This week I decided to share how and why I stretch my watercolor paper. I bought a new painting techniques book at Barnes and Noble the other day, and the Author shared a different way of “stretching” paper that I had never heard of, so I decided to try it. I have a painting in the works using that technique (I may start it over because I don’t like the perspective I drew it in), so you’ll see a little bit of it here, but I want to focus on prepping the paper and why I like to do so.

When I started out watercolor painting, I didn’t even know about stretching paper and I would tape it down to a board and through the course of painting, the paper would begin to buckle and warp. This was irritating to say the least, but I thought it was just a part of watercolor painting. I was also using a very low-quality paper when I started out, and that, as I have learned, makes a huge difference in the paper’s ability to hold water, be stretched, and hold up to many washes.

So, first, a few pictures:

In this book the author talked about taping the edges of the paper, not taping it down to the board, and just tacking it to the board at the top to hold it on. As you can see from the above picture on the left, the paper didn’t necessarily buckle, but it still warped a little and definitely rolled on the sides. This was frustrating as I painted because it got caught on my sleeve as I turned the board, I almost bent it a couple times reaching to get paint or grab my water or paper towels. However, the paper didn’t really buckle, as far as making waves all across the paper. So, I guess, if you were in a hurry, this might be an option. Just not an option for me, because I found it frustrating.

The center picture is of paper that has been properly stretched and lays flat. I created a YouTube tutorial on Stretching Watercolor Paper that you can view, and I will go through some of the reason why here.

The Paper is one of the biggest keys to stretching watercolor paper. It needs to be 100% cotton paper. If it is wood pulp paper, or a mixture it doesn’t hold up as well to the stretching, some you can’t even stretch, it will just tear. It also doesn’t hold up to lots of washes, scrubbing techniques and things of that sort. Stores like Wal-Mart and Michael’s rarely carry 100% cotton paper. Most student grade paper is not 100% cotton. So, when you buy paper, pay attention to what it’s made of. Art supply stores are a great place to find 100% cotton paper, my favorite brand is Arches, but there are a number of different brands to choose from. There are also a number of online stores (I have bought through Cheap Joe’s and Blick mainly) that sell a large variety or cotton watercolor paper in large sheets, notebooks and blocks, all really nice papers.

The purpose of stretching the paper is to get rid of the buckling and warping. Paper just left without being secured down will roll up when wet as you can see in the picture of the Lion above. It dries that way as well, so you are constantly fighting the rolling if it’s not secured down to a board of some kind. Paper that is secured, without stretching, will buckle and warp because the edges have been secured down. As you wet the paper, the paper swells and has nowhere to go, consequently you get that buckling and warping effect. This makes it harder to control the paint as you have hills and valleys. The paint wants to run down the hills and puddle in the valleys. If you paint on the drier side of watercolor, you can control this if you are careful, but washes of any kind will puddle.

Wetting the paper gives the paper opportunity to swell to its full capacity. After fulling wetting both sides, securing it to a board of some kind at that stage and letting it dry means that it will stretch as it shrinks. When fully dry, it will be fully stretch. If properly stretched, as you add water through washes and the painting process, the paper will not swell beyond the stretched staples and your paper will lay flat throughout the painting process. This is much easier to work on, and consequently a much easier surface to control the paint on. Just a note, I stretch using staples, which you will see how in the video, and then I tape the edges simply to give me a nice, finished edge when the painting is done.

If you are just starting out watercolor painting or have become frustrated because of paper problems, I would encourage you to buy 100% cotton paper, and to stretch it before you begin. This way you start out without the problems that frustrate a lot of beginner watercolor artists and make some quit because of the frustration. In my YouTube video I also discuss options for cheap DIY boards as well as tell you my favorite boards (a little more expensive but worth it) to staple paper down on for your backing. I also give some options of paper blocks that don’t need to be stretch that I love using especially when I travel.

If you have any questions about stretching paper, please don’t hesitate to ask!

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