How to Use Masking Tape in a Painting

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Blocking Off and Protect

Making Tape for Painting Trees
Step 1: Sticking on the masking tape. Step 2: Applying the paint. Step 3: Lifting the tape. Step 4: The results are revealed! (Click on photo to see a larger version.). Photo ©2011 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to, Inc.

Masking tape or paper decorating tape is very useful for blocking off sections of a composition rather than trying to paint around them. It's easy to use too: stick the tape onto the painting over the areas you want to protect, then paint as if it weren't there. The tape protects what's underneath and when you've finished, you simply pull it off.

In this example, I've used it when painting trees, masking off the negative space between the trunks. I used a roll of wide masking tape, about 2 inches or 5cm wide so I could tear strips of tape with ragged edges to stick down (see photo 1). I did this rather than using narrow tape because trees aren't perfectly straight. It takes a bit of time, but it does mean you focus a little more on where you're putting the tape. Once I'd got the tape where I wanted it, I ran my thumb over it all to ensure it was well stuck down, to reduce the chances of paint seeping in under the edges.

I then brushed and spattered on paint in suitable colors and tones (photo 2). Because of the colors and techniques I was using, and because there was so much tape, it was soon hard to know where the tape was and wasn't. Angling the canvas to the light would show up the edges of the tape, but I wasn't really concerned because spattering isn't the most precise of ways to apply paint anyway.

I left the paint to dry before I pulled off the tape (photo 3). You don't need to, but I find it easier and it eliminates the risk of accidentally dropping a bit of tape with still-wet paint onto the painting itself or smudging something. The advantage of removing it while the paint is still wet is that you can then quickly dab off unwanted paint.

There were areas where the paint had seeped under the tape somewhat. There are several reasons this can happen, starting with it not having been stuck down properly in the first place. Brushing aggressively towards the tape can push paint underneath it too. Texture in the paint can leave gaps for the paint to trickle into. In this case, I'd tipped the painting on its side to let the paint run with gravity a bit. Where it puddled up against the tape it had more chance of seeping underneath.

This technique can also be used when painting oils or watercolor. If you're using oil paint, don't apply the masking tape until you're absolutely sure the paint is dry. Otherwise you'll lift off some of the paint when you remove it. If the surface is very glossy, you'll probably need to use high-tack tape rather than low.

If you're using watercolor, check that the masking tape will lift off the paper without tearing the surface, especially if it's not low-tack tape or a different brand to what you've used before. Test it on the back or on another piece of the same paper, not on the front of your painting! Take a look at this example of watercolor done using tape and you'll see how effective it can be.

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Problem with Masking Tape in a Painting

Problem with Masking Tape in a Painting
Close-up section of a painting showing where paint seeped in underneath the masking tape. Photo ©2011 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to, Inc.

If the masking tape you've used isn't stuck down well enough or simply isn't up to the job, paint may seep under the edges. It's not necessarily a disaster though. Before you throw out the painting or paint over it, put the canvas across the room and look at it critically. Ask yourself:

  • Does this add something to my painting, albeit not what I was aiming to get?
  • Will glazing or painting over some bits rescue the situation?
  • Can I make this painting become something else, work further with the unexpected result I now have?

The photo above is a detail from a forest painting I did where I used a new brand of masking tape from what I'd previously used. It seemed sticky enough, but obviously didn't like getting very wet and shriveled up, letting a lot of paint seep underneath. It'd happened with every single piece, right across the entire canvas.

Initially, I was annoyed and frustrated ​because the result wasn't what I'd envisaged and was expecting given previous paintings I'd created this way. Then when I stepped away from my easel I began to realize the unwanted paint added a sense of atmosphere to the forest, of trees not quite seen or perhaps mist. Not a disaster after all.