It had to happen sooner or later: I would address the ‘elephant in my art room’ and try my hand at finishing a Chinese brush painting with traditional ribbon and fancy paper borders. How ironic that the elected composition has not one, but two elephants in it!
Since discovering the age-old method of ‘matting’ a brush painting I’ve been hankering to give it a try. Like most things about this art form, the project is entirely hands-on and within the abilities of most folk accustomed to using rulers, brushes, glue, and assorted cutting instruments. And if one is fortunate in finding some unusual paper that coordinates with an appropriate painting, then the end result can be quite stunning.
My most treasured resource on this project is really a ‘three-in-one’. An art friend has done workshops, provided detailed handouts, and stood at the ready to assist if needed. She has finished dozens of her own paintings in this manner. Could I ask for anything more? (Thank you Delightful Lotus!) Below is a sample of her favorite bird (Charlie) done up with red ribbon and grey border paper; this was just one small part of her illustrative props prepared for workshops.
Several of my general instruction books have brief discussions of the process in the back chapters, but offer few details. And as often happens with some hands-on activities, the ‘devil can be in the details’! So again, thank you Delightful Lotus.
In addition to a finished painting, the requirements are quite basic:
- frame with glass and core board backing
- paper for borders, bonded to rice/mulberry paper if needed
- glue ( some thick, some thin)
- brush for applying glue
- ruler, T-square, cutting mat
- cardboard or window slat or similar object for masking area while gluing
- clean work surface
First off, I considered the BIG Picture or overall concept. This is the point where most instructions tell you to read all of the steps start to finish BEFORE you begin. I read through DL’s handout several times to be sure I understood the individual steps and what each contributed to the whole.
You start with a finished painting, a frame that will allow about two-four inches of border around the art, some fancy paper that you’ll use to fill those borders, and some contrasting ribbon to insert between artwork and the borders.
You ‘square off’ the artwork absolutely perfectly, turn it face-down and mark a narrow guideline with a pencil on all four sides that is one-third the width of your ribbon, and move on to gluing four ribbons—sides first and let dry, then top and bottom and let dry.
The assembly is allowed to dry thoroughly before you move on to applying your prepared paper borders in much the same manner, this time on the front side, gluing to the outermost edge of the ribbons. The completed art-ribbon-border assembly is then fully backed with paper to hold it all together. When dry, it is trimmed and fitted into the frame as per usual.
My handout from DL outlined numerous tasks in the overall project: I worked my way through the job considering FOUR main STEPS. We both agreed on these key considerations:
- Take careful measurements
- Sketch a plan and mark the dimensions on it; have it nearby for quick reference
- Measure twice and cut once
- Gather everything you need for the project beforehand
STEP 1: Measure, plan and cut
That’s easy to say, but measure what?
Measure the width and length of the INSIDE of your frame—those are the tightest dimensions for the finished assembly. Remove the glass, turn the frame over and measure the inside cavity. (Mine: 13 inches by 17 inches)
Measure the width and length of your finished art. (Mine: 9 3/8 inches by 12 7/8 inches) The difference between those two sets of measurements provides an idea of how wide your borders can be. Some people like the bottom border to be slightly wider than the others—this is a very ‘western’ visual concept. Oriental principles call for narrow sides, with much deeper tops and bottoms. Below are two scroll paintings DL brought to the workshop last fall to show us the border widths more typical of Oriental art.
For my side borders I had 13 – 9 3/8 = 3 5/8 inches to spread over the two side borders, and 4 1/8 inches to spread over the top and bottom borders. Because this was my first trial, and I wanted to err on the side of caution, I cut border papers for the sides and top that were 2 ¼ inches wide and 3 inches for the bottom. That gave me some leeway in case my frame wasn’t perfectly square and I would thus have paper to spare when fitting the frame.
With experience one no doubt can plan borders that abut closely to calligraphy and/or key elements such as a bird’s tail, a horse’s hooves, etc. The old planning formula of KISS would apply to a first shot at this, for sure! Be kind to yourself and allow some leeway—choose art with no absolute ‘edge’ to it, and plan for borders that can be trimmed around the outer edges once glued in place. YOU DO NOT WANT TO END UP WITH AN ASSEMBLY TOO SMALL TO FIT INSIDE THE FRAME.
This is the sketch I made for my project:
Logistically you could also work the other way—choose border papers of a certain width first, and plan to affix them around the art and end up with an assembly that fits within the frame. You’ll still want to cut those paper borders slightly larger (say ¼ inch all round) for minor fitting issues. I can see where working to a standard purchased frame (eg. 16 x 20) and figuring out your dimensions ONCE might be a helpful approach until the wisdom of experience kicks in. The math would be simpler if planning in this way. For my project this could have been the plan:
Once you have decided on the finished dimensions of your art you must cut it squarely with a paper cutter. DO NOT use scissors; they will not give you an absolute straight edge no matter how careful you are. If your art is too large for a paper cutter, then use a craft knife and a T-square (or a clean carpenter’s square).
You should now have artwork cut to size, four lengths of ribbon cut about ½ inch longer than the edges of the artwork, and four border paper pieces slightly longer and wider than they need to be. Do notice that the top and bottom borders overlap the side borders; in the end you will have paper “seams” showing extending from the corners of the art horizontally to the outer rims. You will want those neat, well glued, flat, and squarely cut.
STEP 2: Glue ribbon to art
Turn the artwork face down on your clean work surface. You are about to glue narrow ribbons to all four edges (do the two sides first and let dry, then do top and bottom) such that the ribbon will be visible about two-thirds of its width when viewed from the front. To help achieve a nice even ribbon placement you mark a guide about ¼ inch on all four edges.
Then place a “mask” or shield on one side and brush thick glue along the edge. (DL suggests a window blind slat or other similar object that is firm, can be washed and re-used, and comes in a useful length.) The mask prevents glue from getting into unwanted places.
Take your ribbon and lay it carefully along the gluey surface with part of its width extending beyond the art as planned. Starting from the middle press down gently, and work your way to either end, easing out any ripples but not stretching it either. When satisfied with its placement, place a shield over it and press down firmly. DL advises your full 200 lb. strength for three minutes! Below she is doing just that while applying paper borders to a demo piece.
Do the second side in the same manner. Set the two-sided art aside to dry for several hours. Here’s my elephants in progress:
Trim the ribbon ends even with your art so that they won’t show through ghost-like when the borders are placed on top. My dark blue paper would likely not pose an issue. Scissors will work okay for such a short distance. Then turn your two-sided art face-down as before, and apply ribbons to the top and bottom just as you did with the sides. My partially assembled project looked like this:
Step 3: Glue paper borders to ribbons
Theoretically, says DL, the paper borders are applied in the same manner, HOWEVER, she prefers to apply glue to the edge of her paper border and “eyeball” its placement along the ribbon edge from the FRONT SIDE. This allows you to SEE exactly how much ribbon is revealed and how straight that placement is. (In her workshop she kept a square ruler handy to check her placement.) A good thing throughout this gluing process is that you don’t need to worry about excess glue—you’re using the same stuff you used to mount your art AND you will use more when you later add backing. Any residue that ends up in an unwanted spot could be blotted up with a wet cloth or brush.
For my first trial, I too chose “eyeballing” the border placement. Do both sides and let them dry a few hours. Then trim the sides carefully (NOT TOO SHORT) and apply the top and bottom borders. Let the assembly dry thoroughly.
Step 4: Apply a backing for longevity, and then trim the assembled paper/ribbon/border to fit the chosen frame
You then need to reinforce the whole assembly by backing with paper. Here DL suggests you use a mulberry or other stiff paper so that the mounting procedure goes smoothly without wrinkle issues. Once that is dry you can then trim edges to fit your frame (I drop the glass over the surface and mark where it should be cut to fit.) and finish up as usual.
Paper and ribbon selection:
While it is traditional to use silk bonded to paper for borders around CBP art, papers also have been used for centuries. There are many wonderful patterned Japanese papers sold online and in specialty stores in brilliant colors as well as subdued tones. For my first project I chose a textured blue tissue paper that I bonded to mulberry paper. Delightful Lotus advises checking your paper beforehand to see if the colors bleed or fade, and whether or not it ripples in the process of bonding.
The ribbon can be paper or silk, and common color choices are red, black, brown, and burgundy. Some Asian art stores carry the paper ribbon in rolls and if limited to one choice, get the red. The ribbon should “accent” the art and paper selection and red–Chinese symbol of good fortune–is thus a popular choice. (I think of it as ‘red lipstick’; it livens up any outfit!)
Other ribbons might be considered says DL, but avoid any that stretch, shrink, ripple, bleed or fade. So checking out Asian art supplies makes sense: get what is manufactured for the job and save yourself some grief.
- Glad I tried it.
- Grateful to DL for the workshops, instructions, and encouragement.
- Mindful I could easily get sucked into creating yet another artsy ‘stash’ in my limited play space…ah, those papers!
- Believe I could ‘do it’ for a ‘good’ painting if I had the right candidate, the right paper, etc.
- When I glued paper backing to the whole assembly I placed a “helper” paper underneath to provide some stability as DL recommended. The edges where ribbon is stuck to paper are very narrow and hence could pull apart under pressure when you lift your project from glue board to drying board. I found it prevented me from smoothing the work as well as I am accustomed.
- The “fiddly’ part–the math–is worth thinking through in advance, especially if you are ‘tight’ on paper. I’ve sewn my share of drapes with false hems and cut corners on fabric allowances prescribed by pattern-makers for almost six decades, so this ‘fiddling’ is familiar territory.
- While the whole thing was stretched out for its last drying period I had many moments of angst. There were two areas where wrinkles seemed to be emerging. I persuaded myself they might just relax with the drying. They did. But then….I attempted to blot two white-ish areas on the blue borders where excess glue seemed to bubble. So now I know the limits to this tissue paper recovering from after-the-fact blotting.
And at last, here’s my twosome unleashed:
While I did get one figurative ‘elephant’ out of my art room, I now have a framed picture of two occupying a prime viewing spot.