How to stretch watercolour paper

Learn how to stretch watercolour paper with this simple demonstration by Liz Marsden-King and Dave Pilgram, along with helpful tips and advice of how to overcome problems when stretching watercolour paper.

Do you need to stretch watercolour paper?

To stretch or not to stretch, that is the question. And the answer depends on how thick your paper is – it's recommended to soak and stretch papers of 140lb or less – and how much water you'll use when you paint.

Why do artists stretch their watercolour paper?

The reason artists stretch paper is to stop the paper buckling or cockling, which occurs when you paint a wash onto an unstretched piece of paper. The wet side of the paper expands and the other (dry) side does not. This is unsightly on a finished painting.

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How to stretch watercolour paper demonstration

Here's what you'll need:

  • A roll of gummedtape (four lengths cut to length)
  • A piece of waterproof or marine ply
  • Watercolour paper
  • Sponge
  • Kitchen towel
  • An old book, ½in. or ¾in. thick

Step 1 - Soak the paper

Stretching watercolour paper

1. Hold the paper by the edges and submerge it in cold water. Soak the paper for the following times:

  • 150gsm (72lb) for three minutes
  • 190gsm (90lb) for three minutes
  • 300gsm (140lb) for eight minutes

Stretching watercolour paper

2. Lift the paper out carefully, using the edges, and shake for a few minutes to rid it of excess water.

Stretching watercolour paper

3. Place the watercolour paper on a board.

Top Tip - Make sure the bowl or sink is clean and free from detergents, as these can attack the size, causing the paper to become absorbent and unusable.

Step 2 - Wet the tape

Stretching watercolour paper

1. Using a wet sponge, lightly wipe over a piece of tape twice.

Stretching watercolour paper

2. Stick the tape down onto the edge of the paper, keeping 1⁄2in. (1.5cm) of the tape on the paper.

Stretching watercolour paper

3. Take out any air bubbles with your finger. Repeat this with the other three sides.

Step 3 - Leave to dry

Stretching watercolour paper

Lay the board down at a very slight angle to allow surplus water to drain off. Use a 1⁄2in. or 3⁄4in. book, for example. Don’t touch the paper surface, as you can damage it.

Step 4 - Finish off

Stretching watercolour paper

1. Mop up the water that drains down with a piece of kitchen towel.

Stretching watercolour paper

2. Once dry, you'll find the paper is stretched tight on the board and ready to use. It shouldn't move when you put paint or washes on.

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Potential problems when stretching watercolour paper

The tape pulls away from the board

  • The board may be varnished or the wrong type, such as hardboard.
  • Your paper may have detergent on it.
  • The tape may have been wetted too much, which has removed the gum.

White lines appear on the paper when painting

  • This may be caused by the board being laid flat when stretching and a puddle of water left, which, when it dries, leaves a tidemark.

Dark marks appear on the paper when painting

  • This may be due to fingerprints made while handling the paper when it was soaked.

The paper acts like blotting paper when paint is applied

  • Detergents may have contaminated the paper, which attack the size.

Below is a video demonstration of how to stretch watercolour paper by Bob Davies

Now you can stretch your watercolour paper, why not check out our collection of helpful watercolour guides in our ultimate guide to watercolour painting?