Tips & Techniques » Matting and Framing
Looking at photographs on a computer monitor is excellent for many things, but for me the ultimate viewing experience is coming face to face with an actual print. A beautifully made print, well matted and framed, is much more personal than anything on a screen. Whether in a museum, gallery or your living room, proper presentation can make a huge difference on the impact of the images you’ve created.
A mat is simply a bottom sheet of mat board to hold the art and a top piece with a window cut out to display the art. It’s easy enough to send work out to be professionally matted and framed but I like doing it myself, in my own time, in my own way. Saving money is nice, but mostly I like to be involved with as many elements in the creative process as possible. I like the hands-on work of preparing my pictures for presentation, as well as complete control over the final look; not to mention having them done when I want them. For me, the print is the thing. I love the unique, one-of-a-kind physical object that a photograph becomes. A framed photograph is a special showcase, the final act.
Long ago I experimented with all kinds of matting and framing but soon settled into using the simplest most elegant materials: bright white, 100% cotton fiber 2- or 4-ply museum board, with the windows cut straight, not beveled. The print is the thing. I like the mat to be just a simple white space to help isolate the image, as well as to protect it. Luckily for me it’s also the easiest. You’ll find your own style and method.
I was working on some pictures of my wife’s flower garden last week when one image jumped out at me. In about an hour’s time I made four different prints, matted the best two and framed one. That night I made a gift of the matted print to a friend and the framed picture to my wife. They would have loved getting just the print delivered in an envelope but this makes a richer, more complete gift that looks the way I want it to look.
|Using a spring clamp as a virtual extra hand to help secure the straight edge for long cuts.|
What You’ll Need
Mat boards, acid-free tape, photo corners, kneaded or soap erasers, utility or art knives and a steel ruler. All items are under $20, and are available at art supply and hardware stores. Support local independent art suppliers if you can, but of course you can get everything you need online and delivered.
Use acid-free boards and tapes to protect your work from deterioration over time. 100% cotton fiber (virgin, long fibers) is the highest quality, but acid-free cotton rag mats and conservation boards are also good and less costly. Mat boards come in many colors, shades, thicknesses and surface textures. Choose what you like and what works best with your pictures.
I buy full sheets of 32” x 40” 2-ply, acid-free cotton rag boards from a local art store and cut them down to 16” x 20” mats; 2-ply sheets cost about $8 each and the 4-ply are $16. For the bottom board I use 3/16” acid-free foam core boards (about $6 for 32” x 40” sheets.) That’s only $4 to mat a large print for a 16” x 20” frame. Check out places like Pearl Paint, Light Impressions and Archival Methods online to see the range of possibilities for print presentation. You should also have acid-free linen, cloth or Tyvek tape and photo corners and, just in case, double-sided mounting squares.
Pre-cut mat boards are available in many standard sizes. A package of 25, 2-ply, 100% cotton rag mats is around $55 for 11” x 14” size; $85 for 16” x 20”. Prices for 4-ply are about double.
|Measure image width and height. Add approximately ¼” - ½” all around for a border inside the window. Subtract about the same all around for a smaller window to display a borderless image.|
Cutting the Window
When you’ve decided on the right mat and size for your photograph, start by cutting a piece of foam core to the proper dimensions to be the bottom board of your matted print. This size is determined by the frame you will eventually use. Next, you’ll have to do a little math to cut the window in the mat board. Measure the width and height of the image area you want viewable – consider including a small border of photo paper around the image. If the image is 9” wide and 6” high and you want ¼” of white around all four sides of the print, you’ll want to cut the window 9 ½” x 6 ½”. If you want no border you’ll have to cut the window less than 9” x 6”, maybe 8 ½” x 5 ½” to cover ¼” of the image on all four sides.
Now that you know the window dimensions, determine where the window should be on the mat. If you want the image centered, subtract the image dimensions from the mat dimensions. That gives you the total height and width difference. Divide by two and you have equal mat-to-print borders. I cut my windows ¼” to ½” higher so the image is slightly above dead center. That’s closer to the 'optical' center.
|Mark and cut carefully. Push down on the table and ruler (30 to 40 lbs. of force) with fingers and palm. Start with light cuts. Take special care with corners. Turn the mat to cut each side. Use only sharp blades. Keep your fingertips on. Really!|
Measure and mark the cut-away window on the back of the mat and double-check it with the print. Hold the knife firmly and cut straight down with the blade perpendicular to the board. The first cut should be a light scoring of the board, a track for the following cuts. Three or four passes on a 4-ply board will provide a cleanly cut edge. Be sure to do your cutting on top of a piece of mat board, dense cardboard or vinyl, so that you do not scar your kitchen table or the carpet. Cutting the corners clean is critical. Ease the blade gently up to the marked line and cut straight down several times until you cut through.
There are still fine craftspeople who can hand-cut beautiful bevels (an angled cut) on their mat boards. I pretty much only make straight cuts in all the matting I do but I have used hand-held bevel cutters and they work fine. The most basic cost around $25 and are set to make 45 degree cuts. Others offer variable angle choices. If you plan to do a lot of matting you might consider a cutter and rail system for $60 to $200 or more. If you are really into it, you can use bevels, straight cuts and your imagination to construct fancy and elegant layered mats with multiple, varied boards.
Next step. Lay the window mat, back side up, next to the edge of the foam core board and tape them so they are hinged. Position the photograph on the bottom board and flip the window-mat over onto it. Reach under and position the print exactly how you want it. Hold it in place, lift the window up, and tape (or use photo corners) the lower corners securely in place. Then lift the mat and secure the top corners. If it’s good enough to frame it’s good enough to sign. Traditionally artists sign in pencil. The signature typically goes on the bottom right of the picture with the title on lower left. Or at least sign on the back of print, in pencil, along the border edge (lightly so the impression doesn’t show through on the front.) Now your matted artwork is ready to frame.
A Few Tricks:
Now Frame It
There are as many kinds of frames as there are personalities. They can come pre-made or as assemble-yourself kits. I look for old frames at garage sales and thrift shops and fix them up with some sandpaper, paint and a new piece of glass. You can stick to standard sizes or custom cut your own mats for any size frame.
If you’re going to be framing and handling glass take my advice and lightly smooth over the sharp edges and corners with medium grit sandpaper. Wear protective gloves and don’t breathe in the glass dust. You’ll be doing yourself a favor eliminating the sources of nasty cuts.
Glass must be clean. Diluted white vinegar in a spray bottle wiped with a soft, lint free cloth is a fine glass cleaner. Spots of dust and pet hairs under the glass detract from the image. Wipe them away with a cloth, a soft brush or blast of compressed air.
Be sure the frame is clean and lay it face down. Place the clean glass in the frame's rabbet groove, check for dust - blow it clean with the canned air if you have it - and drop the matted piece in place. (The mat keeps the surface of the print from contact with any condensation that might form on the glass, reducing the chance for mildew and mold.) Check the front of the framed piece before you set the mat permanently in place. If it’s still dust-free, add a foam core backer board. Push or tap in glazier points or large staples into the sides of the rabbet to hold the mat and boards in place.
Finally, run lengths of tape over the seams between the backer board and where it fits into the frame. This will seal the mat and art from moisture, dust, and insects, and protect the artwork. Add hanger wire, hooks or metal sawtooth hangers and the process is complete. Put your image proudly on display.
Experiment with different frame materials to find the right match for your photo.