If you take a painting to a professional framer, you can expect the mat to cover only a half inch or less on each edge of the paper. This is an easy one-size-fits-all decision for the framer, but it is not always optimal for the artwork. A mat should be both positioned and sized to enhance the painting. It is for this reason that I prefer to mat my own work. I frequently leave a considerable expanse of white space around the painted image. As I work, the balance may shift to the left or right, thereby leading me to leave more border area on one side of the paper than on the other. I do not consider this edging an integral part of the painting, though it can be treated as such. In which case, it should be balanced with the rest of the work.
My painting “The Guardian” (#110207), above, is an example of what I mean. I created this piece for my students to demonstrate a number of different painting techniques. In the process, the work grew organically. We discussed how to make the most of less-than-ideal brush strokes, how to turn “oopses” into “wows” and how to rework weak areas to give them more punch. In the process, balance shifted, edges extended and changed shape, the students’ questions directing me where to go next.
When the painting was complete, there was considerable white space on all sides. I could have cut the excess paper away, but I didn’t feel either any need or desire to do so. Instead, I played with two different-sized mats. I knew that the larger 10”x14” mat opening would leave some white space on the sides and allow the loose brushstrokes at the top and bottom to show.
Though that option appealed to me, I also tried a smaller mat with a 7 ½ x 9 1/2-inch opening.
When I laid this on the painting, it tightened the edges so much that the painting looked cramped. So I turned the mat 90 degrees and tried a vertical format. In this way I found two possible crops, either of which could have worked.
The first of the vertical options kept the agave plant in the foreground as the center of interest. The second made the waterfall the center of interest and placed the agave into a secondary position. However, I didn’t feel that the overall composition in this format was particularly good.
In reviewing all these possibilities, I decided that the larger mat was closest to what I wanted. Yet it wasn’t quite right; despite the narrow white space on the sides, the painting felt tight at the top and bottom.
So I tried a third mat with a slightly larger opening, 11×15, just a half inch more on all sides than the first one I had used. This revealed enough white space on all sides to complement and enhance the loose overall appearance of the painting.
As it worked out, in this case, a one-position-fits-all matting job would not have been terrible, but had the painting not been centrally positioned on the paper, the result could have been dreadful.