Learning to paint with watercolors has been a lot of fun, but there have definitely been a few bumps along the road.
One of the biggest frustrations that I ran into when I was first getting started was that my paper wouldn’t stay flat. The minute the water touched it, it would buckle and wrinkle. By the time the painting was finished, it was a lumpy mess that was definitely not suitable for framing.
After a lot of research, these are some of the best ways I found to keep the paper flat and smooth.
Update as of 4/23/2016 – All of the techniques below still work for keeping your paper tight while you paint. After a lot of experimenting with different techniques, however, I finally settled on using blue painter’s tape (like this stuff) to stretch my paper. It works really well for relatively small pieces. Simply soak your paper for 5-10 minutes. Lay it on your board and dry the top surface of the paper completely with a paper towel. Then, apply blue painter’s tape around the edge of the paper, leaving whatever size border you want. Once the tape is in place, take the back end of a brush or some other flat, smooth tool and burnish the edges of the tape to make sure they are thoroughly stuck to the paper. What I love about this method is that the tape is inexpensive and it comes off of the paper beautifully – no need to worry about tearing. It also leaves a crisp, clean line. I haven’t tried this method on anything larger than about 10-11 inches. If you try it on something larger and it works, let me know in the comments below. Also, be sure to experiment with the other techniques below — you never know which one will work best for you until you try them all 🙂
Use Thicker Paper The first, and most obvious solution that I ran across to keep the paper from warping was to use thicker paper. Logically, it makes sense that heavy-duty paper is less affected by water. However, it is also a lot more expensive than thinner watercolor paper. As a beginner, I didn”t really want to invest a lot of money in high-end paper just to practice my technique, so I decided to keep looking.
Water, Gatorboard & Paper Towels After digging around for another solution, I learned that you can saturate a piece of watercolor paper, lay it on a piece of Gatorboard and then use paper towels to remove the excess water on the surface. The underlying moisture keeps the paper stuck tight against the board while you do the painting. Here’s a quick video of the technique:
I really like this technique simply for the fact that it is fast and easy. It lets you get started painting right away without having to wait forever for your paper to dry. Additionally, aside from the initial investment in a piece of Gatorboard, it doesn’t take any extra supplies or equipment, so it is really cheap.
The only downside is that after the paper dries, it gets a little bit warped. The warping isn’t too bad, but it’s definitely not perfectly smooth, either. Also, if you take too long on your painting, the paper dries out and pulls up off of the board. You can always carefully re-wet the back of it with a spray bottle to get it to stick back down again.
Brown Paper Tape The next technique that I found worked much better for keeping the paper totally flat. Essentially, the technique is exactly the same as the one above except that you tack down the edges of the paper with water-activated brown paper tape (like this stuff). The tape holds the paper in place as it dries so it stretches out to a perfectly smooth surface. Here’s a video of the process:
I didn’t have any paper tape and couldn’t find any at my local stores, so I made my own using homemade flour glue (tutorial coming soon). It works really well and my paintings dry completely flat. Just be sure to remember to cut your paper large enough since you will have to cut the tape off – it can’t be removed once it is dry without tearing the paper. If you want a border around the edge of your painting, you can always stretch your paper with the brown paper tape and then add a masking tape border once the paper is completely dry. That way, you will still have a nice white border leftover after you cut away the paper tape.
Stretcher Bars The final technique for stretching watercolor paper is the one I am the most excited about. It allows you to stretch the paper across stretching bars, just like you would with a traditional canvas. As a result, the finished piece can be hung on the wall with or without a frame. I just found this technique a few nights ago and am super excited about it. Here’s a video demonstrating how to do it:
I also found an excellent tutorial on how to make your own stretcher bars using inexpensive supplies that you can get at any home improvement store. Not only are they cheaper than traditional stretcher bars, but you can make them in any size you need. Here’s a link to that tutorial: How to Make Your Own Stretcher Bars for a Stretched Canvas Painting
If you are struggling to keep your watercolor paper flat like I was, hopefully these resources will help. I know they have made a huge difference for me. Also, if you know of any better ways to keep the paper from warping, feel free to share them below. Thanks so much for stopping by, and happy painting! 🙂