14.2 Matting and framing Prints

Once you’ve got a quality print in your hands, the next task to get it into a form that can be mounted on someone’s wall.  Typically, this involves matting and framing of the print, which are probably far easier than you realize.  Assuming you live within driving distance of an art supply store such as Michael’s, or are willing to order supplies online (i.e., via Dick Blick or similar merchants), you should be able to mat and frame your art yourself at a very reasonable cost, as we’ll describe in detail in this section.
    First, however, it’s worthwhile to consider several other options for preparing an image for wall-hanging that don’t involve frames.  These options typically require special manufacturing processes that can’t usually be performed at home, and therefore involve a certain minimum up-front cost.  However, the results are often so striking that there’s the very real possibility of selling these types of prints for enough money to both cover the manufacturing expenses and possibly even reap a sizeable profit. 

14.2.1 Canvas Prints

The first option is the canvas print, of which an example is shown below.  This photo was taken by a 10 megapixel camera.  The wine bottle and roses should give you some perspective in terms of the size of the mounted artwork.

Fig. 14.2.1: A large canvas print of a 10 megapixel photo.
This piece measures 21 inches by 32 inches.  Many printing
companies now have the capability to print to canvas.

This print is 21
×32 inches—nearly two feet tall by three feet wide!  The image is actually printed onto canvas, just like what painters use, and stretched onto a wooden frame just like a traditional oil painting.  With the right kind of photo, the final product can, indeed, evoke comparisons to the works of the Old Masters.  In the case of the above print, I actually carried this one around the halls of Duke University’s engineering building and was repeatedly asked: Did you paint that yourself?! 
    Another view of this work in different lighting is shown below.  It’s worth noting, just in passing, the effect of the yellow lamplight on the perceived colors of the wall-mounted piece.  Be mindful of this when assessing your prints: they may look significantly better in proper gallery lighting than they do in your dimly-lit bedroom.

Fig. 14.2.2: The same canvas as above, from a different angle.
Notice the effect of the yellow lamp light on the piece.

    I personally think the potential for canvas prints is enormous.  While the average art connoisseur may not be especially interested in bird photography, per se, if you can make your photo look like an original oil painting, the potential for sales may increase substantially, at least with the appropriate clientele.  If printed by a reputable dealer such as ImageKind or WHCC, the results should be of high enough quality to interest many consumers who normally would only be in the market for painted works. 
    In the close-up below you can see that despite the rough texture of the canvas substrate, the sharpness of the imposed image can be quite exacting even when viewed close up.  This particular print was a 100% crop (i.e., not cropped at all in postprocess) of a 10 megapixel photo from a Canon pro DSLR.  Sharpening was performed in Photoshop at the 0.3 level, at 500%.  Because this camera has 14-bit A/D color conversion, very subtle color gradations are possible in the resulting images, which as you can see were faithfully reproduced in the canvas print as shown below (note the smooth color gradations in the upper left corner).

Fig. 14.2.3: A close-up view of the large canvas print shown earlier.
Notice the texture of the canvas.  Despite the bumpy surface, fine
details can still be retained when printing onto this medium.

There are two main types of canvas prints: so-called gallery wraps, and museum wraps.  These terms aren’t always used correctly, so it’s worthwhile to double-check before placing an order for a canvas print.  As illustrated by the figure below, gallery wraps (the top piece in the figure) involve stretching the artwork so that it covers both the front of the piece and the sides, whereas a museum wrap (the bottom piece in the figure) typically has a white border around the sides of the mounted piece.  Museum wraps are generally intended to be framed, whereas gallery wraps can be hung directly on the wall without any additional framing or matting.  As such, museum wraps can have imperfections visible on their sides (which the frame would normally hide), such as staples or crooked edge lines. 

Fig. 14.2.4: Gallery wrap (top) versus museum wrap (bottom).
In a gallery wrap, the image wraps around the edges of the
piece, producing ready-to-hang artwork.  Museum wraps
typically have (mostly) blank borders on the sides of the
piece, and may also have visible staples (not shown here).

An additional thing to notice from the above figure is the difference in thickness between the two pieces.  Some manufacturers offer different thickness options during ordering, while others prescribe a particular thickness for particular print sizes, or prescribe one thickness for gallery wraps and another for museum wraps.  It’s useful for museum wraps to be thinner, since they need to fit into a frame (typically), while gallery wraps often look better in the three-dimensional world when they’re stretched onto a thicker frame.
    Canvas prints do tend to be expensive to manufacture.  One way to reduce the cost is to stretch the canvas yourself.  From some manufacturers, such as ImageKind and WHCC, you can order a rolled canvas for typically half the price of the stretched product.  To finish the piece, you need to buy stretcher bars (the wooden frame that the canvas is to be mounted on) and attach the canvas to the assembled stretcher bars.  Stretcher bars are available unassembled from internet merchants such as Dick Blick for very reasonable prices (typically less than $10 per side).

14.2.2 Standard Prints

For standard prints, both framing and matting are recommended if you intend to sell to the general public.  A print which has already been matted and framed is basically ready to mount on the wall, so many buyers will be less hesitant to make such a purchase than if you were merely offering a naked print.  If the consumer has to attend to the matting and framing him/herself, he or she will probably have it done by a professional framer, and that will typically entail a fairly large cost (often in excess of $100 US).  A pre-framed print requires less work for the buyer, and eliminates hidden framing costs.  It’s what many American consumers would call a no-brainer.

Fig. 14.2.5: A traditional framed and matted print.
The visible portion of the photo is 11
×14 (inches),
while the frame size is 16
×20.  Notice the matching
colors of the frame, the mat’s inner bevel, and the
photo’s background.  Coordinated colors can make
a big difference in the overall impact of your artwork.

    The first step in matting and framing a print is to actually choose which mat, and which frame, to use for a given print.  For the print shown above, I chose a gold-colored frame since the background of the owl featured out-of-focus golden autumn leaves.  It’s often desirable to have the frame’s color match a dominant color in the image being framed.  In this particular case you can see that the frame is fairly narrow—less than half the width of the mat.  The mat is, of course, the wide blank border separating the image from the outer wooden frame.  In this case I’ve used a composite mat, which consists of several layers.  You can see that the innermost portion of the mat (the bevel) consists of a narrow golden band that wraps tightly around the central image.  The matching of the colors between the outer frame, the innermost mat band, and the photo’s background, were of course not accidental, and in many cases you’ll want these elements to match.
    Below is another image—this one a golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos)—which I’ve chosen to frame in silver rather than in gold.  Despite the reference to
gold in the bird’s common name (golden eagle), I felt that the dominant color of the image was given by the background, and that was largely silver.  (Note that the faux golden hues apparent in portions of the frame are due to reflections from a yellow lamp at left).  For the mat I chose black because much of the bird was shadowed in black, though I insisted on having a white inner bevel on the mat, since it helps to strongly delineate between the black mat and the somewhat lighter background of the image, and also because I feel that the stark whiteness of the bevel draws the eye inward toward the photo from the frame.  Always keep in mind the dynamics of your artwork—i.e., the strength with which various elements draw the eye.  The overall dynamics can be enormously affected by your choice of frame and mat.

Fig. 14.2.6: Another framed print.  Notice again the
coordinated colors: the black mat matches the bird’s
shadows, while the silver frame and white mat bevel
match the background and the highlights of the bird.

    For the burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia) image below I again chose a gold frame and a white mat with a wide golden bevel.  The gold again matches with the background color in the photo.  In all of these cases so far, the prints I’ve been dealing with were 11
×16 (inches), though the inner window of the mat has been only 11×14, so two inches of the image have been obscured.  The outer frames were 16×20 inches.  The mats are thus providing a border of 3.5 inches on the vertical edges and 2.5 inches on the horizontal edges.  I prefer borders in the 3-inch range because they make the whole work look significantly larger, thereby increasing the so-called WOW factor.  In my opinion, fine art should never appear hurried or cluttered.  If someone’s going to pay $300 for your piece, they’re going to have to be convinced that it’s a premium product, ready to hang in a high-class home.  Borders of gold or silver with generously-sized neutral-colored mats reinforce the notion that this is a piece appropriate for hanging in a place of luxury, and are therefore worthy of a three-digit price tag.

Fig. 14.2.7: Close-up of a framed print.  The gold
bevel of the mat can be seen more clearly in this
figure, showing that the mat is actually made up
of several layers.

    Note, however, that properly framing a print doesn’t have to cost you a lot of money, if you do it yourself.  For the owls and eagle shown above, the prints cost me $15 to $20 (plus shipping) to have professionally made via mail order, the pre-cut mats were about $8 at the local art supply store, and the frames were $40, though I got them for $20 each during a 50%-off sale.  So each of these pieces cost me under $50 to make, and would probably sell for $100 or more.
Below is an example of a smaller print—8×10 (inches) in this case.  This print was actually made using the self-serve kiosk at WalMart, which cost about $5 (it would have been closer to $2 if I’d selected the one-hour deal).  The mat was also about $5 at the local Michael’s art store.  The frame I again picked up during a half-off sale at Michael’s, for probably $20 or so.  In choosing the frame color and mat color for this photo, I actually held the photo up to a number of combinations of mats and frames until I found one that looked the nicest to me.  Note that while coordinated colors are often a good bet, the ultimate criterion is whether the total package makes you feel good when you look at it.  No amount of rationalizing about color combinations will change how the final package makes the viewer feel during that first tenth of a second when he or she takes in the work visually. 

Fig. 14.2.8: A smaller print.  The photo is
a standard 8
×10, while the frame is 11×14.
Note that mats don’t have to be a solid color.

    Doing the actual framing is quite simple, as long as you’re using standard photo and frame sizes.  Standard sizes for prints are 5
×7, 8×10, and 11×14.  You should be able to find pre-cut mats and pre-made frames for all of these photo sizes in your local art supply store.  Recall that for the framed prints shown above, while the prints were 11×16, I ended up matting them to 11×14, since pre-cut mats in the latter size were readily available.  I think the prints look better at their original size (11×16), since the standard sizes seem too squarish to me, but until I find the time to order or make custom-sized mats, they’ll just have to stay squarish.
    For non-standard sizes, you can either pay to have the photo custom framed, or construct a custom frame/mat set yourself.  Cutting your own mats can be done using a simple Xacto knife (i.e., a razor blade), though for high precision cuts it’s recommended that you instead buy a special mat cutter, which will likely cost more than a few dollars.  Similarly, precision cutting of custom frames requires special tools, as does the glass front.  A far easier alternative is to order a custom frame/mat set from a discount online retailer, such as PictureFrames.com.

    Once you’ve got the frame and mat (and glass front), assembling everything is sheer simplicity (mostly).  As illustrated in the figure below, the way I like to do it is to lay the frame face-down on a clean surface, then lay the mat on top of that, and then lay the print (again, face-down) on top of that. 

Fig. 14.2.9: Attaching the print to the mat.
There are several ways to do this, but the
simplest is to just tape the print to the mat
with a low-adhesive, acid-free tape.

The blue tape that you see in the figure above is painter’s tape, which is useful because it comes off easily without ripping the print or the mat (usually).  That’s very useful because you’ll typically want to make fine adjustments to the positioning of the print within the mat window.  The way I do it is to very carefully lift the whole assembly (being careful to hold it together so that the glass doesn’t fall out and break!) and peek at it from the other side, to see how the photo is positioned within the mat window.  Once I’ve got it positioned properly, I typically don’t add any more tape to the back, since one or two pieces are typically enough to hold it in place.  I’ve found in the past that if I tape all the edges of the print, then over time the print can warp, which over-taping can exacerbate by creating wrinkles in the visible portion of the print.  With only one edge held in place by tape, any expansion of the paper (due to humidity or simple aging) is easily accommodated via internal slippage.

Fig. 14.2.10: The finished product, seen from behind.
The cardboard backing protects the print from behind.
Metal nubs attached to the wooden frame are bent into
position to hold the backing in place.

The last step is to put the backing piece on.  In the example shown above, a simple piece of cardboard was included with the purchased frame; tiny metal nubs embedded in the frame can be bent down with your fingers to hold the cardboard in place.  This was a cheap frame.  A nicer frame would have a more solid backing made of masonite or similar material, with slidable metal strips that can be inserted into matching grooves in the wood (or some similar mechanism).  The cheaper, bending nubs shown in the above example tend to break off after being adjusted a few times.  You can replace them with heavy-duty staples or small nails—being careful not to split the wood of the frame.
    A somewhat cleverer alternative to the above method is to first attach the mat to the backing board by taping one edge to form a hinge.  What you end up with is something like a book, which can be opened and closed.  If you open the book and lay the print loosely on the backing board, you can then carefully close the book by flipping the mat over on top of the print.  Now you can see how the print looks in the mat window.  Once you’ve got the print positioned the way you want it (by trial and errori.e., opening the book, moving the print, and then closing the book again), you can then tape the print to the backing board.  Now the mat, print, and backing board are all attached to each other, and can be placed into the frame just as described earlier.  This alternative method is very popular, though I prefer the method described earlier, because I like to quickly consider several alternative combinations of frame, mat, and print, and the earlier method allows me to do that much more quickly.
    Once the print has been matted and framed, there still remains the issue of how to hang the frame.  In the example above, a simple metal hanging clip (seen at the top of the figure) was screwed to the back of the frame with two tiny screws.  More expensive frames typically have a piece of wire running the width of the frame’s back (see the figure below).  If the frame you’ve purchased didn’t include either of these, you can purchase them cheaply at most frame shops or art supply stores.  Felt pads are also useful for keeping the frame out of direct contact with the wall.  Over time, wall paint can adhere to the frame, so that when the artwork is moved to a new location in the home, pieces of wall paint come along with it.  The felt pads can help to prefent this.

Fig. 14.2.11: A hanging wire on the back of a canvas print. The
wire is used to hang the print on a nail.  Notice the small piece of
felt; these can be placed at regular intervals on the back edge of
the piece, to prevent long-term fusing to the wall paint.

    While matting can improve the overall impact of your photo by creating a more distinct separation from its environs (i.e., the wall it’s mounted on), it’s not always necessary, or even ideal, artistically.  The main technical reason for using a mat is to keep the print physically separated from the outer pane of glass, to avoid having the print fuse to the glass over time; once a print has fused to the glass, if it later shifts or warps in the frame then the surface can tear and end up looking terrible.  But there is another option, which is to use neither a mat nor any glass in the framing of the print.  Traditionally, the purpose of the glass was to protect the print from scratches, fingerprints, and dust.  But many labs can now apply a protective lacquer directly to the print, reducing the potential for both physical damage as well as the fading effects of UV light.

Fig. 14.2.12: An 11×14 print mounted on masonite and then framed
without any glass.  The lab applied a coat of clear, protective lacquer
which should prevent damage from scratches and fingerprints (though
time will tell...).  The lack of a mat is consistent with the painting-like
appearance of the image; many classical paintings are framed un-matted.

    For the photo shown above, when I ordered the print I asked for it to be mounted on a sheet of 1/8 inch masonite and to have it coated with a glossy lacquer.  I then removed the glass pane from the cheap frame I bought at Michael’s (my local art supply store) and just placed the masonite-mounted print directly in the frame.  This photo has a bit of a dreamy quality that makes it look almost like a painting, and since many classical paintings are framed without any matting, I think this photo looks fine without a mat as well.  Note that some labs can also print to canvas and then mount the canvas onto masonite (rather than stretching it over a wooden frame as in a gallery wrap).  I haven’t tried this yet, but I suspect that for photos having a dreamy, painting-like quality, this might be ideal for framing in the style just described.