How To Mat and Frame a Painting, specifically using the “floating style”

This post is about my take on framing and matting paintings.

I am not a professional by any means, but I wanted to share what I have learned so hopefully others may be able to learn something too. With a little practice it is really not difficult at all.

There is lots of info on the internet about framing and matting, of course, but this post is going to focus specifically on matting with the “floating” style; i.e. when the edges of the painting are not cover by the mat board. If you look closely at the photo above you can see the white space around the edge of the painting. That’s what I am talking about.

Though it doesn’t seem to be as common as the overlap method, I find this way of matting to work better with the way that I paint.

I like to paint right up to the edge of the paper, and sometimes if even a quarter inch or so of the edge of the painting is covered up by matting, it changes the composition. Or if it doesn’t change the composition, it makes the matting look scrunched.

Of course I could tape the edge of my paper like many water colorists, but I find it simpler to not mess around with taping. And painting right up to the edge also gives I distinct energy to the painting in my opinion.

Start with a frame first. And a painting.

This particular painting is one of my favorites– I did it last year in India, and has been sitting around the house since then. Prints of this painting and others, by the way, are available on my Etsy account.

Any ways, I would love to get this painting in a frame, ’cause it will look good and be protected, too, and then I can hang it up somewhere.


Figuring out what size of frame goes with what size painting is a little tricky. The painting above is on a quarter sheet, so about 11.25 inches by 15. This size I have found to fit almost perfectly in a 16 x 20 frame – more on that later. For now, we can say that it will leave around a 2 inch section of matting around the entire painting.

As a general rule, 11 x 15 or so works well with 2 inch “margins” for the matting and 22 x 30 or so goes well with 3 inch “margins” or so, at least that has been my experience.

In the past I had a 22 x 30 painting with real dramatic colors and I gave it 5 or 6 inch margins in the matting and I liked how it came out. So there is some wiggle room there.

So, as far as cutting things up, I like to use one of those mat cutters they sell on the internet for pretty cheap. Some people talk about how to frame and mat without a mat cutter, but it my opinion it just makes sense to have a mat cutter. If I am going to spend a bunch of time on my painting, I want my matting to look nice too. I also have some official “framing and matting” tape to use, though probably masking tape would work fine too.


The first step is to cut a “backing” for the painting. This will be the same size as the frame and  it is what the matting will attach too.

I usually use just plain white mat board for the backing. There is a place where I live where I can get a big sheet of it for 8 dollars or so, which means it is the cheapest way to do it.


So I am using a 16 by 20 frame, so I have to cut this mat board down to that size. Using the mat cutter, it is pretty easy.


There, just like that. Actually, I messed up a little. I cut it a little too close to 16 by 20 so it didn’t fit very cleanly in the frame. So I trimmed off a little more, making the overall dimensions just under 16 by 20. It is hard sometimes to cut off “just a little” using a mat cutter, as evident in the picture with those curly cues, so be careful! As usual, it is best to get it right the first time.


Next, it is time to cut the front part, the actual matting. First ya gotta pick out a color. This is fun but also challenging. I won’t go into that mess here. I decided to use that dark brown color below for this particular painting.


The matting you have to cut to 16 by 20 or whatever the dimensions of your frame are. IMPORTANT DETAIL: when you cut the mat board, put the nice side down so the cutter doesn’t scuff the top. (Note: I make this mistake sometimes)

So now I have two pieces of mat board that are about 16 by 20 or a little bit under.


Now comes the tricky part: figuring out what size of “window” to cut in the matting.

It is best to make a diagram and write out all the math. Really Otherwise it just gets confusing. Here are some pictures of my math and diagrams for your viewing pleasure.


The upshot of it all is something like this. I have a 16 by 20 frame. And my picture is 11.25 by 15. I add a 1/4 inch to the dimensions of my picture. Add. That part is important. Add. ‘Cause remember this is the “floating style” matting. If it was the “overlapping style” I could subtract. But in this case I add.

So now I have 11.75 by 15.5. Because I added a quarter of an inch on the left side and the right side, the top and the bottom. So it really adds a half inch to my height and width (cause .25 plus .25 is .5).

Okay. Still with me? (It is really easier to do it than to describe it in words.) So now I can subtract 11.75 by 15.5 from 16 by 20.

And I get two numbers: 4.25 (width) and 4.5 (height).

And I divide those by two (because I want half of that space on one side of the painting and half on the other).

So I get 2.125 (2 1/8) and 2.25.

Before going any farther, there is one thing to mention.

Sometimes it is a nice touch to add a quarter inch extra on the bottom margin of the matting. It makes the bottom section slightly thicker. And apparently it is one of those optical illusion sort of things that we can’t really notice but somehow makes the painting look nicer.

In this particular situation, if I add an eighth of an inch to the bottom of my dimensions, (and subtract that eighth of an inch from the top) it works out nicely.

2.25 minus 1/8 equals 2.125 or 2 and 1/8.

And 2.25 plus 1/8 equals 2.375 or 2 and 3/8.

So, in summary, three sides of my sides are 2 1/8 and the bottom is 2 3/8.

That’s why 16 by 20 frames work so nicely in this situation. Of course for other framing situations you’ll have to experiment and see what you can come up with.

So now we have to mark these dimensions onto the mat board. The back of the mat board. Not the front.  The mat cutter makes it very easy to make these lines.

IMG_0811      IMG_0812IMG_0813

So I’ll set it for 2 1/8 for three sides and make a mark. All the way across the mat board. On the back, remember.


And then for the bottom I’ll set it at 2 3/8. Then I’m ready to cut.

Using this little guy, the bevel mat cutter (as is printed on it). It cuts at an angle, i.e. a bevel (obviously).









And I’ll line it up exactly with the line I made on the mat board.




And then I’ll press the blade into the mat board and cut. The hardest part is stopping right on the line on the opposite side. But that’s the idea. Start on the line. And stop on the line. It’s really simple.



And stop. (Yeah I know I made a mistake, as seen below, and made three lines, but I figured it out). And do this for the four sides of the “window” you’re trying to cut out.


When you’re done take a look at how the corners turned out. Mine wasn’t exactly perfect this time, as you can see in this picture below. Like I said, the hard part is stopping at the right point, and I might have gone over a little too far. But I’ll call it good enough, especially since I am just using this frame for myself.


So now I have my mat board cut out!


So this next bit has to do with making the painting “float.” I need to make a slit in the “back” part of the matting. (In this case the white part). The slit needs to be around three quarters of the way up. I can use the painting itself as reference.

And an important note. When I make the mark, I can’t make it all the way to the edge. Because otherwise my mark might show through, in the gap between the matting and the painting. So I have to make it more towards the center.


Then I can use the mat cutter to draw a straight line. Remember it has to be square with the rest of the board. I made the length of the line less then the width of the painting. That way the line won’t show through, like I mentioned above.


Now I can use the bevel cutter again. I want the angle of the bevel to go upwards, toward the top of the painting. Because that is the direction that my tape is going to go.


Now I have the slit cut. The slit has to be less than the width of the painting, otherwise it will show through next to the matting.


Next I am going to tape the front part to the back part. I’ll tape it at the top (remember there is the 1/4 thicker margin at the bottom of the matting. Mark it if necessary.)


So now the front and the back fold together, as seen below.


Okay, now were moving along, as the picture below shows. Almost there!

IMG_0842This next part is a little hard to describe, but really not that complicated. I am going to make two “tabs” using tape. I’ll pull out about around 8 to 16 inches of tape, as seen below. The exact length doesn’t matter too much, but if you make it too short it is hard to work with.


And then fold it back on itself.

IMG_0845But I’ll leave the last one to two inches exposed, so that I can stick it to the back of the painting.

IMG_0846There, now I have my tab, around 4 to 8 inches long. I stick it on to the back of my painting. The exact length doesn’t really matter, like I said, but you don’t want it too short.


And I’ll make two of them, see?


Then the trick is to thread them through that slit in the back of the mat board.

IMG_0849It is a little awkward.



There, now I have the two tabs, poking out through the back. Now I have to adjust the painting so it fits in the matting right.

NOTE: it is easiest to adjust the painting if you primary pull on these tabs, rather than touching the painting itself. It is a little bit of a pain to be honest. This is probably the hardest part of the whole process.

Basically you have to adjust the painting using these tabs, then stick the painting plus mat board assembly into the frame and see if the painting lines up with the matting (when you look at the painting through the glass). If it doesn’t, you have to take it out and adjust. This is the “floating style” that we’re trying to go for.

IMG_0851Eventually you are going to get it so it sits in there properly.  Then you just tape the “tabs” down. As seen below, hopefully, in this (rather poor) photo.


Ta-da! At last. Below you can see how there is a slight margin around the painting. (A quarter inch to be exact).

IMG_0855See, here is a close up to show that floating “space” that I am talking about between the mat board and the painting. It is possible for the back slit or the pen/pencil mark to show through here but since I did the measurements right, it didn’t happen.


I hope that makes sense!  And find me on Etsy if you are looking for a print to practice framing!

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