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Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Some basic things to know about watercolor

While interacting with my customers I realize how much I have learned about watercolor over the years and realize it is not necessarily common knowledge to those purchasing art.  Here are some topics I've gotten questions about that I will address here.
  • How should I frame a watercolor painting?
  • What does it mean to have archival materials?
  • What are archival prints?
  • What does "limited edition" print mean?
 How should I frame a watercolor painting?
Unless the artist has varnished the watercolor, it is important to mat and frame your watercolor under glass or Plexiglas.  The glass protects the painting from the environment and the mat gives a space between the painting and the glass so the painting can breath.  A little air circulation is important to keep moisture from forming under the glass and settling on the painting.

Since most professional watercolor artists use archival materials when creating their art you want to make sure the mat and backing board are archival.  If they are acidic then they can cause the watercolor paper to become acidic and turn yellow or darker in color.  The width of the mat depends on the size of the painting.  If you go to a framer they can help you with this.  I think my mats are generally about 1/6th to 1/5th the narrowest dimension of the painting.  For a 22" X 30" painting I use a 3.5" mat; while my 22" X 15" paintings are generally in a 3" mats.

When using a wooden frame a paper cover is generally attached to the back of the frame which helps keep dust and little insects from finding a home inside your painting.   

What does it mean to have archival materials? 
Archival materials are acid free. Papers that are not acid free will darken or yellow over time. Wood pulp is acidic in nature and some lower grade watercolor papers include wood pulp. I use Arches 140 lb fine art watercolor paper, which is 100% cotton rag, mould-made, and acid-free with a traditional matte finish plus a water-resistant coating, all free of optical brighteners. This paper complies with the highest archival standards and is extremely age resistant. Wilhelm Imaging Research, Inc. predicted-years of display rating is 100 years plus. 

I also use fine art watercolor paints.  These paints are rated for their permanence, also know as their light fastness.  I predominantly use Daniel Smith Fine Art Watercolors along with a few professional artist paints by Windsor and Newton and Holbein.  These paints all use the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) light fastness ratings which are as follows:  I = Excellent, II = Very good, III = Fair, IV = Fugitive. Fugitive means the color will disappear in a fairly short amount of time. I generally buy only those with an Excellent rating since I don't want my paintings to change color with time.  Occasionally I will purchase a paint rated at Very good, but I avoid the Fair and Fugitive ratings. 

Some challenge that even the water used makes a difference with the acidity of the final painting, especially for those who "stretch" their paper by soaking it in water before attaching it to their painting surface.  I don't "stretch" my paper and have some doubts that the acidity of water really makes a difference.  However, I do happen to have a water neutralizer in my home which changes our naturally acidic well water to base or neutral.  We have this to protect our pipes since we noticed when we first purchased our home that the copper pipes were leaching and leaving blue stains.  The neutralizer fixed that problem and provided a secondary advantage to eliminating acid from the water I use when painting.

When framing my work I use mats that have also been tested for their acidity and are rated as archival.  Similarly the backboards are of archival materials.  This is important.  I kept one of my first color pencil drawings since it had taken so long to produce I couldn't bear to part with it.  The framer I used either didn't know about archival materials or didn't educate me on the difference.  After about 20 years I noticed the paper of my art was beginning to yellow, so I immediately took it to my new framer and had it re-framed in archival materials.  I was lucky that by then I had learned about the impact of acid paper on my work and knew what the problem was when it started to yellow.

The short version is that I use durable, high-quality materials in my paintings and framing that are expected to provide a piece of art that will last a lifetime. 

What are archival prints?
I obtain prints of my watercolors from a business that uses archival materials.  The prints are made on watercolor paper and the inks are rated for a minimum of 25 years.  I provide a certificate of authenticity with each of my archival prints. I obtain the certificate from the printer (visit their website Archival Arts for more information). The certificate includes information about the inks, media and equipment used to produce the print.  Certificates provide a guarantee that you are getting a quality reproduction of my artwork that matches the art perfectly.

What does "limited edition" print mean?
A limited edition print has a designated maximum number of prints that will be made of the image at a designated size.  Limited editions can be as low as 10 or as high as 1000.  A limited edition is normally hand signed and numbered by the artist in the form (e.g.,14/100). The first number is the number of the print itself. The second number is the number of overall prints the artist will print of that image. The lower the second number is, the more valuable and collectible the limited editions are likely to be, within whatever their price range is.  In my case, most of my limited edition prints are limited to a print run size of 50; a few are limited to 25. 

I hope this information helps with the quagmire of terms that appear in the art world.  If you have been wondering about other terms I use in my blog or on my website, don't hesitate to ask.

Other "how to" blog posts:
To see a selection of April's archival prints visit her online store.


  1. A very well-written, informative post! And much of what you've written about can apply to my pencil work as well!

    1. Thanks, Katherine. I sure love your art, so if I helped in any way I am really happy to hear it.


I look forward to hearing from you. - April

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