Friday, February 12, 2010

How to stretch watercolor paper

Stretching watercolor paper keeps it from buckling while you are painting on it. It is not necessary for 300-pound paper, but lesser weights of paper will immediately start buckling as soon as you add a wash to them. 300 pound paper gets expensive, so many watercolor artists buy 140- pound paper and stretch it to a hard surface.

There are lots of ways to do this. Today I'm going to share with you how I do it. I drew some little doodles in my notebook to help you see what I mean.

You need a hard backing surface to stretch the paper to. I use gatorboard. Gatorboard is similar to a super-thick piece of foam board, but it has a much stronger outer surface that will hold up a lot longer than foam board. It's lightweight, easy to staple (and remove staples from), and doesn't mind getting soaked, so it's perfect for this purpose. (You can find it at various art supply stores under different names, or you can order gatorboard from Cheap Joes Art Stuff, at my favorite place!)

Other supplies:
water, stapler and staples, masking tape or artist's tape, watercolor paper


1. First I cut my paper to the size I need, and lay my gatorboard flat on a table or counter.

2. Next I run the paper under cool water in the sink or bathtub, moving it around just until it's wet everywhere. Then I hold it up and let the water drain off of one corner until it stops running and starts dripping.

3. I lay the paper flat on top of the gatorboard and smooth it out with the sides of my hands, starting in the center and working my way out, pushing the excess water puddles off the sides as I do this.

4. I let it sit for a few minutes until the paper no longer looks shiny. (Tiny shiny areas are ok- you don't want it to get too dry.)

5. I start stapling the paper to the gatorboard along the outer edges of the paper. I start by putting one staple in the middle of each of the four sides, then work my way towards the corners, a few staples on each side of the paper at a time, putting the staples at the corners last. As I do this, I use the side of my free hand to smooth the paper and pull it taught.

6. Let the paper dry thoroughly. This can be sped up with a hair dryer, if desired, but don't try to draw on it until it's completely dried!

7. For a finishing touch I tape all the edges with masking or artist's tape. This keeps water and paint from running under the paper while I'm painting, and also makes a nice clean edge all around my painting when I am done.

Happy painting! Leave your comments or questions below... don't be shy! I want to hear from you!

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  1. thank you for your procedure ... and taking the time to do it. i learned from it.

  2. I never knew how to stretch watercolor paper! Very cool! I love your illustrations by the way. Much more interesting than just posting pictures of you doing it. Cheap Joes is my favorite too! I've always wanted to go....maybe we should organize a carpool to cheap joes! :)

  3. Mimi,
    I'm so glad that my article was helpful to you. That's what makes it worth the time to write! Thanks so much for letting me know.

    Thanks about the illustrations! Yes, Cheap Joes is great! I went to a workshop with Joe Miller there last August and it was wonderful in every way... especially the awesome outlet store right next door! I'm definitely always up to go back! Let me know if you do want to plan a trip :)

  4. Hi, I was looking for tips on stretching watercolor paper and found your thing. (love the illustrations!)
    Would you have a suggestion on how to do this with small formats? I do ACEO cards, 2.5x3.5 in...they are really small but the paper still tends to curl in places a bit. thanks!

  5. Kate,
    When I do really small paintings, I usually don't wet them and stretch them in the normal way. What I usually do is just tape them to the board while they are dry, before I start painting. That seems to be enough to stop them from curling.
    Thanks for your comment!

  6. Try wetting the back & using a hairdryer, the cards soon straighten out!

  7. Good idea.
    I've also recently learned that you can spritz the back of a watercolor and then iron it!

  8. Hi, great tutorial! I saw somewhere that I need to use stainless steel staples. Is that true? If it is, where can you find standard size stainless steel staples?

  9. Hi! Thanks for reading!
    I've never heard that you would need to use stainless steel staples. I just use regular staples in a regular stapler. They've never been a problem.
    Note- I do tape over the staplers to make a nice clean line for my painting. (As shown above.) Perhaps if you were wetting the staples again and again because there was not tape over them, you would need stainless steel staples to keep them from rusting..

  10. This is great! The most useful and clear directions I've found online. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and process.

  11. Other sites say that the paper stretching is enough to warp a wooden board that's not thick enough. Is gatorboard that strong?

  12. Yes, Gatorboard is very strong and will not warp. It is not the same as regular thick foam board. Thank you for reading!

  13. I'm looking for alternative backing surfaces as my previous stretching warped the wooden board. I work on a large scale, and gator board isn't available in my country.

    I'm thinking maybe an aluminum honeycomb panel would do the trick, but I'm not sure how it will affect the paper, or if the gum tape will stick to the surface

  14. If I were you, I would probably try sealing a wooden board with paint or another sealant that would keep water out, and therefore keep it from warping. I have heard of people doing this successfully, with the biggest downside being the heavy weight of the wood.

    You could try the aluminum honeycomb panel, but I am unfamiliar with these. It doesn't seem like something that would take staples, and I don't know of any tape that is enough to hold the paper down without any kind of staples or tacks to help. The only reason I use tape at all is to keep the paint from running under the paper. The staples are what holds everything down.
    Good luck, and let me know if you find something new that works!!

  15. So after you're done painting, do you leave the painting on the gator board taped and everything still?

  16. Hi,
    No, I remove the painting and frame it. The gatorboard can be used again and again. The stapes pull out quite easily when you try to remove them.
    Thanks for reading and your question.

  17. Hello,
    Thanks for the tutorial, and I like the illustrations!
    How long (i.e. how many paintings) does your gator board last until it's too full of staple holes?

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