That leads us to the second decision, the frame. The recommendation is that the width of the mat should be at least double the size of the with of the frame. A sturdy frame would need a wider matte than a thin one. Apart from that, the mat can be just about any size. A small format picture, let’s say 10×15 cm, can look brilliant in an 40×50 cm mat and frame.

Choose an acid-free mat for your picture

The mat should be acid free. Nothing else is acceptable because acids from ordinary paper and cardboard will destroy your photographs. Remember, the thin mats that come with off the shelf frames are not always acid-free. So, if you are framing valuable photographs (and what photographs aren’t valuable?), make sure you use acid-free mats.

Mats come in a number of colors and tones and the choice should be made depending on the color of the frame. Exactly how you match the colors is a matter of taste, but a basic rule is to choose a discreet mat that does not detract attention from the picture. Most of the time a light, but not brilliant white, mat will be a good choice for both black & white and color photographs. Don’t choose the very thinnest mat, the image is usually nicer with a bit of a depth in the frame.

The mat will act as a “window” that the picture will be seen through. The opening can be cut out with an ordinary hobby knife, but it will be cleaner if the edges of the mat are cut on an angle, sloping in towards the picture. You can achieve this by using a special mat knife, there are several types. It is a little more complicated to angle the edges, but it is definitely worth the effort.

creating a mat for your picture

The picture should not sit in the middle of the mat, but slightly above the middle. Make the bottom part of the mat slightly bigger than the upper, by about 1 centimeter. The top and sides should be the same size. There are, of course, a multitude of variations on this subject, for example, you may choose a landscape (wide) image in a portrait (tall) frame.

When the window is done the mat should be fastened with a middle board, a piece of acid-free isolating cardboard that is the same size as the mat. Fasten the two pieces of cardboard at the top, like a hinge. Place the picture between the two pieces of cardboard and adjust it perfectly in the window.

The picture framers best tip for choosing a mat

Elisabet Glimmer Larsen, working at K-Ram in Stockholm, shares her best tips and tricks for good framing of a picture:

  1. Use cotton gloves when handling photographs and use acid-free mats. You save time on removing dust and fingerprints.
  2. If you’re cutting the mats yourself, change the blades in your knife often and use a piece of thick cardboard or a cutting mat underneath. This way you don’t have to throw away mats because of broken corners.
  3. If you still mess up the corners despite your attempts buy a folding stick it will pay off after only two saved mats!

3 thoughts on “Choosing the right mat when framing a picture”

  1. paper mats are bad. They will burn your image with acid.

    “Acid-free” mats are usually just paper mats with a large amount of buffering agent in them so that they read acid-neutral at the time of manufacture. They are not really free from acid. The acid from the paper will eventually come to the surface and effect your photo (just at a later date than regular, unbuffered paper)

    Photographs, particularly alternative processes, should not come into contact with any buffering agents.
    They should be on 100% cotton/rag mat, and use the same 100% cotton/rag backing.
    Cotton is naturally ph neutral, therefore genuinely free from acid, and is the only way to actually protect your image.
    Unbuffered cotton mats and backings are the only way that big museums will frame their own work. If you want your own work to last more than a couple of years, you should do the same.

Leave a Comment