Stretching Watercolour Paper

Harvest Mouse in detailed watercolour by The Devon Artist
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

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!

Photo of natural sponges used to wet watercolour paper
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!

Making a watercolour stretcher board

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.

Types of watercolour paper, Bockinford Block, St Cuthberts Mill, my favourite paper!

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!”

Understanding Watercolour – Part 2

Painting a bee-eater bird in watercolour

For Part 2 we will touch upon three more terms many manufacturers use for their paints; lightfastness, hue and granulation.  I will try to explain in my non-jargon way what they are all about, hope you are sitting comfortably, my rambling is about to begin!

Lightfastness or Permanence
This refers to the likelihood of a colour fading or maybe discolouring when exposed to sunlight – as simple as that!  The manufacturers notes on this are just guidelines but worth thinking about if you intend on displaying a painting in direct sunlight.  Protecting your precious work behind glass and ensuring everything used in the mounting and framing process is acid free will certainly prolong your painting’s life.  Whilst there will inevitably be some changes to the colours eventually, don’t hide your work away in a dark corner of a room simply to preserve them, put it out on display it and enjoy it.  
It is worth noting that all manufacturers have their own way of describing the lightfastness or permanency of their colours. The two examples below give you some idea on what to look for on your tube. It could be a star, dot, letter etc.

Lightfastness of watercolours

The word hue has many different meanings within the art world.  The most obvious use of the word would be to describe all the paints you have in one particular colour range – all your greens have a green hue, all your yellows have a yellow hue etc.  

Winsor and Newton yellow paint
Yellow Hues

Secondly, on a paint tube or pan it can refer to a man-made colour which can give you a constant consistency of exactly the same colour over all the batches that are made.  Hues are generally mixed from different pigments to replicate old historical and well known colours.  Maybe the pigments for the original colours are now known to be toxic (cadmiums, ceruleans) or perhaps they are no longer readily available.  To keep artists happy they remain within the manufactured ranges but have the word hue on the label.   By manufacturing the colours, the lightfastness of them can sometimes be improved and the pigments are very likely to be of, shall we say, more of an affordable price! 

Winsor and Newton professional watercolours

Thirdly the word hue is used to describe the grade of paint.  This links with last week’s blog when I talked about how much pigment was used within a paint.  In some of the cheaper brands there is more binder used, so whilst the colour stays the same it will take more working up in the palette and will be less intense on the paper.  Often these lower grade paints are not as lightfast and do not do so well over time.  I would recommend that once you can afford to move from the student / budget paints to the more professional grade ones that you do so.  I think you will notice a difference in your work and your paintings will be more likely to stand the test of time.

Have you ever noticed that some colours do have slight variations of a name, such a Gamboge and gamboges hue, now you know why.

How to keep watercolours fresh and vibrant

I’m sure you have noticed over time that some paints can leave quite a grainy texture when they dry. This is referred to as granulation or a granulating colour. French ultramarine is a classic for this and can give you some lovely effects, especially for skies!  I find other colours such as burnt sienna and burnt umber will often do the same.
So what creates this nice surprise?  It is all to do with the pigment particles – in some colours the pigments tend to cling together, this in turn creates an uneven wash.  When you have finer ground pigments the granulation will be much less obvious and you can create those smooth washes you might be after.
Over time you will get to know your paints, and you will know the ones that are going to granulate.  Should you be using some extremely expensive hot pressed paper and you would really prefer to know in advance what is going to happen, it’s worth checking out your manufacturer’s web site for the particular colours. They all make their paints in different ways, and mix their pigments to their own ‘recipe’, so the ‘same’ colour from two different makers will not necessarily react the same on your paper…..beware!

Silhouette watercolour of elephants

Have a play with your colours on a piece of medium textured watercolour paper and see which granulate.
I would love to hear how you get on with your paint testing, what makes and colours in your collection granulate?

Watercolour paint, granulation

Until our next blog remember to keep those brushes wet and bye for now,
Paul 🙂

Understanding Watercolour


We know that watercolour is a very popular medium from its simple concept, painting with coloured water; to the intensity of colour that can be achieved, to its amazing transparencies that can give your paintings that sparkle of life and clarity.

However there are quite a few terms which are used by manufacturers regarding the properties of their paints which can be confusing and maybe even off-putting.  Do they fade in the sun or are they ‘lightfast’, are they transparent or opaque, what’s all this about pigment and granulation and what on earth is a series?!

I hope my ramblings clear up some of these very arty words and help you to choose the right type of paint for the paintings you wish to create.

Watercolour Transparencies

Transparency & Opacity
Watercolour is classed as transparent when it allows the white of the paper to show through from underneath. Transparent colours are great for layering over other transparent colours in order to achieve deeper tones.  Layering a transparent colour over itself will work in exactly the same way.  Transparent colours are used quite a lot by botanical artist to create some amazing soft layers in their flower and plant paintings.  
An opaque version of a paint will basically mean that it doesn’t allow much in the way of colour through from underneath.  So if you paint it over another colour, that colour stands very little chance of showing through.
As you know, I use opaque white for many of my paintings, this allows me to paint over some of the darkest areas for fine hairs, eye highlights and so on.
I usually class the transparency levels in three ways, transparent, semi-transparent and opaque.  When you have got a few spare minutes, maybe have a play with your own palette and work out how transparent each of your colours is or take a look at the packaging/tubes and see what they say.  This will really help you when you come to layer them in your work

Step by step to painting a bird in watercolour

Basically pigment is what gives your paint its colour, it is held together with the use of a binder. The cost of the paint will reflect:
– The amount of pigment used within the binder
– How rare the pigment is and how much it costs to produce and include.  This can vary considerably from pigment to pigment.
– The quality of the binder used

Paints with richer, more concentrated pigments will give you the ability to mix your colours more easily.  As a consequence you will use less paint to obtain the same depth of colour.  You can work up lesser quality paints to achieve the same depth of colour, but you will use more paint and it will take slightly longer to apply all the layers needed.

Step by step stages to painting a rabbit in watercolour

Paint very often comes in what is called a series, this is because the colours cost different amounts to produce.
When you look on a tube of paint or a pan wrapper there is often a number or a letter displayed. The higher the number/letter the more expensive the paint is to produce as they can, for instance, have rarer pigments inside them.
So for example you may find cadmium yellow from the Winsor & Newton Professional range is Series 4 and burnt sienna is Series 1.  For the manufacturer they do not charge the same for each of their paints when they cost different amounts to produce.  Cadmium yellow is more expensive to produce than burnt sienna and therefore in all the ranges it will likely be more expensive.
So to add to the confusion, when you look at prices based on series number, a cheaper price doesn’t mean that a colour is any poorer in quality, it just means that it is less expensive to produce……now if you understand all that you are doing better than me!  

Winsor & Newton Professional Watercolours
Winsor and Newton Professional Watercolours

Buy some paints, try them out, swap them with a friend and try theirs out,  Find the ones that suit you and your style of painting.  I very often say ‘buy the best you can afford’ and this is the reason why.
So there you go a little about transparencies, opacity, pigments and series.
Which paints do you use and how are they marked up for transparency and series? Let me know, I’d love to hear from you.
Till the next time, keep them brushes wet!  Paul

Watercolour Paper Types

Different types of watercolour paper

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!

Types of watercolour paper, Bockinford Block, St Cuthberts Mill, my favourite paper!

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

Watercolour paint effects, cauliflowers

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.

Types of watercolour paper, Saunders Waterford

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.

Types of watercolour paper, Daler Rowney Mould 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.

Types of watercolour paper, winsor and newton cold pressed

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.

Types of watercolour paper, Daler Rowney Aquafine

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

Watercolour Basics – Paints & Brushes

A back to basics look at paints and brushes, an ideal overview for anyone new to the wonderful medium of watercolour and an insight into my favourite paints and brushes.

The sorts of brushes I use for painting a detailed wren in watercolour

Watercolour Paints
There are a wide range of choices out there and in my personal experience a box of 12 – 18 half pans will be enough to get you up and running quickly and inexpensively.  I personally use Winsor & Newton, other brands are obviously out there, but it is tricky once you start with a brand to suddenly switch from something you know to something unknown!

Watercolor basic equipment Winsor and Newton half pans

Half pans 
These are solid blocks of concentrated paint.  You tend to get what you pay for; I liken it to orange squash in the sense of the more concentrate you add the stronger the drink. Think about the half pans the same way, the more expensive versions usually have a higher pigment content and ultimately a greater depth of colour richness.
Half pans are my choice due to the fact that you don’t waste as much paint as you would using tubes.  This is particularly true when all you need is a little colour for one small area.  

Tube paint
I do have some tube watercolours, mainly for using with large backgrounds where I need to mix up a much larger wash.  I would recommend having a few of your frequently used background wash colours in tube format should you be able to.

Watercolour brushes that I like to use

Now I know another minefield and all I can do is let you know my preference in brushes. The brushes you buy will depend on the type of painting you wish to do and the budget at your disposal. Bristle types tend to fall into a few basic categories. 
Sable – expensive but lovely to use and has a natural taper giving it a good point to work with, the most coveted being kolinsky sable – the ultimate purchase for any artist!! 
Other natural fibres – each with their own unique properties in their favour.  For instance a hog brush is very stiff and generally used for oil and acrylics, whereas squirrel brushes are soft and often used in watercolours instead of sable as they are cheaper!
Mixed blends – as their name suggests a mixture of blends which brings out the most useful properties from both fibres to give the artist a much more versatile brush.
Synthetic – man made fibres, often more durable and usually a little kinder on the wallet!

Types of brushes, these may not be suitable for my style!!

Brush Sizes
As for the size of brush, it will depend on your subject.  Should you wish to paint large wash and in a loose style then obviously a large brush from say a size 18 down to a size 2 rigger (long and thin) may be your preference.
However, for the finer style of painting, as in the way I paint, then a size 8 down to a 00 (very small) would be ideal.
There are many different manufactures out there and I can only recommend the brushes I use – they are a bit like paints, once you get used to a particular make and style of brush it is difficult to break away from the comfort of familiarity.  Occasionally I will test out some different brushes and ultimately this may lead to a change in my favourite, but it doesn’t happen very often!

Paul Hopkinson, wildlife artist and online art tutor

My Favourites
Everyone has their favourites here are some of mine.  

Finally, thank you for following my blog, do leave a comment if there are any other subjects you would like me to ramble on about!   
Until the next time, keep those brushes (sable, animal hair, synthetic, blended, large, medium or small), wet!
Paul 😉