Many people have questions about “the best” or “proper” method or look for framing a particular art piece. The frame, mat, backing, mounting method, glass or acrylic, spacers, all serve both functional and presentational purposes in picture framing. When to use which materials and methods is determined both by aesthetic preference and the type of art being framed.
Oil or acrylic paintings on canvas normally require no glass or acrylic (either of which are refereed to as “glazing”). This is because canvas and typical artist’s paints are tough and durable materials which if stored and displayed properly, will not easily succumb to elements even after decades.
Given that the canvas painting will not have glazing, the possibility of, and indeed the purpose of a mat is eliminated, as the function of a mat is to keep the gazing from resting on the artwork. Also, mat board cannot normally be preserved without glazing, and will warp and likely discolor quickly without it.
Paintings on canvas can be more prone to degradation if the painting is glazed and sealed with a backing. Canvas can hold on to moisture longer inside a frame than most paper art, making it more subject to mold. This is of particular concern if the framed piece is exposed to rapidly changing temperatures and or humidity, not unlikely if a piece is displayed at outdoor art exhibitions.
When framing canvas without glass, The artwork will to some degree make direct contact with the wood lip of the frame. It is often a good idea to seal the inside edge of a wood frame with tape (metallic Mylar tape works well to create good acid barrier) that may provide the art with some degree of protection against acids in the wood. While canvas tends to be highly ph resistant, this may also help prevent the edge of the painting from sticking to the lip of the frame. It happens all the time with paintings left in the sun at outdoor exhibits.
Sometimes a *linen liner is used as a decorative and archival method for protecting the edge of a canvas painting from the wood of a frame.
(*Note, Although cotton has very low ph, linen and silk are the only “archival” fabrics)
(When framing pieces with glass, sealing the inside of the frame with any kind of tape can prevent the wood or frame finish from chipping off inside and ending up between the glass and the art or mat.
When framing prints on canvas, it’s always good to try and determine if the print is durable enough to be framed without glass. Many less expensive canvas prints will not hold up to dusting for more than a few years at best before they start to show wear-through. So, if the prints are inexpensive it may an option to forgo frames and glass, but only display them on stretcher-bars, knowing they won’t last forever. Then again, if you really like the prints, regardless of their value, they may be worth framing and glazing to give them more longevity. And also, some canvas prints are very high quality and may be framed without glass and still last for many years. Always consult with your framer as to the best option!
Canvas Float Frames.
Canvas float frames are a popular contemporary or “minimalist” look for canvas paintings on stretcher bars, particularly “deep” or “box-bar” stretcher bars that are 1 1/4″ tall or taller.
The unique feature with these frames is there is no frame lip which comes over the front edge of the painting. Rather, the painting is attached to the back of the frame.
The space between the painting and frame will determine if the side of the painting is visible or not. Often with a “gallery wrap” canvas, where the side is meant to be visible, it’s desirable to allow clearance of 3/8″ or more.
Canvas Float Frame Conversion
If you have the ability to cut and join your own frames, you can sometimes create a canvas floater frame profile by using a regular frame.
This allows for more variety in the look of float frames, as they typically are only available in a very limited variety of finishes. Most are mat-black.
A regular-frame is turned so the side of the frame becomes the face, or said another way, the width becomes the height/depth. This is often called a “canvas float conversion”.
Because the “bottom” of the frame ( which becomes the inside of the float-conversion frame) is un-finished, it usually must be painted some color to look right with the frame finish. This is normally not difficult, as this part of the frame is just barley even visible, depending on the amount of clearance between the canvas and the frame.
This is where the mounting, mats, glazing and spacers come in.
Artwork (or photos) on paper which is not permanently mounted to a rigid backing board is normally mounted to a backing with “T-hinges”, made with heat or water reversible archival or “acid free” tape. Flanges or mounting corners are also sometimes used. Most often these methods of mounting allow for the art to be removed from the backing without damaging the art. Original art, signed/limited edition photos or expensive giclee prints should never be permanently mounted in any way. Mounting is always risky. There is always a possibility that something may go wrong, and there is more often no way to correct a problem in mounting.
Preservation style mounting methods of attaching the art to the backing are normally hidden from view under a mat.
Artwork on paper normally requires glass or acrylic (‘glazing’) to help preserve the paper. So, the mat functions to keep the glazing from touching the artwork in addition to hiding the method of mounting.
“Spacers” provide an option of framing art without a mat, as the spacers keep the glass off the art in the same way a mat would. See the photo at the top of this article.
However, when framing paper art without a mat, there is no possibility of using preservation mounting methods as previously described, as the space required around the art for tapes, flanges or mounting corners would be visible and not very attractive.
Using spacers on paper art that is not permanently mounted can have bad results, with the potential for buckling the loose paper. The art can slip around between the spacers and backing, possibly damaging the paper edge. Some art paper is heavy enough to endure, and smaller pieces are less subject to this issue.
Generally speaking, original artwork, prints or photos which have substantial value, and are on loose, thin paper bigger than 11×14 should not use spacers, or be permanently mounted, but should be preservation mounted and so should have a mat to hide the mount and keep the glazing off the art. Art papers with extra thickness may be an exception.
Artwork on rigid panels lends itself to framing with spacers (if the frame is to have glass) more readily than with a mat.
Art on thin wood panels, “Gator board” or some equivalent, may sometimes be framed without glass as a panel float mount, where the edge of the of the panel is not under the lip of the frame. This can normally work for any oil or acrylic panel paintings.
Recently it has become popular to use panels for pastel artwork. This allows the possibility of framing pastel art without a mat, although obviously glass and spacer would still be required. Part of the reason many pastel artists prefer panels is so they can frame more easily without a mat. Framing without mats is more in line with the way oil paintings are framed, and most art buyers tend to prefer oil (or acrylic) on canvas without mats or glass. Pastel as a medium is working hard to be recognized on par with oils, and so, pastel artists like to frame their work in the same style as oil paintings. Pastel artists also prefer the new “reflection-free” or “museum glass” for the same reason, so you don’t notice the glass so much, often making the work appear as though it could indeed be an oil painting!
The pastel “Overlay”
However, a more basic method for framing pastels is also seen sometimes, often called an “overlay”, or the “sandwich” method. This involves placing glass directly on the pastel, then taping the glass to the mount board at its edges, creating an “air-tight seal”.
I can’t recommend this method, as it is too invasive and permanent. The glass can’t be removed from the pastel without risk of some of the pastel sticking to the glass and ruining the art.
So, If at some point it should be desired that the pastel overlay have a mat, the glass must be removed from the pastel, with significant risk of damaging the work.
Also, I’ve fixed broken glass on a few pastel paintings that were framed with mats, and more often than not the painting is not damaged significantly. It’s hard to imagine that broken glass on an overlay wouldn’t increase the risk of damaging the painting. The glass would have to be replaced and no doubt take some pastel with it.
In my opinion, the “Overlay” or “Sandwich” is just a bad idea all around for pastels.
Never frame pastel art with acrylic, the static will likely cause a lot of pastel to stick to it. The exception is static free, “Optium” museum acrylic, which, in my experience, is too expensive for most people’s framing budgets.
Framing Pastels with Mats
When pastel art (on either paper or panel) is framed with mats, the mat bevel is often reversed as to avoid pastel dust from settling on the white mat bevel. The mat is usually raised above the artwork by about 1/8″ to allow the dust to fall into the bottom of the frame, rather than wedging between the mat and glass. Be sure your frame has enough depth to accommodate the raised mat.
When framing panels with mats, (pastel or otherwise) the thickness of the panel creates space between the mat and backing. This space must be filled with material (mat or some kind of board) to prevent the mat from bending around the panel. This material may also hold the panel centered on the backing. This is often referred to as a “sink-mount”.
When raising the mat above the sink mount for pastels, the mat raised above the panel obviously will not hold the panel down as with a normal sink mount. Instead, strips of mat or thin plastic (“sometimes called flanges”) are used to hold the panel down at its edges, as shown below.
The look: Mat or no Mat?
Much is often said about the visual impact of matted art vs. un-matted art.
But these are all opinions, and so perhaps not always very meaningful, including my own. Some are steadfast in the opinion that a mat “opens up the viewing area” others say it always constrains..
What I always say is, each piece is different, and may or may not look better with a mat. I can say for certain that my very favorite framed pieces have mats, but I can also say that some of my least favorites also have mats. A mat can make or break a presentation more easily than a frame alone. So framing with a mat can be harder to do well.
In addition to possibly adding a sense of dimension to the framed presentation, a mat can create space between the strong character of a frame and the art. This seems to allow each to have it’s own space, but at the same time reference each other across the mat. Be careful about using frames with ornamentation, heavy texture, multiple colors, or lines right up against your art. A mat can really help make a frame with lots of character work better.
I think the tendency in any design work is to loose sight of the big picture, and this really comes into play when adding mats to a framing design. look for over-all visual balance, don’t worry so much about matching certain colors or reflecting a certain theme.. it’s more about making sure no element in your design stands away from the other elements, and that the whole thing doesn’t stand away or look disconnected from the subject. The framing should be exquisite, but also, the last thing the viewer notices. It can be impossible to say in advance what exactly might achieve this, and there are always multiple, if not infinite ways.
Sometimes it occurs to me that a framed piece with a mat is really not so different than a very wide frame. It’s just lines around the image either way.
One opinion is that a mat, because it is paper, can help ease the transition from the art and the hard wood of a frame. This seems to be a valid opinion because designer’s rules of lines suggest that a softer texture carries less visual weight, and so as a line, might lend to the effect of outward movement to the harder line of the frame.
Blah Blah Blah.. I personally say that some pieces can look better without a mat, and it often will depend on the frame being considered.
Two things are certain, framing with a mat is more difficult and more expensive. More difficult because you must introduce new elements of color, line and space into the framing mix, more expensive because it’s yet another framing item to pay for, and it makes your whole piece bigger.
Mat color can enhance the colors in artwork through contrast and by “echoing” the colors in the art. And yes, the same can be said about frames. However we often rely on our frame to be the strong outside line, and it may be difficult to get all the color we’d like in the frame.
Mats give us the opportunity to create different color combinations with the frame and art , creating the possibility for a uniquely pleasing combination that we are not likely to get out of any frame we might find.
I discover that by contrasting and echoing these colors in the mat, or even the frame sometimes, I can bring out highlight and contrast in the work without overstating the obvious colors, hopefully enhancing the artist’s intended effect.
A simple rule of thumb is to weigh color prominence in the artwork. The most intense colors should be used most sparingly, or not at all. The more subtle and muted colors may be used more. Also look at the over all light value of the subject. Is it generally dark, medium, or light?, is it warm or cool? Should you match, or contrast? It may depend on the frame!
Pay attention to how mat color can change depending on what the other mat colors are, and depending on how much of the color you show. Showing 3/8″ of lavender or green can look quite different when only showing 1/8″. Sometimes the colors go gray or become more intense.
Also check mat color in a few different light situations. Hold mat samples up vertically against your art rather than just looking down at them on a table. Mat color can vary in different light more so than a frame. Sometimes it was only because of the particular lighting at your design table that the mats looked the way they did.
Sometimes I reverse the bevels of mats, use solid color core mats, or color the white mat core with ink marker to control color intensity. Sometimes the white mat core adds too many lines, or can make mat colors stand out too much. This is something often overlooked in what would otherwise be great framing designs. Some treat the white mat bevel as if it were set in stone, but I say it doesn’t always need to be there!
Some use white mats for everything just to play it safe and make sure there’s “no competition” with the art. However, sometimes a white mat can look very disconnected and forced on some artwork. If using a white mat, don’t just settle for any white! look at the white in the art or the substrate in the art, and try to match it. If there’s no white in the art, consider a darker off white with a neutral or nicely contrasting cast. But be warned, finding the “perfect white” is probably the hardest of all!
Most importantly, and even though I mention a lot of them, never rely 100% on framing formulas. Everything I say here is just theory that happens to reflect my own experience with framing. Mats or no mats, picture framing is no more an exact science than artwork is. Always approach it from artistic sensibilities first. Artwork is more than an assembly of colors and shapes, it has character and personality. Try to reflect your best sense of that in your framing design.
In a nut shell, and very generally speaking, the frame should be the most prominent line, and the mat should be wider than the frame. This means the mat will probably not be darker, or rather, more intense and prominent than the frame.
Lines in picture framing follow general design principles regarding static vs. dynamic line combinations. (click for larger image)
When applied to squares and rectangles as in picture frames, we now have an “inside” and “outside” to consider, creating a situation where lines appear to move in or out, depending on width, texture, color prominence (“value”) and placement.
Many frames have an inside line as part of their design, like the above graphic. If the mat is wider than the frame, this will create the desired “wide-thin-wide” combo.
And so what about the frame? what can be said about the best frame for a particular art piece?
There are structural considerations when choosing a frame. For instance, if the piece is 24×36 and has glass, the weight of the glass alone can put a strain on the joins of a wood frame that is not at least 1″ wide, and or about 1 1/4″ tall. Metal frames can be quite thin and still hold together well even with a large size. Be careful with very large sizes however as frame “flex” can become an issue if using a thin metal frame and acrylic glazing.
Also thin wood frames often are not thick enough to support hangers which are big enough to support the weight of the piece. The hanging hardware might protrude from the side of the frame a bit, and the screws could split the wood.
Consider frame depth. It’s best is the canvas or backing does not protrude out the back of the frame. An exception is what is sometimes called an “open-back” frame for canvas paintings. These frames have very little depth, but are usually wide enough that even if viewed from the side will hide the canvas sticking out the back.
Other than structural considerations, what about the best look?
Principles of color and line for mats apply to frames as well, however, unlike mats, frames can have unique shapes and deeper textures and more “active” finishes. Frames project a definite character more so than most mats.
Frames often can evoke a mood or imply a theme or a definite style. People like to use art-deco style frames for Klimt, rustic frames for nature scenes, or “plein air” style frames which are traditional and expected among fans of that painting style. People often like black or metal frames for modern art.
Here are some examples of frames which attempt a more literal interpretation of the artwork, some more or less than others. I really only suggest this when it seems right, don’t do it for it’s own sake, it’s easy to over do it and your piece can look gimmicky. But, sometimes gimmicky can great, it really depends what look you’re after!
People place a lot of significance on frame width. I think some have preconceptions about wider frames always looking better or more “classy”, partly because it implies that a lot of money was spent on framing the piece. Some people often use gold frames for the same reason. The irony there is unless it’s real gold, wood finish frames generally cost more!
Unless one’s primary framing goal is to flaunt extravagance, in my opinion there is no one-size-fits-all solution to great picture framing. Don’t do a big gold frame for the sake of class. Be sure that you love it, and that you are aware of other possibilities.
And if using mats, frame width should be influenced by how much matting is used (more mat than frame, always!)
I have a client who thought a big gold frame was the way to go for this Pastel By Desmond O’Hagan. She later changed her mind and re framed it with a more contemporary design which suits the artwork much better.
An “active” frame (color, texture, lines, shape) should be thinner, or perhaps have more mat width to keep the frame activity away from the image.
A “passive” frame (mostly one color, little or no texture, not too shapely) should be substantial enough to create a strong outer line. A more passive frame is often the best way to go if not using a mat. The passive frame can be wide if desired, but if using a mat, it will force a wider mat to make the mat wider than the frame, possibly making the image size appear small. But it’s always relative to the image size. A 4″ mat and 3″ frame may not look too big at 30×40″ or larger.
If you have any comments or questions please feel free to email me firstname.lastname@example.org
This on-going post is dedicated to two great Aaron Brothers Framers, Ted Ottis (for technique) and John Owen (for design). I learned a lot from them.