Framing involves many different aspects. Determining the proper mat size and mat opening for a print or photograph is one of the more confusing issues facing novice framers.
First, be sure you understand the two different measurements associated with a frame mat. There is the overall size of the mat, which is around the size of the inside of the frame. Then, there is the mat window measurement, which refers to the size of the opening in the mat through which the image shows.
Measure the Dimensions
To determine the general overall dimensions of the mat, measure the glazing size (size of the glass or acrylic) of the intended frame. If the glass fits inside the frame without too much wiggle room, it provides a good template for cutting the mat to its overall size.
There is some room for error in cutting, since part of the frame will conceal smaller irregularities, but keep in mind there is only about a 1/8” margin of error before you start noticing imperfections in the framing job.
As for the size of the window in the mat, one simple general rule is that the opening should not be the same size as the print or photo. Cutting a mat to the exact dimensions of the outer border of a picture or photograph is almost impossible and it is nearly impossible to get them lined up perfectly.
Off- the- shelf pre-cut picture frames usually have mat boards with openings 1/2 an inch smaller than the intended picture size. For example, a 16×20 inch frame including a mat purchased for use with 11×14 prints or photographs will have an actual window opening somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 1/2 x 13 ½ inches.
This results in the mat overlapping each side of the print by ¼ inch. A quarter of an inch does not sound like much on its own, but consider that it adds up since there are four sides on every mat.
How Large Should a Frame Mat Be?
One of the most common questions from DIY framers is how large should the mat border be? While we can make suggestions, the answer is – however big you want. Adjusting the size of the visible mat will dramatically change the appearance of your art, so it’s important to have an understanding what you want the final appearance to be.
Best Practice for Frame Mat Size
Many professional framers, including Frame Destination, recommend a mat border of two to four inches (unless you have a specific look in mind that calls for a wider or narrower mat). This provides the “traditional” framed look with a mat border that is equal on all sides and doesn’t overwhelm the art.
If your art is smaller, you may want to opt for a border that is closer to two inches to avoid overwhelming the artwork. Larger framed pieces can support wider mat borders while still retaining that classic framed look.
It’s also important to consider the color of the mat you’ve chosen. You can display a large amount of a neutral color mat board without it overwhelming and distracting from the art, but if you’ve opted for a bright, rich, or bold colored mat you may want to consider a narrower border.
More Mat for More Impact
When putting together a framed photo or piece of art, there are three major components that will affect the look and feel of the final piece:
- The art
- The frame
- The mat
While in traditional framing practices the mat plays a supporting role, in some applications it can become a much larger part of your framed art. Large mat borders can give your art a “gallery” look and can help draw attention to your art if it’s displayed on a large wall.
Opting for a weighted mat (where one or more sides has a wider mat) is another popular option. Taking weighting to an extreme is a popular modern look that pairs well with black and white photography. There are many mat board styles to give your art the perfect look.
Using bright or bold colored mats is another way to add impact to your art – particularly for black and white photos. Mat board is available in just about every color under the sun, including green, blue, purple, orange, red, and yellow, so you’re not limited to earth tones or neutrals when framing.
Adding Depth Without Size
If you want to add depth, character, or color to your mat without overwhelming the art or opting for a large mat border, consider layered mats. In a layered mat situation, two or three mats (often of different colors) are framed. You see the most of the top layer and smaller amounts of each of the lower layers.
This technique allows you to add some depth to your framing, or introduce a pop of color. For just a little color touch, opt for a neutral or subtle top mat, then select a bold or bright color for the second layer. This technique is ideal when you want to call out a color featured prominently in the art, but don’t want a colorful full border. To highlight more than one color, opt for a triple mat with a neutral top and colorful second and third mats. Or you can achieve a modern look by layering white-black-white mats.
For depth without color, opt for mat layers that are the same color or have slight shade variations within the same color palette. This will give you the tiered look without adding more color.
Layered mats can be as large as you’d like, so you can use this technique with large borders or with the traditional 2- to 4-inch mat border.
At the end of the day, how big your frame border is depends on personal preference and your desired look. When you order a mat board from Frame Destination, you can play with the sizes to see how your art will look with its new mat.
Although allowing the mat to overlap the image is the most common matting technique, sometimes employing the practice of using a mat opening that is larger than the image, known as “float mounting”, works best. This matting technique prevents any masking of any part of the framed image. It is especially useful when the ability to view the artist’s signature or print data is desired.
There are several ways to accomplish this look, including using different overlap measurements on different edges of the work. Usually the side and top border measurements are between 1/4 to 1/2 inch and the bottom is expanded to reveal between 1/4 and 1 inch of the border. In most cases, the bottom dimensions of a mat are equal to the top and sides, but the presence of a signature changes all that. However, getting it right requires a little math along with some good measuring skills. Beyond that, another common mistake is to forget to double the border size when calculating the opening.
For example, if the signature is under 1/2 inch, then you can use 1/4 or 3/8 inch top and side borders and 1/2 inch bottom border. If the signature requires 3/4 inch, then you can use 1/2 top and side borders. In this case, the mat opening will be one inch larger than the image width, and 1 1/4 inches larger than the image height.
Sometimes drawing out a sketch prior to making any cuts helps better visualize your aims. Beyond that, never forget that the adage, “measure twice, cut once” does not just apply to woodworking.
Mats are integral parts of framing. Their color accents the framed item, setting it off to its best effect. Their composition ensures preservation of the item. However, mats serve other purposes. They provide a buffer layer between the artwork or photo and the frame glazing. Beyond that, the mat board helps keep the framed image flat within the frame, and adds another way to create a truly distinctive and unique framed look.
Frame Destination carries several varieties of mats, including 100% cotton, acid-free and lignin-free mats with solid color throughout, mats that trap and neutralize pollutants and acid by-products, and paper mat featuring white or cream cores. All mats from our shop feature larger windows than most store-bought mats, meaning more of the image showing through in a framed piece.
All artwork below 20” on each side has mat windows cut ¼ of an inch smaller, which allows for just 1/8 of an inch overlap for each side. Opening for images 20” and larger on both sides are cut ½” smaller. The slightly enlarged cut out window still allows for sufficient coverage or overlap of any paper border around the image, thereby supporting the image, and negating any concerns about the color of the substrate the image is mounted against showing up in the completed framed item.