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Learn four handy, art-related uses for tape—as demonstrated by Helen Oh.
Adhesive tape was invented in 1845 by surgeon Horace Day, who coated fabric strips with rubber adhesive. Artists have probably found specialized uses for every kind of tape—and there are many. These four are among my favorites:
Medical paper tape, available at pharmacies, is structurally non-woven and multi-directional, so it can be pulled to create gentle curves. This tape is easy to tear and peel, and it leaves no residue. It’s also translucent, so it’s easy to see what’s beneath the tape.
Gaffer tape is a cotton cloth tape with a synthetic rubber adhesive. Named after electricians or lighting engineers in the motion picture and television industries, where it’s widely used, this nonreflective, matte black tape leaves no residue when it’s removed.
Frogtape, available at hardware stores, sticks to many surfaces, including concrete, wood and metal. Housepainters use it to prevent color bleeding on borders; I use it for murals.
Artist tape has moderate- to low- tack adhesive that can be removed without damaging paper surfaces.
Let me show you four uses for tape that I find especially helpful.
Sharp Mural Edges
When painting murals in acrylic and latex house paints, I use Frogtape to make straight edges. For example, prior to painting the wall-panel frames of Goa, India (below) or the tower in the middle panel, I laid down the needed lengths of 1-inch-wide tape. Then I painted with a roller or a brush, as needed. When the paint dried, I carefully removed the tape, which left especially sharp and even edges.
Frogtape is superior to masking tape for this purpose because Frogtape forms a microbarrier that prevents paint from bleeding through. When working on heavily textured surfaces, I press firmly along the tape’s edges for a thorough seal.
Masking Margins with Artist Tape
When making a drawing, I like to consider its presentation. One look that appeals to me is that of lithographic prints on paper, which typically have a wide blank margin around the image. I can produce this effect in my drawings with a little planning and some artist tape.
First, I gather my materials: artist tape, pencil, ruler, cut strips of paper (kraft paper works well) and a sheet of drawing paper (size dependent on the size of your desired artwork plus margins). Note: It’s absolutely necessary to test the suitability of your drawing paper for this method. Arches watercolor paper and some printmaking papers won’t tear when the tape is removed; the surface of softer papers are likely to tear.
I measure the four sides of my drawing paper for margins and then cover the margin area with kraft paper. Using artist tape, I affix all four of the “inner” sides of the kraft paper to the drawing paper. I then begin my drawing.
After completing the drawing, I gently peel up a corner of the tape and then continue to pull it from the drawing at a 45-degree angle.
The completed drawing Nina(charcoal and graphite on paper, 17 x 14) is now ready to be framed. Using this masking method, you can make a drawing with a margin that’s wide enough to make matting unnecessary.
Painting Straight Lines
When painting still lifes with geometrically shaped objects, I use medical paper tape to assist in keeping the uncurved edges straight.
Using vine charcoal, I drew the contours of the still life objects. The charcoal lines melded into the subsequent paint application, blurring and and softening the edges. I use charcoal instead of pencil when I want to hold off painting sharp lines until I decide on the focus of the painting.
I painted the objects in fluid brush strokes, focusing on their colors and textures. At this stage, my priority was rendering highlights on the embossed tea canister and reflections on the coffee pot.
I decided to darken the background and, at the same time, create a sharp edge where the background and the white table meet. I applied a long strip of medical paper tape along the table’s edge. Through the translucent tape I could see the edges of the coffee pot and handle. After adding a few more strips of tape along the brass coffee pot, I used a flat brush and energetic brushstokes to apply paint to the lower border of the background.
To retain the crisp edges, I let the paint dry before pulling off the tape at a 45-degree angle.
The coffee pot edge needed straightening, so I used more tape in that area.
Here you see the finished still life Tea Canister and Coffee Pot(oil on canvas, 14 x 11)—but there may yet be work to be done. See the next demo for more!
Finishing Edges of an Unframed Painting
Large canvases and panels with finished edges can be exhibited without frames. If, however, the edges are spattered with paint, they may need some work before the painting is suitable for display.
One way to clean up the edges of your surface—and also protect them from scuffs—is to cover them with matte black gaffer tape.
Beginning at the bottom edge of a finished painting on a wood panel, I placed 2-inch-wide tape along the edges. Gaffer tape is easy to tear, so I could remove the extra material without the need for scissors or a knife.
I taped all four sides with a single continuous strip, making a slight overlap at the starting point along the bottom edge.
In the same way, you can make a canvas painting on a heavy-duty stretcher presentable for the gallery. With a bit of practice, your large work can be ready to hang in no time.
Helen Oh is an artist and conservator, and an instructor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. This article is reprinted from Artists Magazine, October 2019 issue. Subscribe to more great art tutorials!