The un-named treasure: rice glue

Once you have created a few compositions worthy of keeping, the challenge of how to prepare the art for longevity arises.  The solution fortunately is rather simple—glue.  And homemade rice glue can be every much as effective as a purchased product.

Those of us of a certain age remember cooking up flour paste for a variety of household purposes.  My grandmother embellished our bedroom cupboards with decoupaged magazine pictures. To our young hearts they were quite pretty, although in some cases colors bled through and edges became ragged.

The glue used to stretch and smooth out Chinese brushwork on rice paper is just as easy to make as the old flour paste and with a few tricks in mind, bleeding colors and ragged edges can be avoided.  In fact, there’s quite a number of “tricks” to learn to avoid disappointment.

The artists in my art group have cheerfully shared many of their “learning moments” and I will post some of their tips here along with a very useful recipe for that magical necessity, the glue.

First, the recipe…

My first real lesson in gluing (also called wet mounting) was given by an art group member who has a real knack for painting owls and hawks, osprey, herons, roosters, wrens—well, just about any feathered creature.  ‘Bird Woman’ is a much more experienced painter than I.  Shortly after I joined the Goward House art group she took me under her wing to SHOW me the ins and outs of gluing.  Bless the Bird Woman, and in her own words “here’s how you beat the high cost of having someone else glue your paintings”:

RICE GLUE (for large jobs)

½ cup of gluten free rice flour

½ teaspoon of alum

Mix together and then stir in:

2 cups water

2 drops glycerin

Cook at low heat, stirring constantly until thick.  (Bird Woman suggested using the microwave and I’ve recently abandoned the stove-top method–less loss to burning/clumping.)

The alum is to kill any bugs that might be art lovers. The glycerin is to retard the drying of the glue and help prevent those embarrassing rips in the pictures and so you might want to add more glycerin when the air is dry or hot.

This makes very thick glue and you will want to add more water to make it suitable for general use. Store it in the fridge until you need it again or until it develops antibiotic properties or an interesting aroma. If it gets lumpy smooth it in your blender.

The recipe above makes industrial amounts so if you just need a little for one or two pictures you might want to try this.


1 tablespoon cornstarch                                mix together

pinch of alum

1 cup of water                                                mix in until smooth

Stir and cook until smooth.

Before laying out the actual steps of gluing a piece of art, here’s some hard lessons mostly learned the hard way, through experience:

1.  Glue everything that looks marginally finished. you never know when something will be improved with the clarity and sharpness that comes with the stretching. The practice in itself can pay off when you have something of greater significance to preserve.

2.  Let your art dry at least 2-3 days, longer is even better.  If you glue too soon the ink may bleed.

3.  Spray with a fixative anything that is more likely to bleed—bright red or yellow objects are the worst culprits, areas with built up colors, any place you’ve used opaque white.  Spray in a well-ventilated area (outdoors, over newspaper).  Let the art dry before proceeding. Some bleeding from red areas is actually intentional in traditional Asian art, so don’t fuss too much over berries/parts of flowers.

4.  Spraying on both sides of the paper can further seal the suspect bleeder.

5.  Have all your materials ready before you start.

6.  Glue in batches. Every few weeks works to ensure art dries and that you have accumulated enough to fill your drying boards.

7.  Plan ahead for a safe drying place for at least the next 24 hours.  (not in hot sun, not on the dining room table you’ll need for a large family gathering the next day)

8.  You may have to forgo gluing if you winter in Phoenix or another place with a hot, dry climate. (This from Delightful Lotus who has unsuccessfully tried every trick in the book—more alum, air-conditioning, etc—to overcome the challenge.) This tip would also apply to hot days here in Victoria.

9.  If planning to glue a large project, it’s a good idea to invite a friend over to lend two more hands to the process.  And another set of eyes to watch for wayward fluff, grit and nuisance wrinkles.

10.  Label the glue you keep in the fridge so that family members don’t think it’s something edible.

11.  Try and keep your wits about you to avoid gluing a piece upside down, forgetting to “fix” a common trouble-maker, forgetting to seal all edges down, or stretching something you no longer have room for on your drying board.

12.  Even lightweight papers (such as medical paper or other flimsy stuff) can be glued.  It pays to experiment.  Use a heavier quality paper for the backing.

The magical process explained:

Gluing finished artwork serves a number of purposes:

1.  it flattens and smooth the piece in readiness for framing

2.  it tends to enhance the colors

3.  it imbues the whole piece with alum which staves off certain unwanted pests and extends the “life’ of your work

Basic materials needed:

Gluing sessions run more smoothly when you lay out all your basics before you start and plan where each piece will fit on your boards.

1.  Rice glue at room temperature, thinned to consistency of pancake syrup. Run through a blender/strainer if necessary. Put in a small dish at the ready.

2.  Two dedicated wide brushes, one soft for applying the glue, a second of harder bristles for smoothing/pounding the backing paper.

3.  Paintings ready to mount; potential problem areas “fixed” and dried

4.  Backing paper (“substrate” in formal wet mounting instructions) cut to size, about 2-3 inches larger than artwork to be glued

5.  Spray bottle or mister filled with fresh water

6.  Plexiglas sheet or other clean, smooth hard surface (I use an inexpensive plastic poster frame that cost about $15 new)

7.  Dedicated drying boards (I use sections of firm insulation board left from a home construction project)

8.  Clean wet cloth to wipe your surface after gluing each piece in preparation for the next.

An overview of the steps:

Have all materials assembled and laid out for easy access. Be sure you are not rushed for time and have a place in mind to set your boards to dry for at least 24 hours.  Pre-cut the backing sheets for all of the pieces you plan to glue; plan how the artwork will fit on your boards.  It is efficient to glue in batches, as opposed to individual pieces.

1.  Place the artwork face down on your clean dry hard surface and mist with the water spritzer to relax the paper

2.  Using the soft brush dipped in glue, start at the centre and work outwards to all four edges, brushing glue on to the backside of the art; saturate your artwork brushing evenly in first one direction and then the other, smoothing out all the wrinkles, pressing air bubbles to release them at the sides, removing flecks of lint or any wayward debris.  Examine it closely with a bright flashlight if need be.  Set your gluing brush aside with the glue dish.

3.  Roll up the backing sheet keeping in mind which direction you will roll the paper on to the upside-down artwork—i.e. top-bottom or side-side.  If your backing paper has a rough side and a smooth side it is best to plan to roll it out with the rough side down (it achieves a better bond).  Bird Woman rolls her backing paper tightly and inserts it into an old wooden napkin/serviette holder BEFORE she first wets each piece of art, and has it lying ready to slip out and roll out.

4.  Line up your roll of backing paper 2 inches past the bottom edge of the artwork with one hand, hold the large dry mounting brush in your other hand.  Lightly touch down with the paper and start to brush back and forth, centre to right edge then centre to left edge, moving down the length of the artwork. Overlap your strokes to avoid any air pockets.  This is where the ancients would actually pound down the backing with a stiff brush.  You want the two paper surfaces to be completely and smoothly “bonded”.  Slight misalignment of papers is okay; do line up edges carefully as you START to roll because major misalignment cannot be adjusted further along.  Only when you are satisfied the papers are firmly and smoothly bonded do you move on.  Little holes or rips at this stage can sometimes be “fixed”.

5.  Set your mounting brush aside and prepare to pick up the backed artwork by lifting one corner with your fingertips. You want to lift the backed art carefully and flip it over on to the surface of the drying board with the RIGHT SIDE of the artwork facing up.  Position it for drying.

6.  Pick up the glue brush and small bowl of glue again and working around each edge of the artwork, lift the edge and run a brushload of glue along the surface of the drying board. Pat down the artwork.  Be sure you do all four sides.  Some artists like to blow a little puff of air (chi) to form a pocket of air, which will slightly lift the centre of the artwork from the drying board as it dries.  This gluing down of the edges allows the piece to dry nicely stretched out perfectly flat.

7.  Finish all your gluing and set the boards aside to dry.  Resist any temptation to mess with them.  (IF you spy one piece you have glued upside down to the backing AND it is still really wet, AND it is really important to you or you want to experiment with corrective measures, you could try and carefully peel apart the papers and quickly re-glue with the correct side backed!  Helps if you haven’t put away all of your materials.)

8.  Lift your dried artwork from the drying boards.  A baking tool such as an icing knife or cookie lifter can be useful to slip under the edges.  Sometimes drying art “snaps” free of its own accord.

Admire your handiwork!

And you are ready to tackle stamping each with your chop, matting, framing and so on.  Yes, there are MANY more stages before DISPLAY where one can totally ruin a precious creation. Personally, I try not to even think about them and focus fully on completing each step as it comes.  Gluing does get easier with each session, and salvaging efforts have paid off more than once.

This entry was posted in Chinese Brush Painting, Gluing, wet mounting or gluing art. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to The un-named treasure: rice glue

  1. Ann Hartzler says:

    Thank you so much for the excellent information in your blog. I have been studying CBP for more than 10 years but never fail to learn something new from your messages. We can never have too much information.

    • barbmek says:

      I know the feeling…I am a member of two art groups and all of us truly benefit from sharing information. Whenever we have a question or face a challenge, we just throw it out there and someone else is bound to know or have a lead. Trying new things is always easier when someone has gone before and can caution against the pitfalls, or suggest tips for greater satisfaction. Such fun, isn’t it?
      Thanks for your comment, Barb

  2. Evelin Bunyan says:

    Decided to use 1 cup of rice flour!that forces me to paint more

  3. If using prepared rice glue( such as Yamato) for wet mounting does alum need to be mixed in? If not, will colors bleed or the bond not be permanent (ie. if the work is exposed to water or humidity)?

    • Hi tim:
      My guess would be that any prepared product you buy will have the necessary ingredient in it that serves the purpose of the alum. Any of the oriental products based on peach sap or similar natural products seem to deter insects as well.

      The colors that most often bleed are red and yellow (from traditional chips) and hence it is wise to spray with Krylon or other product that ‘fixes’ the colors before you do your mounting/gluing. any artwork hung in a kitchenor bathroom runs the risk of exposure to humidity and might wrinkle over time. I have an eagle in my bathroom where it has been for five years and it has not wrinkled. Nenagh had a rooster (without glass) in a kitchen fro something like 20 years and it did wrinkle a bit, so when she re-located it to another room she simply re-glued it and put it under glass. Our resident glue-guru (Bird woman) gives much the same advise as I have just passed along. Cheers!

  4. Graham Whitehead says:

    Hi, Thanks for a very informative blog I really learned a lot, I tried using silicon dry mount for the last year and it has not really gone successfully as I always get creases no matter how hard I try not to, so I am going to try the more traditional way. Never done this before but reckon if I follow your instruction I should be OK. I do have a question, in the last paragraph you say
    “And you are ready to tackle stamping each with your chop, matting, framing, and so on.”
    Are you saying that it is better to apply the chop after mounting, or is it OK to do it before you wet mount a piece?
    thanks in advance Graham.

    • I prefer to glue before chopping. Cinnebar is red; red bleeds a lot if not thoroughly dry. The ancients used to leave their comps to dry for weeks. I glue first to avoid that risk of yet another step at which the whole thing can be ruined by a bleeding color. Finish the painting, let it dry a day or two, spray the possible bleeders (red, yellow, heavily painted areas) with a fixative like Krylon, and let dry for an hour or so, then glue it. When dry your comp is flat, brightened up and easier to see in a matt….chop it and let it air dry a bit and then pop under the glass. I’ve learned from several artists who go this method with few disappointments!

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