Caption Tweaks – Practical Mat Decoration

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Sometimes our mental image of a decorated mat includes frills and swirls and patterns on every square inch.  However impressive this may seem, a better idea is to add just a small touch.  This column will focus on decorative ideas you might use every day.  We all have skills and we should use them regularly – to keep our work interesting and to keep our customers thrilled.

Sometimes our mental image of a decorated mat includes frills and swirls and patterns on every square inch. However impressive this may seem, a better idea is to add just a small touch. This column will focus on decorative ideas you might use every day. We all have skills and we should use them regularly – to keep our work interesting and to keep our customers thrilled.


Caption Tweaks

Framers have always had many opportunities to add captions to pictures.  Customers always appreciate when the people in photographs are identified and there is a long tradition of labeling artwork.  Though writing a caption and centering it under the opening is pretty straightforward using the computerized mat cutter programs, we can take a few extra steps and refine the caption and make it a real attraction.



We see captions all day long under pictures of all descriptions.  We do not often stop to measure exactly how small the type actually is.  In mat design, we think a half inch is pretty small, but for a caption under a picture, that is jumbo sized.  Begin by thinking of captions a quarter inch high.  This will help you in a couple ways.  First, it will help the picture remain the focus of the presentation.  Next, it will preserve the vertical space we have – the mat width along the bottom.  If we include a large caption along the bottom, it will create the illusion that the bottom is more narrow.

Also, making the caption less tall will allow us to make longer captions.  With this extra length we can write more correct captions.  When we have used the computerized mat cutter to cut letters as openings, we are abbreviated words and excluded symbols to preserve horizontal space.  When the caption is a date, for example, with smaller letters, we can write out the name of the month, write all four digits of the year, and include punctuation - and the caption will still be a manageable length.


Pen Width

Hand in hand with the height of the letters goes the pen width.  When the pen is more narrow, the letters can be smaller.  Experiment with 0.5mm and 0.3mm pens.  With a 0.3mm pen, the x-height of some fonts can be as small as an eighth inch.  Mechanical pencils also draw very nicely in computerized mat cutters.  There are 0.5mm leads available in various hardness grades.  They can easily draw letters less than a quarter inch high.  Plus, the silvery look of the graphite is a softer alternative to the stark black we normally use for captions.



Few of us are type experts, but we all can see when the spacing between letters is incorrect.  Some typefaces are worse than others, but just about every caption can be made to look more polished by moving a few letters.

These spacing anomalies occur because mat cutter programs use “bounding rectangles” to calculate the space between objects.  This is best because we cut rectangles almost every time we use the machine.  Text programs use “kerning pairs” to accommodate adjacent slanting letters, rounded letters, and letters with horizontal protrusions.


Type the word Avalon into the Text field.  You will see that the alon portion looks pretty good, but the Ava portion cold use some refinement.  The slanting strokes of the A and the v, and the roundness of the a create some wide separations between the letters.  Correcting the spacing is easy.

No matter which program you use, begin by separating the letters.  In the Wizard program, click the Advanced tab.  Under Other Options at the left, there is an Explode Font button.  Before you click it, the entire word is one item.  After you click it, each letter will be a separate item and can then be manipulated independently.


Select one letter and use the arrow keys on the keyboard so that you are certain to move the letter only right or left.  You can select several letters and move them as a group, too.  Hold the Shift key or the Control key and select all the letters you want.  Most importantly, remember that if you hold the Alt key on the keyboard, items move 0.01 inch per click as you use the arrow keys.  This is much more precise that the usual sixteenth inch.  It will take about 20 clicks to correct the spacing of this word.

Never worry about how precisely you refine the spacing.  First, any improvements you make will make the caption looks better than the original.  Next, no matter how great the caption looks on the design screen, it is important to see how it looks when the machine draws it with the pen you have chosen.  Design a test cut using the newly spaced caption without an opening.  This way you are able to evaluate every aspect of the caption – how nice the pen line itself looks, the caption’s size relative to the picture, and the spacing of the letters.



In printed work, there are a dozen tricks that add sparkle to a caption.  We do not have such programs, nor do we have such a luxury of time, but there are a few things we can do quite easily to add interest to a caption.


A Script Caption


The first example is obvious.  Make the capital letters overly large.  This is a script font and large flourishing capital letters are almost expected, but the extra size allows the flourishing stroke at the bottom of the L to tuck more comfortably under a.  The extra height allows the details at the tops of the letters to tower above the lower case letters, and the strokes below the baseline can be well below the lower case letters.  Here, the y’s are a little oversized, too, so that their tails can curl under the previous letters more nicely.


A Few Hints on the Procedure

Though every decorative caption’s construction will be different, there are a few clues here that may prove to be helpful.  This caption began as two separate LetterMat openings: a capital L and ady.  Set the size and spacing of the lower case letters then make the L large enough so that it nestles nicely with the a.  Adjust the vertical position of the L as you change its size, too.

Copy and Paste the two items then change their text to be F and lorence.  Copy and Paste adds a touch of efficiency because the font and the sizes of the new items will be identical to the originals.  This is easier than adding a new LetterMat opening, then changing the sizes, the font, and the text.  Here, all you need to change is the text.  Adjust the spacing so that the Lady Florence portion of the caption is in order.

Paste the two items again and change the text to be G and ray.  Use the arrow keys and the alignment tools to arrange all six parts of the caption to your liking.  In this example, all the lower case letters are on the same baseline.  The capital letters are positioned at slightly different heights, and they are slightly different sizes, too.

It will be obvious to you at this point that the spacing of the y’s need adjustment.  Explode the font as we explained in the Spacing section.  Then make the necessary spacing adjustments.  Now, as long as the y’s are separate, why not take the opportunity to make them a little more dramatic, too.  Both y’s are a little taller – so that their tails are longer - and they are slightly wider.


A Flat Top Caption

The second typography idea could be thought of as little dated - it has an early 20th century architectural look - but it has some practical application to some of the problems of picture framing.  It is a caption in all capital letters.  The letters at the ends are slightly larger and the tops of all the letters are all in a line.


Most often, we are aligning captions at the bottoms of rectangular pictures.  Very often, we want to place the caption as close to the opening as we can without the layout seeming crowded.  The flat top of a caption like this allows the caption to be as close as it can be to the opening.  The larger letters at the ends give the caption some flair beyond the Spartan feeling of writing in all caps.

As you might imagine, the procedure here is to adjust the Kerning (the size of the spaces between letters) and Tracking (the size of the spaces between words) first.  Then explode the caption, in order to change the size of the letters at the ends.  The classic formula is to have only the letters at the ends larger.  On this longer caption, notice that the V and the final O are also slightly larger – though not quite as large as the A and the L at the ends - to give the caption the look of a rounded baseline.


True Type Fonts

Keep your eyes open for other typographical devices that you might use to enhance captions.  You will see clever type everywhere.  Keep your eyes open, too, for interesting fonts.

Computerized mat cutter programs make use of true type fonts for some, if not most, lettering.  These fonts are easy to find and easy to add to your computer.  Some of them are wonderfully decorative and the font itself will be a typographical device without any manipulation.  There is no cutting with a blade, so the only limit to how small a caption can be lies with the pen you choose.

There is one warning here.  O’s and the dots of i’s are generally circles.  Computerized mat cutters cut circles (actually, any shape composed of curves without any angular corners to use as a starting point) with a preprogrammed overrun beyond the initial point of the cut.  You will not notice this as you watch a normal oval being cut, but when you watch the computerized mat cutter draw the dot of an i with the pen, it may go round and round six times before it stops.  This is not a fatal flaw, but it does not always look as nice as it could.


The Correction

It is not always necessary to fix this, but when you feel it is best to fix it, the procedure is straightforward.  Send the caption to the drawing program.  In this example in the Wizard program, this is PathTrace.  Here is a thumbnail sketch of the procedure:


Draw a line through each circle (or curved shape) in question.

Use the Offset Object function under the Prep Design tab and offset the line 0.005 inch. In the illustration you see the pairs of gray vertical lines.

Break the intersections that the lines have with the circles.

Join the segments of the circle, leaving out the 0.005 inch break.

Set the broken circle to draw with the pen.  The circle will now draw only one time around.

In this illustration, the dot of the i and the inside circuit of the o have been set to draw with the pen.  The outside of the o has been broken and joined, but still needs to be set to draw with the pen.  The vertical lines that were drawn to break the circles are still in the drawing.

Once the breaks are made and the bevels are set, save the altered caption and add it to the design.


This is a good example of a decorative font that works great for captions.  It is sometimes called Calamity Jane.  This particular word required no manual spacing beyond changing the Kerning setting.  All the upper case letters in this font are intentionally oversized and have some very attractive ornaments.


Debossing and…

Though these comments were written with computerized pen drawing in mind, all the ideas apply to debossed captions, too.  The spacing anomalies will not appear as severe because debossed letters are not as small as pen letters, but spacing improvements always add to the professional appearance of any captions.

And let us not forget that before there were computerized mat cutters, talented patient people wrote captions under pictures using calligraphy.  One incarnation of this was an adaptation of engineering lettering.  Tiny letters (eighth inch high) were drawn using a hard pencil – 4H or 6H lead, for example.  The idea behind the hard lead was for the pencil to deboss the mat in addition to writing the caption.  The letters were often even smaller and the captions could be quietly ornamented, too.  Surely this is not a lost art, and it comes to mind that these – and other - typographical devices could be put to use in this hand work, too.

Brian Wolf has been a picture framing educator since 1979, specializing in decorative matting techniques. He is the artistry ambassador for Wizard International, Inc. Contact him at  Brian’s column is sponsored by Wizard. or call 1-888-855-3335

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