Keeping Watercolor Paper Flat

Q. To keep my watercolor paper flat while painting, I’ve tried bonding it to a sheet of particle board or wall paneling using contact cement. I checked the ingredient list to make sure the cement doesn’t contain any acid, but do you think this will have any negative long-term effects on my painting? If so, could you recommend some other adhesive?
Lee Helms
Rochester Hills, MI

A. Any time you attach watercolor paper to a rigid support, it’s important to make sure that 1) you’ll be able to remove your painting from the board safely (which means the adhesive must be removable with something that won’t damage the watercolor) and 2) the support is of the same quality as the watercolor paper or better. Mounting watercolor paper to a wooden support is inviting trouble, since the acid in the wood will attack the paper and eventually discolor it.

Contact adhesives aren’t recommended for fine-art use, especially as a paper adhesive, because virtually all of them are highly acidic. And even watercolor boards, which are usually made of a low-grade pulp with a watercolor paper attached to the surface, can be acidic and ultimately cause damage to the paper.

Instead, I recommend the more traditional method of mounting watercolor paper to a stretching frame. There are a variety of such frames available today from art supply shops or mail-order companies. The thoroughly wetted paper is mounted to the wooden frame, much like a canvas stretcher, and attached with brown gum tape, staples or tacks. After drying, the paper is drum tight and will remain so even with heavy water applications. Since the frame is open front and back the paper dries quickly and evenly. The paper is removed from the frame after the painting is finished.

Alternatively, you may consider using a piece of hardboard (like Masonite) or heavy foam board (such as Gatorboard). To keep the hardboard from absorbing water and warping, it should be coated with shellac or urethane varnish and allowed to dry before you attach the paper to it.

Brown paper tape is the best adhesive with these supports. And since air can only get to one side of the paper, it dries more slowly than it would if mounted on a stretching frame. But this slower drying time may be an advantage if you live in a dry climate and like to work wet-into-wet.

Fallbrook, California artist Joan Roche was an accomplished oil painter before switching to watermedia 15 years ago. Roche emigrated from Canada to the United States in 1964 and is now an internationally recognized watercolorist, with paintings in collections in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. She is a signature member of AWS and NWS and has served on the NWS board of directors.

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