Time for a Stretch

In high school many years ago, I was taught that before starting a watercolor painting I should stretch the paper by submerging it in water for a couple of minutes and then taping it to a board with packaging tape. Is it still necessary to stretch watercolor paper before painting on it?
Nancy Solomon
Salinas, CA

The reason for dampening and stretching watercolor paper before using it is to prevent uncontrolled wrinkling and warping (called “cockling”) during the painting process. This is an especially important procedure to follow if you use lots of water to make washes. Even stretched paper will cockle during some parts of the painting process, but it will dry flat, whereas unstretched paper will assume its altered shape as it dries. A painting on warped paper will be very difficult to mat and frame.

If you’re using very heavy paper (300-lb. or so) in sheets smaller than 8×10 inches, it’s probably not necessary to stretch the paper before painting on it, but in all other cases I recommend stretching. Typically, that means thoroughly dampening the paper on both sides (by sponging, spraying or soaking), laying it flat on a drawing board and pinning or taping the perimeter of the paper to the board. As the paper dries, it will shrink tight, and when the painting is finished just remove the pins, peel off the tape or cut the paper loose from the tape.

These days, however, you no longer have to use packaging tape, pins or tacks to secure your paper. A number of manufacturers produce frames into which you can easily lock the dampened paper and allow it to dry before painting on it . Or, you can bypass the inconvenience of stretching altogether and purchase prestretched blocks of watercolor paper. They come in a variety of sizes and are very convenient to use: Simply paint on the block of paper, and when you’re finished, let the painting dry and peel the top sheet of paper off the block, exposing a fresh sheet.

Ellen Hopkins Fountain is a painter who began her career as a scenic artist, working in film, television and theater in venues that ranged from The Santa Fe Opera to Sesame Street. She now paints on a somewhat smaller scale, in watercolor, on paper. Fountain is represented by The Allen Sheppard Gallery in New York City and The Greene Gallery in Guilford, Connecticut.

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