How To Stretch Watercolor Paper

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Have you ever been frustrated by your paper buckling when you wet it?

Does your paint settle into the valleys formed by wavy paper?

If your paper doesn’t lie flat when you paint, it must be stretched before you begin working.

Stretching your paper is a simple chore that allows you to use less costly, lightweight paper to produce professional looking watercolors.

Paper less than 250-lb generally should be stretched before painting. Exceptions to this may be dry brush technique if you apply minimal water to the surface. However, the little amount of effort it takes to complete this step makes it worth the time to prepare your paper regardless of the technique you use.

Watercolor Paper Stretching Supplies

To stretch your paper you need a rigid board that is slightly larger than your paper, gummed paper tape, a basin or tub big enough to soak the paper and water.

Stretching Board

You can use Gator board or plywood to stretch your paper. Gator board is a composite of dense Polystyrene foam covered with a moisture resistant surface. Sand the edges of a plywood board to remove rough edges. Duct tape the edges for extra protection.
If you use several sizes of paper consistently, cut boards that are one to three inches larger than your paper. If you use random sized paper, be sure to have a stretching surface large enough to accommodate the largest size paper you use.

Paper Tape

The tape used to attach your paper to the mounting surface is coated with water-activated adhesive. Archival mounting tape is available at art supply stores, or you can purchase paper packaging tape from an office supply store.

The Stretching Process

Soak the watercolor paper in a basin of water for three minutes. If you are using large paper and do not have a basin large enough to hold the paper, you can use a bathtub to soak the sheet.

Hold the paper by the corner and allow the water to drain. When it is no longer dripping, center the sheet on the mounting board and allow an equal margin on all four sides. Gently press the paper flat. Lift an edge and use your hand to smooth out any air pockets.

Cut two pieces of the paper tape for both the width and the length dimensions of the paper. Wet a piece of tape by dipping it briefly in water and drain. Position the tape on one edge of the sheet, and overlap the paper ½-inch to ¾-inch. Use a paper towel to gently press the tape in place on both the paper and the mounting board. Continue this procedure with the other three pieces of tape, and make sure the paper and tape remains flat as you secure the other sides.

Use a paper towel to dab away any excess moisture and to make sure all four sides of the tape are adhering to the paper and stretching board. Allow the paper to dry naturally in a flat position. Do not place it in direct sunlight, elevate the board or use a hair dryer to speed the drying process.

Alternate Method

You can use staples and a staple gun instead of the tape, but it takes more effort to use the stapler and a considerably longer amount of time when you include inserting and removing all those staples from the board.

Your Paper Is Stretched

After the paper has dried thoroughly, you are ready to paint. You should have a taut, smooth surface that will withstand juicy washes without a buckle or wave.

When your masterpiece is completed, you can either remove the tape or cut the excess off. Remove the tape by slowly pulling it at a low angle away from the page. If you choose to leave the tape on and cut off the edge, you must use archival tape to avoid any possibility of discoloring the paper.

Don’t be fooled by timesaving methods that recommend merely wetting the paper with a brush and using thumbtacks or large clips. At its best, this is a poor substitute and will give you a second-rate result.

The best presentation possible for your artwork includes paper that looks fresh and remains perfectly flat. Wavy paper gives the impression of cheap, student grade paper and does not show your work in its best light. This professional method of stretching watercolor paper is easy once you have done it a time or two, and the results are outstanding.

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