How to Frame a Watercolor Painting

Whether you have just painted a masterpiece worthy of display or treated yourself to a new painting by an artist you love, making sure it’s framed properly is paramount to it lasting for viewers to enjoy.

Watercolors are more fickle in nature than acrylics and oils. Most typical watercolor paintings are completed on cotton paper, which has a very fragile surface. The paint layers are thin and just for added fragility, any moisture will reactivate the paint. On the other hand, watercolors hold an ethereal quality many people love, and the fact that artists can create smaller pieces packed with details is enticing to many.

Watercolors can stay looking fresh for a long time if framed properly using a conservation framing method. Though if you just want to display something that is not precious to you, you can use a cheaper and less time-consuming method. Below we’ll discuss what conservation framing entails and some tips on how to have a painting conversation framed as well as how to best frame a watercolor painting for display purposes without consideration to longevity.

The Local Frame Shop

If you live in or near a city, you are likely to be able to find a professional frame shop. While having your painting framed professionally is ideal, this can be very expensive and if you are an artist who produces a lot of work and require frequent framing it may be worth your while to learn the skill of framing.

The local frame shop will however provide you with an additional lot of invaluable knowledge, advice and support and some frame shops are happy to shoulder some of the frame work for you (making it cheaper) such as the cutting of passepartouts to fit the painting perfectly if you provide them with dimensions, a difficult skill indeed. 

They also provide the ability to order a custom frame or buy pre-sized frames (if your art is always A4 or 20 x20 this may be a great option for you). You can also pick up framing supplies and ensure that these are archival and receive other advice if you face any issues.

We recommend identifying and visiting your local frame shop before endeavoring a conservation frame job. This is both to help you build a repertoire with them, allow you to see the options for yourself and decide what suits the painting best and to support local businesses. If this is not an option for you there are a variety of online vendors where you can order materials.

Frame options on the wall of a Frame Shop
Frame options on the wall of a Frame Shop

Conservation Framing Steps

When referring to conservation framing of art there are a set of layers that are typically found, each providing a function to the final product and helping keep the painting in pristine shape for many years. The infographic below, shows the layers of the frame as a cross-section, and we will discuss each layer below with required considerations. Even if you don’t want to need a full conservation frame reading and understanding the steps below is likely to help make the framing job easier and may help you choose how to invest your framing budget.

The layers of a conservation framed watercolor painting as a cross-section. There are six layers in total, starting with a framing dust cover at the back and the frame at the front.

Dust Cover

This is required if you are conservation framing and must be an acid free backing paper. This is the first layer when assembling the mount and the backing board is placed onto it. It helps create a seal around the painting and to keep the painting isolated from the outside world. Once the painting is fully assembled framing tape is placed all around the D rings of the frame to entirely seal the work.

Backing Board

For conservation framing the backing board should be acid free. It is often made of a foam core, surrounded by cotton or linen material.

Mounting Board

The painting, once attached to the mat board, will be placed on the mounting board, which itself will be an acid free conservation mat and will often be made of cotton though there may be other options available. This will not be visible so looks don’t matter as much as functionality here.


The artwork if of course the central piece here! Needless to say, the passepartout color and frame should be chosen to compliment the colors and theme of the art. An important consideration when framing watercolors is ensuring that the work has a flat profile before starting. Because of the nature of watercolors, the paper can become warped in the painting process. This can be avoided to start with by pre-stretching the paper and painting with less water, however once it has occurred it can be reverted. There are useful tutorials on YouTube for how to ensure the paper is flat again. The reason for this is that the frame will be slightly raised above the art and should not touch it – a warped paper may rise above the mat board in places. The warping will also case undesirable shadows, so the final look might not be as gorgeous as desired.

The Mat Board

is extremely important for a number of reasons. The first is that it will be visible, and so choosing a color that complements the painting and works with the frame is extremely important. Most artists opt for light neutral colors, though it is possible to find them in any color. An important note is that if the work is to be exhibited at a gallery that works with multiple artists, they may have certain requirements for the color of the mat board as few galleries will accept bright colors for example. The Mat board will keep the glass off the painting, helping to give the framing more depth and displaying the art at its best.

The painting is taped onto the mounting mat with framing paper tape. Tape pieces two thirds the length of each side of the painting are placed on the back of the painting away from corners and the painting is then placed onto the mounting mat. Check the alignment of the painting, and if you’re happy with it then gently press the painting onto the mat board with a lint free rag or your clean fingers.


The glass if very important for protecting the painting, and displaying watercolor work without a glass cover is likely to result in a disaster so even if the painting is not precious, we recommend not skipping the glass. Conservation glass will be UV resistant which will help keep the pigments fresh and true to the original painted colors as UV rays from the sun and florescent lights would otherwise degrade the pigment and dull the color over time. Choosing anti-reflective glass will help the painting shine as the viewing will not be as affected by glare from lights.


Frames come in a wide array of materials, colors, widths and are available to cater to any taste. Classically watercolor paintings are often framed in a simple wooden frame, but this is not an important convention at all. You can go as wild as you like. Again, though if the work is for display at a gallery check their guidelines first. The back of the frame features flexible framing points (metal spurs that can be moved vertically and horizontally), which are pressed down onto the dust cover to hold the work in place.

back of a frame
Showing the back of a frame, displaying flexi-points

Step by Step

  1. Place your painting on the mat board using tape and put aside
  2. Put your frame face down on a work surface and turn the flexipoints vertical
  3. Make sure the glass is clean on both sides (A fingerprint or a mark on the inside will mean doing it all again
  4. Place the glass into the frame on the inside of the now vertical flexi-points
  5. Pick up the mat board with the attached painting and place it onto the glass (Painting side down)
  6. Place the mount board then the backing board and finally the dust cover over the painting.
  7. Turn a couple of the flexipoints horizontal (enough to be able to turn the painting over to make sure the placement has remained good – then do this)
  8. If the placement is good, turn the painting back over and press down the remaining flexi points
  9. Final check
  10. If all is well, then you’ll now need to place framing tape over the flexi-points most artists use two layers, and you should consider cutting the corners to help give it as flat a profile as possible and avoid bubbles and uneven points in the tape as this seals the painting inside keeping it safe
Shows how the final piece will appear from the front only the three layers of the frame, mat board and art will be visible

I don’t care about conservation of the work

Ok cool, though do still read the above as it’ll give you an understanding of the basics. You can choose non-archival materials, such as a mat board, and placement board if you wish to use one. To really bare skeleton frame a watercolor you’ll still need either a placement board or a mat board as the brown of the backing board will show through otherwise. Glass is non-negotiable and even if you don’t want a conservation glass choosing a UV resistant glass may be worth your while depending on where you are placing the painting. You can of course take all measures that are feasible and affordable to you to help preserve the work, but we understand that a fancy expensive framing method isn’t for everyone.


Framing a watercolor can range from a really easy to an extremely arduous and expensive task. Choosing preset frame sizes if you are an artist can save you a lot of money and trouble in the long run, but if you have a piece of any size there will be a way of getting it framed. Getting a mat board (passepartout) cut for you at a framing store is likely to be of value as this is a difficult task and will render a much more professional look.

Protect watercolors from the sun by hanging them on walls without or with little direct sunlight through the day, avoiding putting them in rooms with fluorescent lights and considering a UV glass.