How to stretch paper, the “Anne Lawson Way”

I taught Primary children (5 to 12) for many years. One of my goals was to encourage them to be lifelong learners. Not necessarily in academia, but with skills and information that helped build upon their passions. And I certainly do what I encouraged; I love to learn new things ~ skills, information, hobbies.

My latest is how to stretch watercolour paper. The most interesting thing I learnt was that watercolour paper is pretty tough. You can add a good deal of water to it without it going pulpy, probably because it is made of cotton rather than wood chips.

Let me show you the “Anne Lawson Way” of stretching paper. There will be other ways, and probably better ways, but this works for me.

Why do you need to stretch watercolour paper? Many artists wet the paper before they begin and tape it down on a board. This keeps the paper flat as they lay down washes of water and paint. My painting method is different as I begin on dry paper that is not taped down. As I add water and watery paint the paper buckles because it dries at different rates. If I am doing a botanic art subject I usually only work in small areas, such as a leaf, and the paper isn’t as affected. However, now that I am experimenting with looser washes I am finding the paper is buckling quite a bit.

I needed some gummed tape, brown paper on one side, gummed on the other.

I also needed a buckled painting.

(Photo copyright: Anne Lawson 2015)

(Photo copyright: Anne Lawson 2015)

The unused shelf of the computer desk was perfect for the job and it easily fits two A4 works. I also rounded up an old towel, a container of water, a clean cloth and some books.

The first job was to lay the painting face down on the towel and to use the cloth to saturate the back with water.

IMG_2604

(Photo copyright: Anne Lawson 2015)

I learnt not to be stingy with the water, as the paper can take a lot. However, I was careful not to use so much that it ran off. Water on the front would damage the work. The towel absorbs any extra moisture. I left it for a few minutes to allow the water to absorb into the fibres. My paper was quite damp and bendy ~ perfect.

You can see the sheen of the water -- not too wet and not dry, just right. (Photo copyright: Anne Lawson 2015)

You can see the sheen of the water — not too wet and not dry, just right. (Photo copyright: Anne Lawson 2015)

Nice and bendy (Photo copyright: Anne Lawson 2015)

Nice and bendy (Photo copyright: Anne Lawson 2015)

I don’t have a photo of the next step, as it is a two-handed job. I held the paper at the top and gently but firmly pulled. I moved down the sides, pulling and stretching the fibres and repeating for the shorter sides. You can actually feel the paper give a little when you do this. It would be possible to rip the paper, but it seems to take a surprising amount of pull.

Then I laid the painting onto the board. If you do this, make sure your board is clean and dry ~ no point going through all of this only to have the painting damaged by carelessness. after wiping the adhesive side of the tape with a damp cloth, I carefully put the tape about 1 cm along one side of the paper.

Activating the adhesive. (Photo copyright: Anne Lawson 2015)

Activating the adhesive. (Photo copyright: Anne Lawson 2015)

Then repeated for the other three sides. As I put them down I stretched out the paper some more so that it was as taut as possible.

I ran the damp cloth over the paper again, just to be on the safe side (!) and left it for about 10 minutes. When the paper was damp, not wet, I put down a paper towel and piled on some heavy books. Then I left it for a few hours.

Very neat that botanic art books are also nice and heavy! (Photo copyright: Anne Lawson 2015)

Very neat that botanic art books are also nice and heavy! (Photo copyright: Anne Lawson 2015)

When it is ready the tape easily peels off the board. However, it doesn’t peel off the paper. So far I have only cut the tape to the edge, rather than risk tearing the paper. The centimetre strip of tape will not affect the painting at all, and would be easily covered by a frame. I will investigate soaking the tape off though. (Any thoughts?)

It is a very useful skill to have learnt. I can create puddles and have great fun with water, knowing that the paper can be flattened!

I will leave you with a video from a watercolour paper manufacturer, showing how they make the paper.

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About anne54

Botanic artist
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13 Responses to How to stretch paper, the “Anne Lawson Way”

  1. katechiconi says:

    I knew it was strong stuff but I didn’t know it could be flattened again once buckled. Makes sense; you’re just realigning the fibres. I was taught to stretch paper the way you described at the beginning, but in later years I didn’t bother because I was using gouache and a much drier brush. Any minor wobbliness disappeared if the thing was framed, and didn’t matter if it wasn’t! Have you experimented with misting the back with a spray bottle? Maybe it doesn’t get wet enough…

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    • anne54 says:

      The minor wobbles didn’t worry me so much with earlier botanical art paintings. Also, I didn’t know that there was a solution. Now I am pulling out unframed works and giving them the flattening treatment. And now I have learnt a better way from Laura’s comment, there will be no stopping me!

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      • Laura Dicus says:

        Glad I can help make things easier for you! Dear hubby won’t let me take paintings out of frames. There’s one magnolia botanical that’s screaming to be flattened but he won’t let me do it. Maybe if he goes on vacation for 3-4 days I could get it done and rehung without him knowing. You know that itch, right?

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        • anne54 says:

          That made me smile! I had a vision of you packing Hubby off on vacation so that you could deal with the buckled painting! Although it might be nicer for both of you to go away and not worry about the buckling. ☺️

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  2. Laura Dicus says:

    It’s a good idea to remove tape before framing as it has tanins in it that can discolor the watercolor paper over time. The only way to do this for the gummed tape is to cut it off.
    I use this method all the time and find that taping the paper down as it dries isn’t necessary. Simply laying it on a flat surface on a towel with a piece of Gator Board on the back and weighting the “sandwich” with books works fine. Billy Showell places hers inside a large pad of paper without a towel then weights it all down with books, encyclopedias I think.
    The key is to let it dry slowly. I also like to open the “sandwich” every 8 hours or so to let it breathe for 15 minutes or so. This is especially important here in the Pacific Northwest with our humidity and (normally) cool temperatures.

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  3. EllaDee says:

    I never knew that you could do that, before or after on watercolour paper. Very useful to know you can flatten out buckled paper 🙂

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  4. Inese Poga Art plus Life says:

    I also do this flattening very simply because I would not have your patience and I have lots of buckled paintings (demos). I use thick paper towels, place painting face down, make the back wet, one layer of paper towel and heavy book (or many books), next day it’s flat and looks like new.

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    • anne54 says:

      Thanks for explaining it, Inese. I am going to give that method a go. It seems much simpler and therefore easier than taping the paper down. And I certainly have a lot of heavy books!

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  5. Fascinating post and thread, Anne.

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  6. Pingback: A couple of updates | Anne Lawson

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