Matting Basics

Cutting your own mats isn’t difficult if you have a clean space and the right materials. While hand-held mat cutters are the cheapest, they require a steady hand. Many artists feel it’s worthwhile to spend a little more (about $150-$400) on a tabletop mat cutter that allows for greater stability and alignment. Other hints:

Proportion. Make sure the dimensions of your mat accentuate your image rather than detract from it. As a general rule, smaller paintings need wider mats, while bigger paintings call for proportionately narrower mats. “A wide mat on a small painting will make it feel more important, like a jewel,” says Carla O’Connor. If a mat is too wide or too narrow, your eye will focus on the border instead of the image.

Color. If you opt for a colored mat, make sure its hue doesn’t overpower your art. “In a given painting, there’s usually a main color, a secondary color, and a third and fourth color,” says Bill Goodyear, marketing director at American Frame Corp., a mail-order supplier of framing materials. “We usually recommend that artists focus on the third and fourth colors for mats and liners. For example, in an image depicting a vase of sunflowers, there’s enough yellow there already. You don’t want the mat to steal the show. So perhaps you find a brown in the flower stem, or a grayish blue in the water of the vase to complement the image.”

Doubling Up. A double mat can add dimension and give your framed piece an extra touch of elegance. It can also help to contain an image that’s especially light or dark around the edges. Keep in mind that this option means paying for another piece of matboard, even if you’re only seeing a tiny lip of it in the frame. Double mats are aesthetically pleasing, but not functionally imperative. “The main purpose of a mat in the first place is to create a fraction-of-an-inch air pocket between the glass and the image,” says O’Connor. “It only takes a fraction. Don’t let a framer talk you into two mats if you can’t afford it or don’t want it. The Museum of Modern Art in New York uses only one mat, so that tells me it’s usually just fine.”

Precision. Don’t let a sloppy matting job reflect poorly on your art. Keep your workspace dust-free and stock up on extra blades. “Matboard is fairly abrasive, and dull blades will tear, so I change my mat cutter blade after only two cuts,” says Mark Gottsegen. If you use the same size mats repeatedly, cut a few scrap mats to use as templates for tracing new mats. For even faster assembly, precut multiple mats in standard sizes.

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