The Art of Stretching Watercolor Paper


Watercolor artists often employ a technique known as stretching watercolor paper. But what does it mean exactly, and why is it necessary? In this article, we’ll explore the reasons behind stretching watercolor paper and learn how to do it effectively.

Erik Davis Watercolor

Why Stretch Watercolor Paper?

When painting with watercolors, especially on lighter-weight sheets, the paper tends to buckle and warp when it becomes wet. The moisture causes the surface to expand on the wet side while the other side remains dry, resulting in an uneven surface. This makes it difficult for artists to work with as the paint accumulates in the valleys created by the buckling. Heavier applications of water exacerbate this issue, making lighter weight sheets even more susceptible to buckling.

To combat this problem, many artists choose to “soak and stretch” their watercolor paper, ensuring it remains perfectly flat throughout the painting process.

Method 1: Stretching Paper for Later Use

Supplies Needed:

  • Watercolor paper
  • Large clean tray for water (should have one dimension slightly longer than the smallest dimension of your sheet)
    • If a tray is unavailable, a spray bottle will suffice
  • Clean water
  • Gummed paper tape or butcher tape
  • Paper towel or sponge
  • Sturdy board (e.g., Polystyrene Board, Gatorboard, Plexiglas, Lexan, Marine Ply) that is slightly larger than your sheet
  1. Begin by soaking the sheet in a tray of clean, cold water. If the entire sheet doesn’t fit in the tray, you can dip one end into the water, pulling the sheet through multiple times until each part is fully submerged and evenly soaked. For sheets that are 90lb/190gsm or lighter, a soaking time of about 3 minutes is sufficient. For heavier sheets (140lb/300gsm or more), soak for up to 8 minutes. Avoid touching the paper’s surface while it is wet, as the oil from your fingers can leave marks. If necessary, consider wearing latex gloves during the soaking process.

  2. Carefully drain the water from the tray and place the soaked sheet onto a clean, sturdy board.

  3. Use a paper towel or sponge to gently blot excess water from the sheet.

  4. Dampen gummed paper tape or butcher tape slightly with a sponge or paintbrush. Be cautious not to saturate the tape as it will wash away the adhesive. Apply the tape along all four outer edges of the paper, covering approximately ¼” of the paper.

  5. Allow the paper to dry overnight. Once dry, it will be stretched tightly on the board, preventing warping when watercolor is applied. Paint your masterpiece while the sheet remains taped to the board. Once your painting is completely dry, cut away the taped edges using a ruler and an X-acto knife. If you wish to keep the existing edge of the paper, you can re-wet the tape and carefully remove it.

*Note: If a tray is unavailable, you can place the sheet directly on a clean, sturdy board. Use a spray bottle with clean water to fully soak both sides of the sheet before following steps 3-5 as detailed above.

Method 2: Stretching Paper for Immediate Use

Supplies Needed:

  • Watercolor paper
  • Large brush
  • Clean water
  • Paper towel
  • Sturdy board (e.g., Polystyrene Board, Gatorboard, Plexiglas, Lexan, Marine Ply) that is slightly larger than your sheet
  1. Lay your sheet of watercolor paper over the board.

  2. Using a large brush, generously saturate the front and back of the sheet with water. Don’t be afraid to use an ample amount of water.

  3. Flip the sheet back over and let it sit face up for approximately 15 minutes.

  4. Place two layers of clean paper towel over the sheet and firmly press down to soak up any excess water.

  5. Begin your painting while the sheet is still damp.


Stretching watercolor paper is a valuable practice for artists working with watercolor paints. By following these techniques, you can ensure that your paper remains flat and allows for smooth, undistorted brushstrokes. So, stretch your watercolor paper with care, and let your creativity flow.

Learn more about watercolor techniques and supplies at Quill And Fox.