Framing watercolors without glass

watercolor/ink in box frame

Why watercolors need frames

While in some cases you can get away with not framing an oil or acrylic painting – for example a gallery-wrapped canvas where the edges have been painted – works on paper such as watercolors definitely need to be hung in a frame. This not only allows the art to be hung securely and to enhance its presentation, it also protects it from the elements. That’s where the mat and glass come in.

Hold the glass, please

As I wrote in my last post, I thought it would be great if we could frame watercolors without the need for a mat and glass, especially when shipping paintings long distance. Of course, this would require adding some sort of protective layer to the watercolor itself, to make it impervious to moisture.

First try: fixative

Some artists do this by spraying with a fixative or a clear protective sealer. My first attempt involved doing this, and as far as I can tell it works, but I quickly rejected this method anyway. This stuff smells like a chemical factory and the smell lingers a long time. You really shouldn’t do this indoors. But even when I took it out on my balcony to spray the second coat, the smell was overwhelming. This is not something I’d like to be doing on a regular basis, so I was back to square one.

Second try: wax

For my second experiment, I used Renaissance Micro-crystalline wax polish. This is a cold wax that was developed for conservation specialists at the British Museum. You simply apply the wax with a clean, cotton cloth. It smells like furniture polish, but I didn’t find the odor to be overwhelming (in fact, I rather liked it). It dries almost instantly and doesn’t change the appearance of the watercolor at all. There is no sheen and colors and textures remain exactly the same. Most importantly though, it does indeed protect the surface very well. You can sprinkle water on top and just wipe it off: there is no smudging or lifting of color. You can guess what I’ll be using from now on… If you’d like to try this for yourself, just google Renaissance Micro-crystalline wax polish for a supplier near you. I ordered mine from a sculpture supplies company.

Putting it together

Now that we have our painting protected, we can mount it on a panel (I use heavy acrylic gel medium), trim it, and mount it in a frame. Here I’ve used a natural birchwood float frame. Of course, it’s a different look from the traditional way of framing watercolors with a single or double mat, which can look quite sumptuous when well done, but I like this in all its simplicity. Bonus: it’s very sturdy, too!

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8 thoughts on “Framing watercolors without glass

  1. Peggy St. John says:

    I am concerned about the Renaissance Micro-crystalline wax polish. What has been failed to mention is the longevity of the wax on the watercolor. Will the wax yellow? Will humility harm it? You state it was developed by conservationists at the British Museum, however didn’t mention for what purpose. Will, in years to come, will the wax need to be scraped off and re-applied?

    • mineke says:

      Hi Peggy, those are valid questions about Renaissance wax. As far as I know, the wax won’t yellow. It’s acid-free and moisture-resistant, whcih is why I chose to use it. In fact, it’s used on all sorts of materials to prevent rust and corrosion because of its moisture-repellant properties. I think, it was developed for conservationists to use in protecting metal objects and antique picture frames, though also possibly for paintings.
      The wax is applied in a very thin layer, such that it isn’t visible at all, so I don’t see how scraping it off would even be possible. If anything, a fresh layer could be applied on top if that should prove necessary. I’ve read a lot more from artists who are using Dorland wax on watercolors, which also protects against moisture, but it is acidic, so you do worry about the long-term effects of that. Hope that answers your questions somewhat.

  2. Nancy Benjamin says:

    Thank you for all of this information. I’m planning to try this on my watercolor paintings. Do you think this woild be a viable alternative to varnish for oil paintings? I’m thinking perhaps an oil painting coild be waxed immediately rather than waiting the six mo ths to varnish. Thanks in advance for your thoughts on this!

    • mineke says:

      That’s a good question, Nancy. It would be nice not to have to wait so long to varnish, but I doubt if wax offers as much protection for your oils as varnish does. I suggest doing a bit of research on that before you try it. I’ve used microcrystalline wax on watercolor, ink, and gouache pieces, and find that it works very well for those.

  3. Stephanie Zito says:

    I just acquired a watercolor painting no frame.
    It is waxed on the front and sides. Nothing on the back.
    I expected to hang it in my bathroom. Will the moisture and humidity damage it?

    • mineke says:

      Hi Stephanie, the point of the wax is to protect the art from moisture and humidity, but I would hesitate to hang ANY watercolor in a bathroom. It’s just too humid an environment for any work on paper. If I were you, I’d find another spot to hang your watercolor.

  4. Leecia Price says:

    Mineke, could you tell me if 5 years later you are still happy with using the renaissance wax? I wanted to get Roberson beeswax picture varnish but it is not shipped to the US as far as I can find out.

  5. mineke says:

    Hi Leecia, I’m not using Renaissance wax anymore at all. I’ve gone back to traditional framing of my watercolors for a number of reasons. One is that after a while, I noticed a very slight dulling of the colors when using wax. Another, more practical matter is that the whole process of mounting and framing using float frames is more laborious and time consuming, and that paintings framed that way take up more space in storage and can’t be easily switched out. All in all, today I wouldn’t recommend it anymore.
    If you do decide to give wax a try, I’m sure you could find another brand available in the US.

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