Wednesday, June 27, 2012

How to have a flat watercolor painting without an iron.

Wrinkles in your watercolor paintings?  Don't you just wish they would go away?  From little dips to gigantic waves, they can be distracting when you are admiring artwork.  There are lots of things that people try to do to make their little oceanic watercolor painting waves disapear and stop making people seasick - but why not just still the ocean waves before they start?

Some people tape their dry watercolor paper to a board using masking tape, painter's tape, or artist's tape.  All of these tapes will work on smaller pieces of paper.  Larger paintings will need tape wider than one inch and may still not lay flat.  If you are painting a lot of wet in wet technique, you may also find that the large amounts of water you use will eventually loosen those tapes even on smaller paintings.

Of course, if you have the moola, you could paint on 300 pound watercolor paper all the time and never worry and wrinkled paper again!

Another plan is to stretch your watercolor paper and attach it to stretcher bars or to a board.  Both of these methods will insure that you have flat watercolor paper on which to paint and a flat watercolor painting when you are finished.  Yes.  Flat - even if you repeatedly use a lot of wet into wet washes.  This works great on 140 pound watercolor paper, but it also works great on 90 pound watercolor paper.

For either method, you first have to get your watercolor paper really wet with cool water.  Warm water will turn your watercolor paper into mush.  Expensive mush, but mush none the less.

wet watercolor paper
Be sure that you have all of your supplies gathered together before you stretch your paper.  If you live in a warm, dry climate like I do, be prepared to work fairly quickly, too, because your paper is going to dry a bit faster that in more humid climates.

To stretch your paper on a board, you will need a board, scissors, gummed paper tape, and a sponge.   Well, and your wet watercolor paper...

supplies for stretching your paper on a board
I am using an old cutting board that has a smooth surface.  When I say old, I mean it was my grandmother's cutting board.  Since I was a little phobic about using this for food, I decided to use it in my studio. 

Before you wet your paper, cut strips of the gummed paper tape that are long enough to completely cover the edges of the paper and overlap on the cornersDo not skimp on tape.  <<<< Read that and you will not hate me later.

Set your wet watercolor paper on the board and smooth out any wrinkles with the sponge.  Dampen your sponge, squeeze out any extra water, and wet the gummed side of your gummed paper tape.

getting the gummed paper tape wet
Be careful not to use too much water, or else you will wash the gummed adhesive off of your tape.  (Never mind how I know.)  Turn the tape over, press it down covering about 1/2 inch (1.3 cm) of the edge of the paper.  Repeat this on all four sides of the watercolor paper, being sure that the tape has overlapped at the corners.

When you are finished, you should have what looks like a wrinkly mess of wet paper with a lot of wet tape around the edges.  Never fear, it will dry to look like this:

dry watercolor paper stretched on a board
Isn't that pretty?

Another way to have pretty flat paper, is to stretch your watercolor paper on stretcher bars.  You can usually get stretcher bars at any art supply store - these are the same ones that are used for canvases.  You will also need a stapler or staple gun.  One little trick I learned years ago is to staple the corners where the stretcher bars are pushed together.  This will keep your strecher bars from moving while you are stretching your paper.

Get your stretcher bars all assembled before you get your watercolor paper wet and make sure your stapler is handy.  And full of staples.  (yes... I didn't, and no, I don't want to talk about it)

stretcher bars stabalized with a couple of staples

Most commercially made stretcher bars have that little ridge around the edge.  For stretching the watercolor paper, it is not neccessary.  So, if all you can find is a flat picture frame, go for it.  As long as it is stable and you have about a 1/2 inch (1.3 cm) on the side to staple into, it should work fine for you.

Take your wet watercolor paper and lay it over the stretcher bars.  Start on one side and put one staple in the middle like this...

one staple in the side of the stretcher bar

Pull the paper to the opposite side, and put one staple in the middle.  Go to one of the ends and do the same thing.  Go to the opposite end and put one staple in it, too.  Check to make sure your paper is on there right (I feel your pain if it isn't...).  Once you have it started right, add one staple on either side of the staple on one side.  Go to the opposite side, and add one staple on either side of that staple.  Got the idea?  Keep adding staples opposite each other until you get to the corners.  Fold the corners over, and put a staple in it to keep it nice and neat.  Pull your corners to the "long side" and it will stretch a bit easier.

a nice little corner for your paper

Let your paper dry.  Leave it alone - let it get dry - wait...  Okay.  Now that it is dry (you did wait for it to dry, didn't you?) you can trim the edge of your paper between the staples and the back edge of your stretcher bars. 

Voila!  You are ready to paint!

Many thanks to Beth Neely, who shared lots of these hints about stretching paper on stretcher bars in her watercolor class that I recently took.  She also shared that one advantage of stretching your paper on stretcher bars is that the paper will dry faster while you are painting.  When your paper is taped to a board, there is no air circulating behind the paper, but on the stretcher bars, the back is open.

Oh, and just what did I do during the last class session?  Well, I got a good start on a new painting.

home from my last class with a fun little painting

What's with the green critter?  Well, that's a story for another day when I tell you what I learned about masking fluid!

In the meantime, Beth is going to be doing a demonstration at The Art Store.  I'm hoping for a front row seat!

What fun things have you been exploring recently?  Did you have time to enjoy a class or learn a new technique yet this summer?  If you did, post a link in the comments below!

Happy creating!


  1. I knew you could stretch canvas, but I didn't know you could do watercolor paper. Great tips and I love that you can use an old frame!

  2. Thanks for sharing - I've been curious about this process for some time now :)

  3. Thanks for all the tips! Nice that you could repurpose grandma's cutting board - great idea!

  4. Thanks for the great tips, Kathy!

  5. I am going to have to really pay attention to these tips. But you know, I am probably the one oddball that actually does not mind my paper having a bit of wave. I don't know if it is because I am so tactile but I like to run my fingers over the waves. It relaxes me and feels part of my sketch.

  6. I didn't know you could do that to watercolor paper but then again, I don't know how to watercolor! :)

  7. Great tips! And yes, our paper does tend to dry QUICKLY here - however, I prefer that to what happened the first time I tried watercolor while living in Louisiana.......yep, moldy paper is just not attractive.

  8. memories - It feels very much like stretching light weight canvas - which surprised me! I like to reuse things whenever possible ;-)

    You are welcome, Kaili!

    Lee - you are welcome! I was glad that it worked, too, as I really like the old cutting board.

    You are welcome, Rose!

    Erika - I don't mind the waves when I am doing dry brush work, but when I am doing a lot of wet in wet technique, the color puddles in the dips and drains off the hills... and doesn't pay attention to where I need the paint to stay! LOL

    Beaded - I hadn't done it before, but I knew it could be done. You do so many other kinds of creative things =) Ahem... I tried beading once... oh my!

  9. I remember those days of wrinkled watercolors! Great tips!


  10. Great post, nice to see how you do it!

  11. Thanks, Sue! Hopefully my wrinkle paper days are behind me now! LOL

    Thanks, Pam. It was fun to write this - I love to share hints and techniques with others.

  12. Interesting and useful tips about ways to prevent or minimize wrinkling watercolor paper!

  13. Thanks, Judy! They have made it easier for me!


Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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