Frames, Mats and More

Contributors: John Toft, Sue Roberts, Alfred Memelink


A good frame can help sell your painting. Conversely, an unsuitable frame or mat may prevent it from selling. Framing a watercolour is expensive but it’s unreasonable to expect a buyer to pay a lot of money for your painting if the framing is sub-standard. John Toft found that viewing last year’s Splash exhibition with Sue Roberts from Avon Framing Supplies and listening to her comments concerning the framing of the paintings most instructive. Framing is Sue’s business so what she has to say about it deserves attention.

Competing frame

The first point Sue made is that the frame and the mat must lead the eye into the painting. White frames are popular but need to be chosen with care. Sue pointed out how, when a cold white frame is coupled with a warm off-white mat, the eye goes immediately to the outer frame instead of being led into the picture. Sue feels that gold or champagne coloured frames are a good choice for most paintings, together with an off-white mat.

A few paintings had frames that were too wide and too heavy. Such a frame competes with the painting for the viewer’s attention. Remember, the frame should complement the painting, not compete with it.


Mats that were too narrow were another problem. The width of the mat in relation to the size of the painting is an important factor in making the presentation pleasing to the eye. Purchasing a ready-made frame is a way to keep the cost down. However, ‘off the shelf ’ frames are often sold with a mat that is narrower than the desirable width. If you use a readymade frame, have a new mat cut that is of suitable width.

Mat width too narrow

When determining the best width, consider that the mat should give visual breathing space between the painting and frame, not too much and not too little.

As a Watercolour New Zealand guide:
  • For a quarter sheet painting mat width is about 70 mm.
  • For a half sheet painting mat width is about 85 mm.
  • The lower side of the mat is 10 to 15 mm wider than the sides, helping to lead the eye into the painting.

Other points to note:

Spacing of paper from glass

As well as showing a painting to the best advantage, the mat provides a spacer. The watercolour paper should not touch the glass. If you are not using a mat board, the work should be separated from the glass using
some other type of spacer. If there is no separation the paper can contact the glass and mould can result.

Cockling of watercolour paper

The painting paper should be flat. Cockles or buckles caused by watery washes or framing the painting before it is completely dry, will often show when the painting is hung because the lighting from above will cast a curvy shadow on the painting.

Poor backing board and tape

Cockles can be avoided by stretching the paper before painting, or they can be removed before framing by placing the painting face down, spraying the back with water, placing a board and heavy books on it while it dries. After removing the painting from the makeshift press, allow at least a full day for the painting to dry. If a painting is framed before it is 100% dry there is a high risk of mildew forming.

Backing board

Yes, this work was couriered to us at Splash 2015! The backing board must be acid free foam board. Use of brown cardboard will lead to acid attack and foxing of the painting. The tape must be archival quality framers tape.

The swing tag

Poor swing tags cause us much unnecessary work. The swing label must be made of sturdy card, not paper which can easily be torn off. It must be tied to a cord long enough to hang over the top of the frame to the front, so that, once the painting is hung, the tag can be easily read by the cataloguing crew. It should also be short enough so that it does not hang below the frame when the painting is hung and the swing tag is tucked behind. The best way to attach the swing label is to tape it to the centre top of the back of the frame.

See other tutorial on framing for Splash Exhibition.

Watercolour NZ
Follow us on Facebook Follow us on Instagram Contact WNZ

Copyright © Watercolour New Zealand and its contributors. All Rights Reserved.