Stretching Watercolour Paper - a Range of Techniques
BY SUE WILD
Why stretch watercolour paper?
Watercolour paper of a weight 300 gsm or less is bound to warp, buckle and cockle if you paint with flowing washes on a half sheet size or larger. It is not easy to iron this out.
Cockling can create undulating shadows on the top edge of a painting when framed and lead to rejection by exhibition selectors. The surface of stretched paper remains relatively flat as you work and dries perfectly flat.
But … the process of stretching paper takes practice, time and dedication and can lead to frustration.
How to stretch paper
Materials: Watercolour paper, board (4mm mdf for smaller pieces, or 5mm for larger), gummed tape, scissors, water bath.
Pass the paper through a bath of cool water. Lift, hold by one corner, drip off diagonally and lay it flat on the board. Gently lay a clean white towel or paper towel on the surface to absorb the excess water. Cut a piece of gummed tape for each side allowing an overlap at the corners. Wet the tape, running it between finger and thumb to remove excess water and lay carefully along the paper edge, with the tape half on the paper, half on the board. Ensure the tape is adhered all round. It is important to leave the board flat while the paper dries.
Philip Markham always stretches his paper and makes these points: “I pass the paper through the water bath in one fluid movement, lay it on the board and gently mop the excess water off with a paper towel. You need to get an even spread of dampness. Over-soaking the paper opens the fibres and means that you can’t get hard edges in your painting. I like relatively hard edges in my work. I wet the tape, lay it down and again mop off any excess water. It must be left flat to dry. There are traps in stretching, so learning with A4 size paper is advisable.”
Alfred Memelink emphasises that the gummed tape must be a quality product. Recently there have been faulty rolls sold. If the tape is old or imperfect the paper may be ruined. Alfred suggests writing the date on each roll of gummed tape and keeping it in a plastic bag.
An alternative to gummed tape is a Paper Stretcher. There are several advertised on the internet. Alan Collins uses Nugent Welch’s Winsor & Newton stretcher (see photograph), which has a hinged frame studded with staples to grip the paper and clips to hold frame and board together. English watercolour artist Edward Wesson used a DIY version of this. Ron Ranson in his book The Art of Edward Wesson, wrote “It resulted in a distinctive deckle-edge look to all Ted’s work which was very attractive.”
Alternatives to stretching
For those who prefer to avoid stretching, here are some alternatives:
• Buy your paper in a prepared block with sealed edges. The work will dry flat if left on the block to dry. Fabriano and Hahnemuhle papers can be bought in a block. This is more expensive than separate sheets, but very convenient for the travelling or outdoor artist.
• Buy thicker paper. 420 gsm or 640 gsm paper is more expensive than 300 gsm or less, but won’t warp. Bernadette Parsons, winner of the Supreme Award at Splash 2014, never stretches paper because ‘when you have an idea that you want to paint there’s no ready-stretched paper!’ She buys only Saunders Waterford rough 420 gsm. Brian Carmody, featured in newsletter 156, uses heavy paper for two reasons: it doesn’t cockle and he likes the texture.
• Paint on a near vertical angle. Melbourne artist Greg Allen paints on quality 180 gsm paper. He keeps his board at an angle of just 30 degrees off vertical. He applies generous washes but the paper doesn’t cockle, as the paint flows down the sheet.
But wait there’s more
Alfred Memelink was painting aboard the NIWA ship Tangaroa in Antarctic waters. He discovered that as the air there is 100% dry, moisture evaporated in minutes. He developed a system of drawing his picture first, then soaking the paper. Experimentation showed that 180 gsm paper needs only 3 minutes to reach saturation. A 400mm sheet will stretch by 4-5mm. Soaking the paper means he can paint wet-in-wet for longer. He commences painting and when the glisten and sogginess are gone, but the paper is still evenly damp, he applies the gummed tape to the edges.
Wendy Masters has used this system for years. She likes to work wet-in-wet and ensure the work is destined for success before applying the gummed tape. Wendy advises soaking for 15 minutes. Sometimes she draws into the wet paint with conté. At other times she will actually complete a painting without stretching, knowing that buckling will occur. She then eliminates the buckling by placing the paper on a board, painted side down, and applying water with a spongy Dacron to the back, working from the middle outwards. She allows it to soak in, then repeats until the paper is fully and evenly dampened. She then tapes the edges and leaves it flat to dry.