Preparing and Stretching Watercolor Paper

Every painter has a preference in materials. I am currently painting on Arches cold press paper and loving it. I feel the paper can stand to be beaten up a bit and that’s important for someone who occasionally has been known to overwork a painting. After all, one of my favorite quotes is from Dan McCaw, “It takes two people to paint a painting, one to paint it and one to stop the painter before he ruins it.”

On an Instagram story earlier this year I showed everyone how I stretched watercolor paper. I received quite a few comments and questions so I thought it would be interesting to document how I prepare my paper and stretch it so it is ready for painting. Keep in mind there are multiple ways to prep your paper. This is just my preference. :)

Refined Sketch Phase

This process starts with a refined sketch but if you would like to see how I get there you can check out my process page on my site. Once I have my refined sketch I scan it into the computer and bring it into Photoshop. I can make small refined edits if needed, transform it to black and white, and bring up the lights and darks with a levels layer. I then print out the sketch and generally I use the opportunity to enlarge the image so I have more freedom while painting the final. There’s a magic size for my style - not too big and not too small. I use a light box to tape the printed images back together.

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cohenillustration-sketch.jpg
cohenillustration-sketch.jpg

You can see here the size of the original drawing in comparison to the printed out version that I will use for the painting. You can also see where I taped the prints together to make one image again for the transfer.

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Paper Prep Phase

Arches 140 lb paper requires stretching to avoid warping. I cut down the big sheets of paper and mark the corners with a small X so I know which side of the paper is the right side up. The Arches paper watermark lists the right side but once you have cut the paper down the Xs can be helpful to not lose your place. Triple check your active area sizing at this point to ensure you are working to the right size for the assignment. Make sure your proportions are still correct if you also work a bit bigger. You can’t double check this enough.

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Drawing Part 2 Phase

This is my least favorite part of the process but I think most artists will agree. The task here is transferring the refined drawing to the watercolor paper. I use a light box, tape, and a light pencil to accomplish it. Keep in mind if you erase on watercolor paper you will tear the paper fibers which will affect how the paint pigment interacts as you paint. If erasing is a requirement I use a kneaded eraser and a really light hand. I also think it is important to lightly sketch using the light box but then work on top of the drawing freehand. I think a full trace results in a drawing with no life so I use the light box to get placement down but then draw on top to bring everything back to life. Other artist prefer transfer paper but this is my way of working.

cohenillustration-sketch.jpg
cohenillustration-sketch.jpg
cohenillustration-sketch.jpg

You can see the light drawing from the light box vs the final watercolor paper drawing that I finish freehand.

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cohenillustration-process.jpg
cohenillustration-process.jpg

Soaking/Stretching Phase

After your drawing has been transferred to you paper you need to stretch the paper. You stretch watercolor paper that is under 300 lbs to prevent the paper from warping when it gets wet as you paint. Stretching the paper causing the fibers to expand so you can fasten the paper down before it dries. The theory is that the paper will never be that soaked again while you work so it won’t buckle as you work. The supplies I use are the following…

sponge
staple gun
small staples
gatorfoam board (a bit bigger than your paper size)
bathtub or large container

  1. First I quickly clean the tub (or container) to ensure there is no dirt or soap scum.

  2. Fill the tub with a few inches of cold water

  3. Place your paper into the water making sure the water covers the paper as it floats and no air bubbles are under it. Soak the paper for 4 to 5 minutes. Soaking your paper lifts some of the sizing on the paper but soaking too long removes too much sizing.

  4. Gently lift the paper out of the water by the edge and allow some water to drip off

  5. Center the paper on your board and use a clean, lightly wet sponge to flatten the paper and remove extra water. Make sure there is no pooling water or buckles in the paper.

  6. Carefully staple the paper down along the edge. Allow the paper to dry flat on a surface and then you are ready to paint!

Notes: I have found Gatorfoam board is the best for me and I prefer staples over gummed tape. I never worry about getting a good stretch while gummed tape was a gamble in my experience.

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cohenillustration-process.jpg
cohenillustration-process.jpg