Warped Watercolor Paper

How to Keep Watercolor Paper From Warping

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! :)


Comments: 8

  1. Debby says:

    I’ve just tried the method on the first video in my 300 gr Canson paper, but the fibers of the paper are coming of now! The paint is all blotchy with bits of fiber in it. Do you know why this happens?

    • Beth says:

      Oh no! I’m so sorry that happened. I’m not sure why it would have ruined the paper. The only thing I can think of is that maybe the paper towels moved around a bit while you were removing the excess water. When the paper is really wet like that it doesn’t take much to damage it. Regardless of why it happened, I’m sorry that you wasted paper and that your painting came out blotchy. I’ve had a lot of luck with that method in the past, but it’s good to know that things can go wrong so that anyone else who wants to try it can proceed with caution. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  2. All you have to do is brush heavy weight paper with water on both sides then tape it down on a flat surface with masking tape or painters tape then dry it with a blow dryer so that it is totally dry befor painting. End results are all in the preparation :)

  3. Forgot to mention that sometimes you may still have buckling of divots. If this happens all you have to do is wait for the painting to dry thoroughly then flip it over, spray the back with water, mouth it out with your hands and the leave it in any type of press overnight. I use poster board, plywood and clamps. Here is a link to a video showing this method on YouTube. Hope that helps. Nice blog Btw. I just stumbled upon it :)

  4. Si Si says:

    All you need to do is wait for it to dry, then put the paper over a shirt and iron.

    • Beth says:

      That definitely works, too. Personally, I like having it pulled tight while I’m working, too so that the paper doesn’t warp and create areas where the paint pools. Ironing is great for flattening it out after it dries, though. Thanks for posting! :)

  5. Eva says:

    This is really helpful! Thank you so much for posting. I am going to try your blue tape pre-soaking technique asap! Quick question though. Once the paper is taped down do you allow the paper to fully dry before re wetting and starting your painting, or do you start painting right away? Thank you :)

    • Beth says:

      Hi Eva! Sometimes I start painting right away and sometimes I let it dry. It seems to work well either way as long as the surface of the paper is dry to the touch. I hope you have as much luck with it as I have had! Let me know how it goes if you get a chance :)

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