by David Heyman
The function of a mat is to give breathing space around your artwork or photograph, letting the eye have a place to “rest” while taking in the image. A blank, neutral mat border surrounding the work adds class and transforms what could be a snapshot into a real work of art. Notice the transformation of this image from a plain poster frame, into a professional, gallery quality display, just by the addition of a mat.
The image on the left looks like a decorative poster, while a mat instantly transforms it into a work of art.
Mats come in many shapes, sizes, colors and textures. However, one crucial element is often overlooked when selecting a mat: whether or not it is archival in quality.
The majority of mats on the market today are made from wood pulp, the same substance used to make mass-produced paper. While paper products made from wood pulp are inexpensive and abundant, their use in displaying and protecting artwork is limited, due to their rapid decay and discoloration.
Wood fiber contains lignin, an acidic substance that is a cellular component of trees. When that fiber is made into paper, including mats, the lignin remains in the finished product, making it a ticking time bomb for eventual disintergration.
Acid causes mats to yellow, staining your artwork in the process. Gone unchecked, a paper mat will eventually turn brown and become brittle, spreading acid burn on to your work. While substances can be added to the paper fibers to slow down the deterioration, they are temporary, and no mat made with wood pulp is suitable for archival use. Look at the effects of a wood pulp mat on this photograph:
Notice the yellowing and discoloration on the image matted with an acidic wood pulp mat.
The finest mats are made with cotton, a fiber that is naturally free from lignin. 100% cotton mats will never yellow, turn brittle or damage your valuable work. Although initially more expensive than the imported mats made with wood pulp, Oak Creek Printworks Bainbridge Alphamats are a good investment, ensuring that your art is protected and will never be ruined by the careless addition of an acidic mat.
When choosing a mat for your work, never settle for “acid-free”. This is a term thrown about so often it has become almost meaningless. Anything can be labeled acid-free, but that doesn’t mean it will last. An acidic wood pulp mat that is sprayed with an akaline coating is called “acid-free”. Yet the acid in the mat will quickly overcome the coating, and it will have worn off even before the mat is used for diplay.
Here are some criteria to use when selecting a fine quality archival mat:
- Is it made from wood pulp, “high alpha cellulose”, or 100% cotton? Nothing is as stable and naturally archival as cotton.
- Is the mat just “acid-free” or is it truly archival? An archival mat never needs to be processed or coated to have acid removed, as there is no acid to begin with.
- Are your mats imported from China, or made in the USA? Don’t be fooled by offers of “acid-free” imported mats that are too good to be true. Our archival mats, in a bright white, cream, black and gray, are made in the US, and cut right here at our studio.
One quick way to check if the mats you have are truly archival – look at the bevel (the slanted cut right next to the window of the mat). Wood pulp mats start out with a yellowish core, which quickly turns brown, as shown in these photos. A cotton mat starts out with a bright white core.
On a wood pulp mat, the bevels start out yellow, then quickly turn brown.
Your artwork is your passion. Never compromise or hurt your images with an acidic mat.