Framing on a Budget: Part 2 - Mats protect and make art look better!

Framing on a Budget: Part 2 - Mats protect and make art look better!


A mat is used with 2-dimensional art presentation when a protective cover is used.🖼️

It’s a flat and thin piece of material included with or sold separately from a picture frame.

It is placed inside the frame over the artwork and underneath the clear protective cover.

Why use a mat? Protection and presentation.

  1. It keeps the glass or plexiglass from touching your artwork. The thin layer of air will help to regulate the humidity of the paper and prevent it from sticking to its protective cover and damaging the artwork.
  2. Mats provide a color buffer around the artwork. This makes it easier to hang on a wall color that may not “match” the colors in the art exactly. When surrounded by a nice frame, a mat makes the artwork the star of the room because it separates it from your wall color.


The outside dimensions of the mat should match the dimensions of your frame.

As for the opening, or inside dimensions, of the mat, it should be slightly smaller than the artwork. Generally, 1/4 inch smaller on all sides will work well. This means that the opening dimensions should be 1/2 inch smaller than the artwork’s dimensions, both horizontally and vertically.

Most pre-cut mats take this into account, so you don’t have to worry about adjusting the opening. Just pick a 5x7 opening for your 5x7 artwork, an 8x10 for your 8x10 and so on.

As for the distance between the opening and the outside edge of the mat, I recommend that it be at least 2 inches larger on all sides than the artwork, which will enhance your view of any print, photo or original painting.

So, for a 5x7 print, an 8x10 frame will do nicely. And conveniently, most 8x10 frames come with a mat that has a 5x7 opening.

And an 8x10 print works well with an 11x14 frame and you guessed it, a 11x14 frame typically comes with a mat that has an 8x10 opening.

What to do if your artwork is a non-standard size? Special tools are needed to cut a beveled mat opening, so your best bet is to have a frame shop custom cut one for you. They are usually happy to take a mat that has standard outside dimensions, such as a 16x20 or 11x14 and cut the opening to fit your artwork.

So, unless you plan on making a lot of mats and want to invest time and money getting the tools and learning how to use them, pay someone to do it for you. Be sure to take your artwork with you so they can measure it. That way it will be the perfect size.


Mats come in a wide variety of colors, the most common being white. 

I’m a fan of using a white mat with the same color core for several reasons.

  • White matches anything.
  • You don’t have to change your wall color.
  • White acts as a buffer between your wall color and the artwork colors.

Ok, you may have noticed that all those are the same reason said three different ways. Cheers to you if you worked that out on your own! 😊

I have often found that some galleries and art shows won’t show paintings with colored mats, so my standard mat choice is plain old white.

But wait… I make it sound like choosing white is an easy thing. It’s not really!

If you’ve ever tried to buy interior paint for your walls, you have found that there are endless variations of white.

The best way to choose which of the zillion whites is to look at your artwork. If it leans more toward blues, then it has a “cool” palette. If it has more yellows and reds, it has a “warm” palette.

Choose a white that is the same “cool” or “warm” as your artwork. Not sure which is cool or warm? Try holding them next to each other, and then you can see the difference.

But honestly? It probably won’t matter. Most of the time the mat that comes with the frame works just fine.

However, if there is a large amount of white space, aka, minimal color, in the artwork, then a colored mat is a nice contrast and will enhance the presentation of an artwork that has the popular “negative space” art style.


What is the core? It is the material that makes up the interior of the mat. Basically, it is what is sandwiched between the two visible sides.

The core is visible because the inside opening of a mat is typically cut with a 45-degree bevel, or angle, which can show off a different color core than the face.

Though you might want to keep in mind that mats with a different colored core usually costs more money.

If chosen properly, a different core color can be a nice accent to the entire ensemble of artwork + mat + frame.


Mats come in different thicknesses, the most common being 1/16 inch, or 1/8 inch.

Note that this is different than the circumference of the mat that surrounds the artwork. This is the actual paper thickness of the mat, which resembles very heavy card stock.

The thicker the mat, the more visible the core will be. Not to mention that a thicker mat will be more sturdy and able to hold your artwork in place.

Thicker mats cost more because they contain more material. They can add striking depth to the artwork, but don’t go too wild with overly thick mats because it’s all about the artwork, not the ostentatious container. Most of the time, sticking with a standard thickness will serve your artwork well.

Does Acid Free Matter?


What does acid free mean?

All normal paper that is made from trees is acidic because wood components start to break down the minute the tree is cut, turning into acid. It’s what makes paper turn yellow and brittle.

Think “old newspaper”.  Hmm, maybe newspapers are a rare sight to this electronic generation. How about an old poster, or a yard sale sign that has seen better days taped to the corner lamp post? Yeah, now you get the picture!

So, if you create or print a piece of art on normal paper, it won’t last very long because the older it gets, the more fragile and yellow it will become. Think about how yellowing will totally interfere with the artwork’s colors. Yuck!

Another term for acid free is “archival”, because archival papers papers resist breaking down for decades, sometimes even hundreds of years.

So, when choosing a mat, be sure to get one that is marked “Acid Free”. Then it won’t damage where it touches your artwork.

Wow, I just reread this. Who knew there was so much to be said about mats?!

Part 3 will be about choosing your frame, so come back for my next blog post!

** Please be aware that I am not a framing specialist. All that I share here comes from my own DIY experience. You may want to consult a framing professional for best results. **

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