Today we’re going to talk about how to stretch paper for watercolor painting and the best ways to do it. For many artists, stretching paper is one of the most frustrating parts of preparing a work surface; what’s more, there are different methods that can be confusing.
We’ll break down the only technique you really need to use in this blog post. Why 1 technique and not 4? Because the rest are not required and this one method is the easiest and proven over time and does not require the purchase of a paper stretcher or a canvas frame.
I will quickly get into the only processes you need to know when it comes to stretching watercolor paper for painting and then follow it up with answering some of the typical questions I get asked when it comes to stretching watercolor paper for painting.
Materials required for stretching watercolor paper:
The following materials are required when learning how to stretch watercolor paper. Most of these except for the gummed tape you most likely already have.
- Gummed tape (masking tape may rip your paper when it dries and leaves residual glue on the paper)
- Hair Dryer
- Wide paint brush
- Rigid board or flat table top
- Clean water
How to stretch paper for watercolor painting
Step 1: Lay out the paper onto the rigid board or flat surface and tape the edges using gummed tape. The great thing about gummed tape is that it will stretch with the paper as it dries and it will also be easy to remove once dry without damaging the paper.
Step 2: Completely soak the watercolor paper with water using a brush. Let the water soak into the paper for about 2 minutes before moving to step 3.
Ensure the water and brush are clean and coat the paper with layers of water, ensuring that the entire surface of the paper is coated in water. This also includes giving the tape a layer of water so that it stretches with the paper.
You will see that the water will make the paper start to warp a little. This is normal and hopefully the paper will be relatively warp or buckle free as the gummed tape holds the paper’s shape as it dries.
Be gentle handling the paper as some thinner paper may tear or rip.
Step 3: Gently dab the watercolor paper with a clean cloth to remove excess moisture. This also helps get rid of any bubbles that may appear on the paper.
Now you can either let the paper dry naturally overnight before painting or you can use a hairdryer to dry it out.
Also, you may wish to stretch a few sheets of watercolor paper so that you make the most of the materials you have laid out.
If you are pressed for time and can’t wait for natural air drying, you may also use a hairdryer to speed things up.
Step: While the paper is still taped to the rigid board or table, grab your hair dryer and blow warm (not hot) air onto an area of roughly 12 inches by 12 inches at a time until the paper is damp but not wet.
Warning: Do not use too much heat, and do not place the hair dryer too close to the paper as you do this otherwise you’ll burn through areas. Keep doing this until the watercolor paper dries evenly.
Warning: Do not use an iron to dry the paper or flatten it out as the iron will mess with the paper fibers and you will ruin your paper.
If you’re still having trouble understanding how this works, please watch the video I have added below before attempting any painting.
Supporting Video – How to Stretch Paper for Watercolor Painting
Crystal Beshara takes you through a similar process I described. This video comes close to how I actually stretch watercolor paper. It is hands down the easiest method.
What is watercolor paper?
Watercolor paper is a special type of paper that you can use for watercoloring. It comes in three different types: cold press, hot press and rough. Each has its own feel on the brush as well as how to prep it before painting!
The right method will depend on what kind of surface you want your finished piece to have (and whether or not you plan on framing it).
For example if you’re planning on hanging your work onto a wall then using regular printer paper may be fine; however if you’re looking at selling this art later down the line or having something professionally framed than watercolor paper would be better suited instead.
What does stretching watercolor paper mean?
The term “stretching” is in reference to the paper being prepped for watercolor painting.
If you’re going to be using heavy layers of paint and lots of colors then this method will ensure your finished piece has more longevity than if it were simply painted onto printer paper which doesn’t have a sturdy foundation.
Why do we need to stretch watercolor paper?
The watercolor paper is a lot more likely to curl, buckle and bend if it’s not properly primed. Actually this applies to any paper that will be exposed to a lot of water or water based paints.
If you ever applies some water or water based paints to paper you will notice that it expands and when it dries, the paper dries with expanded and curly parts that makes the paper uneven.
If you’re painting something that needs to be framed later, the likelihood of your art curling under the weight of all that paint will increase tenfold so stretching watercolor paper beforehand helps prevent this from happening in the first place.
What are some other benefits of stretching watercolor paper?
It also ensures much smoother strokes when applying color since there won’t be any bumps on the surface; meaning no paint can get trapped underneath which could lead to bleeding or uneven colors/tones down the line as well as less frequent touch-ups during application. Letting gravity do its job is always best!
Why you need to stretch watercolor paper before painting:
There are few key reasons why you should stretch your watercolor paper before you start painting. I say before as you can also stretch paper after you paint but that may introduce other results you don’t want.
By stretching the watercolor paper before you paint you:
– Prevent paint from curling and warping paper
– Achieve smoother strokes while painting
– Less touch ups to apply during application process
– No bleeding or color/tone unevenness down the line
Can you stretch watercolor paper after painting?
Yes, you can stretch watercolor paper after it’s painted but not as much. It may be a better idea to fix any warping or uneven tones first before stretching the paper and making an irreversible mess of your painting!
The reason you may not want to stretch watercolor paper after painting is that stretching requires wetting the paper and expanding the paper fibers. This could make your watercolor pigment run, it may introduce bleeding into your artwork where some colors will shift and move to areas you had not actually painted.
If you forgot to stretch your watercolor paper after painting, I would suggest you make a test painting using the same type or paper and paint and stretch the paper progressively and slowly and monitor the results and see if you are happy with the final result.
Can you buy already stretched watercolor paper?
Yes, you can buy already stretched watercolor paper or handmade papers. Some of the most popular are Arches 140 lb cold press and Fabriano Artistico hot pressed.
You may have also seen people say they use regular printer paper? Yes, this is possible but not advisable because it will buckle up on you very quickly when wet for painting with a brush and once dried after stretching it’s difficult to move around your artwork without cracking the acrylic paint.
It could be used as an underpainting though before going over in watercolors like I do sometimes if I’m using ink wash mixed with gum arabic solution on top of my paintings which requires lots of washes (upwards to 30+).
These are prefect for the artist who does not have the time or inclination to stretch their own watercolor paper. I have used these plenty of times and I have no issue with them. I can jump right into painting.
The watercolor paper below is 100% cotton and pre stretched.
Alternatives to stretching watercolor paper
Alternatives to stretching watercolor paper are the various types of watercolor papers that are already pre-stretched.
If you want to avoid stretching watercolor paper, heavyweight paper (300gsm) like the one below or board that has watercolor paper glued to it is a great option.
You can also use a watercolor pad (see below), the paper is already pre-stretched. This means that it has been tub-sized in a bath of pure natural gelatin and then air dried to add additional strength and durability.
Do you need to stretch 300 lb watercolor paper?
No. With all of the options available today, there really shouldn’t be any excuse for anyone who wants to stretch their own 300 lb watercolor paper before painting with it!
Which side of watercolor paper do you paint on?
The correct answer is both sides, the top and bottom. There really isn’t a right or wrong side to watercolor paper .
What paper weight is good for watercolor?
There’s no one simple answer. The best paper weight for you depends on what kind of watercolor painting you want to do, how big your paintings will be and whether or not the paper is pre-stretched (or stretched before it arrives).
Also, weight doesn’t actually mean the weight of the paper. For example, a 300lb paper does not actually weight 300lb!
When selecting paper weight, it is up to you what you have available to purchase. In short, a heavier paper means less warping and buckling after you have applied your watercolor paint and water washes.
The thinner the paper, the more it needs to be prepared before you work on it.
Do I need to stretch watercolor paper if I am using only watercolor pencils or watercolor pens?
Yes! This is because watercolor pencils and watercolor pens are heavier than traditional watercolor paints and you are still applying water to the paper to create washes and it is water that buckles and warps the paper as it dries and not the watercolor pigment that is in paints or watercolor pencils.
Do I need to stretch paper if I am using only gouache?
No, you don’t need to stretch your paper if you’re doing it with just gouache paints. Gouache doesn’t buckle or warp the way that watercolors do, so there’s no reason for a pre-stretch before applying it and painting on top of that paint when you’re finished.
Here’s a quick recap of how to stretch paper for watercolor painting:
- Roll out your paper onto a rigid board or table top.
- Tape down all sides with gummed tape so you don’t get paint seepage on anything else.
- Brush the paper with water until damp.
- Pat dry any excess water.
- Allow the paper to dry.
- Once dry, remove the gummed tape.
- The paper is now ready for painting.
What is important when stretching your own watercolor paper for painting? Whatever method you choose, be sure that everything is as flat as possible without wrinkles in order to achieve good results later.
I hope you found “How to stretch paper for watercolor painting” useful, if so feel free to share it with your artist friends who wish to find the simplest method to stretching watercolor paper.
You may also be interested in these other watercolor related posts if you wish to take your watercolors to the next level: