The joy of (watercolour) stretching

While I admit that painting on stretched paper is joyful, I’m still a little shy of investing in special paper stretchers – especially when there’s a more traditional and cheaper alternative. Despite my previous bad experiences of trying to stretch paper, I really don’t like the idea that a piece of paper, some water, a board and some gummed tape can get the better of me!

I decided to tape up a half sheet of some old Arches 140lb Rough that I have lying around. Here’s what it looked like when I was done:

Now I’m sure you don’t me to tell you what a disaster this was! Here’s my best guess at where this attempt went wrong and what I’ve learnt:

  1. I soaked the paper for far too long, I think it was just too wet
  2. For part of the time while it was drying, I had the board resting at an angle (this was to make it easier for me to actually ‘watch’ the paper dry – an indictment of just how sad my life has become!) I think this meant that the moisture in the paper ran to one edge – soaking the gummed tape to such an extent that it rendered it useless!
  3. Seemingly simple things can be really frustrating
  4. My refusal to seek advice via YouTube is just another sign of my pig-headed, cutting my nose off to spite my face, stubborn-ness!

In the spirit of waste not want not, I decided that I’d try to make best use of this ‘half stretched’ piece of paper. Following a recent visit to Tate Modern, where I was able to spend some time in the fabulous bookshop (more of this visit in another post sometime!) I subsequently ordered the Tate Watercolour Manual – Lessons from the Great Masters. I haven’t spent much time with it yet but, compared to many ‘how to paint’ books, it appears to feature some really wonderful examples, exercises and insights.

Just for fun, I chose one exercise pretty much at random that I thought would put my vaguely stretched piece of paper to the test. The exercise was to build a scene up from a wet initial wash and to then keep on ‘charging’ parts of it with stronger pigments.

Here’s how it progressed:

First wash. Fast, loose and very wet!
So much for my perfectly stretched paper!
Second stage. Strengthening the darks, scratching out the odd tree trunk and branch
Applying some darker tree trunks and branches into the lighter areas for contrast

I must confess that building this up, without any initial sketching whatsoever was quite invigorating. It’s an approach that allows some of watercolours more exciting and magical traits to shine through which I think is really wonderful. This felt like a great limbering up exercise but I was really keen to get this off my board so I could get another sheet stretched out.

Taking all of what I’d learnt from my first attempt, I’m delighted to report that my second effort was much more successful. I did take a photo to share but despite my unbounded pride at my achievement, no matter how I tried to photograph it, it was ultimately just a flat piece of paper stuck to a board!

My choice of subject this time was another view that I thought would both test and make the most of the stretched paper.  Here’s how it looked at an early stage, with a very simple outline sketch, a little bit of masking fluid dashed across the foreground area, and the sky washed in.

sketch done, masking fluid applied, sky painted… (with apologies for the shadows over the photo – I was in a rush!)

The sky was done by turning the board upside down and applying a pale wash of raw sienna along the horizon line, next to which was applied a pale wash of cadmium red, next to which a wash of cobalt blue. The colours were allowed to run into one another in one direction, and then I turned the board the other way up to allow the colours to run back down again, merging together all the way down as they went.  The reason I’ve gone into some detail about this is mainly because I was really pleased with how this turned out! I also really enjoyed painting this on a stretched surface, which remained perfectly flat throughout despite working with a lot of water.

While this was drying, I painted the shallow water of the foreground, working down the paper and building up the strength of the wash as I went. Next came the distant hills, and some of the thin sandbars near the horizon. I tried to add the boats as simply as possible, often just suggesting the shape with brushstroke.

Distant land, boats and masts along the horizon line

Next, to break the monotony of all those horizontals, I started to add in the verticals of the masts. This was made much easier by having perfectly flat paper to paint on, all I had to concentrate on was keeping my hand steady!

A steady hand for the tall masts and rigging

The foreground water was now completely dry, so I removed the masking fluid that I’d applied at the beginning. I did this to reserve some whites to try to show the light catching on the wet sad protruding through the shallow water. I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to achieve this effect but I thought it would be better to mask this out rather than trying to paint around these areas.

With the masking fluid removed

Once this was removed I added in the reflections of the taller masts. Next I loosely applied a colour that I thought approximated with wet sand and put in some darker touches here and there over the reserved areas of white.

Finishing touches
Tranquil time…

I enjoyed painting this, and particularly enjoyed all of the benefits of applying washes to stretched paper!

I quite like the combination of carefully controlled washes combined with the loosely suggested boats. My favourite part of this? (In the unlikely event that it’s been on anyone’s mind!) The sky. I think it has a simple, subtle richness to it that is really evocative of a particular time of day, maybe just before the magical golden hour.

Another piece of paper is already stretched and ready go. I don’t want to jinx anything but I think I’m finally beginning to get the hang of paper stretching!

Thoughts on The joy of (watercolour) stretching

28 thoughts on “The joy of (watercolour) stretching”

  1. This painting is really beautiful, John. I guess the stretching process is coming along for you. Those tones are so subtle, yet rich at the same time. You truly have a gift, John. I so enjoy your work.

    Thank you so much for sharing this beautiful work.

  2. Pingback: Another watercolour sunset

  3. I’lll try again! Yesterday I added a ‘page 2’ but it refused to accept my email address??? So here goes. To answer some ?s, no you cant remove that brown gummed tape! ‘Tis there to stay. If you use 300# paper instead of 140# It should, when damp/wet, stick to glass or such hard surface. The wetness forms a kind of suction that keeps it flat. But sometimes you do not WANT the entire surface wet; you may just want to wet a specific part of the paper or several so just use a brush. You may just want the sky wet at first. There is no need to SOAK the paper; you can spray it selectively or the entire piece, or using a large brush, just wet the surface with that! I haven’t yet mastered WHEN to scrape to make white lines, the time has to be just right! Above all, John, I hope you pursue working loosely instead of relying on the ‘security’ of copying photos You know you can always do those tight things, enjoy the freedom of taking risks and try to have FUN! Please yourself instead of some imaginary buyer! Be wary of always ‘seeking approval’ and take some risks! IT feels great to experience that senses of FREEDOM

    1. Hi Marge and thanks for this, I feared as much about the gummed tape! I have painted on a much heavier stock when I ordered a pack by mistake. It was more like card than paper! Even so, it did, when very wet, still buckle but the main deterrent is that it’s crazy expensive. It was double the amount that I usually pay (but not, in my opinion, twice as good to paint on!).

      As for the rest of your message, I’m afraid I’m not promising anything Marge. I will continue to paint whatever I choose to paint in whatever manner I choose to paint it. The way I paint will continue to change with time and experience and I accept and welcome this. No one has to buy my paintings and I don’t paint with any expectation of selling them to buyers, whether real or imaginary! I don’t paint in order to seek anyone’s approval. I paint for me. This is my freedom and it means much more to me than painting loosely because you think I should! All the best Marge

      1. Hell, yeah–have at it, John, whenever you feel like it and damn the torpedos! Your post is very enlightening and much appreciated; thank you. Now all I’ve got to do now is find out whatever a KB Stretcher is…

        1. Hi Jess and thanks for this and apologies for speaking in code! the KB Stretcher is the Ken Bromley Perfect Paper Stretcher, you can find out more about them on the Ken Bromely art supplies website here: – and here’s the original review I did of mine some years ago: Thanks for taking the time to comment, it’s much appreciated!

    1. Thanks Jean and yes, so far I think I’ve had about as many failures as I have successes on the stretching front. I’m hopeful that with a little more practice, I’ll start to tip the balance more in favour of the successes!

  4. Congratulations John! You finally achieved what I’ve been talking about! I LOVE your new, loose painting! And you say it was FUN doing…WOW! I think you’ve been too hung up on doing meticulous expansive landscapes/cityscapes to really enjoy painting with watercolor? WC is so unique it’s a shame to waste it’s potential by excessive control with the minute, unnecessary details but explore instead the wonderful things WC can do on it’s own. In your brave experiment, you’ve discovered at last, the joy of this freedom and your result is far more interesting that anything you’ve done so far! The story is best told by allowing the viewer to add his own ending, let him ‘connect’ with the picture in his own way Let the WC speak for itself…it does that better than anything man can do! There are so many different British WCists today who have discovered the FREEDOM of letting the WC speak! You should have FUN painting, not fret over unnecessary control.
    As to wet-in’wet, i usually work smaller because I lack the room to go large (which I’d love doing) so I often use the ‘blocks’ of paper, mostly Arches, and even then the paper often separates from the block but when dry will or can be flattened easily. From what I read, using 300# paper not 140# can solve that, and you need not soak the paper, you can just spray of apply water with a brush. Using a waterproof surface, it with stick to the surface itself. Also, many times, if you want to do a more controlled wash, you will want to just wet a specific surface, not the whole thing. It takes time and practice to accomplish what you’ve just achieved! Have FUN painting, not be tortured by perfection as you’ve been! Again, CONGRATULATIONS! GET CLOSER to your subject, ‘It ain’t gonna bite!’

    1. Haha, wonderful Marge! At last I’ve finally earned your approval instead of your opprobrium! I’m not sure that the painting you like heralds a whole change of direction or new chapter, but we’ll see. Following an exercise in a book is very different to being able to ‘see’ in this way – plus I think it’s much more tricky to apply to more urban subjects (which will undoubtedly continue to interest me). It does however open up some new possibilities – and I have to say that I’m delighted to have had this response from you! All the best Marge, and thanks again

      1. Michael Partridge

        Hi John. How right you are. Copying a style is easy but seeing in that way is very difficult. At least that’s what I find.

        1. Me too Michael – I’ve often found myself squinting at a scene while wondering, I wonder how Edward Seago/Edward Wesson/Rowland Hilder etc etc would ‘see’ this! I do feel (probably more hope actually!) that my own vision is becoming stronger over time!

  5. In the past I have attempted to stretch my paper twice but I still had buckling when I later used the paper. I figured that I rather skip the process because it didn’t seem to make a difference. I was sure to follow all instructions, no idea what went wrong. I have learned to paint on buckling paper, but your success makes me want to give it another go at it.

    Beautiful painting by the way, I agree that sky is top notch. I can see how you pursuing stretching your paper has affected your approach to painting, bravo!

    1. Hi Margaret and many thanks for this. I’m not certain, but when I look at your paintings, I can’t help but think that there are times when you are painting super wet! Based on my limited experience to date, I’m not sure the gummed tape approach would be sufficient to cope with that treatment. I think the Ken Bromley style stretcher would, but I don’t know how easy it is to lay your hand on these where you are? Also, I don’t get the impression that painting on buckled paper is holding you back at all! Good luck Margaret – and many congratulations on the success of your recent show, well deserved and I’m sure there’s much more success to come!

      1. Haha, yes I work quite wet and it doesn’t hold me back but reading your posts and viewing your paintings, it makes me want to join the “stretching club”! If anything it would help with the residual ripples that remain, especially on half sheets of Arches paper. I guess I would have to re-wet the back of the painting and clip it down on a board. There you go, my solution right there!

        1. I think you may have saved yourself a whole heap of trouble and frustration right there! I know that another follower has in the past recommended wetting the back of the paper, laying a cutting mat or board over it and then weighting it down with some heavy books. I haven’t tried this yet but it may be worth giving a go.

    1. Thanks so much for this, I really appreciate it. Because I didn’t know quite how I was going to paint that part, I kept it to what I thought would be a bare minimum. So pleased you think it works!

  6. Great! Now I can send you all my redundant rolls of brown paper gummed tape! Expert paper stretching demonstration the second time – though you explain more about how you did it wrong than how you did it right! A very atmospheric painting though, as you know, I would prefer to have something going on… maybe a nice tide-mark of plastic containers and a dead fish in the foreground – very topical, too. Brilliant sky and everything successful (apart from the hovering boat on the right – or is that an alien craft landing? Excellent!!). Serendipitously, I like the colour of the masking fluid in the earlier pictures and felt the water fell a bit flat when you removed it. Maybe break up and extend the rather literal mast reflections as they cross the sand bars??? Nit picking as usual.

    1. Thanks Rob – I know what you mean about the foreground. While I like to have some restful areas in a painting, there’s perhaps a little too much resting to be had in this one! I reached a point where I was happy with this, and feared that by keep fiddling, I would run the risk of ruining it entirely. With the landing space craft, I think I didn’t always marry up what I was painting with what the reference photo and vice versa. I’m surprised that you didn’t pick me up on the lack of reflection for the boat with the tallest mast! In my photo, this boat is on a wider sandbank, so didn’t have reflection. In my painting, it’s much closer to the water, so should, I think, have a reflection. I only noticed this after I’d ‘finished’ it and could bear the though of trying to add it in! Hopefully if you didn’t notice this a being untoward, nor will many other people! Quite agree about breaking the mast reflections up as they go over the sandbars. It was in my mind to do this but I got carried away with trying to get them done swiftly and straight! PS – please don’t send me any gummed tape, I’m pretty certain the novelty will wear off long before I finish the roll I’ve got!

      1. I think the very fact that it didn’t have a reflection caused my mind to interpret it as sitting on a sandbank. Now I know the dreadful truth, I’ve lost all faith.

        1. Ironically, after stretching the paper for this, the painting is currently lying under a rug to flatten it out after I left it curled up against a wall! I’m going to have another look at it tonight. I may see if I can land that spaceship and add in some sandbars in an effort to restore your faith!

  7. Michael Partridge

    I liked both paintings but especially the really loose one on “half stretched” paper. I feel this is where watercolour really comes into its own.

    I have found that whilst I could stretch paper using gummed tape it did not always stick very well. I also found cutting the finished painting off and cleaning off the remaining tape from the board often damaged the board’s surface.

    With the KB paper stretcher I find I can work very very wet if I need to without the paper cockling. I feel it’s worth the cost of the stretcher. ( incidentally I do not get commission from Ken Bromley!!)

    1. Thanks for this Michael. I completely agree about watercolour coming into it’s own when treated more freely and unrestrained – (if only I could stop my interfering meddling ways!). I was going to ask what people did with the tape that’s left stuck to the paper? Is there a way to remove it? or do you cut this off (I’m not sure what the long term effect of leaving it on there is if you put a mount over the top of it?
      So far, with the help of a little DIY scraper I have, I haven’t had too much trouble removing the tape from my board, but it is still a dull job to do. I expect a I will get a KB one for half sheets. I feel I’ve proven a point with gummed tape approach but it’s certainly not as fool proof as a KB stretcher and I’m not keen on how the tape is prone to lifting when soaked. Shame you don’t get commission for Ken Bromley, I certainly wouldn’t begrudge it! Thanks Michael

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