“Why do you tape your watercolor paper to a board?” is something that I was asked while giving a watercolor painting demonstration. I answered, “it stretches the paper, which prevents it from buckling.” This led to more questions, which I was happy to answer. If you too have questions about stretching watercolor paper, read on, because that’s what this blog post is about.

Watercolor paper comes in different weights and textures. Paper is usually referred to by weight in pounds. For example, if a ream (500 sheets) of paper is 22 inches x 30 inches and weighs 300 pounds, we refer to a sheet of that paper as “300 lb. paper.” Standard watercolor paper weighs 90lb, 140 lb, and 300 lb. The 90 lb paper is the thinnest and least expensive of the three, the 300 lb is the heaviest and most expensive, and the 140 lb. is somewhere in-between. Some papers have a smooth surface, called hot press, some have a textured surface, called cold press, and some have a deeply pitted surface, called rough. I sometimes use 140 lb. hot or cold press paper, for making color studies and when teaching, but my favorite paper is 300 lb. hot press. Since not every artist likes the same paper, you might want to try some different papers to see which ones you like best.

The thicker the paper, the less likely it is to buckle while painting. Though, even 300 lb. paper can buckle, especially if applying a large wash or working wet-on-wet (when wet paint is applied to wet paper). To prevent watercolor paper from buckling, I stretch it the night before I begin a painting. Here’s how it’s done:

  1. Soak the paper in the tub for less than 5 minutes. Use cool water.
  2. Place the paper on a board. I like to use basswood, but you can also use gator board, foam core, heavy cardboard, or plywood.
  3. Use a clean sponge to wipe off the surface water and smooth out the paper.
  4. Tape the paper to the board with wide masking tape.
  5. Let it dry overnight. If you can’t wait that long, use a hand held hair dryer to dry it.

Once the paper is dry you can start painting, with the paper still taped to the board. After the painting has dried fully, you can carefully removing the tape. To prevent the paper from ripping — which can happen while pulling off the tape — I like to position the board in such a way that allows me to slowly pull the tape toward me, and away from the paper at a slight angle. I repeat the process, turning the board as needed, until all four sides are free of tape and the painting is free from the board.

If you don’t like stretching paper, maybe you would prefer painting on a watercolor block, which looks like a pad of paper but is actually several sheets of watercolor paper stacked and glued together at the edges. To use, simply paint on the top sheet, let it dry, then slip the tip of a palette knife under the top sheet where there is no glue and carefully slide it around the edges to loosen the sheet and lift it off.

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