440 Gallery | Brooklyn NY

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Framing Works on Paper, Part 1 – Mat choices

The framing of works on paper, generally speaking, requires more considerations of conservation than framing oils on canvas or panel.  It’s worth remembering that quality framing is expensive, so put your framing dollars on those things you value most and are most likely to enjoy over the longest time. Even ephemera can become valuable over time and is often fragile.  Proper handling and proper materials should be your priority; so let us look at those before dealing with any aesthetic elements. This means acid-free rag-board for mats and mounts, acid-free backing and acid free reversible linen or rice paper hinges.  It also means making a provision for space between the inside of the glazing, whether glass or plexi, and the surface of the paper.


Mount – the piece of rag-board to which the work on paper is to be hinged.

Mat (not “matte”, which is the term for a non-gloss paint or photo paper finish) – the piece of rag-board with the window opening cut in it.

Backing – the foamcore or other acid-free board that closes the frame in back.

Fillets – the spacers that keep the surface of the paper from touching the inside of the glazing when no mat is used.

Mat options:

Overmat – the mat covers the margins of the paper, showing only the image and signature, edition number, date, etc. if any.

Floating in the mat or island mat – the entire sheet of paper is visible within the mat opening.

Floating without a mat – fillets are used to recess the paper from the glazing when no mat is wanted.

The decision whether to overmat, float in the mat, or float without a mat depends on the appearance of the paper itself.  Does the paper have margins that are too small, too large, or does it have a plain or unattractive edge that you wish to hide or a nice deckled edge that you wish to show, or it is too large to increase the size with the margins that a mat would provide?  The paper of original works on paper, especially original prints, should never be trimmed or cropped.

There are no hard and fast rules about mat proportions.  The mat provides an island of neutrality between the image and the environment, but how wide the mat margins should be is hard to determine. They shouldn’t be large enough to dwarf the image, and they shouldn’t be so small that they cramp the image.  If the paper already has wide margins around the image, then floating without a mat can be the best solution.  Again generally speaking, horizontal images look better if the mat margin at the bottom is a little wider than at the top and sides. (For example: 3″ top and sides, 3-3/8” at the bottom.) For vertical images, a good rule of thumb is that the margin at the top should be a little wider than at the sides, and the margin at the bottom should be a little wider than that at the top. (For example: 3″ at the sides, 3-1/4 top and 3-5/8″ at the bottom.)

If you can afford to get 8-ply rag-board mats, they do look better than the usual 4-ply, especially if the art is floating within the mat. A 1/4″ or 3/8″ float around the art inside the mat opening is usually about right.

You also have to choose the glazing, glass or plexi. Plexi should not be used with pastels, charcoals, etc. because the static electricity from the plexi will lift some of the dust right off the paper. Plexi is lighter than glass and does not break, but it’s more reflective and a little more expensive.  UV plexi protects against fading by sunlight up to 95% and is more expensive than regular plexi. Museum glass cuts down on reflections and UV rays, but is breakable and very expensive.  This, of course, is not the cloudy glass that was used in the past to lessen reflections.

The purpose of these suggestions is inform you about protecting your art, presenting it effectively, and not being at the mercy of someone in a frame shop who knows less than you do.  If you know what you want and how to ask for it you are less likely to make costly mistakes.

Another post will follow about the aesthetics of choosing frames for works on paper.

Contributed by Walter Jamieson, a friend of 440 Gallery.  Walter has been a framer to galleries and private art dealers for 35 years and worked with Robert M. Kulicke on framing projects at both the Guggenheim and MoMA.

One comment on “Framing Works on Paper, Part 1 – Mat choices

  1. Lindsay Gallagher
    April 15, 2012

    Fascinating! Of course, I always have an expert on hand to make these decisions for me!


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