To Stretch or Not to Stretch



In every watercolor instruction book that I’ve read, stretching the paper is step one of the painting process. But the more I paint, the more I find myself pulling away from this technique.

The reasons to stretch the paper are simple. When you apply water to watercolor paper, the fibers of the paper expand and the whole thing begins to look more like the rolling hills of Kentucky than a usable painting surface. This makes for a frustrating painting experience, and can cause washes to dry unevenly.

Stretching paper involves soaking it, then using gummed tape or staples to attach it to a board. When it dries, it should be a tight, flat surface that will continue to stay flat as you paint. It’s much easier to work on paper that has been stretched.

So why skip the stretching process?

Here are my reasons.


  1. When I want to paint, I want to paint. I don’t want to begin by soaking a piece of paper in the tub, and painstakingly taping it down with gummed tape. The process is so time consuming that by the time I’m done, whatever it was that I wanted to get down on paper is no longer front and center. In my crazy life, I may only be guaranteed thirty minutes at a time to work before a certain tiny Cowboy is hanging on my legs begging for me to hold him. The obvious solution to this is to have a few pieces of paper prestretched and ready to go, but in the end, it comes down to the same thing—if I have thirty minutes to myself, I don’t want to spend it stretching paper.
  2. Too much pressure. I’ve found that my favorite work tends to happen when I paint spontaneously, taking advantage of watercolor’s accidental effects. Again, this tends to happen when I dive right into a painting, mentally allowing myself to experiment. There is something about the process of stretching the paper that puts me in the mindset of tightly controlling my painting. This is great if that’s what I’m going for, not so great if I’m going for a looser, more spontaneous result.
  3. I love a good deckled edge! If you use gummed tape or staples to stretch your paper, you have to cut away the edges when you are finished painting (some people have good luck wetting the gummed tape and carefully pulling it off—I have not had good results with this technique). Cutting away the beautiful deckled edge limits your framing options.
  4. Good quality, heavy paper reduces the need for stretching. My favorite brand is Arches. I paint on either 140lb or 300lb paper—140lb for small projects, 300lb for large ones or any time I’m planning on working very wet. The 300lb can handle quite a bit of moisture without buckling. The 140lb does buckle, but not to the extent that cheaper, student grade papers do.

While I will certainly go to the trouble of stretching a piece of paper for any large, detailed studio pieces, I’ve found this process just isn’t necessary for most of my work. I simply use good paper and tape it to a hard board on all sides with masking tape.

In the end, it comes down to personal preference. For the best working surface and the flattest end result, stretch your paper. If you’re willing to buy quality, heavy paper and don’t need your surface to remain perfectly flat, then feel free to skip ahead to the fun part!


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