Tired of displaying watercolors behind glass? I was too! Even with museum glass to minimize reflections, there is still a barrier between the viewer and the painting. Also, some buyers don’t like the aesthetic of a wide white mat around a painting. Some feel it “cheapens” a piece, while others prefer not to have the distraction of the frame-within-a-frame look.
With this in mind, I decided to find a method that would eliminate the need for glass, and allow watercolors to be presented the way an oil or acrylic would be. After a fair amount of research and experimentation, I have developed the following process.
(When entering juried shows, *read the prospectus* carefully – most require matting & framing under glass or plexiglass.)
The important parts here are the board, the adhesive and the topcoat. Ampersand Gesssobord is a great panel. The acid-free surface is fairly non-absorbent, so the adhesive spreads well and doesn’t soak into the board. (Claybord is an option, but is harder to work with, as the surface is more absorbent and the adhesive wants to dry more quickly.) If the standard panel sizes don’t work for you, it is possible to order custom sizes – visit the Ampersand website for info.
For adhesive, I use Golden Heavy (Gloss) Gel Medium. Other artists that mount paper to board use the Soft Gel Medium; I suggest trying both and seeing which you prefer. For the protective topcoat, I use Golden Archival spray Varnish w/UVLS in Satin. (Read details from Golden’s website.)
Preparing the Painting
Once your watercolor is finished, signed, flattened and allowed to dry for at least a week, it is ready to mount. The first step is to spray three light coats of varnish to protect the surface and fix the pigments. (Follow instructions on can for temperature and drying time.) I’ll let that dry for 3-4 days before proceeding.
Note: Patience is key to this entire process. Be sure to allow for plenty of drying time, as moisture trapped in the paper could cause problems with mold and/or warping. There is also time needed for pressing, and cure time on the topcoats. If you need a painting finished for a show in three days, framing under glass is a better option!
Mounting the Paper
I use a 1-1/2″ wide flat brush to spread the gel medium across the board, since it fits easily into the container. For larger pieces, it might be best to grab a palette knife and pull a large amount of gel out at one time. Starting in the center, spread the gel evenly towards the edges. You want it thick enough to see brush strokes, but not so thick that you can no longer see the surface of the board. Be sure to get an even layer all the way out to the edges and corners.
As soon as the gel is spread, lay the painting face-up on the board, making sure it is centered and has a fairly even overlap all the way around. Lay a piece of wax or parchment paper over the painting, and press lightly with your hands to start adhering the paper. I then use a brayer to get good contact – starting from the center, roll out toward the edges with short strokes and a good amount of pressure.
Watch as you get towards the edges; if there is a lot of gel splooging out, carefully wipe it away so it doesn’t have a chance to get on the surface of the painting. (Reduce the amount of gel used next time; a little bit of excess gel is common but should not create a sticky mess.) Run your hand lightly over the surface – it should feel fairly smooth, with no obvious lumps, bumps or voids in the gel. Keep rolling until it smooths out.
Once the gel is rolled out, it’s time to press. Grab a clean piece of parchment, or some plastic wrap, and lay it over the painting (still face-up). Then pile on books, pieces of wood, old laptops…whatever you have on hand that will create a lot of weight. Make sure it evenly covers the board, and isn’t leaning towards one side or the other. Even pressure is key here. Now, walk away for at least 24 hours. My studio is generally in the 60-65 degree range and humidity is typically not a problem. In a warmer, humid environment I might direct a fan on the painting during pressing to help the adhesive dry.
Trim and Finish the Board
Once the pressing is done, carefully flip the painting over onto a cutting mat, trying not to pull on edges or corners. I run a sharp X-acto knife along the edge of the board to trim off excess paper, being careful not to dig into the board.
After trimming, check corners and edges for complete adhesion. If an area is loose, carefully lift the edge and, using a toothpick, spread some more gel medium on the board. Press tightly with your fingers, and wipe off excess gel. Once all loose areas are re-glued, press again for 24 hours.
The next step is to finish the edges. In this instance, with the border of white paper showing, I used acrylics to paint the sides of the board to match the paper. Most of my paintings extend edge-to-edge and are going in black frames, so I use a black Pitt brush pen (from Faber Castell) to color the sides of the board. This requires a very steady hand – you want to run the pen along the white of the cut paper so it matches the board, but take care not to get ink onto the surface of the painting! If using paint, keep it as dry as possible so it doesn’t add moisture between the paper and the board.
We’re almost finished! You’ll need a clean, dry, well-ventilated area for varnish application. (Check the can for recommended temperature.) I set the painting up on an easel at a comfortable height for spraying. With smooth, side-to-side strokes that extend a little beyond the edges of the painting, coat the surface with a fine, even spray. You should be able to see the varnish, but it should not be super shiny across the surface or thick enough to run.
Apply 4-6 coats of varnish, allowing at least 30 minutes between coats. If the surface still looks wet or smells strongly, wait a bit longer between varnish applications. I turn the painting 1/4 turn before each coat to compensate for any unevenness in my spray pattern. When finished you should have a smooth, satin finish that looks even across the entire piece.
That’s it, you’re ready for the framer. I worked with Ken at Tsuga Fine Art and Framing to develop this floating look. Ask your framer for ideas on how to present your mounted paintings!