How to Choose a Mat Color
There are three primary purposes for matting a fine art print:
1) Functional: It separates art from glass. This is important (especially for photographs), because if the print touches the glass, any humidity that seeps into the frame would likely cause the two to stick together. This would ruin the print.
2) Decorative: The mat helps maintain color continuity and coordination in a room. Effectively, it transitions the color of the print to the color of the wall.
3) Artistic: When you buy art, you do so (I hope) because you like it. However, you can't change the art. But you can choose how to showcase it. Matting, with careful choice of mat color, allows you to put a personal stamp on the art you collect.
The latter two charges are what to think about when you choose a mat color.
The first rule, as with any artistic decision, is that there are no hard rules. But there are sound guidelines, and your choice between them depends much on your decor and personal taste. Alternatively, as with any artistic decision, understanding these guidelines will help you choose if and when to effectively break them.
First, let's rule out one option: The color of the mat should be different than the color of the frame. Otherwise the visual combination of the two will look like just an overly thick version of the latter.
Second, as noted earlier, one purpose of a mat is to transition from the brightness of the print to the brightness of the wall. Due to present decorating trends, the former will almost always be darker. Therefore, the mat should be lighter than the print, but darker than the wall. (However, if your wall is dark, mull the opposite strategy.)
Third, if you're matting several prints that will be hung as a group, use the same color in order to harmonize them. (You can, of course, break this "rule" for artistic effect. For example, if you hang four prints in a square, the opposing corners of the set could be matted with one color, and the other pair matted with another.)
Another color to consider, which many people overlook, is the that of the mat's core. The core is the inside of the board, which is exposed when the hole is cut. The core becomes the element of the mat that lies directly adjacent to the print, so its color is important.
Most cores are either the same color as the mat surface, or they're white. If you're dealing with the same color, that would really never present a problem. But a white core can either look very sharp (as it can set off, or effectively outline, the print) or be very distracting (if it introduces a bright white to a print/wall combination that is dark or understated).
Matters of White and Black
Matting is one area where being creative does not mean you must avoid the routine. White and off-white mats are common for a reason: They work. Mats provide an area of neutral space between the image and the frame, helping separate the art from its surroundings, and whites do that well while also letting the colors of the art stand on their own.
A favorite mat choice among photographers and photo collectors is white with a black core. The white serves simply as neutral space that draws attention to the art, while the black provides a sharp outline to set the art off from the mat. This works with almost any color combination in a print and fits in the color scheme of just about any room.
(The one case where a black core may not work is with a print that has no blacks or deep grays. In a work with, say, all pastels or light tones, the black of the core would probably distract attention from the art.)
White mats with black core are especially effective for art that contains only black, white and/or gray elements, such as line drawings and black-and-white photo prints.
Black and dark gray mats work in much the same way as white and off-white mats, but with a much bolder effect. When they're effective, it's most often with black-and-white photo prints.
Colors can work great, too, but should be chosen with care. While white and off-white mats help set the art off from the frame and the wall, colored mats, in a sense, become part of the art.
The important aspect to consider is color coordination with the room. Select a color in the print that's in the same color family as, or coordinates well with, the wall. Then choose a mat color using the same criteria, thus tying the colors of all three elements together. This creates a visual unity between the print and the wall.
One color rule is not to have the mat color match the wall exactly. (Again, this guideline can be broken, if done so artistically. Using care, you could create the effect of the frame being a separate, hollow-backed piece, with the print floating in the center.)
One disadvantage of using colored mats is that because you're coordinating them with the color of a wall, then re-painting may mean having to get the art re-matted. Neutral-toned mats are much more adaptable to varying decor.
Choosing a mat color is only as complex as you'd like to make it. Much depends on your taste and how artistic you'd like to be.
If you have any doubt, ask your framer for an opinion. Bring the print and a photo of the room (or, even better, a paint swatch), and he or she can show you samples of different mats right next the print. Framers work with art every day, so they know what works and what doesn't.
© 2002 - 2008 Chris Nicholson