Pencil Captions – Practical Mat Decoration – December 2013

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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.

Pencil Captions

There were a few questions about a suggestion made at the end of a recent column.  The suggestion called to mind the fact that small captions under pictures were once hand lettered with a hard pencil.  So many of us learned engineering script as students.  It was never perfect printing, it always had the hallmarks of handwork, but it was always quite small and it was always legible.  This early training in careful letter formation turned out to be useful for writing captions on mats.

101 Date

We use engineering script here as a starting point because so many of us are fairly well practiced with it.  But it remains engineering script in all its connotations – the most disconcerting of which is that it is a trifle sterile.  We can look in many places for ideas to dress up our lettering.

Ornament Ideas

There are a number of thin line fonts we can copy for ideas.  The fonts illustrated here are called Calamity Jane and Speedball 1, 2, and 3.  Look over the details of the letters and you will see a few variations adaptable for your lettering.

04 Calamity Jane01 Speedball 103 Speedball 302 Speedball 2

Keep in mind that there is a fine line between ornamentation and affectation.  A few flourishes on these tiny letters are generally sufficient to give a caption its individuality.  You will find that lower case letters will be almost always the same.  Perhaps you will vary the lengths of the ending strokes of the f, j, or y.  The upper case letters offer many more possibilities for variation.  Finishing strokes like the tail of the R, the Q, or the K can have extensions or flourishes.  Some letters – the A, E, F, G, Q, and S, for example – can take completely different forms from font to font.

The placement of the letters is another variation to consider.  Review the column from a few months ago.  One caption was all upper case letters.  It had larger beginning and ending letters.  The letters were even across the top, too.  Another caption had exaggerated capital letters that floated to where they looked best, regardless of the baseline.  Any of these typographical devices would add a different character to the caption.

Mechanical Hints: Guide Lines

Begin by drawing guide lines for the baseline, the x height, and the top of the upper case letters.  Draw several vertical lines, too, to use as a reference as you draw vertical letter strokes.  Use a soft pencil for the guide lines and draw them faintly.  You will be lettering with a hard pencil and you will be able to erase the faint guide lines without disturbing the lettering.

102 With Guides


Everyone will have their own size preferences.  Some people prefer larger letters because slight errors are not quite so glaring.  Others prefer smaller letters because smaller circles and curves are easier to draw accurately when they are smaller.  The x height of the letters in these examples is not quite a sixteenth inch high.  The total height of the upper case letters is about an eighth inch.

The Matboard

Choose the matboard for these lettering projects for its handling properties as much as for the color - Can you erase the guide lines without a trace?  Will the matboard’s surface be marred as you work on it?  Will the matboard’s texture be a factor as you draw?  Heavy textures may force the pencil point into an angled or curved line, rather than the straight vertical line you intended.

The Pencil

Use a 2H, 4H, 6H, or harder graphite for the lettering.  Traditional wooden pencils work better for this than modern mechanical pencils.  The graphite has more support and is much less likely to break as you make small curves or press hard.  Sharpen the pencils with a file or fine sandpaper.

The graphite for these examples was 2H.  This is a bit darker than normal, so that the letters would show better in the photography.  4H graphite is preferable.  It leaves a more understated caption and it still has plenty of contrast to be easily legible.

As you letter, press to deboss as much as to write.  This allows no way to erase a mistake, but you will find that you will letter slowly and carefully enough that mistakes will be rare.


When you want to center a hand lettered caption, begin by lettering the caption exactly as the final caption will be on a scrap.  Measure its length and calculate the starting point so that the final caption will be centered on the mat.  Realize that with small variations in the letters’ sizes and spacing, the caption could easily end up as much as an eighth inch off center.

With this in mind, consider the option of positioning the caption well to the left or to the right.  The presentation may not have that completely formal look, but it will be clear to all that the caption is meant to be off center.

Write Things Correctly

When you are lettering by hand, you will be writing names, dates, places, and possibly short sentences.  Do not let the extra effort of hand lettering be your excuse for using abbreviations, though.  We are writing captions for pictures to be admired for years to come.  Write entire names.  If there is a military academic designation, write it completely and correctly.  Write out the entire names of months, and write out the entire names of cities, states, and countries.  Always include necessary punctuation.

103 With Lines

This may be the most impractical advice you have ever gotten.  In the face of technological devices that can draw letters for us, what is the sense of presenting ideas on how lettering can be done by hand?  The validity of any answers to this question will depend on the ins and outs of your shop.

How else can we add such a small caption under a picture, though?  The smallest practical CMC lettering is around three-sixteenths of an inch high.  And, how else can we make a caption this understated?

We often overstate the efficiency of computerized processes.  When we want to add a caption under a picture with the computerized mat cutter, there will be design and refinement time.  Once we are practiced and confident with hand lettering, there are guide lines to draw, a little measuring, and the lettering itself.  The time spent will probably be equal.  The obvious difference is that with a computerized mat cutter, everyone in the shop will be equally competent at lettering.

Hand lettering, however, gives every framer an answer to one of the saddest stories in all of our experiences.  A customer presents us with a photo to frame.  It may be beautiful or it may be tattered, but we hear that it is the only known image of some relative.  The customer is probably thinking how nice it would be to add something that would identify the picture to every viewer.  We, at the same moment, might be thinking that without any identification, this could easily become known as “The odd picture Aunt Mabel had hanging in her hallway.”  It would be relegated to a garage sale once its significance is forgotten.

And of course, if we can draw letters by hand with a pencil, why can we not draw pencil lines around the opening?...lines that are broken to include the inscription, lines whose ends have a small decorative element?

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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One Response to Pencil Captions – Practical Mat Decoration – December 2013

  1. Profile photo of MollyMolly says:

    I just have my architect hubby help me with this! ;-)

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