Stretching Watercolor Paper & How To Keep Watercolor Paper From Warping

watercolor 2407063 by pledent d5bz6x4 fullview

A watercolor painter’s worst fear is Paper Warping. As any watercolor painting enthusiast will have noticed many times when you apply too much water, the sheet of paper on which you were painting starts folding and turns into a wavy, creased mess.

The sheet starts forming ridges and wrinkles and the color begins to pool in valleys on the paper. Despite your best efforts, it’s impossible to get the paper back to its original condition.

All that time and effort you spent on this painting and all you have to show for it is a ripple of multicolored waves merging into a puddle of watercolors which is slowly but surely, forming a hole in the paper.

Featured Painting by pledent

How To Keep Watercolor Paper From Warping

in the wood 452140 by pledent d4x2koc pre

Painting by pledent

How Does This Happen?

When a lot of water is spread on the surface of a paper, the moisture begins to cause the paper to expand slightly on the wet side. The other side, however, remains dry. This disparity is what causes the paper to start buckling.

This usually happens when you have several layers of colors on a painting, or you are using a tremendous amount of water. But even then, if the paper is thick and heavy enough, it should be able to stand up to it.

If you plan on using several different shades of colors and you want to create a multi-layered, intricate piece of art, then you have no choice but to choose the right type of paper or stretch the paper prior to painting so that it doesn’t warp. Let’s take a look at which kind of watercolor papers are more liable to warping and which kind aren’t.

How To Keep Watercolor Paper From Warping 1

What Kind Of Papers Should You Be Using?

Primarily, you will find that every art shop has three different types of watercolor papers:-

  1. Hot Pressed Paper
  2. Cold Pressed (also known as NOT hot) Paper
  3. Rough Paper

The most popular choice by far is Cold Pressed Paper. If you are going to your neighborhood stationery store, in all probability, all you’ll find there are Cold pressed Papers.

The reason for Cold Pressed Papers being so popular is that have a very desirable ratio of texture and absorbency.

What this means is that the paper is rough enough to absorb your watercolor and hold it in place, while it is also smooth enough for you to wave your brush around and mix colors.

Hot Pressed Papers, on the other hand, are very smooth and have a great deal of fluidity, but they really fall short when it comes to absorbency. Hence, if you want to mix colors and create a multicolored shade, the Hot Pressed Paper is excellent for that purpose, but you’ll have a hard time keeping the colors in place and they might bleed into other parts of your painting along with the water.

On the other hand, Rough paper gives you texture and fluidity while also having such a rough grain, that it gives you maximum absorbency. It is usually hand-made and is, of course, the most expensive of the lot.

Stretching Watercolor Paper 2


Apart from texture, each paper will also have with it, a specified weight. These papers usually follow the metric system as most papers are made outside the US.

The bare minimum paper weight you should go for is 300 gsm. Most novice painters find that this weight can hold its own with several layers of paint without buckling.

If you want to be extra safe, and if you know your painting is going to have an underpainting along with several layers on top of it, buy a paper which has a more significant weight.

However, the only way to guarantee that your painting will not buckle under the water is to stretch it before you start painting.

watercolor 218022 by pledent d5c7i65 pre

Painting by pledent

Stretching Watercolor Paper to Prevent Wrapping

Here, we will illustrate two methods of stretching that should ensure your paper does not warp.

One of these methods involves you letting the paint dry overnight whereas the other method allows you to start painting immediately. The first method can be applied to any sheet whereas the immediate method only works with heavier papers.

The Cold Bath Method – Stretching Method For Later Use

Supplies Required

  1. A Large Bucket or Tray for Water
  2. Cold, clean water
  3. Gummed paper tape or masking tape
  4. Paper towels or a sponge
  5. A sturdy, flat board that is bigger than your sheet [Polystyrene, Gatorboard, Plexiglas, etc.]

How To Keep Watercolor Paper From Warping 2

Step 1. Fill up the tray or your bucket with cold, distilled water.

Step 2. Place the sheet in the tray or dip the sheet into the bucket. If the tray or bucket isn’t big enough for you to dip the sheet in entirely, you could try pulling the sheet through the water multiple times. Keep doing this until every part of the sheet is evenly soaked. Make sure you don’t fold the paper in this process as that may cause creases.

Step 3. While you are soaking the paper, remember not to touch the surface in the middle. The paper is more fragile while it is wet, and if there’s any oil on your fingers, it may show up as finger marks on the final painting.  Try wearing latex gloves if you have them.

Step 4. If your sheet is 190gsm or lighter, let it soak for about three minutes. If it’s larger than 190gsm but less than 300gsm, let it soak for about five minutes If your sheet is 300gsm or heavier, let it soak for up to eight minutes.

Step 5. Take your sheet out of the water, drain as much water from the sheet as you can and place it on a clean, sturdy board.

Step 6.  Use a clean sponge of paper towels to absorb excess water from the surface. Remember the idea is to blot excess water, not dry out the sheet.

Step 7. Tape the sheet to the board using gummed paper tape or masking tape. Place the tape along all four edges of the paper, covering about a quarter of an inch. Remember to apply a little water to the adhesive of the paper but not too much as that can ruin the glue.

Step 8. Let the sheet dry overnight. In the next morning, it will be stretched flat on the surface and will not warp while you paint on it.  If the paper is heavier, you don’t even need to wait overnight. You can start as soon as you find the sheet drying.

Once you’ve finished painting, you can cut away the taped edges using a ruler and a knife. You can even re-wet the tape and then peel it off carefully.

The Wet Brush Method – Stretching Method For Immediate Use

Supplies Required 

  1. A large brush
  2. Cold, clean water
  3. Paper towels
  4. A sturdy board which is bigger than your sheet

Step 1. Take your sheet and place it flat over the board. Ensure there are no creases or folds.

Step 2. Use a large brush and completely we the front of the sheet with water. Then turn the paper over and repeat on the other side. Use as much water as you can but ensure that the sheet is evenly saturated and there are no dry spots.

Step 3. Let the sheet stay flat on the board for about 15 minutes.

Step 4. Roll out two layers of your paper towels over the sheet. Press it firmly across the paper to soak up any excess water. Just like the last method, use force but don’t soak up all the water.

Step 5. Start painting while the watercolor paper is still damp. Don’t worry- the paper is not totally wet, so your colors won’t get mixed up.

Note. This method might not work that well with lightweight sheets. It’s ideally suited for heavier sheets which are pretty warp-resistant already.

Stretching Watercolor Paper 1

How To Flatten An Already Warped Paintings

In case your painting got warped, but the colors are still intact, then all hope is not lost yet. All you have is a bulge or a ridge somewhere on the paper, which you need to flatten out.

However, the method we’re about to describe is risky, so proceed with extreme caution.

The Iron Method

Using an iron might be your best in flattening a warped painting.

Step 1. Place the painting, with the painting side facing down on an ironing board. Obviously, do this only after the paint has dried.

Step 2.Place a hand towel or a washcloth) over the paper.

Step 3. Turn your iron on at a setting which is between low and medium. Keep the steam off, so that there’s no additional moisture on your painting.

Step 4. Iron the painting until the ridges disappear and it gets flattened.

Note. You might want to place a piece of aluminum foil or a thin sheet of metal in between the painting and the hand towel. This can help spread out the heat more evenly and will also make for a more firm and flat surface.

The Mattress Method

Insert your painting in-between two thin books or magazines. Then place the books with your painting inside, under your mattress.

In a few days, the paper should be a bit less warped. This method isn’t recommended for lighter papers though as when you move around on your mattress, it might cause the lighter papers to tear.

Final Words

It can be very annoying and an immense mood killer if you see your paper warping right when you are in the thick of your painting. We would always recommend getting heavier papers and then stretching it out anyway, just so there’s no chance of warping at all. It’s best to avoid the whole problem altogether by using watercolor blocks, but they are too expensive for everyday use.

Well, that’s it from us today. We hope this guide has been useful to you.

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Sudarshan Kar

Sudarshan Kar

As Lead Editor of Homesthetics for almost a decade now, Sudarshan knows the website inside-out. His journalistic experience shaped the editorial and integrity guidelines that define the platform today.

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