Stretching Watercolour Paper

Stre e e e e e e e e e e e etch

There are so many ways I’ve seen people stretch paper, from simply wetting the back of a sheet and gum taping it down to a board, soaking the paper in the tub for a few minutes and attaching it to a specially made stretcher board, or again gum taping it down to a board then stapling around the edges so it dries drum tight. I have tried all of these methods not always successfully!
One thing to remember is that if your paper is 140lb weight sized or less and you intend on using a lot of wet in wet techniques, it will need stretching to help prevent warping issues.

Gum tape
Unfortunately this is something which I have never had much success with!  You are supposed to wet the tape by dipping pre-cut lengths into a bowl of water then laying at least an inch over the edge of the already soaked watercolour paper.  I have found however that the tape can start to lift when dry.  Should you be using an old board for stretching paper you can add heavy duty staples to go around the edge of the wet paper to ensure it dries nice and flat.
This method does work well but you are then left with the need to remove all the staples after you have completed your painting, so quite time consuming…….plus I don’t like damaging my boards with staples!

Image by Manfred Richter from Pixabay

Wetting the back of watercolour paper
This is a quick method to stretch paper and it does work ….. well sort of.  Use a wet sponge to go over the back of a sheet of paper a few times, don’t rub the water in or you risk damaging the paper.  Once soaked you then move the wet sheet to a dry board, placing it wet side down. Attach your masking tape to the dry side and this will hold the paper down flat whilst it dries.
This does work but you may need a bit of trial and error to have success every time!
That said, lightly wetting the back of a painting that has warped (cockled) and sticking it to a board as detailed above, can be a good way of flattening out a bendy painting. 
I would personally try this out on an old painting or test sheet first just to make sure I am confident with the method before I ruin things!

Stretcher boards
Shop bought stretcher boards work well but you do have to work with pre-made sizes. I have made my own using three thin sheets of plywood with one sheet smaller than the other two.  Glue all three together with the smaller one in the middle, allowing an even gap for the sandwich.
Seal the wood with a couple of coats of exterior varnish and all is ready for wetting the paper in the bath tub for a few minutes!
This is ideal for those different paper sizes you want.  I find it particularly useful for A3 and A2 size paintings.

Prepare a solid surface to work on covered in an old cloth.  Lay the wet watercolour paper onto the surface and place the stretcher board centrally on the paper.  Lift one edge of the board upwards and gently ease the paper into the gap between the boards, I found an old paintbrush helped with this.  With the paper partially in the gap hold it in place with some climbing rope or plastic tubing cut to size.  Repeat the process but keep an eye out for any air bubbles and use a wet sponge to gently ease these out before finishing with the fourth side.

Pre-stretched block pads
For speed and complete ease of use my preferred choice for the majority of my paintings is to use a block pad of watercolour paper.  This is literally all ready to go!  The paper is pre-stretched and is glued around all four edges with just a small gap at the top of the sheet.  You will get very minimal cockling with this type of paper and when your painting is finished simply slide a palette knife or guitar pick into the gap and around the pad to remove the sheet of paper.  Definitely my preferred choice for a non hassle way of painting without the need to mess about stretching paper!
Hope this helps a little,
PS “Keep them brushes wet!”

Watercolour Paper Types

There are so many different makes and variations of watercolour paper.  They vary in  thickness, size, quality and texture.   Each one will have its own unique properties and each will react individually to the application of paint and water on the surface. There are many makes out there from Frisk, Arches, Winsor & Newton, Saunders Waterford and many more.  My personal preference is Bockingford mainly because I am used to how it reacts with the paints and it is always tough to replace a tried and tested favourite!

Paper Surfaces
There are generally three different surfaces to choose from; these are rough, cold pressed (NOT) and hot pressed.
Rough – This is the type of paper to use for a loose way of painting. You will find many landscape artists use this to help create interest within their paintings by dragging a nearly dry brush across the texture of the paper, giving a bumpy, broken effect.
Hot Pressed – This is very often a preferred choice for botanical and wildlife artists, the surface means you can add the finest of detail with the smallest of brushes. A very smooth paper for those finer paintings, created, as its name suggests, by running the paper through hot rollers.
Cold Pressed – This paper sort of sits in the middle and has a medium texture and is ideal for those finer marks, but with the addition of a slightly textured effect. I do find this better for large washes and is my preferred paper choice

Paper ingredients
There are generally two different types of paper used by watercolour artists one made from wood pulp and the other made from cotton.  Cotton is the most expensive as the excellent fibres give you a lovely surface to work on.  Wood pulp papers are usually machine made resulting in a repetitive pattern texture. Whereas the cotton papers are mould made using a cylindrical roller which give the paper a more random but even texture. 
There are choices from loose paper which may need stretching if used for large washes, spiral bound and my favourite ‘blocks’, which are glued all the way around other than a small gap where you can slice the paper off from the pad using a palette knife.

This doesn’t refer to the actual size of the paper as that’s another topic!  Sizing is the solution which is added to the paper to stop it acting like blotting paper allowing the paint to remain on the surface.
The mid to top range papers have a gelatine added to the mix at the pulp stage this type of sizing goes all the way through the paper. Wood pulp papers very often have the sizing added on to the top of the surface after the paper is made.

Paper weights
Paper is usually measured in pounds (lbs) or grams per square meter (gsm).  140lb and 300lb weights are the most preferred by artists. The 300lb doesn’t normally need stretching, is much thicker but also much more expensive!
The general rule is that any papers under the weight of 200gsm will generally need stretching.
Your paper will need to withstand multiple washes and removal of paint.  A good watercolour paper can withstand this sort of brush and liquid abuse, whereas cheaper end papers can tend to fall apart on the surface.

Stretching paper
You would normally start by soaking your paper for a few minutes in a bowl or even a bath tub depending on the paper size. The actual time you do this for requires a bit of guess work, I’ve soaked an A4 sheet for approximately 4 minutes – but with all the different types this will vary depending on brand.
There are quite a few ways you can stretch watercolour paper, you can use a commercially made stretcher which works really well by anchoring down the wet paper on all four sides (a good investment).
Another method is after wetting the paper to pop it down onto a piece of thick board and gently use a soaked sponge to lightly take out any bubbles underneath.  Tape the paper down with gum tape (the type you wet only once otherwise you may take away some of the adhesive strength) and add a few staples around the edge.

So there you go, that’s a little something about papers ….. ok I do go on a bit!
At the end of the day I always say ‘buy the best you can afford’ which is the same for the paints you use.  Get used to the brand but don’t be afraid to try something new or swap with a friend and see if you prefer it.  You never know where your next favourite will come from!
Do you stretch your own papers what method do you use?

Until the next time, keep those brushes wet!  Paul