Working With Watercolors: watercolor paint, pencils, and stretching watercolor paper

Watercolor Paint and Pencils

I’ve never spent much time with painting. Mostly because it always seemed fussier than working with pencils, colored pencils, or ink.

Not that I haven’t painted before. I have a lovely painting of dragons circling around a night sky in acrylics and a watercolor of a stained-glass-like anise swallowtail butterfly. I’ve done a few still-lifes and a few landscapes.

Overall, I’ve found that painting requires more prep-work and planning for me. I usually need a place to set up where the painting can stay for awhile. I have to think about the floor and whether I can clean up any spills or if I need a drop-cloth. Once I start, I have to think about how the paint will or will not blend in with different pigments and how dry the different colors adjoining it are.

For me, I also have to consider how child-proof the area is. I don’t like having to clean up paint spills after a curious 2-year-old decides to investigate my paints and brushes.

So, I’ve never spent much time with painting. I prefer to focus on drawing media like pencils, colored pencil, and ink. With these I can sit anywhere and work. So long as nobody bumps my hand or drawing board, I don’t have to worry about any child-induced mistakes.

However, I recently discovered something called watercolor pencils which have made me reconsider the whole medium of paint again. These work like colored pencils at first. Then you get them wet and they turn them into watercolor paint. This gives me the control of a colored pencil with the look of a watercolor. I think these are wonderful!

For some reason, I particularly love the color purple in watercolor pencils. When I apply the water, it just seems to bloom into this rich, intense purple that gives me a irrational surge of joy. I don’t know why, but wetting purple watercolor pencil just makes me unaccountably happy.

Since working with watercolor pencils, I’ve also found a new appreciation of regular watercolor paint.  I think the reason I may have had so much trouble with watercolor paint before was the brush I was using.  I’d typically use the brush that comes with the paint.  Since then, I’ve found that a set of chisel brushes in various sizes along with one fine brush for details work much better and give me much better control than I used to get.  Also, natural sponges work extremely well for painting leaves in the distance in landscapes.

Watercolor Paper

I’ve also had to learn about watercolor paper. In my limited experience with watercolors, I always ended up with slightly wrinkled pages. I knew there was a way to keep your paper from wrinkling, however I’d never bothered to learn how. I just figured it was a matter of my not using thick enough paper.

What I have found out is that thicker paper will generally reduce wrinkles. However, it has to be really thick.

Since thicker paper is also more expensive, I investigated and found another method to prevent wrinkles. It turns out that if you’re not using very thick watercolor paper, you need to stretch it. There are a couple of ways to stretch it. I’ll describe the two methods I’ve heard of.  I tried both.

Stretching with Tape

You’ll need to buy gummed linen tape (sometimes called hinged linen tape). This can be hard to find, but you can get it online if your local craft store doesn’t have it.  You also need a drawing board, watercolor paper, a pair of scissors, some paper towels, and a bathtub (or I suppose a shower or large sink would work).

For your drawing board, I recommend a square of smooth, thick plywood.  Go overboard on the thickness.  You want something that will not warp at all.  Wrap duct tape around the edge to keep from getting splinters.

Fill the bottom of your bathtub with an inch or so of cold water. Place your watercolor paper into the water and let it soak both sides for a few minutes.

In the meantime, cut strips of your linen tape for each of the 4 sides of your paper. Make the strips about 6 inches longer than the length of each side of your paper.

Use a rag to wet your board where the paper will be attached.  This will keep the board from wicking the water away too fast and drying the paper before you have a chance to get all the tape on.

When your paper is thoroughly soaked, take it out and lay it flat on your drawing board on a level surface. Use a paper towel or sponge to smooth it out.

Moisten a strip of the tape with a sopping wet paper towel to activate the glue and position it on one edge of your paper so that 2/3 of the tape is on your board and 1/3 is on your paper. Smooth the tape down with your wet paper towel, being sure not to smear the wet towel over your paper. If you do, it might get glue on your watercolor paper, which would interfere with how the paint behaves later. Do the same thing for all four sides of the paper.

Set the board with attached paper aside where it won’t be disturbed while it dries. Make sure it’s left on a level surface so the water won’t pool on one side or another.

Once it’s dry, you may paint. Do not remove the paper from the board until your painting is finished and dried. Then trim the painting off the board with an exacto knife. You’ll find that the tape seems pretty permanently attached to your board. Don’t worry, it will come off. Take the board back into the bathroom and soak the linen tape until it loosens and can be pulled loose. Wash the remaining adhesive off and you’re all ready to stretch another sheet for your next painting.

Stretching with Staples (Best Method)

A better method is to use staples instead of  linen tape.  Soak your paper the same way and attach it to the same board with staples all around the edge.  The staples need to be very close together to keep it stretched evenly. You end up with holes in your paper this way, but it’s easier.

Why it Works

The reason that soaking and taping (or stapling) works to stretch the paper is that the paper actually expands when it’s soaked. When it dries, it will shrink. So, if you adhere the edges of the paper to a board when it’s wet, the paper will stretch when it tries to shrink while drying.

Wrinkles are caused by the water in the paint soaking into the paper and making it expand more in one spot than another. It won’t wrinkle after it’s stretched because the water in your paint won’t cause the paper to expand more than the amount it already expanded when you attached it to the board.

Pre-Stretched Watercolor Paper

You can also buy blocks of pre-stretched watercolor paper.  These are pads of watercolor paper glued all the way around.  The whole pad is stretched and mounted to a cardboard back.  Just paint on the top page, let it dry, and peel it off.  Then paint on the next down and so forth.  These work pretty good, but I have found that they still will wrinkle a bit.  Just a little.  Stretching it yourself on a board still works better.

One thought on “Working With Watercolors: watercolor paint, pencils, and stretching watercolor paper

  1. Suomi says:

    I bought this set for my mom on last Mother’s day. Painting has been her major hobbie for a few years. Before this set, she used pencil watercolor. I always complained that the colors were not so vivid. I went out and bought this set for her. After she started using it, I have to say her paintings now come to live. The colors are now so smooth and bright. The brush set also adds more varieties for her to use different techniques with her paintings. Other accessories are also useful. The box holds everything together so she won’t lose it anymore. For the price, I think it’s worth every penny, not to mention making her feel more confident in her works.

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