• Welcome to the largest and friendlest resource for picture framers! Please LOG IN or REGISTER a free account.
    Once logged in, you will be able to SEARCH our archives.
    Forget your password? Click here to RESET PASSWORD Trouble? Click the CONTACT US link.

Trouble choosing mat colors for color photos


SGF, Supreme Grumble Framer
Jun 13, 2002
Fingerlakes Region of NYS
I have had at least 6 projects in the shop in the last couple of weeks that have given me a real challenge with selecting appealing mat colors (or lack thereof)for either color photographs or posters that are photographs (not real high end quality.

Sometimes just a simple off-white doesn't even work to enhance the image. It is really wierd that color photos are harder to design around than a piece of artwork.

Does anyone else find this to be true. And how do you approach matting techniques and color choices for these types of projects?


I begin by asking questions.

Is there any particular color you'd like brought out?

What kind of "feel" do you want for this piece? Bold? Flashy? Subdued? Sophisticated? Childish?

All these things will give you a start for color direction.

Of course, when they say, "you choose" you're back to square one!

I have had the same problem.

I find that speckle-tone colors can help. They are not any one true color, and so your eye is heavily influenced by the art when you compare the two.
Betty, Sometimes even with the lattitude of different looks - some of them have nothing that looks GOOD with them!! That is where the problem has been... regardless of what look the customer may prefer... nothing looks Great! Eeee. Roz
Roz, my background is in photography. For a long time, the only thing I framed was photography. Still, I find color photos to be among the most challenging things to pick mats for. It doesn't help when someone brings in 30-40 and wants each one different.

I like neutrals. The AlphaRags work well for me in this area, with about 65 mostly soft tones. The Crescent Antiquarians are helpful, too. I keep the Antiquarians and the AlphaRags in a separate space in the sample rack 'cause I use them both so often.

I think we often make the mistake of trying to pick out saturated colors for mats. Photographs, unlike most media, are continuous tone. Snappy colors are usually not going to work. They're just not in there.
My general technique for selecting a mat, whether it's for a photo or a print or whatever, is to try to "extent the neutral." Theoretically, this will extend the artwork and not box it in like a very bold color can do.

For instance, if I was matting a lithograph on white paper and we were going to show the signature, the neutral would be the white of the paper, so that would be the top mat.

For color photos, this is especially hard since there are so many colors. So, what I usually do is look for that neutral. If it's a landscape, maybe it's an earthy color, and that's when those speckled mats can kind of make up the color difference. If it's a portrait, either the flesh tone or the color of the background would be ideal.

Anyway, my technique with everything is to "extend the neutral." Now you just have to find it. Good luck.
I have a LE print (Timeless Treasures by Mark Pettit) that I want to frame for the shop. Its mine and I can put any color I want on it. I have pulled it out 3 times and put it back up because nothing really srikes me as a good choice. I dread the day somebody brings one in.
Spend hours making a decision. Try everything and settle on something really subtle and tasteful.

… then call your spouse. Your errant choices will be pointed out immediately.
Ok, I am sure all the flaws in this approach will be pointed out, but here goes ...

I ask what the customer sees in the print. That is what's THEIR focus. If it's bright light or a vibrant object, I try darker mats. This gives the light more prominence. If it's shadow or dark areas, I go for lighter mats, same reasoning.

If there is a person or object, or "spot" in the image that they see or want to see when they look at it, then I look for complementary colors to that object in the image and try to match those complements with the mat.

If thsoe things aren't effective, I try for a mid-tone in the background.

All of this is on the theory that the mat really extends or becomes the background and the key is to bring the focal point in the image to more prominence.

Other things can come into play, like that cool colors tend to recede and warm colors tend to coem forward. This means, for example, if I am trying to bring blue to prominence, I might use it's complement orange, but if want the "blue" object to be prominent for it's projection versus it's depth I may shy away from that to one of the "mid-tome" background colors.

Every guideline needs to be broken sometime, but this procedure usually leads to a pleasing look at some point! ;) And, it's seems to come to a conclusion quicker than my wife's "I pick what I like" technique.
Although I must say, her technique yields some color combinations that are pleasing and fun.

By taking steps like this, I talk through what I am doing with the custoemr and they seem more likely to "accept" a design because it has "reasons" behind it! :D
White mat, 1613 very white, Crescent. Mat up some color photos, keep em in a bin that is handy to your sales counter to show customers. You can also ad a 1/8" gold, silver, or black fillet. Whenever you try to ad colors to a color photo, it's next to impossible to make it look great. Keep it simple, it will work.

I never thought about it but Ron makes a good point about all the colors in color photography being continuous tone.

(Does that make it bad photography? Or good photography but bad art?)

My first choices are either white or that dark green Bainbridge silk. If variations on those don't work I'll suggest not matting it at all.

I'm loving the new Nielsen Elements on outdoor photography. It's the time of year for phall pholiage photos and the bronzes look nice on them.

I have been able to deal with a difficult image by not matting it, but using a colored liner instead. Fabrics have more color range (like the speckled mats) and the texture really seems to go with the film grain.

Raphael makes some really nice, not too expensive liners, and they have swatch books the customers like looking through. LOTS of choices. Their powder blue antique satin has been perfect on a lot of baby pictures.
Sometimes when nothing seems to work I go with the theory, I don't care what color it is as long as it is a shade of gray.

I have found with color photos, It's not the colors that are wrong, it is the fight of the glossy finish and the flat mats. I find that a mat with a glossy finish is the answer to alot of these problems.

Tru vue has a line of mats that have the look of a shiney leather and I find they look great with photos and don't fight with finish. The same is true with suede mats.

Sometimes when you think it is the color it'e really the finish that is the problem.

With works that have a significant amount of
color in them, a pale gray window mat can establish a setting that allows the whites in
the image to stand out and yet, it does not
prejudice the eye toward or against any of the
colors in the photo.

Yes, photographs can be the hardest - infinite colors instead of a few dominant pigments like most art.

Turn the photo upside down and look at the colors not the image. There are many color situations in a photograph. Many lab produced photos and certainly most home printed inkjet photos are printed with poor color. Faces may be green and skies may be magenta - look for clues of an off color print as it will be even harder to choose colors. And this off color thing is not one you want to enhance.

And if the print is good color quality there are other color situations that will affect mat choice. There will be different overall color effects in studio vs outdoor photography and outdoors there may be sunshine and shadows or the bluish light of north skylight open shade.

And in a well created portrait what did the photographer have in mind. If I had created a dark low key portrait (like Rembrant) where I wanted the lit part of the face to be the lightest part and the center of attention I would be ultra dissappointed to find the image in a white mat. And if I had created a high key portrait where the center of interest was the darkest part surrounded by a mostly white picture I would be dissappointed if the image wasn't in a white mat.

Look for the lightest part of the image and make sure it remains the lightest part of the completed job - don't compete with the center of interest. Look at the brightest color and if it's the center of interest don't compete with it in the mats - let it stand on it's own. Look at the contrast - both density (Dark and light) and color contrast and try to get the same contrast in the mats chosen - you will often need 3 or 4 mats with varying reveals.

And if all the above fails take every mat in the stack and put them down on the photo one at a time - put the ones with any promise to the left and the rest on the floor. Then when there's 20 or 30 mats on the left you're probably headed in the right direction.

I seldom if ever put a good color photograph in a white mat - more often a deep color mat and sometimes this mat is used as a first and third mat with a little accent mat showing as a second mat. Reverse bevels of course - otherwise too many white lines.
A new line of matboard that will help with photography are the Bainbridge Natural Classics. They have a Rainforest green, A Darkest Blue, A Black Cherry and a Matte Black. If you set them next to each other you will see the different color tones that make up the base of the color. They look black but have subtle color variations from black. Most photographs with black in them are usually blue or red based.

I also like the Photo White because it has a grey influence and works with the whites in black/white photography.
Color color color color color color color color color color
Color color color color color color color color color color
Color color color color color color color color color color
Color color color color color color color color color color
Color color color color color color color color color color
Color color color color color color color color color color
Color color color color color color color color color color
Color color color color color color color color color color

All I'm hearing in this thread is <font color=red><font size=5>COLOR!</font></font> and it all looks the same. Off white, beige, kind of grey, be neutral, don't go wandering out of the box, stay in the guidelines, be vanilla, follow the other sheep, be a second dog in line, do what the others are . . . .

I thought Mrs McGurdy and her "I want to bring in the color of my sofa. Do you have any sofa pictures that would bring in this color?" As she throws down a floral paisley neon print that would bling the Haradins of Sal Peromoul.

Not one person as mentioned that for a person to grab that picture and jump in their car, drive to your store and trust you with maybe $200 to frame their color photo nicely; they had a **** hotter burning urge greater than "color".

Simpley put, they had an emotional bond.

Color photos. I love them. I throw fabric on them as the people are telling me the <font size=5>story</font> about that picture they love and why......

But then, I already made this post in this months DECOR.

BTW: if I had a time machine at my disposal, I wouldn't go back in time and shoot Hitler or someone like that, I would go shoot that first gallery owner who with a stupid artist in 1948 hung B&W photos with white mat and 1/2" black frame and called it "The Gallery Look".