Watercolor lessons – How to stretch watercolour paper

Below you will find instructions on how I love to stretch my watercolor paper. It is interspersed with many hints and tips to ensure you don’t come unstuck by the ‘traps for young players’. I want this to be a reference point so I have explained everything that I can possibly think of that could go wrong – so you will have all of the remedies should you encounter a problem.


Stretching paper really is quite straight forward, but this is a reference for everyone – much like medication notes -it is full of information about things that we may not experience. So don’t be overwhelmed by the information – stretching is an invaluable thing to do and gives your painting that professional finish. The stretching itself is not very involved and it will become second nature in no time at all. The hints and tips will ensure your painting is perfectly stretched and you won’t run into any unnecessary pitfalls at the painting stage.

I never have a problem stretching paper – so if you do experience something – then it will be something simple. The most common of these is using the wrong board to stretch the paper on. Or using the wrong tape. Sadly there are a few substandard tapes on the market.

So here are the instructions and the answers – before you even know the questions!
Have fun – the benefits of stretching paper are numerous but the most important ones are:

* Taut, even surface tension which allows paint to flow evenly and allows us soft blending and beautiful even transitions of hue
* Stretching avoids the concern of developing major waves in our paper when using wet in wet washes – (waves or buckles result in the pigment sitting in the troughs – not a good look!)
* You will want to relax and put your thoughts into your painting. To have to battle with the effects of warped paper will reduce your pleasure in the painting process and also give an unprofessional finish.
* It is wonderful to be able to lay in gorgeous wet washes without concern of causing blooms, runbacks, and cauliflower blossoms.

3/4 inch Gator board is a good, firm, lightweight and archival substrate to keep our paper safe while painting and prior to framing.

Materials that I like to use

– Arches 140 lbs. Hot Pressed paper
– 3/4 inch thick white gator board
– Lukas white gummed (water activated) archival tape 1 1/2 inch wide (Jerry’s Artarama have kindly imported this product from Germany for us – this is much appreciated!).
– Paper towels
– Large sink, trough or bath
– Drafting tape

How to stretch paper

Decide on the size of your painting and allow at least a three-inch border around the edges. One inch of this is for a ‘drafting tape’ border. This will enable you to have a pristine white clean border around your painting. It gives that clean professional appearance we all love to have. Apply a drafting tape around the edges of your painting once your paper is stretched and bone dry – before you begin painting.

I use two sizes of Gator Board – depending on the size of painting I wish to create: 16″x24″ or 24″x24″

Before wetting your paper, check that your paper fits on your board – allowing at least 1/2 inch margin of board showing around the paper. The more the better.

Cut your white gummed tape to the length and width of the board – allowing a little extra to fold over the edges.

Place the roll of tape away in a plastic bag, as you don’t want to get water near it. You can imagine how frustrating it would be to activate the gum while it is still in the roll!

Put an “X” in two opposing corners on the correct side of your watercolor paper. This enables you to quickly identify the correct side of the paper.

You can establish the correct side by holding the paper up to the light. You will see an indented trademark in one corner. If it reads the correct way – then that is your correct side. I use my bath to soak my paper, so I take my strips of tape (already cut), my board and my paper to my bathroom. Keep your strips of gummed tape well out of the way of your board, which you have placed on the floor in a convenient place to do your stretching. You don’t want to drip water on the tape. I place my board on the floor near the bath. I place my paper in the bath and ensure each side has been wet. I leave it to soak for three minutes. Put some water in the bathroom sink or in a wide mouthed jar.

After three minutes I take my paper out of the water and hold one corner to allow the excess water to run off. The paper will feel pliable and when you give it a little shake – it will remind you of a thick, soft fabric as it waves back and forth. Take your paper to your board. Bow the paper in half to create a gentle roll in the center and line this center up with the center of your board.

Lower the paper trying to center it and leaving at least 1/2 inch border of Gator Board showing (clear space of board around the paper). I hold the paper just above the board – position/center it and then drop it onto the board. Don’t pull and stretch the paper to make it move into the correct position. This may take a few attempts to get the paper centered. If at first you don’t succeed, simply and gently pick up the paper at both sides, lift it and try again.

Once your paper is layed on the board you may see some air bubbles under the paper. Just gently lift two corners and roll that area back – and then let it go again. The paper will drop back into place. Don’t worry too much about the air bubbles if they are not excessive but if they run from one side to the other and cause the tape to lift – then lift the paper again. Air bubbles underneath the paper generally sort themselves out when the paper is drying. The only air bubbles you need to take note of are the ones under the tape that we are about to place on our paper and board. More about that below:

Now there are a couple of things to watch out for at this stage:

You don’t want to splash any of the gum from the tape onto the area you are going to paint. Once we have wet our tape – we need to be mindful of the liquid emulsified gum on the back of the gummed tape. If this drips on your painting surface this will become a problem for you.

Keep your board/paper away from the area you are to wet your tape.

I take my tape to the water. Holding one end with one hand I run it through the water reasonably quickly – while ensuring the tape is totally immersed underwater with the other hand. (I press the tape down under the water with my other hand). As I said – I do this quite quickly so the tape is just “run through” the water – not soaked.

I shake the tape over the sink to remove the excess water from it.

Now be sure not to carry your wet tape over the top of your paper surface. We have to avoid dripping gum onto this surface. I will explain that a little later.

Once you have gently shaken the excess water off your gummed tape – take hold of each end of the wet tape keeping the tape straight.

Take the tape to your paper – going around your board rather than over it. We don’t want to drip the gum on the paper!

Hold the tape above – and up to the edge of your board. The edge of your board will be square so it is good to use as a guide. Square the tape up with the board edge. Now still holding the tape above the board and paper – simply move the tape over the edge of your paper allowing it to cover 1/2 – 3/4 inch of paper edge. Lower the tape onto the paper.

Now you may need to smooth the tape down a little. The thing to remember here is to do it gently, as we don’t want to stretch the tape. You may also see some air bubbles under the tape. We don’t want these to stay there. What I do to smooth the tape and to remove any air bubbles is simple:

I take some paper towel – a number of sheets (or a clean towelling towel). I place them over the paper and tape. I gently press on them. This lifts some of the excess moisture, which allows the paper to dry more quickly. It also helps to remove the air bubbles from under the tape. Remove the paper towel. But you will need to do more to ensure all of the tape has adhered without any air bubbles – read on…

Now holding more paper towel rolled for easy positioning in your hand – and with a very gentle action – go around the tape lightly pressing down on all of the tape areas. Up and down, not side to side, as this could stretch the tape. This should remove any air bubbles from the tape. Before you walk away and let the paper dry, take another look at it on at a few different angles so you can clearly see all of the tape has adhered to the paper and the board securely.

If there are any areas that have not adhered – then simply apply a little pressure to these areas. You may see a buckle in the paper that extends out to the tape. As long as the tape is secure on the paper and also on the board – this is not a problem at all. The buckle will disappear as the paper dries and becomes taut.

-Dry your paper flat
-Do not elevate at any stage
-Do not use a hair dryer to speed drying. (You can use a hair dryer when painting – but not at the stretching paper stage)
-Do not sit your paper in the sunshine

You can lay the board flat and allow it to dry inside your home in a warm and sunny spot (sun filtering through a window). But not in outdoor direct sunshine.


Q. The paper has air bubbles underneath it when wet.

Solution: don’t worry – they will smooth out as the paper dries drum tight. As long as the tape is adhered to the paper and the board, you will not have a problem.

Q. The tape is lifting.

1 – the tape could be too wet – in which case use your paper towel to take off the excess moisture.
2 – Are you using proper Gator Board? Nine times out of ten – the board surface is the problem.
3 – You may not have fully immersed your tape in water. This would result in dry areas, which would not adhere to the paper or board.

Remedy: Just lift the tape off and use new piece of tape that has been fully immersed.

Q. The paper has buckled so much that it has lifted the tape. Pressure is not enough to get the tape to adhere to the board or paper:

1. The paper and/or the tape were too wet. Just take the tape off if possible (if not – just cut the rough edges off and when you lay your new tape over top – allow a little of it to go further onto the paper than the original tape had. Simply rewet your paper for a minute or two. When you remove your paper from the water – ensure you hold the paper by a corner to allow the excess water to run off the paper. Re tape the paper to the board using new tape. Reduce the amount of moisture on your paper by laying a towel or paper towel over the top of your newly stretched paper. Remove towel. Gently work your way around the tape dabbing up and down to push out any air bubbles from the tape.

2. Did you lay your board flat while your paper was drying?

Q. The tape has stretched.

This is mostly to do with too much pressure when the tape was either being laid on the paper or when the excess moisture is being dabbed away. Remember to use your paper towel to remove this moisture – but use it in an up and down motion – not sideways – as sideways will pull the tape and stretch it.

Solution: Just lift the tape and replace it. See above if you find your tape has dried and is too difficult to remove. You do not want to stretch your paper trying to remove the tape. It is better to cut off the raw edges and lay new tape over top – allowing the tape to go a little further into the paper area.

Q. Splatter pattern in your painting

Cause: Splashing water activated gum on the unpainted surface of your paper while stretching.

This is in effect adding to the gummed size that is on the surface of the paper. The even size that is placed on the surface of watercolor paper during manufacture helps slow the absorption of the pigment when we are painting. So naturally – if we drip our water activated gum from the back of our tape – onto the paper surface – it will not accept our paint as readily as the unaffected area. It dries invisibly and you wont expect the surprise you have in store when you put paint to that area. You will get a splatter pattern in your wash and it cannot be removed.

If this does happen, try salvaging the painting by using gouache or watercolor pencil over that area. It is certainly not ideal and of course the translucency of watercolor is lost. But that is the best/only solution if this should happen. It is very easy to avoid this happening in the first place.

Removing your paper after you have completed your painting

We have left a clear white margin around our paintings so we have an option to cut the tape off the paper. I understand this white tape is archival and therefore will give your paper more stability – so there in no real need to remove it. My preference is to remove it as we do have the clear white margin, which allows us this option.
Happy stretching!

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