January 10, 2012

Paying Attention to The Sides to Get A Step Ahead: 5 tips for Making This Easier.

Unfinished sides
If you paint on canvas -- either in acrylics, oils, or watercolor -- you probably have noticed that your unframed paintings look much better from the front than they; do from the side.  The raw canvas looks startlingly white against the painted front.  Worse yet, during the painting process, bits of the colors that you used on your painting get on the sides and create a “design” element that is jarring against your carefully planned and executed front. Throughout this post, I’ve included some examples of works where I did and didn’t “pay attention to the sides” to help you envision what I’m writing about. 
In the past, what the sides looked like didn’t matter as much because everyone assumed that a finished painting was a framed painting.  Framing works is still great, but having to find frames that fit and really complement your work adds a layer of complication and expense. Today we have more options that can save us time and money, and will allow even our unframed works to feel more finished and professional.  

Here are 5 tips to do just that:
  1. The quickest way to make your paintings’ sides look more finished is to use black duct tape (it’s called Gaffer’s tape in Ireland & England)  to cover your canvas’ sides. Ideally, you'd do this before you start painting, but you can use this technique on a finished painting whose sides you left white.  Its downside is that the tape I’m recommending here isn’t acid-free -- which upsets some collectors, and museum folk, but it’s a good choice for studies and in works you're planning on showing in your home or more casual settings. Several things to keep in mind when doing this: 
Black sides
      1. You don’t have to use one continuous piece of tape, but the fewer seams you have, the better.
      2. Your tape should be somewhat wider than the side of your canvas so you can wrap the tape over the canvas’ back edge.  However, don’t overlap the canvas’ face -- or the tape will interfere with your painting’s look and, if you later choose to remove the tape, leave a jarring white place on the painting itself.
      3. Finally, to ensure the tape looks its best: use a hospital fold (like you do when you are stretching a canvas)  on the corners; make sure to press the tape down firmly; and be diligent as you paint to clean off any stray paint that gets on the tape.
2.  The cheapest way to finish your painting's sides is to paint them black before starting your painting. Three things to keep in mind if you do this:
    1. Acrylic paint is best to use for this, no matter what medium you’re using to create your work (acrylic, oils, or watercolor.) It dries quickly and cleans off easily. However, if your canvas is stapled on the side, first gesso the sides -- to prevent rust problems later.
    2. Avoid letting the black paint get on the canvas front.  If it does, wipe that paint off immediately to prevent a ridge line showing though your paint.  A rag is OK with oils and acrylics, but if you’re planning to use watercolor on canvas, use a Mr. Clean Magic Sponge on the wet paint to ensure that all residue of the acrylic paint is off the canvas front.
    3. Diligently clean off any stray paint that mars your black sides.  Dry paint is harder to clean off, but if that happens sand the dry paint and carefully touch up the marred area with your black acrylic paint.
    3.    The most interesting way to finish your painting's side is to continue painting onto the work's sides (best done on wide gallery-stretched canvases.) Three things to keep in mind if you do this:
        Painted sides
      1. Don’t forget the bottom.  It’s tricky to do this because your canvas sits on the bottom, so you might want to wait until the top is dried enough to flip the painting safely on the top edge so you can work on the bottom edge.
      2. Use a sketchier painting style on the sides.  The sides aren’t the star of your work, so viewers aren’t concentrating on them. Thus, you just need to have enough detail to have viewers’ eyes “fill in” what they expect as they scan from the front to the sides. 
      3. You can also choose to paint the sides of a narrow depth canvas, but it won’t look as good as if the sides are deep.  Further, if the sides are stapled, like with the black-painted sides, you will need to first gesso the sides to prevent rust problems later.
    4.  Resist the temptation to skip using hanging hardware and bumpers when displaying your work with finished sides.  The top of your canvas really isn’t designed to carry the weight of your painting over the long haul. Instead, place hangers on the canvas’ side bars (about a hand’s length down from the top.)  Why should you place the bumpers on the on the bottom edges of your work?  They help your work stay straight on the wall.

    5.   When using a shadow-box style of frame for your work, do finish your painting's sides in some way. Yes, the reveal won’t allow the viewers to see much of the edge, but finishing the edges still creates a more professional, finished look.
    I’d love to hear any comments or further suggestions about this topic.


    1. This is a great post - very informative. Almost makes me want to start painting.

      -Nancy Cornett

    2. Two things...Using a high quality oil paint on the sides of an oil painting is worth the extra wait...Acrylic edges on an oil front looks cheesy...I use a surgical glove to smush the oil paint on the edge after the painting is done...Instead of black I choose a complimentary colour...
      2)A nice thing to do is to use metallics...Schmincke makes metallic powders for oil paints...I smush eco-friendly dammar varnish along the edges, then while it is still tacky, sprinkle some gold or bronze or silver powder into the dammar, then smush again...This brings the satisfaction of the shiny back where the frame is not present...

    3. Some great tips, thanks for sharing! I've always painted over the edges with acrylics once I finished a piece but I love the simplicity of the duct tape, I'll try that on my next piece.


    I look forward to your thoughts and comments.