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Stretching Watercolor Paper

An Examination of Why and How to Stretch Watercolor Paper

Why Stretch?
If you are using a lightweight watercolor paper, under 300 lbs., it is advisable to dampen and stretch the paper prior to painting. If this is not done, the paper can wrinkle unevenly when the water is applied, resulting in distorted or uncontrollable brushwork and washes. Papers of 300 lbs. or more can be tacked to a board and painted dry, if desired. The more level the painting surface, the more control is available for obtaining quality detail and washes.

Method #1: Stretching Paper with Tape
If you do not want to preserve the decorative deckle edge found on most watercolor papers, taping is the traditional method for stretching paper.

  1. Dampen both sides of the paper with an atomizer, clean sponge or by soaking in a water tray.
  2. Roll between two blotters to remove excess surface water.
  3. Before stretching, test the paper's wetness. Paper that is not wet enough will not stretch properly; if it is too wet, it will undergo too much contraction in drying and may tear. To test a paper's wetness, bend down a corner. If it springs back into place, it is not wet enough. If it does not spring back, it has the right amount of moisture. If the corner curls by itself, it is too wet.
  4. Note: Test is performed while holding the paper up.
  5. Place the dampened paper on the wood board. Gently flatten the paper, stretching it lightly from center to edges so it lays square on the board.
  6. Cut 4 strips of tape, longer than the length of each of the edges. Moisten the glue backing of one strip at a time and tape the paper to the board, covering about 1/2" of the paper's edge. Burnish the tape thoroughly with a clean dry cloth for best adherence.
  7. The paper can be left to dry or it can be painted wet, depending on the painting technique desired.

Method #2: Stretching Paper with Tacks
If you want to preserve the deckle edge found on most watercolor papers, you should avoid using the taping method described above. There is no way to preserve the deckle once the paper has been taped to the board.

  1. Follow steps 1 through 3 above
  2. Place the dampened paper on the wood board. With push pins or long-shafted tacks, pin the paper to the board starting in the center of one of the long edges, gently stretching the paper before pinning its corresponding side. Pin the center of the short edges in the same manner. For the most evenly stretched surface, begin placing the rest of the pins about 1 1/2" apart on the long edges, alternating sides as you move away from the center. Repeat procedure with the short edges.
  3. Once the painting is finished, the pins can be removed. Tiny holes will remain in the paper. They can be softened somewhat by dampening the hole from the back and smoothing the paper fibers with a needle or stick pin.

Materials List

  • Varnished wood board, larger than the paper stretched.
  • Brown paper wrapping tape with water-soluble glue backing or neutral pH watercolor tape (1 1/2"-2" wide).
  • Push pins or long-shafted tacks.
  • Clean sponge or water atomizer.