How to frame a watercolor painting

This article will show you how to frame a watercolor painting. There may be different ways but this is how I do it.

The first step is to ensure your watercolor painting is totally flat.

As I do not pre-stretch my watercolor paper it cockles or buckles a little so I flatten it before framing. I have posted a couple of YouTube videos on how to do this. For smaller works I use a steam iron and for larger paintings I use a different technique. Here are the links to the videos if you would like to look at them:

How to flatten a small watercolor painting with a steam iron.

How to flatten larger watercolor paintings.

Options for how to frame a watercolor painting

Most people take their watercolor paintings to a professional framer, which is often the easiest way to go. At the other extreme some people make their own frame and finish the process off by adding their painting.

I prefer a third option. I purchase pre made frames which include the frame, double mat board, glass, foam core backing board, screws and nylon hanging cord. I purchase these frames from my local framing store, usually about 5 or 10 frames at a time. By doing this I always have frames at hand and can frame my own work at short notice. Otherwise I would have to wait for my framer to do the whole thing which could delay the framing for up to two weeks. I also save a significant amount of cost as the framer can give me an additional discount as they do not have to install my painting in the frame themselves.

I prefer to use a silvery gold frame, with a double mat which is white for the inner and pale beige for the main “outer” mat. I have found this frame and mat combination works well with my watercolor paintings weather or not the paintings are warm or cool colored. The frames seem to go with most modern decors which is another benefit. A third benefit is that if a painting does not sell after a period of time I can easily replace it with a new one and the frame should work with my new artwork. In rare cases, however, I will digress from this frame/mat combination if the painting really warrants it.

Materials and tools needed to frame your watercolor painting

  • Frame kit from your local framing store – should include, frame, mat board (I use a double mat), foam-core backing board, d-rings and self-tapping screws, nylon hanging string, glass front.
  • Screwdrivers, you will probably need both a flat and a Phillips head type.
  • Framing tape to seal the back of the frame – helps keep bugs out, strengthens frame, and covers the sharp metal “points” used to hold the backing board in place.
  • Hanging tape, I buy my from my framer but I am sure art supply stores should have some available or would get it for you.
  • Uncluttered work area.
  • Sheet to protect frame while you are working on it.
  • Pair of scissors.
  • All boards and tapes should be neutral ph so they do not damage your painting over time.

Here is the watercolor painting I am framing for this demonstration. It was painted by one of my students, Chrysovalantou Mavroudis, who is already becoming quite a proficient watercolor artist. She took the photographs while I was showing her how to frame her work. As I am often asked by students about how to frame a watercolor painting I thought I would produce this tutorial.

Reference watercolor painting by Chrysovalantour Mavroudis used for how to frame a watercolor painting

Watercolor painting by Chrysovalantou Mavroudis

Here is an example of what I order from my local framing store.

Watercolor painting kit frame purchased from framer

Watercolor painting kit frame purchased from framer

The glass, mat and backing board are held in place with flexible staples called “points”.

Acid free mat and backing boards held in place with flexible "points"

Acid free mat and backing boards held in place with flexible “points”

I start by first wiping the front of the glass clean. I then flip the frame over and bend the flexible “points” vertically so I can remove the backing board and mat. I then clean the back of the glass. Notice how I use an old sheet on which to lay my frame on so it is not so easily damaged.

Clean the front and back of the glass of the premade watercolor framing kit

Clean the front and back of the glass of the premade watercolor framing kit

Fix watercolor painting to back of matt with hanging tape

I set the frame aside and pick up the watercolor painting I am framing. I lay the painting upside down and attach a strip of hanging tape (purchased from my framer) along the top of the back of the artwork. Do not press too hard as you only want the tape to stick to the painting and not the table top. The length of tape I use is about two thirds the length of the painting, with about half of the tape on the painting, the other half will be affixed to the back of the mat board.

Lay watercolor painting down and fix hanging tape of top two thirds of painting

Lay watercolor painting down and fix hanging tape on top of  your painting for about two thirds its length

I now flip the painting over and then lay the mat board on top. Do this lightly so the tape does not stick while you are finding the correct positioning for your watercolor painting.

Fix watercolor painting to back of matt with hanging tape

Fix watercolor painting to back of mat with hanging tape

Once I am happy with the positioning of my artwork I use my clean lint free rag to press down on the mat over the taped area. This sticks the tape to the mat but only a little. I then gently flip the mat over and then with my fingernail rub all over the hanging tape to make sure it sticks firmly to both the watercolor painting and mat.

Use fingernail to press hanging tape to watercolor paper and mat board

Use fingernail to press hanging tape to watercolor paper and mat board

The mat board with the attached watercolor painting can now be placed in the frame. You may want to give the glass on the inside another quick clean in case any dust has settled on it.

Mat board with attached watercolor painting placed in frame

Mat board with attached watercolor painting placed in frame

On top of the mat you now place the foam core backing board.

Foam core backing board placed on top of artwork and mat

Foam core backing board placed on top of artwork and mat

Now carefully hold the frame from both sides so that you stop the sections coming apart, watch out that you do not cut yourself on the flexible “points” however as they are sharp. For bigger watercolor paintings you may need to bend some of these “points” down at this stage to help keep all the pieces in the frame. Then flip the frame over and have a look from the front to make sure there are no bits of dust or fluff that can be seen from the front. If so flip it over, lift up the painting, etc. and remove the offending particle. This can be quite annoying at times, it is best to make sure your work environment is relatively dust free.

Checking for dust -how to frame a watercolor painting

Flip frame over and check that no bits of dust or fluff are showing on the mat or painting. Careful not to cut yourself with the “points”

Once you are happy the surface of the mat and watercolor painting are dust free, flip the frame onto its front and bend down the “points”, I usually use a flat screwdriver as my finger cannot press the “points’ down firmly enough. Don’t press so hard that the points damage the backing board surface.

Press "Points" back down with a flat screwdriver

Press “Points” back down with a flat screwdriver

The next step for “How to frame a watercolor painting” is to seal the back of the frame with framing tape.

Often you will find that the frame and its backing board are at different levels. This causes a little problem as the framing tape may not seal the back of the frame properly. If the frame and backing board are at the same height then the tape can be just laid flat.

Frame and backing board not at the same level - how to frame a watercolour painting

Frame and backing board not at the same level

This is the process I use to properly seal the back of a frame which is higher than the matt board:

First run a piece of framing tape along one side of the frame with half of the tape over the backing board and the rest on the frame. Do not let the tape touch the backing board at this stage. Just fix it to the frame with a little pressure of your hand.

Run framing tape along one side of the frame but do not let it touch the backing board

Run framing tape along one side of the frame but do not let it touch the backing board

Then cut the tape along the adjoining frame length edge. It is easier to see what I mean by looking at the photo below.

Cut framing tape along both edges of the frame as in the picture above

Cut framing tape along both edges of the frame as in the picture above

Now press down on the tape along the edge of the frame and onto the backing board. Run you hand over the tape to make sure it is fixed to the frame and backing board firmly.

Press down on the tape along the edge of the frame and onto the backing board

Press down on the tape along the edge of the frame and onto the backing board

Repeat the process for the frame length on the opposite side of the frame.

Framer's tape on each end

Framer’s tape on each end

Now place tape along the other lengths. Again, first only fix the tape to the frame not the backing board.

Cut and fit tape to other length but only fix to frame not backing board first

Cut and fit tape to other length but only fix to frame not backing board first

Now make a diagonal cut from the corner of the frame at 45 degrees. Ensure you only cut through the top layer of tape not the one below it.

Cut diagonal from corner of frame at 45 degrees. Only cut through top tape layer.

Cut diagonal from corner of frame at 45 degrees. Only cut through top tape layer.

Once the diagonal cuts are made at both ends of the tape you can press the tape down onto the backing board to stick in down. Start from the middle of the tape along the edge of the frame, that way the tape will sit nicely on the backing board with no crinkles.

With diagonal cuts made, press tape down onto backing board

With diagonal cuts made, press tape down onto backing board

This process gives you a nice clean and professional looking finish on the back of your frame. Obviously if the backing board comes up level with the frame then these extra cuts are not required.

Notice the nice finish to the back of the frame’s inner corners

Notice the nice finish to the back of the frame’s inner corners

The final step of how to frame a watercolor painting is the fixing of the support string.

I measured about 6 inches from the top of the frame (about the length of the metal portion of my Phillips head screw driver which I use as a guide). I use a gimlet to start the holes for the screws which attach the d-rings. A gimlet is a tool of starting holes in timber in case you hadn’t guessed. The distance from the top of the frame to the screw holes varies depending on the frame size. This framed watercolor painting was about 23” x 19”.

As a guideline place the d-rings, and therefore the string a little less than a third of the way down the frame. If you come down too far the frame will lean forward too much when hung.

The d-ring should be screwed in the middle for  moulding for strength, unless for some strange reason your frame is very thin at that point.

Gimlet used to start screw holes with length of screwdriver used as a positioning guide

Gimlet used to start screw holes with length of screwdriver used as a positioning guide

I then screw on the d-rings to which the sturdy hanging string will be attached. If you look at the photo below you can see why they are called d-rings.

Various d-rings for used in framing. The ones on the left give it its name!

Various d-rings for used in framing. The ones on the left give it its name!

The d-rings are fixed to the frame with self-tapping screws.

D-rings are attached to the frame with self-tapping screws

D-rings are attached to the frame with self-tapping screws

You can now attached the nylon picture hanging cord to the d-rings. Make sure you use a good knot so that the cord does not come loose or your frame could fall down when hung. I also wrap a little piece of framing tape around the loose end of the cord for a neater finish as can be seen in the image below.

Securely attach nylon hanging cord to d-rings - How to frame a watercolor painting

Securely attach nylon hanging cord to d-rings

I also cover the d-rings with some framing tape to minimize the chance of damage to other paintings that may be placed against mine. This courtesy not only helps others but could also help your own work. I once delivered 5 paintings to a school art exhibition and the handler started stacking all my paintings on top of one another – she was quite inexperienced but if I had not noticed, and not had tape over my d-rings, the damage to my frames could have been extensive.

Cover d-rings with some framing tape

Cover d-rings with some framing tape

The framing is now complete. I hope you have found this brief tutorial on how to frame a watercolor painting useful.

Framed watercolor painting

Framed watercolor painting

Figure 26: Framed watercolor painting

15 thoughts on “How to frame a watercolor painting

  1. Ann Merry

    Nice tutorial! And I love the watercolor of the Hereford! We had that kind of cattle when I was a kid.

  2. Karen Domagalski

    This tutorial was perfect. Very detailed. Love the pictures and step by step instructions. Now I am confident I can frame my sister and grandson’s watercolor artworks for my home.
    Thank you.

  3. Karen Domagalski

    One more comment or actually it is a question. My home is more country cottage. Should I pick a frame and mat that picks up certain colors in the painting. I don’t know how to do that without detracting from the painting itself. The painting should stand out but the frame should be complimentary, correct?

  4. Joe Post author

    I generally frame with a white inner mat and very pale beige outer mat. It seems to go with most decors. I personally stay away from using strongly colored mats, but sometimes they can work to enhance the work a little – but if you get it wrong you are stuck with it, so I just don’t do it.

  5. MrsGwennD

    Never, ever get moisture near a watercolor painting! Watercolor never dries and will bleed. So nix on the steam apparatus.

  6. Joe Post author

    If you use the steam iron on the back of the painting, not the front which is painted, it works very well for flattening the paper without damaging the painting. Have tested it on hundreds of watercolor paintings, using 300 gsm and 185 gsm weight watercolor papers. Joe

  7. Anna Clark

    Thanks so much for this detailed tutorial. I live out in the country and love It, but I’m a long way from an art store or framing shop. I order supplies from a Blick catalog. As an amateur in watercolor and pastels, I must rely on the internet for info. Thanks again for the tutorial.

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