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How to Flatten a Water Color Painting - Two Ways That Work Well

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I find there is nothing more relaxing then disappearing into art, and especially water color painting.  But the one annoyance I do have is that the paper can tend to get what they call “cockles” or a bit wavy.  This doesn’t mean you did something wrong, it happens even with the best paper and stretching during your painting time.

If you want to frame your artwork afterwards, it would be much easier to frame if it was not doing the “funky wave” at the edges.  There are a couple of techniques that I myself have found to work best.  For me the first method is the easiest but takes longer, and the second method works well if you have a good clean steam iron and some time.

First Method - Heavy Text Books and a Brush

I always tape my paper to my easel when drawing or painting with painters tape as it gives the artwork a good clean edge and also keeps it flat as you work.

1.  Make sure your painting is totally dry.  I usually attempt this method the next day or at least 24 hours after completion.

2.  Find a good clean flat surface and lay clean white printer paper on this surface, a couple sheets thick.

3.  Take your painting and turn it over and quickly but carefully paint the back with good clean water and a large soft brush.  Take care not to let any of the water get on the front of your painting.  You want to get the entire backside wet but not soaking wet but do get the edges. 

4.  Now quickly place your painting face down on the surface you created with the layers of clean printer paper.

5.  Add another couple of layers of clean paper over the wet side and with your hand flatten your painting and then find yourself a couple of piles of heavy books.  Carefully place the books on top and have enough weight to cover the size of your artwork.

6.  Leave it overnight or till the end of day.  At least 8 hours, but I prefer overnight and up to 24 hours.

7.  Carefully remove the books and the paper and you will find your painting flat, dry and ready for framing, or storage.

If I am not framing them right away, I like to store them in an acid free, archival storage book to keep them clean and flat and out of the sunlight which can fade water colors.  (If you frame your artwork make sure the glass is UV protected to keep your colors for years to come.)

This method works well for me, and I actually have a table set up in our spare room where all the bookshelves are.  If you were looking for a good use for some of those boring old heavy text books, this is the best use for them!

Steam Iron and Sheet

Second Method - Steam Iron

This method takes a bit more equipment, but is perfect if you want your painting flattened as soon as it is dried and ready for framing or storage.  You may want to collect a few paintings at a time to do this method depending on their size and table space you have.

1.  Take a clean white sheet and fold into two layers and place on a clean hard surface such as your table or desk.  It needs to be hard and flat under this for this to work.  Don’t use your ironing board for this to work its best, use a piece of flat wood or something heat and steam resistant.  If you plan on doing a lot of water colors, then invest in a piece of hard smooth wood that you can sit on your desk.  You don’t want to do this on an expensive antique desk!

2.  Place your artwork face down between the two layers of your white sheet, so one layer under it and one over it.

3.  Have your iron set to cotton and steam (makes sure your iron is clean and blows clean steam).  Then lightly iron the sheet and back of your paintings.

4.  Iron back and forth; do not stay in one spot too long.  This works well because most quality water color paper has cotton in it.

5.  After you have finished and is seems flat and is quite warm, then cover with books until cool, which is usually within 30 minutes I have found. 

6.  Remove books and take your painting out from between the sheets, and it is ready for framing or storage.

Check out this video to see this method in action.

Flattening a Watercolor Painting

Quality Watercolor Paper

Canson Watercolor Paper Pad, 30-Sheet, 9-Inch by 12-Inch, X-Large
Amazon Price: $10.80 $5.75 Buy Now
(price as of May 9, 2016)

If you purchase quality paper to begin with, the waves will be minimal, but you should still follow the flattening process to give the paper crisp flat edges that make it much easier for framing.  I absolutely love the XL Canson brand, and it comes in the sizes I loves, especially the 9 x 12, which fits nicely into a 8 x 10 matt and 11 x 14 frame.

How to flatten water color paintings

Perfect for Travel

You Don't Have to Invest a Lot of Money for Quality

I personally love this travel kit, as it makes it easier to take your hobby or business with you.  I have continued using it at home and find it has all the colors to create great results.  

How to flatten a water color painting

Portable Water Perfect for Travel

Pentel Arts Aquash Water Brush Assorted Tips, Pack of 3 (FRHBFMBP3)
Amazon Price: $22.20 $11.53 Buy Now
(price as of May 9, 2016)

If the watercolor painting bug has caught you, then you know that travelling can be a bit more difficult without dragging bottles of water.  I found these pens will place the water in the right place, and you simply fill them and cap them and there is a little brush on the end and you don’t need the mess of water spilling especially if you love to paint on scene or outdoors.  Fill a few of these and you are set.

How to flatten a water color painting

Larger Watercolor Set for Your Studio

Daler-Rowney Artists' Water Colour Wood Box Set of 30 Half Pans
Amazon Price: $214.69 Buy Now
(price as of May 9, 2016)

If you love to paint like I do, then this could be on your wish list for birthdays, Christmas or maybe just treat yourself.  It is the ultimate set.

how to flatten a water color painting

Art Storage and Display

Itoya Art Profolio Evolution Presentation/Display Book 11 in. x 14 in.
Amazon Price: $16.20 $15.27 Buy Now
(price as of May 9, 2016)

After I have flattened my artwork, I like to store the paper in an art portfolio that is clean, acid free, and archival to protect them until I am ready to frame them, or simply want to show someone my artwork to date.  It is a great way to show your family and friends or prospective buyer your work without them touching it. 

Keep your studio clean and your water colors fresh by following the above processes and you art will outlast you! 



Sep 3, 2016 10:10pm
I am not a watercolor artist... yet. :) I am really fascinated by watercolor art. When and if I start, this would come as handy for sure. Thanks.
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