Friday, September 14, 2012

Artist Tip #2 - Flattening a Finished Watercolor Painting

Watercolor paper expands when wet and shrinks when dry, and often not uniformly.  Most watercolor painters struggle with the resulting ripples in completed paintings.  We've all seen a rippled painting framed, and not looking very good because of the gaps between the rippled paper and the flat mat.  A ripple along the top edge is particularly bad, as the overhead light casts a shadow from the mat, leaving a scalloped dark pattern at the top of the painting.  So... how does one flatten a finished painting?  If our paintings are professionally framed, the framer may have a large flat iron to flatten them.  But if we're doing our own framing, we need an approach that doesn't require large and expensive equipment.

I've tried a number of approaches, including:

  1. Dry-ironing the painting on a hard, flat surface.
  2. Steam-ironing the painting on a hard, flat surface.
  3. Dampening the back of the painting and pressing it flat under a board and weights.

Approach 1, dry-ironing the painting, is quick and works somewhat.  If the paper is badly wrinkled, it's difficult to get the larger ripples out.  And although an ironed painting is "locally flat",  it tends to curl toward the iron at the edges, though this may not cause a big problem once it is held in place by a mat.

Approach 2 can lead to disaster (listen to the voice of experience).  The steam can push through the painting and deposit some of the paint on the flat surface, smudging the painting when the paper inevitably moves while ironing.  I do not recommend this approach at all!

Approach 3 works best for me.  A fellow artist, Marlene Gremillion, told me about it.  I very lightly mist the back of the painting I want to flatten, being careful to not get it too wet.  I then put it face down on a hard flat surface, and put a rigid board on top of it.  I then put some heavy weights on top of the board.  Often, I make a sandwich of painting, board, painting, board, etc. before putting on the weights, and flatten several paintings at once.  After about 3 days, the dampness is gone, and the paintings are flat.  I've included a photo of this setup in my studio.


So, if I must flatten a painting and I need to frame it right away, I've found dry-ironing it is a decent approach.  But if I have a few days, misting the back and pressing it flat works best for me by far.

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27 comments:

Louise Millsop said...

My teacher in watercolor class taught us the board and weights technique which works great. But since I only have the use of my left hand I now use a stretcher system. http://www.ottowatercolor.com/ The iron method never worked for me steam or dry. Thanks for the info. ~ Candace

Jim Oberst said...

Candace, I've looked at the video, and it seems like a nice system. I've never seen it before, but I am aware of a similar but slightly different one that used metal clamps. Thanks for your feedback - perhaps some people will want to try this system. - Jim.

Louise Millsop said...

No damage to the paper either. I've seen the metal one but I wanted to keep my deckled edges in case I wanted to ever float a painting in the frame instead of the traditional mat. I've still painted an 11 X 15 without stretching but now I have a choice. Remember gummed tape? lol

MalTiosh said...

Many thanks for the ideas - I just did dry iron and it worked perfectly!

Jim Oberst said...

MalTiosh, glad to hear it.

alene bishop said...

The paper dries much faster if you make your"sandwich" thus: 1- hard flat surface, 2- corrugated cardboard, 3- blotter paper, 4- misted damp watercolor, 5- blotter paper, 6-corrugated cardboard, 7- hard flat board, and 8- weights. Have a fan blow through the stack in the cardboard corrugations and the paper should be flat and dry much sooner than 3 days. Usually overnight will do.

Jim Oberst said...

Alene, thanks for the comment. Sounds like a good system. I've "graduated" to using a dry-mount press (see http://jimoberst.blogspot.com/2013/05/artist-tip-15-flattening-finished.html). This is the ultimate in "flattening convenience" - it only takes a few minutes for it to heat up, and less than a minute to press my watercolor paintings flat. If you paint a lot, there's nothing like it!

Tequitia said...

Thanks for the tip!

Jim Oberst said...

Tequita, hope it helps you.

Candy M/AZ said...

Do you mean this Jim...http://www.lawrence.co.uk/cgi-bin/sh000005.pl?WD=stretcher&PN=Keba_ArtMate%2ehtml#a841700
A little pricey for me right now but it would be neat too and light for taking outdoors!! ~ Candace

Jim Oberst said...

Candy, personally I wouldn't use those expensive stretchers. I just flatten the finished painting.

Candy M/AZ said...

That's what I did until the Otto stretchers which are reasonable and thrifty! Now I win instead of the MS! I love them and now I have the only easel he made before he passed and I feel very honored!

Taylor Diane Logan said...

Soaking your paper in a tray of shallow water BEFORE you paint on it is a technique my art teacher taught me. After 24 hours of soaking take it off and place the paper on a plastic board and flatten it as much there. Then immediately use masking tape to keep it stretched out. As you work with your paper (after it's dried completely) it wrinkles less.

klund said...

Jim- my situation involves an acrylic painting done on medium weight cotton acid-free paper. The painting involves a lot of clean paper (negative space around the painted image) which is now very warped. I am tempted to try your option number 3 but very concerned about wetting the paper - as it is not watercolor paper. I suppose I could do a test on some blank paper. Any thoughts on this? Thank you very much! - Karl Lund

Candy M/AZ said...

You only have to soak the paper for a few minutes Taylor...if you soak it for 24 hours all the sizing will be gone and the paper won't be watercolor paper anymore!!

Jim Oberst said...

Karl - I think choice 3 would work. Watercolor paper is cotton, acid-free paper, with some sizing to make it less absorbent. However, unlike watercolor, which is just pigment lying on the paper surface, acrylic dries hard on the surface, so I'm not sure how easy it will be to flatten. Testing the method on a small piece sounds like the right thing to do.

You may also be interested in this article... http://jimoberst.blogspot.com/2013/05/artist-tip-15-flattening-finished.html. You may have a friend with this kind of press.

Valri Ary said...

I buy my watercolor paper by the roll as the packages of sheets are just too darn expensive. The roll costs a lot too but the amount of paper on the roll makes it very cost effective. Near the end of the roll it is so curled up that I have to use weights (small dumb bells)to hold it 'open' for me to cut. Then I put an X on the back side of what I cut (usually about 6 full sheets) and they all get a quick bath in my bathtub. I drip dry each sheet over the water and then they get a nice light colored towel to lay on and dry. It's the only thing I have ever used to flatten my paper.

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Wee Cute Treasures said...

Thank you so much for this advice. I am going to learn from your experience and use Option 3. Great blog!

Leslie Lim said...

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Rica

Leslie Lim said...

I have a great fun reading your blogs. You are really a great writer. Thank you for making this beautiful and awesome blogs. Hope to read more post from you in the future. Please dont forget to visit me in my site @ www.imarksweb.org. Thank you.


Rica

Cindi Struck said...

I recently took an older Chinese watercolor painting in to be remounted by a professional. It was flat and in great condition when I took it in. When we got it back, the mounting colors and new frame really brought life to it HOWEVER now we've noticed some buckling on the top portion....what happened?

Jim Oberst said...

Cindi - can't be sure - but works on paper can buckle when the humidity changes. When mounting works on paper WITHOUT dry mounting to a backing board, the standard procedure is to just secure the top edge via a few "hinges" of archival tape. If your work was dry mounted to a rigid backing, it's possible that it was not glued down firmly everywhere, and when the humidity changed, the part that was not securely bonded buckled. I don't have any suggestions for how to fix this; I suggest you return it to the person who mounted it and expect them to make it good.

Jim Oberst said...

Cindi - mounting at the top only lets the paper "move" if it shrinks or expands.

Sierra Miller said...

the misting trick is genius! I've tried dry-ironing before, and while it helps a little bit, I've had trouble getting less drastic wrinkles out. Will definitely try it this way!

Jim Oberst said...

Sierra, you may want to read this post as well...

http://jimoberst.blogspot.com/2013/05/artist-tip-15-flattening-finished.html

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