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How to use masking fluid in watercolour painting

July 09, 2012
This post is going to focus on "Masking Fluid" in watercolour painting, with picture demonstrations plus a few tips and tricks that I learned through personal experience.


What is masking fluid:

Masking fluid (or frisket) is a latex based liquid that is used to mask off areas of paper to make them resistant to water. It keeps the white of the paper or the previous colour that was painted on the paper intact. 

This fluid is transparent but usually is produced with added tint of colour to help the painters see where the mask is applied. This tint is non staining and does not affect the area underneath. 

When should masking fluid be used: 

when the areas that need to be kept white are very small, like tiny bit of whites on the petals or highlights in the eyes, in case of portraits. 

Sometimes it won't be easy to keep the water off of some areas in the painting, like stalks of flowers in landscapes or snowflakes, Then masking fluid comes really handy. Another example is when we need to keep some whites in a large background for example keeping the foam and tip of the waves white in seascapes. 

In general masking fluid can be a great help to artists in painting variety of objects. 

Tools to use with masking fluid:

A brush can be used to apply frisket but since the masking fluid will dry to a flexible glue like substance, It won't be possible to completely clean the brush afterwards. Basically it will ruin the brush bristles! so if you choose to use a brush it is better to avoid using your "good" brushes and use an old synthetic cheap brush instead.

Tip: you can dip the tip of the brush in soapy water or a half/half water & household ammonia solution
before dipping it in the masking fluid to avoid most of the damage and lengthen the life of the brush.

I prefer to use the handle of the brush, a q-tip, tooth pick or a quill. That way I am sure my brushes are safe. If I am covering a big area, then I pour some of the masking fluid in the middle of the area to be covered and push it to the edges of the area by a tooth pick, skewer or eraser end of a pencil. 

How to apply masking fluid:

First thing to remember is that it can be applied only on DRY paper. If your paper is still damp the fluid may get soaked in and ruin your painting.

Masking fluid is in liquid form so you can apply it to the paper/canvas same way that you paint, simply cover the area. 

Tip: Don't let the layer be too thin or it will be more difficult to remove. 

How to remove masking fluid:
  • Masking fluid can be removed when it is dry. It can be checked by gently touching it, when it doesn't stick to your finger, it's dry. You can also know that it's dry when the fluid changes colour; If there is a tint to your masking fluid the colour of tint becomes more visible and vibrant, and if there is no tint it turns from opaque white to transparent. 
Masking fluid when still wet.

When masking fluid is dry.  Notice the difference of colour. 
  • It is recommended to finish your painting and remove the masking fluid as soon as possible. The drier it gets the harder to remove it without damaging your paper. ( don't let it sit on your paper more than 2-3 days)
  • IMG_6143
    When masking fluid is dry, you can start your painting. 
  • There are some rubber blocks in the market specially made to remove masking fluid. They are called " Masking Fluid Pick Up". These are usually quite gentle to the paper but you should experiment with different kinds to find which one works best for you.
  • I prefer using my fingers, They do the job and don't cost me anything ;)... gently rub on the dried masking fluid and it will be removed. This method works pretty well for small sections of masking fluid.
Just rub your fingers on the masking fluid and it will come off easily.
Tip: Wash your hands before rubbing it to the paper, because the oil on the skin may smudge the paint or stain your paper.
  • For thicker layers of masking fluid, gently rub your finger (or pick-up block) on one edge of the dry masking fluid to loosen it from the paper, then grab and pull the dried masking fluid, this will avoid tearing the surface of the paper.
  • IMG_6146
    Loosen the edge of the dry masking fluid.
    Grab and pull, to remove thick layer of masking fluid. ( Note the direction of pulling)
  • It is not easy to partially remove the masked area, So make sure to have plans for your next stage of painting before masking any section (This is important specially with time sensitive techniques such as wet on wet).
When  masking fluid is removed, the white of the paper is preserved.

Personal Experience and fixes to the problems dealing with Masking Fluid: 

  • The worst thing that can happen is tearing or damages to the paper surface when removing the mask. This usually happens when the masked area is large and the layer of masking fluid is thick (or left for a long time on the paper). To prevent this, I usually pay close attention and remove the mask little by little from one side to another (when thick layer of mask, I don't rub my fingers on it, rather I pull it to one side) and check the paper underneath constantly to make sure nothing is coming off. 

If there is a small section of paper stuck to the mask, I start pulling the mask from the opposite side to leave minimum damage possible. because if you keep pulling it in the same direction, you will end of with a huge chunk of paper removed. Sometimes small sections of tearing can be covered by a layer of paint... of course that depends on where on the painting the damage is! If it is in a focal point then it won't be easy to fix or cover it :(

  • Another problem can be masking fluid drying in the container. This can happen pretty fast, in a couple of weeks in case of some brands.... Some suggest keeping the masking fluid in the fridge (not freezer) with the lid tightly closed. I haven't tried this method yet, but following few steps helped me with this problem:

  1. Buy masking fluids that come in glass jar with a strong lid. Avoid the ones coming in plastic bottles. Why? because plastic is flexible and every time you hold the bottle to open the lid you are forcing some pressure to the sides and also the top edge of the container where the lid is supposed to get tight and this will change result in small dents and dis-formation of the bottle and you know air is pretty sneaky! it gets into your fluid from the tiniest dent. 
  2. Keep the lid tight
  3. Keep the jar upside down! this prevents the air from travelling into the bottle, getting trapped in the jar and dry the whole thing.
  4. Don't choose the cheapest option. To masking fluids there should be substances added to prevent excessive adherence to the paper, to prevent fast coagulation/curdling and to make the flow easy but controllable, These agents may not be found in appropriate quantity or quality in cheaper versions.
  5. Pour a little bit of masking fluid on a piece of plastic wrap to use, close the lid as fast as possible. If needed more pour a little bit more at a time. Alternatively you can use zip bags, cardboards, bottle cap or any surface that you don't care about. I rather plastic wrap because there is no prints or paints that my affect the colour of the masking fluid or my paper.

What masking fluids I use:

This is the masking fluid that I have been using for a while : "Grumbacher Miskit Liquid Frisket". It has an orange tint to it, the container is glass and the lid closes very tightly. 


Example of using masking fluid in painting:

In the following painting, first I laid down the first wash of colour, but to paint the background, masked off the apples, few branches and leaves. Then painted the background. After the background was dry, removed the masking fluid and painted the final layers of watercolour washes on the apples. 

Step 1 - First wash of paint on apples,branches n some leaves

Step 2 - Masking off 

apples final0001
Final : painted the apples and leaves 

Hope you liked the demo and info :)

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