Watercolor Painting On Old Pages - Tutorial

1:07 PM

St. Francis of Assisi in the
Beauregard-Keyes House Garden
Watercolor on Old Book Page*
As promised as a consolation prize for those that did not win the palette, this is a tutorial on painting on old paper with watercolor! If you tried to paint on old paper without any prep work, chances are very good the paper would just fall apart on you. At the very least, it would crinkle and wrinkle to the point of not being recognizable as a book page!

With a little bit of prep work, you can turn the paper into a great painting surface!

Waste Paper to protect your work surface
Old pages* from a book, letter, etc.
Mat board cut to size for your page
Gel Medium
Clear Gesso
Large soft brush
Soft eraser

Gather all your supplies first. Reading the tutorial all the way through will also make it MUCH easier to understand the steps and come out with a success new surface to paint on in the end! (Trust me, this is the voice of experience [ahem!] speaking!)

1. I used acid-free mat board as a backing board from my pages. The pages I'm using are from a book published in 1945 so I know the paper is not acid-free. With this process, with the barriers between the board and the paint, it will help to make the surface acid-free for longer period of time.

Because my pages were 5.5 x 8 inches, I chose to put them on 8 x 10 inch boards so they would be easier to frame. Adjust your boards to whatever works best for you and your page size.

2. Lightly mark the corners of the page on the board in pencil as guides so that you'll know where to position the page once it's ready. You may need to erase those marks later if you don't line up completely on the line.
Lightly mark the corners on the board as guides
Click to enlarge
3. Protect your work surface with a piece of waste paper. I have a piece of parchment down on my desk. You can use clean newsprint or any type of paper so long as it is larger than the page you are working on. 
Waste paper
Click to enlarge
4. Using gel medium and a soft brush, start in the center of the page and work out to the edges. Be sure to cover the entire page and all the pages. You don't want any globs of medium, just a thin coverage from edge to edge. 
Paint the gel medium from the center of the page
to the outer edges. Be sure to cover the whole page.
Click to enlarge
5. Once the gel medium is on the page, pick it up, flip it over and lay it down on the board using the pencil marks as guides. Use a brayer to roll out any air bubbles and to make sure it is pressed down to the board. You can use an old credit card instead of a brayer, but be careful! That old paper will tear very easily!
Use a brayer to make sure to get out air bubbles and to
get a good seal between the two pieces.
Click to enlarge
6. If any gel oozes out from under the page, carefully wipe it up with a paper towel or tissue.

7. After I had my pages down, my mat boards started to curl and bow. To stop this, I placed all the boards down on my work surface, put down a piece of waste paper and weighted the boards down with books and magazines. They were weighted down for about 4 hours. If it's raining or humid, you may need to let them stay under the weights overnight.
Weight the pages and boards down if they start to curl.
Click to enlarge
8. Once the pages have dried, erase any guide marks on your board that may be showing. Erase carefully, the paper will bruise or tear easily.

9. Pour some clear gesso into a small container and using a soft brush, brush on the gesso. Start in the middle and work out towards the edge. While you are doing this, you may notice some air bubbles coming up between the board and the page. Mine did the same thing, but it dried flat and did not interfere with the painting process.
Paint the clear gesso out to the edges of the page.
Be sure to get an even coverage.
Click to enlarge
10. Once the page is dry it will feel a bit like sandpaper! Draw out your image and begin to paint with regular watercolors. The pencil lines will be much darker than on normal watercolor paper due to the gesso. You can lighten it some using a kneaded eraser if you choose. Be very careful erasing on the paper as it will damage quite easily and the paint will adhere differently (darker) in areas that have been erased too roughly.

I have not tried this technique using a lot of water but rather light washes to build up color. You may have to wait longer for the paper to dry than on regular watercolor paper. Once dry, there is no reason to seal it, but you can if you want to using an acrylic gloss spray sealer. Be sure to use it in a well ventilated area! It works best to use 2 or 3 coats allowing them to dry completely between applications.

I do find it easier to do several pages at one time rather than one-by-one.

Good luck with your pages and please let me know how they turn out!

*A Note About Old Pages - the pages I used came from a book published in 1945. The author died in 1970 and her estate still holds copyright to the book. The copyright on any creative work is good for the life of the creator plus 70 years.

When I checked into whether this was a copyright infringement, I was told it was not because I am not altering her story or words, you can still see them through the artwork. I was told that it may be considered by some to be a collateral work or a derivative work, but not an infringement.

However, because this work is destined (hopefully) to be donated to a museum in the author's name and the author's grandson is on the board of directors, we're trying to determine if any infringement has occurred as the museum director felt there was some question on the possibility of infringement.

I urge you to be careful in using old pages from books in your artwork. Creating the work just for yourself and not for profit does not protect you from copyright infringement but can save you from lawsuits. The laws of copyright are there to protect us, but the law is not always crystal clear because there are many instances, like this one, where the laws become an interpretation.

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31 Creative Thought(s)

  1. Laure I like this rendition a lot (and tutorial) and it's so important too that you also covered the very complexities of copyright

  2. I can't wait to try this! I have sheets of accounting paper, pale green with the tiny squares and lines, that I want to try. But first, I'm off to the Papyrus store. :)

  3. Thank you for this very informative tutorial. I would not have thought you could use watercolor paint over gel medium. I love your finished piece and I will certainly give this a try.

  4. Fun idea.. thanks for sharing. Interesting on the copyright laws. I never thought about them like this before. Good to know. Lots to think about when making Art for sale.

  5. Hi Laure
    thanks for this one - it reminded me that I have an old book that I've been painting in, but directly on the pages - you can see it in my blog (I think, if I can do this correctly)

    Nothing Special

    then you have to travel to the blog entry dated June 18, 2009 - sorry I didn't know how to do this directly

  6. Love your painting Laure - and such a great use for an old book whose pages are falling out. I even know which book you used ;). Great tutorial as well.

  7. This is a very useful tutorial. Thanks for sharing it :)

  8. I really love old book pages, and this helps me figure out how to paint on them. thanks

  9. I am a little surprised that this would even be considered a possible copyright infringement since you use an original page from the book you own and aren't reproducing the page or written material in any way. I would understand if you copied the page to use. I am very respectful of copyright and I'm not saying you are wrong or right on this, but rather that I had never heard of this. Paper crafters use old book pages all the time. It is something to look into further. Thank you for the tutorial.

    1. A group of women, myself included, chose to do a large collaborative project using books. Some of the books were new, some old and a few of them from famous authors. We altered, embellished and somehow used a book in each of our art pieces. The idea of copyright came up early as we were planning and beginning to create. One thing we found, in particular, was that we could not use the title of the book as the title of our piece as that would have been a copyright infringement. It all turned out well and, in many cases, quite beautiful as we displayed our work. Our first focus was the art. We did have a secondary focus however -- literacy. We wanted to encourage people who were drawn to our art to read the books we had displayed in the exhibit and to continue their own personal adventures by reading. I'm glad we found out early that we had to be conscience of the importance of copyright laws.

    2. Forgive if I posted twice: a book title is not covered under copyright law. Whomever told you that is wrong. You can write a book using a title which has already been used (your own story) and you can use the title on an art piece as well. Even if your'e painting on a page from a book.

    3. Do you know a lot about the subject of copyright laws & such Valerie Anne & if so, in what capacity??? I'm looking for some very specific info on this particular matter! Thanks- Sharen

  10. Excellent tutorial. I've been drawn to working with old book pages for awhile but had not considered the necessity of preparing the paper first. You probably saved me a great deal of agony!

  11. I think this is a good Tutorial, but way to much thinking went into the copyright issue. The page could have come from any book and once alter it was a new work. Kids alter books in school all the time ....expecially in Art class. Enjoy the process.

  12. I loved it. Learned a lot wit your clear and accurate step by step instructions. Can't wait to incorporate painting on book paper as part of my are work.

  13. What a wonderful tutorial! I'm looking forward to using your techniques

  14. Excellent and yes, it isin't copyright infringement. Its one page from a book. If yoy were reproducing the book to sell that is a different story.

    1. Yes, I think it falls under fair use. You bought the book, you are using the pages how you wish. You are not making copies of the book to sell as a book.

  15. Great tutorial, but mostly I played with the cursor with the pretty little colored +'s! I'm easily amused!

  16. I really enjoyed this tutorial & appreciate that you thoroughly explained each step. I know this is waaaay off topic but I simply HAVE to ask- where on earth did you find a clear brayer?!? I'm looking for brayers to add to my Christmas list & a clear one would be SO helpful! Thank you again for sharing the tutorial & your gorgeous artwork!

  17. Hate to admit this, but I've had that brayer for DECADES! And I've no idea where I might have purchased it. Wish I could be more help!

  18. Someone gave our art group some old music sheets, originals I think. We want to try your art form but, are not sure about using the sheets with the authors name, like written by Benny Goodman for example. Also there are the illustrated covered pictures of that song and era...which would be very interesting to use.
    We do sell our work at our annual show, so we do need to be advised if this would be copyright infringement
    Thank you, Lynn

    1. Does any of the music show copyright info on the sheet? Any dates anywhere? This is what I found when I went looking for more info:

      "Works published after 1922 but before 1978 are protected for 95 years from the date of publication. But if the work was created, but not published, before 1978, the copyright lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years."

  19. I know this is an old post..
    but why use Clear Gesso?
    Couldn't the Gel Medium work just as well?
    Hopefully, you'll answer :-)

    1. Juliana, my apologies for the late response. The gesso give the paper added tooth due to the grit in the gesso. I don't normally work with gel medium so I'm not sure if it would add the necessary tooth for the watercolor to adhere to the paper or not. Hope this helps!

  20. Enjoyed your tutorial as well as the cursor. JUST BECCA and LAURE FERLITA --- I did a fast search for clear brayers. https://www.bing.com/search?q=brayer+with+clear+roller&form=EDGTCT&qs=PF&cvid=8530bf10ff5e4a5e99d8a456b2af1775&cc=US&setlang=en-US&elv=AXXfrEiqqD9r3GuelwApulo4i0Qv1DqyU*%21C4I6dfqKrkV7q%2164Rme8wlPyOkKTWxfFv*zryiJHcTfm297uT2n2dfl4%21G5aM04KmnXpZaCjg&PC=DCTE

    1. Thank you for the info, Gr8Mammy! As luck has it, I was still looking for a clear brayer so I'm most grateful!

  21. Wonderful tutorial. Thanks for sharing


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