Framing Works of Art on Paper: Why Use Mats?

1920s Collage

Works on paper are the most common popular form of art. These include: reproductions, limited edition prints, watercolours, pastels, acrylics and photographs. Works on paper require specific framing techniques to protect them from the environment and to ensure their longevity.  This article will focus on the purpose of matting and the different types of mats including: mat designs and mat cuts.

Why Use Mats?

Mats have three main purposes:

  1. To prevent the art from touching the frame’s glass. It is important to have an “air space” between the artwork and the glass, otherwise moisture or condensation may build up and cause mildew or foxing to occur. Photos will often stick to the glass if a mat is not used.
  2. For aesthetic purposes.  Mats come in a wide variety of styles, colours and types.  Well-designed mat combinations highlight the artwork and help focus the eye of the viewer on it.
  3. For conservation purposes.  Acid-free materials are used to protect artwork that is irreplaceable, or has a potential monetary or sentimental value.

What are the Different Types of Mats?

Framed Red Cross Society Award

Although mats come in a huge variety of colours, designs and finishes, there are basically two different types of mats:  acid free and paper mats.  Acid-free mats, often referred to as rag or conservation mats, typically have 100% cotton cores and backing.  They are also fade and bleed-resistant.  Although they are more expensive than paper mats, for any framing that is important to you, they are a must.

Paper mats come in a wide variety of colours and finishes as well.  However, over time they tend to fade and the acids in the mats can seep out and discolour your work of art.  So why use paper mats, you may ask? They are cost effective and can be used on reproductions or posters that you may want to change or discard in a few years.

In terms of mat designs, there are specialty mats with marble, leaf, filigree, stucco, suede, and silk patterns on them.  They help create interesting framing and often work well to blend in with different decorating styles.  For example, suede mats often create a more traditional look, whereas a corrugated mat is typically used for more contemporary works such as black and white photography.

Mat colours vary with decorating trends.  In the past few years, sage green, pumpkin, harvest gold and maple leaf red have been very popular. A move toward brighter, clearer colours and away from muted colours is evolving. Simple tone-on-tone, off-white, and neutral mats are always in style.

What Mat Proportions Should I Choose?

When people are working with art they are frightened to use wide mats and have a tendency to select mats that are too small. General rules regarding mat width include:

  • Choose mats that are least 1 ½”-2” wide.  Even on small pictures, you want a border that allows the art to “breathe”.  To really attract the viewer to the art and create drama, you may want to select mats that are 4”-5” wide.
  •  The mat should generally be 1 ½- 2 times wider than the frame.  If the mat is narrower, the artwork can look overpowered by the frame.

Can I Add Some Decorative Elements to the Matting?

Framed Degree

Many reputable frame shops have computer mat cutters, which do a variety of mat cuts including: oval, hexagonal, circular, and arched openings.  If the artwork is suited to these styles, then use decorative mat cuts.  The corners can also be notched, circular, southwestern, etc. Clipart cuts such as snowflakes, leaves, baseball bats can be added for interest.  Use the decorative elements with care, as you do not want to overpower the art and draw the eye to the framing instead of the image.

What Colour of Mats Should I Use?

Mats are available in many colours and each picture can be framed many ways.  One recommendation is that you choose colours that are in the centre of the artwork, so that your eye is drawn into the middle of the image.  You also want to create a contrast with the matting against the wall colour.  Typically, if your wall colour is dark, you’ll want a light-coloured mat and vise-versa.

How Many Mats Should I Use?

For conservation purposes, you need at least one mat.  Additional mats highlight the colours in the artwork and provide depth to the image, once again drawing your eye inward.   The number of mats selected will depend upon the finished design that you desire.  Your framer or interior designer can help you make those decisions.


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