Matting and Framing

I’ve mentioned Phil Schmidt in previous posts, especially his criteria for judging art. He’ll always hold a special place in my art heart, as he was the judge who gave me my first “merit award” for an oil painting. Among the things he looks for when judging is presentation, and I have no doubt that this was one of the reasons why my painting received recognition from him. The painting was good, I think, but what was even better was the matting and framing. It was done professionally and both the colors used and the frame style were absolutely perfect for the painting.

Since then, I’ve kept presentation uppermost in my mind whenever I’ve entered paintings in shows. Paying attention to how my work looks on display is important. Getting the right matting and framing, however, can be a bit challenging.

As I’ve been painting winter landscapes in watercolor recently, I’ve learned straightaway that leaving a white edge around any watercolor painting improves its appearance dramatically.

Take a quick look here at a recent watercolor. It is another snowy scene using a very limited palette. Here you see it without any digital matting or framing. 

Now, take a look at the same painting with a better presentation.

I think you’ll agree that the double mat and the small frame — all using the same palette as the painting — make this simple snowy scene much more interesting.

Or how about this version of the matted and framed watercolor?

Same painting… but doesn’t it look different? Again, this is done digitally.

Another matted and framed version is this one. I’m definitely not a fan, but the point here is to illustrate how different a painting can look when matted and/or framed differently.

Or, how about this one?

I’d like to thank Alli Farkas from Alli Farkas Artist Adventures for telling me about online framing sites. In the past, I had sometimes used a free online photo editor to create “framed” effects, but the sites I used are no longer available.

Alli mentioned American Frame and Frame Destination as great resources. I visited both, did a bit of additional browsing and came up with Picture Framesand Framed and MattedThese sites allow you to create a custom mat and frame for any image you upload. You can play around with different frame styles, mat styles, and colors. It took me a little while to get the hang of it, so the “digitally framed” paintings above don’t represent the full amount of customization possible. There are a lot of options I haven’t yet explored, but I did have a chance to see how my little “Winter Landscape” might look with various mats and frames.

With so many options, though, how do we ever decide? Well, in the end, it probably comes down to what looks and feels right to us. There are a few guidelines for choosing the colors and styles that will show your art to its best advantage.

  • Most paintings look better when matted, but it’s important to choose the right color. Don’t choose a color that is most predominant in the painting. For my “Winter Landscape”, using gray would be ill-advised. Instead, expert framers say, it’s better to choose the third or fourth most predominant color. With my limited palette of white, gray, and pink, choosing a pink mat would be much more pleasing.
  • The principle to remember is that a mat should enhance the painting, not distract from it. Using a mat that is too bright can draw a viewer’s attention (or a judge’s attention) away from the artwork itself, so keep mat colors subtle.
  • If you don’t like using color for a mat, a neutral will work as well. Experts say that a crisp white matting gives a painting a modern feel, while ivory appears more traditional. Black mats can be dramatic, and gray or tan mats can add depth. Just be sure to choose a neutral that works with the color palette of the painting.

Out of curiosity, I wanted to see what a “Dramatic Black” mat would do with my watercolor. Here’s the result. Not my favorite, but it’s one more option. 

As for the size of the mat… well, there’s a lot more to think about. Fortunately there are also a few guidelines to keep in mind here.

  • A standard single mat should be at least an inch wider than the width of the frame edge. On my “Dramatic Black” style above, you can see that I erred here by using a very narrow frame with a black mat that’s much too big.
  • As a general rule, the larger the artwork, the wider the matting can be. A small work (such as my 5 x 7 watercolor) will look best with narrower matting.

Mats can be “single” or “double”. I prefer the double matted look. To me, it always appears more professional. Here again there are “rules of thumb”.

  • Use a lighter color for the main mat and a darker one for the “accent” mat. In looking again at the “dramatic black” mat I used above, you’ll see another big mistake on my part. I should have used the lighter pink for the main mat and saved the “dramatic black” effect for the accent mat.
  • A good combo can be a light and dark color from the same family.
  • You can create various effects by using multiple “accent mats”, so try out different possibilities. As a note here, the painting that won that first “Judge Merit” award featured a dark “woodsy green” for the main mat, with a gold accent mat (picking up colors from the painting) and an even narrower black accent mat. This does go against the “rule” of choosing a lighter color for the main mat, but for this particular painting it worked. Guidelines are useful, but don’t always have to be followed. Although not the best photograph, here is the framed painting — and that precious first art award! I trusted the framer and she definitely got it right.

Of course, you might not even want — or need — a mat.

  • Photographs, prints, and paintings framed without a mat are referred to as “straight fit” framings, or “full-bleed” framing. Art framed in this way feels modern and minimalist. This is of particular note if you’re framing a painting for your home, or helping a buyer choose an appropriate frame for a work of art.
  • A modern look works well with “modern” themes, especially large posters or prints.
  • Oversized art is often best framed with a “straight fit”.

So, now that I’ve done my research and have learned more about matting and framing, what decisions would I make to frame my “Winter Landscape”? Let’s see what I can do now!

It’s still not quite what I’d want if I were actually matting and framing this painting, but all my playing around this morning has given me an idea of what styles and colors I’d use for this painting. The online framing sites are still a bit unfamiliar to me, and I’m not quite sure how to change various options — such as starting with a smaller frame size!

I know I’ll be giving more thought now to each painting I finish, thinking about how it would look if it were framed, and noting the colors that might work best.

Another thing to keep in mind, of course, is that frame styles do vary, too. There are sleek, shiny metal frames, rustic wood frames, ornate frames, black frames, “distressed” frames, and many others to choose from. Mats can also be cut in various shapes, not a simple rectangle or square. Maybe your masterpiece would look its best with a circular or oval “reveal”, and don’t forget that you can also find square frames, and oval frames.

Without a doubt, how we present our artwork — in our studios for potential buyers, in our homes for our own enjoyment, at display sites and art shows — makes a huge difference. There are a lot of factors to consider, but it’s well worth spending the time to learn effective presentation. Then, whether we choose to do our own matting and framing or have it done professionally, we’ll be able to make better decisions and choose frames and mats that do enhance our art, showing it off to its best advantage.


  1. I’m not far enough to present my “art”, but I really like your article. It’s an interesting topic and you went in depth, including demonstrations. Very beneficial even for beginners like me, thanks!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s fun to play around with “framing” sites. Even if you’re not yet putting your art on display, spend a little time seeing how it looks when it’s matted and framed. You’ll be surprised at how “different” a drawing or painting can look with a little “presentation.” Happy arting!

      Liked by 1 person

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