Introduction: Simple Framed Watercolour Paintings

This instructable is to show how to make a simple and cheap framed watercolour (pen-and-wash) picture, from start to finish.

Step 1: Materials/Tools

  • Cartridge paper (100-200 gsm, a.k.a 28lb or heavier)
  • Water spray bottle (recycled and rinsed pump-action spray bottle)
  • Roll of gummed paper (2" wide)
  • Firm (non bending) board, 1/4" or thicker and larger than paper size.
  • Pencil/Eraser
  • Drawing pen (non water-soluble technical pen e.g. Edding Profipen)
  • Water colour paints
  • Brushes (round, pointed round)
  • A3/A4 laminator and pouches to fit finished painting
  • Pine or other soft wood sticks, 1" or wider
  • Paper clips
  • Light string/cord.
  • Dremel and fine drill bit to match paper clip wire diameter
  • Clingfilm/plastic sheet pieces
  • PVA wood glue
  • Cyanoacrylate superglue
  • Scotch Magic Tape
  • Junior Hacksaw
  • X-Acto knife
  • 90 degree/45 degree Square

Step 2: Paper Preparation

Standard "copier paper" is about 80 gsm (grammes per square metre), a.k.a. 21 lb paper. While you can use this for painting, it doesn't have much strength if it gets very wet.

Cartridge paper is a heavier paper, at 100-200 gsm, (27-54 lb) used for sketching, pastels and watercolour. I use A3 sized pads, and for smaller pictures, I cut the pages in half for A4, as shown here.

Paper expands when it gets wet, and it buckles and wrinkles which spoils the look of the finished picture. This is especially bad if you use any large wet areas of colour washes. To prevent buckling of the paper when it gets wet, the answer is to completely soak the paper first. This allows it to expand evenly all over, and then when it is taped down to a firm, flat surface, it will dry out, and shrink back and go tight and flat.

Completely immerse and soak the paper for 5 minutes in cold water, then carefully lift the sheet out, allowing excess drips to run off, and place the sheet on the drawing board. I use a 1/4" thick board, which has a white glossy face on one side. It's important that the board doesn't bend easily, otherwise the paper won't tighten up. Smooth out any bubbles carefully, working from the centre outward.

In these pictures, I'm mounting 2 A4 sheets with a gap between them.

Now you can use the gummed paper (which has a water activated adhesive) to hold the paper down. Spritz some water onto the adhesive side of the tape. I find using a damp sponge to wet the tape causes the adhesive to wipe off too much, so I just use a spray water bottle to mist it over. The paper is already plenty wet enough, this is just to help it stick to the board. Some people use masking tape, but I find it won't stick very well to the wet paper -- it's fine for dry paper.

Put about 1/3 of the tape width onto the paper edges, and the other 2/3 onto the board.

Smooth it all out and leave the board horizontal, to let it evenly and fully dry. If you stand the board upright, the paper will dry unevenly.

Step 3: Sketching and First Inking

When painting portaits, scale, shape and placing of features accurately is important. But for these landscapes I'm not using any inital guide or grid, just eyeballing general positions and sizes from a photograph. So it's straight to sketching, with a light pencil (and an eraser!)

I'm using a reference picture here, you can combine elements from multiple pictures or just sketch from your imagination. Get down all the major shapes, and some detail, but not too much -- it's easy to keep sketching and sketching, forgetting that all this is about to be erased anyway!

Once you are happy with the general composition and sizes in the picture, it's time to put some ink down. I use an "Edding Profipen 0.1" black technical pen. They are very fine markers, and are totally waterproof. For heavier lines, I use a "Verbatim Multimedia Marker", designed for writing on CDs and other gloss surfaces.

Note that SOME waterproof pens WILL partly run when they get wet, so always test the pen on a scrap piece of paper, let the ink dry, and then wet it. Brush it. Rub it. Make sure it won't fail on you!

I ink "confidently" over all the major lines. I then ink "hesitantly" over more minor details, just as a guide for the painting.

When you're sure all the details you need are either drawn, or hinted at, in ink, let the ink dry for a bit, and then erase all the pencil marks.

Step 4: Watercolour Wash

Time to lay some colours down. With watercolours, you tend to have to work from lighter colours to darker. So if in doubt, go slightly lighter than the final colour you want, you can always go over it and darken it later. Try and cover all parts of the paper, to minimise any white paper showing through in the final image -- unless you mean an area to remain pure white, e.g. parts of clouds!

For the sepia-toned-sky, I first wet the whole area across with a brush loaded with plain water, then introduced small amounts of paint to get a very even colour with no brush strokes, before going back to add the darker top-right corner and clouds.

Step 5: Watercolour Details

Once the colour-washes are dry, you can go in and add all the medium details and smaller details. The question is, when to stop?

Step 6: Final Inking

When you are done with adding colour detail, the last step is to ink in all the tiny details, and fix any imperfections in edges and straight lines, so it's back to the ink pen. You use this opportunity to add any corrections to shading, by "hatching" in with fine lines.

See the whole sketch-ink-paint process in the video below


Depending on the picture, sometimes I do the watercolour washes and detail BEFORE the inking -- if I feel any inking detail is necessary. Try it both ways, see which works for you. Some of the following are purely watercolour, some have a little detail hinted in with ink, and others have a lot of inking. In all these cases, the inking was added last.

Step 7: Scanning

It's a good idea to digitally preserve your work, just in case of any accident! So if the ink and paint is dry, now is a good time to put the picture on a scanner -- BEFORE you cut it free. Being still attached to the board, it will be as flat now as it ever will.

I use an A4 flatbed scanner, at 300 dpi, and save as a PNG file. This results in a good quality detailed scan (about 3500 x 2480 pixels for A4) and no loss of data through JPEG compression.

If the picture is larger than A4, then it can be scanned in sections and stitched together in software. Do your best to keep the picture straight and square, to minimise the need to rotate the picture in software.

Crop and edit the final digital picture to taste, and archive it!

Step 8: Laminating

Ideally pictures need to be protected behind glass (or perspex), to prevent light, fingerprints and atmospheric dirt from damaging them. Watercolours are very susceptible to water damage. However, professional framing costs money, and even budget frames can start to add up.

So a simple way to protect watercolours, drawings and pastels is to laminate them. It also makes the colours pop, and increases contrast of the finished image.

Warning: This is a one-time process, it will protect the painting but will be permanent. Only do this if you are happy to seal the picture away forever!

I don't even try and peel the gummed paper away, it really doesn't come off neatly, and you risk tearing the painting. Using water to "loosen" the adhesive seems a bad idea, bearing in mind this is a watercolour picture.

So I cut the picture free with an X-Acto blade and safety rule. If you are going to "matte" around the picture, providing a clear/white border, then you can cut around the line of the paper's edge, and leave the tape in place at the border.

Otherwise, cut just inside the tape line, leaving a clean edge with no tape and no border, as I did.

Make sure there's no trapped dirt/dust/brush hairs on the picture, and remember to put a title and date on the back of the picture.

I use a cheap A4 laminator and A4/A5 pouches. For A3 you'll need a bigger laminator, or a quick trip to a local print/office shop that provides laminating services.

Trim any excess lamination pouch material after laminating, but make sure you leave at least 5mm around the picture so it remains sealed.

Step 9: Make a Frame: 1

You can leave the picture laminated, and stick it directly to the wall, or put it into a portfolio. But let's make a plain, simple wooden frame!

This frame is made from a single pine strip, 1" x 24" long. I first split it along its length into two 1/2" strips using an X-Acto blade and safety rule.

Then measure the width of the top of the picture area that you want to be visible. This is the dimension that the SHORTER part of the frame will be. Mark two 45' lines onto the wood, as shown, and make sure the two shorter edges are the same length as each other. Cut these -- I used a wide blade to go through, gently rocking the blade, as the wood is really easy to cut.

Take the two remaining pieces of wood and rotate them, (clockwise, keeping them flat), to match the mitred ends to the mitre cuts in the "top" piece. Don't turn them over, otherwise the "wrong" side of the wood will show.

Step 10: Pin the Frame: 2

To hold the frame together with more than just glue, I used four short straight pieces of a paperclip. You could use any small pins, with the heads cut off, so they can be buried into the wood.

The pins need to be cut long enough to go through the corner, as shown, about half way into the second piece of wood. I drill a small pilot hole, with the corner pieces correctly aligned against a 90' square, to guide the pin. This stops the wood splitting, and means the pins will push into place without any hammering being needed.

The top two corners are then glued in place with PVA, and the pins pushed home. Ideally, the pins should push in JUST below the surface of the wood to leave no metal sticking out. I placed cling film under each corner, to stop the wood sticking to the support board. Check that the top two corners are 90' internally, and lock down the sides with clamps.

The fourth side can be positioned to give the correct internal vertical measurement, depending on how much of the picture height you want to reveal, and then I used the loose (bottom) piece to directly mark the two mitres onto the oversize sides of the frame. Again these were cut off with the knife, drilled through, glued and pinned.

Check for 90' in the corners one last time, and leave the frame to dry.

Step 11: Corner Detail: 3

To hide any imperfections in the corners, I drag a junior hacksaw through the mitres to put a shallow groove on the front face of the frame. This is then packed with black acrylic paint, carefully scraping the excess (on the surface) off while still wet with a blade. The groove should be fully packed with paint at this point.

When the paint has dried, sand the corners to remove the excess paint, (and the rest of the frame) to remove any splinters, sharp edges. and round the corners a little. The black paint will remain in the neat line, as it is below the level of the wood.

Step 12: Mount the Picture

To mount the picture onto the back of the frame, I use Scotch Magic tape to temporarily hold it in place. Then I use gummed paper, split along its width into two pieces of about 1" each. Again, spritz water onto the gummed paper and align it to the outer edge of the frame, smoothing it onto the wood and the back of the picture.

It will stick to the laminated plastic, but note that when the four pieces of gummed paper stick to each other, they create a pocket the picture cannot escape from.

Lastly, to hang the pictures, I use the two curved parts of the paper clip, to create two tiny hanging loops. I pre-drilled two holes to match the spacing of the loop -- only drill part way through the frame, not all the way through (!), and then placed a dot of superglue in each hole, followed by the wire loop, and brief tap with a small hammer.

The ends of the paperclip, after being cut with wire cutters, form sharp points which will go into the wood and lock there.

A piece of lightweight cord/string tied between these loops completes the hanging!

The whole picture and frame only weighs about 50g (2oz)

Step 13: Hang It and Enjoy!

Now go and hang up your artworks where they can be seen, and enjoy!

For some different framing ideas, continue reading here

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Bio: Software geek, electronics enthusiast, musician, artist ... I enjoy making stuff, and discovering new things!
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