Buckle Up!

Yes, folks, this is my promised rant about watercolor paper. Now that I’ve been playing around with my watercolors for a few weeks, I’m remembering my frustrations and why I finally gave up watercolor painting. It’s not because of the paints or the process; it’s because of the paper.

In the past, when I was first learning about art, I read countless articles and watched many video demonstrations on the art of “watercolor paper stretching.” And I’ve tried them all.

For me, plain and simple, nothing works. At least, nothing works too well.

I do have a block of Arches watercolor paper which I purchased back in 2016 when I was first learning art and first exploring watercolor. Using it helped. But Arches is expensive, definitely not a good choice for novice watercolorists like me, and certainly not the sort of paper I want to use for watercolor warm-ups and practice sessions.


It leads to a bit of a catch-22. When you’re learning watercolor, you don’t want to use expensive paper, but, if you use cheap paper that buckles and warps, you’ll never learn watercolor.

Maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but that was how I felt back in 2016, and in many ways, I still have those same feelings now in 2020.

I have learned one thing though, purely by accident. It’s an encouraging sign. What happened was that I went through my usual procedure for stretching a sheet of my Canson 140-lb. cold-pressed watercolor. I then taped it to my board — which is actually a sheet of Plexiglas. The paper did warp slightly, as it always does. But I went right ahead and started my painting process — part of my 100-day project. I worked around the warp as best I could and washed in the colors for a sky.

That was all I did. I left the painting right where it was, and went on to other art projects. The next morning I came back to the studio, did a few watercolor warm-ups on a nearby table, and then prepared to work more on my painting from the previous day. It had, over the intervening 24 hours, dried completely, and to my amazement, the warps and buckles were no longer there…well, a little warp was there, but it was barely noticeable.

Hallelujah! Does this mean that if I work slowly — very slowly — on a watercolor painting, I might be able to avoid those awful buckles? In the past I’ve been impatient. I’ve rarely ever allowed anything to dry thoroughly while working. I think I might have just learned a very valuable lesson — about painting and about patience.

Or maybe that experience was just a fluke. I don’t know yet. I am open to ideas and suggestions from other watercolorists. What methods do you use to stretch your paper? What specific watercolor paper do you use for practice?

As much as possible, I’m doing my warm-ups and practice work on newsprint or on older paintings, using up every possible inch, painting over old colors, and gradually becoming more familiar with my paints and water, and with my brushes, too. From time to time, though, I need the practice of working on actual watercolor paper, so I’m open for suggestion on what brands you recommend.

So…how do YOU avoid buckles and warps in your watercolor work?





    1. While doing a little research this morning about watercolor paper, I actually found a “perfect paper stretcher” — that’s the name of the product. It’s from Ken Bromley Art Supplies, but I haven’t been able to find a price for it. It looks like a flat board with “grippers” on it. If you’d like to check it out, here’s a link: https://www.artsupplies.co.uk/item-perfect-paper-stretcher.htm I did look at Amazon but they don’t seem to carry it.

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  1. In the style I paint with watercolor, botanical style, I use very little water so the paper doesn’t buckle as long as I have a 140lb paper. But I completely understand your rant!! That’s why I like painting birds in oil. No buckling!

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    1. I guess it’s becoming especially frustrating for me since I’m learning to “loosen up” and I need more and more water LOL. I’ve always admired botanical art. I don’t have the talent for it, and I know I wouldn’t have the patience either! You’re fortunate to have the necessary skills and temperament.

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  2. I use to fret about warping and tried stretching, I hated it. Not worth my time. Believe it or not I forget that it can be an issue with artists. I simply reesigned to live with it. After time I don’t even notice it, sounds unbelievable but it is true. I have worked on artist quality paper from the start. Though I have heard that some people warm up on butcher paper, newspaper. I mainly work on a quarter sheet which really only cost me $1.75 or so depending on the paper. I work on all kinds and all prices. I avoid buying 300# simply because I don’t like the way the paint seems to soak in and it appears dull to me. Canson Heritage is one of the more inexpensive papers and that might be the way to go until you feel that you are ready to spend more money. Arches is more costly but it is a dream to work on which to me helps me to be more successful. I hope that you do continue because I think that you have made a connection with watercolor. Art supplies are expensive but I rather pay more for good quality. I have always struggled with purchasing but I do what I can and it seems to work out. Cheers!

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    1. I still have some Arches which I might break out and use. I’ve been making some significant changes in my approach, learning much more about handling the paint and the water, and in future paintings I think you’ll be seeing a huge improvement. I’m really starting to get excited about watercolor now. 🙂


  3. I use whatever materials I have available to learn about what works and what doesn’t. I don’t stretch anything. I use sketchbooks (for drawing), multi-media notebooks, paper scraps of different types of watercolor paper, rice paper, and marker paper. I started to breakdown the results for you here, but realized how long and detailed the response was getting. LoL … Hm, might be best to save that for a future blog post. But I noticed the overall theme of my answers was along the lines of “the more you experiment, the more you know.” There are a lot of variables to consider with ratio, timing, space, and textures as well as water, paint, and paper. Even room humidity and weather and can affect the end results. When creating blossoms, you have, literally, *seconds* between applying water and dropping paint before the quality of the end result changes.

    So, I think, the answers lie in recognizing that lots of variables are part of what makes watercolor what it is. And “what works best” depends on your purpose and what resonates with you, personally. Some people prefer a lot of “tooth” while others prefer smooth surfaces. Texture, in turn, affects absorbency and drying times. And each of those react differently to different amounts of water. And so on. So, it’s not so much *what* you use. It’s more about finding the right combination of variables that serve your purpose. And then testing those variables to see if they give the results that you want before producing a composition. If I plan on doing a full-size composition, I try to remember to use scraps of paper and do paint swatches or single motifs as a warm-up to experiment with variables first. Thicker paints don’t usually require this kind of attention, but thin, watery applications require project-by-project adjustments between the amount of water, the type of paper, and timing for the size of each space being worked on.

    I’ll try to go into more detail for a future blog post and point you toward it when I do. 🙂 But for now, I have only one “don’t” … marker paper. >.< Just … don't. LoL … Marker paper breaks apart very easily when it gets wet, which surprised me because regardless of whether it's alcohol or water-based, markers have a liquid component. It's just very low by comparison to watercolors. But too much water on marker paper very easily turns into "pills" of fibers, leaving holes where I attempt to blend two or more colors. So, even newsprint and sketchbook paper do a better job of handling watercolors than marker paper. Lesson learned: save the marker paper for Copics or dry media experiments only. 🙂

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    1. Variables… LOL. I mentioned that in the post I wrote for tomorrow (more on the topic of watercolor paper.) That’s where a lot of my frustration as a learner comes in. There are so many variables to consider it’s difficult to make consistent progress. I may see improvement in one area, but then maybe it’s not improvement, maybe it’s just that what of those variables has changed. Maybe what I’m doing doesn’t work with one paper but would work well on another. So many things come into play! On a more positive note though, I have made a few changes in how I’m doing my watercolor, and the results have been surprisingly good. I think I’m finally getting it together! I have a few paintings — in different styles — that are actually turning out the way I want. They’ll be coming up in future posts.

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  4. Never stretch, can’t be bothered. I can’t say I have issues with paper buckling, if it does it flattens out when it dries. Also don’t tape it down as then it does buckle terribly and you can’t move it around. At most I have a clip at the top so it doesn’t slide off when I decide I suddenly want to have it vertical. I often just manipulate corners of the paper. I only ever use 140lb.

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    1. I’m using 140-lb cold press (one of the less expensive brands) and I was stretching and taping, but lately I haven’t bothered. I’m learning that if I work in stages and allow the sheet to THOROUGHLY DRY between one stage and the next, the buckles and warps are at a minimum, although they are still there. I do occasionally tape a sheet to my “board’ — which is really a sheet of plexiglas — but that’s for looks only. I like having the narrow bands of white “framing” the painting. It’s also convenient because I can easily pick up the plexiglas and move it as I work on different projects. I’m finally starting to learn and understand more about watercolors “dancing on the page”, and I’m grateful to you for all your advice and suggestions.

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      1. I use a square of greenhouse replacement ‘glass’ (it’s plastic) as my painting board in here. It’s not too big and heavy, easy to wipe clean. I can put a plastic box under one end if I want it tilted slightly or prop it upright against my cupboards for a more drastic run. But I do most of my work flat. I never totally soak my paper, I’m not a wet in wet fan, an all over mist is more than sufficient for me. And the paper needs to have size in it in order for the watercolour to sit on top and do its magic (dance on the page).

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      2. Right now my studio is a mess. My husband is painting the walls, so everything has been moved out of the way. For my watercolor, I’m actually sitting on the floor with my board propped up just a bit. I’ll be glad when I can get things back together again. 🙂


  5. Another non-stretcher here. I gave up with that stupid gum-tape very quickly.

    I usually use low tack masking tape to hold it to the board but clips with some cardboard padding work just as well.

    Ironing the painting afterwards works well btw, face down, in between other sheets of paper so no direct contact. Or a (very) light water spray on the back and squashed between heavy books for a few days does the trick.

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    1. Thanks for the tips. It seems like the biggest problem I have is with the paper buckling during the painting process, even when I tape it down, so just flattening it out later still leaves places where the paint pooled while drying. It’s frustrating, to say the least. But, on the other hand, all my watercolors are just “practice pieces” — I’m not really trying to create art, just having fun and learning what I can in the process.

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      1. I probably don’t lay it down really wet so avoid some of the issue maybe.

        I’ve been frustrating myself with acrylics for the first time, though of course – that frustration is still fun 😀

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      2. Acrylics and I don’t get along. I sometimes use them for toning my canvases for oil paintings, but as far as acrylic painting… nope. I tried it and never could get the hang of it. For me it was far more frustration than fun. I did have a chance to try my first acrylic pouring, and I’ll admit that was fun. It’s not something I want to pursue too much, but I’m sure I’ll do it as a little hobby from time to time. It will be fun to do with the grandkids, too.

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