Before I frame my watercolor paintings, I need to flatten them. I paint on unstretched paper, so my paintings usually dry with large buckles. Fortunately there’s an easy solution: I iron my watercolors! This is a technique I’ve used for years that I was introduced to by artist Ann Breckon.
First I prepare my tools, an iron and spray bottle. I make sure both are clean and filled with distilled water. I plug in the iron and set it to the “cotton” setting. Next I lay out one large acid free mat board on my floor. I place my first painting face down on the board, lightly spritz the back with water, and carefully iron it. If some wrinkles persist, I may use a burst of steam to work it flat. When I have multiple paintings of similar size, I iron them individually, one on top of the next, with clean sheets of paper in between. Finally, I place another sheet of mat board on top of the paintings and weigh everything down with books overnight.
Typically everything comes out flat as a pancake! If any wrinkles persist, I repeat the process. Before you try this on any important paintings, test out the technique with scraps as different paper and paints may vary in their results. My paper is usually Arches cold press 140lb with Daniel Smith watercolors and I’ve never damaged a painting.
45 Responses to “Flatten Watercolors”
Glad to see I’m not the only one who does this! I thought it might make my fellow watercolorists cringe if I told them!! :-)
What do you mean by acid free mat board? Is that the same as gator board? Would Masonite work?
Hi Doug, you want to make sure the surface that you iron your paintings on isn’t going to leech anything into your work. With whatever surface you work on (wood table, floor, etc…), you’ll want a clean, neutral barrier between it and your paper. I have a couple pieces of acid free mat board (used in framing) dedicated to flattening my paintings. I would avoid gator board or masonite, but I suppose you could also use a few sheets of clean acid-free paper, too. Good luck and test out the technique first with scraps!
Thank you Maria for that tip too :) luckily I saw it before I used wood. Instead I used plastic from a plastic cover that a set of large matt mounts came in! :) Loved your post on how to flatten watercolour paper with an iron especially the setting on the iron :)
Hello! Just finished my first watercolour for my brother’s xmas present :) I’m also wondering about the surface – it sounds way too fancy for me – impoverished student that I am. How do I know what paper is acid free?
Acid free paper (or pH neutral) is typically advertised on the packaging. It’s worth spending money on good paper, paints behave better on it (better washes, more durable, etc…) ! I always use the backs of my draft paintings for practice, no nothing goes to waste. Happy painting!
Thank you for the tip, Maria
Thank for sharing that.
I see you use Tom Hoffman’s watercolor book for more than instruction and inspiration. XLNT. I just completed an advanced watercolor class with Tom at the Gage Academy. He’s a wonderful, supportive teacher.
Tom is and inspiring artist and a mentor to me. His classes are wonderful, you’re fortunate to study with him!
I’m pleased to see my book helping flatten your paintings. Proof that it was all worthwhile! Ironic (pun intended) that it does the trick, since i tried to keep it light.
Ha! Glad you spied it. I love your book, Tom.
Hi, how are you sure your colors of your painting won’t melt off and/or stick onto the mate board? How long do you keep the books on it for? Thanks ~
Hi Cara, I keep the books on overnight to flatten the painting. I have never had problems with paint sticking to the mat board, but I typically do not apply very thick paint. I would suggest testing this technique first with practice paintings!
I use clean glass after it cools a bit – seems to work for me!
Thank you, I did kind of a thick unique technique with texture,i was careful with it. This idea worked great! Instead of framing with glass I want to varnish it. Have you ever used a varnish on watercolor? What would you recommend? (I know once it’s on there is no turning back so I will practice on another piece.) thank you for your response! :)
Hi Cara, I’ve mounted some watercolors on wood panels, then varnished them using Golden spray varnish which has different surfaces (matte, gloss, etc…). I’ve usually had to do a few coats of varnish to build up adequate protection. Honestly, it’s always been a bit nerve wracking trying to keep the surface clean from dust and I don’t like working with the aerosol cans. Perhaps talk with your local art store for more tips?
You can finish your paintings with artist’s medium Dorland’s Wax. It is very much like waxing a car–circular motions with a soft lint free cloth. I apply 2 or 3 coats with each coat applied one day apart. After several days you can leave the surface “flat”, or with another dry soft cloth buff it to a bit of a sheen.
Sounds like a great technique, Calvin! Thank you for sharing. Cheers, Maria
Oh, and I should have added that the coats should be thin coats. If you are unsure of your application you can use a hair dryer a couple inches over the surface, and dab up any excess with a cloth.
I’ve seen some demo’s similar to your response and asked a few fellow artist friends also. The way I frame is going to be part of my work also. I will practice till I find the result I’m looking for, so many creative things we can do, I love it! thank you so much for your response.
Thanks for the idea – I will give this a try! Those buckles make me CRAZY!
Just tried it with a large piece of Arches rough 200+ lb. Worked great. Thanks
I was nervous to try this with the ‘cotton’ setting (aka, the highest setting on an iron!), but it worked! Thanks so much!
Tks for the tip. I’ll try it. The curved paper made it impossible to put it on the wall with washi tape.
I’m an oil painter so I don’t have any fancy paper. Only canvas…..and some clean newsprint. I won a watercolour piece in a raffle, but it’s definitely got wavy areas. Can I just use the clean newsprint? Any other options? Foamcore board? My cutting mat I use for quilting?
Hi Christine, I would just be sure to use an acid-free paper or board so nothing is transferred to the watercolor. Your could also just try pressing the piece for a few days (without ironing), to see if that helps flatten it. Good luck!
Thank you for the tips on flattening!
I am working on an art project with my son’s 2nd grade class, watercolor is the medium. I am so happy to have found your technique, we have a lot of buckling! Wondering if the heat will effect those sheets where things like salt or rubbing alcohol were incorporated onto the page? Would heat change the appearance if it’s not a straight watercolor?
Hi Tammy, I haven’t seen any effects of heat on my paints. If you have any concerns, I recommend trying some test pages first. I’ve only ironed heavier (140lb) watercolor paper. Good luck!
just what I needed. A simple way to flatten it. thanks so much. I loved all the comments to. They were just as helpful.
Are you ironing directly on the back of Arches 140 lb paper? I’ve seen someone lay a thin bed sheet on top first. Also, is there any special direction in which to iron? I’ve heard diagonally first, then vertically, then horizontally. And do you press down hard? My Arches 140 lb paper is a nightmare and won’t lay completely flat when I iron it.
Hi Joan, I iron directly on my 140 lb paper. I don’t press too hard, but I do spritz the paper with water as well. The pressing afterwards is important, too. Experiment with some painting scraps and I hope it works for you!
A friend told me she uses the warm iron to successfully flatten out her large watercolor paintings but I never asked her the technique. I am so happy that you shared your technique with your viewers. I will now give it a try.
Your watercolors are outstanding!
Wonderful information – thank you!
Hi. My drawings are large.22×30. The paper has two – three coats of diluted acrylic gesso as preparation for metal point drawing. After gesso, the paper is left to dry under the weight of several books. still much buckling. Tried ironing which helps but the buckling persists. Perhaps I need a couple of goes at it. Suggestions much appreciated. Thanks.
Hi Victor, that sounds like a challenge! I’m not experienced with gesso. I wonder if you might consider mounting the paper on board to help it lay flat. Good luck!
Thanks for the tip! I’m brand new to watercolor and had a friend’s pet portrait that I wanted to flatten. Knowing that a little steam won’t hurt, I tried something a little different – I put my kettle on to boil and ran the paper through the steam, then put it under books. This seems to be working for my 8×8, but anything larger and I’ll definitely be breaking out my iron. Thanks!
Would regular paper work? I ran out of watercolor paper
Thank you for this information. I do smallish water paintings as well as large ones on paper and the smaller ones buckle so this is just wonderful information for me. i had thought of an iron but now have confirmation. Thank you so much.
I wonder if this would work for non acrylic gouache like Turner’s brand? Anyone know?
I would test it and out and see what happens!
I have used the iron method to flatten watercolors and it works fairly well. I carefully iron right against the paper. I usually use 140lb. Arches CP paper. After 25 years of watercolor painting, I came to the conclusion that flattening after painting is doing it backward. I finally started to stretch the paper before painting. It is easy and you don’t have to struggle with a painting that looks like a choppy sea. I always though stretching would be difficult and time consuming. However, for me the use of Gatorboard and a stapler makes it really easy. You don’t have to fool around with gummed postal tape or other tapes that sometimes will not hold and are problematic to remove. A regular stapler is perfect to use after the water soaking process because a more powerful stapler will ruin the Gatorboard. Use masking tape over the staples for a nice edge. With 140lb. paper, it is easy to remove the painting from the board by taking a couple of staples out from a corner and carefully pulling the sheet free. Much easier and less time consuming than flattening afterwards. In addition, the paper stays flat while painting. Win-win situation. Try it. You’ll like it!
I appreciate hearing your experiences!
I think you are right about using an iron to help with the coloring. I need to import some artwork for my living room. I’ll have to exclusively buy water color paintings.