CutArt Variations – 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.



Making CutArt Variations

Every framer has their decorative design ideas – the kinds of elements they like to use and the ways they like to apply them.  The challenge is to vary the details of the idea each time you use it to tailor it to the picture and to make it look different to casual observers.  Framers do this even when the design idea is as simple as a triple mat.  The variations can be: change the colors, vary the contrast, change the reveal sizes, put the narrow reveal in the middle, put the narrow reveal to the inside, make the wide reveal really wide, use patterned matboard for the wide reveal…

So it is if you have a favorite CutArt.  This example shows a geometric starburst at the side of the opening.  Perhaps you would like to add a starburst accent like this more often, but there is just this one.  You feel that if you use it too often, your work will begin to look too repetitive.  You can vary the size and the placement, but the element itself remains the same.  Your work would have more variety and each picture could be more individualized if there were a dozen different starbursts you could choose from.

The Original Idea

The CutArt here is Fanlite from the Accents1 folder of the Wizard CutArt.  The decorative elements are about half an inch wide and 1.25 inches high.  The starbursts are a quarter inch away from the opening and slightly below the center.  (The opening is 6 x 8 inches, just for the sake of perspective.)01 6x8 Original

This design formula – the accents close to the opening symmetrically on the sides – is as important as the element itself.  It illustrates probably the most effective formula for using cutout accents.  Now we will make a portfolio of similar elements so that we can use this formula more often and in more settings.

Things We Will Change

The three shapes in a starburst pattern is a very appealing concept.  As we are creating variations in the drawing program, we will retain this concept.  However, there are some other things we would like to change:

It would be an improvement if the elements could be closer together.

We need a variety of sizes but we do not want the triangles to spread farther apart as we enlarge the element.

We would like to preserve the sharp points of the triangles, but change the short sides.  Perhaps the short sides could be vertical lines. Perhaps they could be all in a line, perhaps staggered.

Perhaps there could be curves introduced to soften the stark geometric feel.

In the Drawing Program

In this illustration we have opened the Fanlite CutArt in PathTrace.  The original CutArt elements are the blue triangles. 101 Variation 1

Notice first that the ornament is oriented vertically.  In its original state, it is horizontal, but we will use it vertically in this design formula.  This change in orientation was done in MatDesigner, where rotation is easy.  This illustrates an axiom about drawing projects that bears repeating no matter which program you use: Do what you can (those things that are easy) in the design program, then do what you must in the drawing program.

We have drawn some lines to reshape the middle triangle.  We want the point at the right to be a little less sharp.  Begin by drawing a diagonal line for a new leg at the top, then mirror it across the horizontal center line (the white horizontal line emanating from the midpoint of the short side of the middle blue triangle) so that the new triangle will be symmetrical.  Note also the gray vertical line that will be the new short side of the middle triangle.

How Close Can These Triangles Be?

Next we must decide how close the smaller triangles can be to the new middle triangle.  This is an important design question because we want the grouping of three triangles to read more like one unit than they do in the original.

As we draw, though, spacing is an important cutting question, too.  When two shapes are close together, there will be overcuts on the back of the mat.  If the shapes are too close, these overcuts will cut far enough to weaken the narrow strip of matboard between the shapes.  As the cutting proceeds, the narrow strip of matboard may be pushed out of place.  This spacing question will be decided by making a series of test cuts.

Offset the top leg of the triangle a specific distance.  Enter the distance in the Reveal field at the bottom left.  Here, the top leg was offset 0.18 inch.  (This, in fact, was not the first test.  This drawing does not show the lines from the earlier test that was too close.)

Then construct a new small triangle above the middle one using this offset line as its inner leg.  Draw a new vertical line to be the short side (a departure from the original, but a variation we would like to evaluate) and draw a new outside leg to complete the triangle. 102 Variation 1

The vertical line at the right serves as a guide to help determine where the point of the new triangle must be to be even with the point of the middle triangle.  These points do not need to line up precisely.

Watch, too, that the angle of the point of the new small triangle is a bit less sharp than the point of the original triangle.

Completing the First Variation

Join all the segments of the two new triangles and set the bevels.  Then mirror the top triangle across the horizontal center line onto the bottom.103 Variation 1

You want only the new triangles to cut, but there is no need to delete the original triangles.  They may come in handy as a reference.  Simply explode them.  The lines will remain but they will no longer cut.

Make the test cut and assess the progress.  It is important to make an actual test cut.  When items are this small, do not depend what you see on the screen - either in PathTrace or in MatDesigner.

The lines you see on the screen are the lines at the bottom of the bevel, not the top of the bevel.  As you look at the finished mat, you will judge the space between the triangles first by looking at the stability of the narrow strip of matboard between the triangles, then by looking at the space at the top of the bevels – the colored surface of the mat.  If you like the results, save the new CutArt as the first variation.

How Small Should These Triangles Be?

As you evaluate the test results, note the size of the triangles.  There is no real limit to how small each triangle can be.  All the cuts are straight lines, after all.  The real question is: How small can they be and still look good as decorative elements next to an opening.  The answer will be different for most every framer.  Here, the smaller triangles are a quarter inch from their points to their short sides.  Whether or not you like the look of elements this small, it is good to know that it is possible to cut shapes this small.02 6x8 Variation 1

Again, to get a feel for the proportion, the opening is 6 x 8 inches.

Making a Larger Variation

We have decided that this is a good size for small openings, but for larger pictures, we will want a larger element – but we want the triangles to remain 0.18 inch away from each other.  If we re-size the new CutArt in the design program, the triangles will enlarge, but so will the space between the triangles.201 Variation 2

Open the first variation in PathTrace.  The white vertical line at the right is snapped to the point of the small triangle.  Offset it so that you know how wide the new top triangle will be.  In this drawing, the vertical line is offset 0.30 inch.

The vertical line at the left near the middle triangle will be the new short side of the middle triangle.  Its position is an artistic decision.

Note the horizontal center line snapped to the midpoint at the left of the middle triangle.  It will be the mirror axis in the coming mirroring operation.

Finishing the Larger Variation

Delete the blue triangle at the bottom.202 Variation 2

Explode the two remaining triangles.

Join the new short sides to the original legs to form the new triangles.  The gray lines inside the triangles in the illustration are the original short sides of the triangles in the first variation.

Mirror the triangle at the top across the horizontal center line onto the bottom.

Set the bevels, make a test cut, and save this as a new CutArt if it meets your approval.  This will be the second variation.

Introducing Curves

For a less geometric attitude, we will make the short sides of the triangles into curves.  The blue triangles in this illustration are the elements of the larger variation we just completed.301 Variation 3

We have drawn a single line beginning a little beyond the top of the top triangle and ending a little across the horizontal center line.

Using the Move Point function, move the midpoint of the line to curve it.  Remember that these segments will be very small, so do not curve the line too severely.

Integrating the Curve with the Triangles

We need to break the curve into pieces then join the legs of the triangles with the curve segments to form the new shapes.302 Variation 3

Draw a short line crossing the curve near the small triangle at the top.

Break the curve at its intersection with the short line.  The piece of the curve at the top will become the short side of the small triangle at the top.  The other piece (the white curve in this illustration) will be the beginning of the new short side for the middle shape.

Finishing the Curved Variation

Much has happened in this illustration.  Here are the steps:303 Variation 3

Explode the small triangle at the top.

Join the legs of the small triangle with the top segment of the broken curve.  This new small shape is now complete.  This is the white shape in this illustration.

Mirror the newly joined top triangle across the horizontal center line so that it will replace the old triangle at the bottom.

Explode the large middle triangle.

Mirror the other segment of the broken curve across the horizontal center line.  This new middle shape will have two curves as its crown.  It will now be a curved diamond.

Join the legs from the middle triangle to the two curves of its crown to complete the curved diamond.

Getting Ready to Cut

Delete or explode the original triangle at the bottom.  All the other leftover gray segments can remain.304 Variation 3

Then set the three new shapes to cut.  Make a test cut to make sure these curves cut nicely – but also to make sure that they are dramatic enough.

Often we are so concerned about drawing gentle curves that will cut nicely that we forget that our original intent was to add the excitement of curves to the ornament.  If we draw such gentle curves that they appear to be straight lines, then there is little benefit to our efforts.

One More Idea

Brainstorming about curves and drama always generates another step in the evolution of an idea.  All the variations so far have had the points on the right lined up very nicely, but to add more drama, we want to have the point of the middle shape protrude noticeably farther than the points of the outside shapes.  This will make the middle shape decidedly larger, too.401 Variation 4

Copy the shape at the top.  As you move the copy, the original will remain as a guide.  This is important because you will see how far you have moved the shape – and you will be able to keep the bottom lines lined up, insuring that the new shape will still be the same distance away from the middle shape.

Now, we want to move the middle shape’s crown farther to the left so that the curves of the short sides appear to be continuous again.402 Variation 4

Explode the middle shape.

Join the two curves of the crown.

Using the copy function, move the crown to the left.  Hold the Control key on the keyboard as you move it so that it moves exactly horizontally.

It is not critical that the two curves of the shapes be mathematically continuous.  In fact, it may be more dramatic if the crown were moved a bit farther to the left than necessary.

To finish this variation, join the segments to form the new middle shape and set the bevel.403 Variation 4

Mirror the moved top shape across the horizontal center line onto the bottom of the element.

There is no need to delete the original small shapes.  Just explode them so that they will not cut.

Make a test cut, evaluate the results, and save this fourth variation as a new CutArt.03 6x8 Variation 4

Every framer has had the experience of searching for just the right CutArt to adorn a picture.  When you find something close and a little alteration would make it just right, it should not be a daunting task to make a few changes in the drawing program.  In this space, we have made four variations of the original CutArt – one flowing out of the ideas of the other - using only half a dozen functions in the program.  Just as you do not need to know the entire city to find your way to a friend’s house, you do not need to know the entire drawing program to make a few little changes.  Imagine, then make a few experiments.

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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