Art Blog

Fine Art Friday: How to Stretch Watercolor Paper

Stretching one’s own canvas is common for the creation process of oil and acrylic art. Most watercolorists stretch their paper before painting, also. The process makes the fibers of the paper expand, helping to avoid buckling and warping. It’s much more enjoyable to paint on a flat surface and be able to use as much water as you want. Also, it’s easier to paint a flat wash if the paper is stretched

watercolor paper comes in different thicknesses

Watercolor paper comes in three different weights: 90lb, 140lb and 300lb. This number actually corresponds to the weight of 500 sheets of paper. The higher the number, the thicker the paper. Watercolor paper with a 300lb weight is almost like cardboard, so it doesn’t require stretching before painting, but it’s also more expensive and will take longer to dry. Paper that’s 90lb or 140lb will need to be stretched.

How to stretch watercolor paper:

soaking paper in the bathtube

Step 1:

The easiest way to stretch watercolor paper is to soak it in a clean bathtub. To begin, place the paper in cold water for 5 to 10 minutes.

testing that the paper did soak long enough

Step 2:

Once the paper has been submerged for a suitable length of time, take it out of the water.

You ideally want your paper softened but not totally floppy. A good way to determine if your paper has stayed in the water long enough is to gently bend a corner — if it falls down, the paper stayed a bit too long in the water, if it comes back to its position, the paper has not been in the water long enough, and if it stays where it is, as seen above, you’ve reached the perfect soaking time.

Note: If the paper stayed too long in the water, you can still stretch it and it will eventually dry, but you might have lost most of the sizing and the paint may get absorbed by the paper very quickly. This is the same reason why it’s better not to use hot water, as it will also dissolve the sizing.

stretcher board, used for stretching watercolor paper

A stretcher board like this one will hold your paper on the board; you can keep your paper on the board during the painting process.

Step 3:

Once the paper is soaked, hold the paper by two corners, lift it out of the water and onto your stretching support. The most common supports are stretching boards (seen above), gator boards (which are kind of a thicker foam board), and medium-density fibreboard (MDF). This support needs to be acid-free and solid enough to stay flat when the paper dries and shrinks.

stretching watercolor paper on the board

Step 4:

The paper should cling to the stretching support. Remove any excess water by smoothing it with your hands.

stapling the watercolor paper

Stapling the paper to the board starting by the center of each side.

Step 5:

Some boards have a system to hold the paper. On others, you may have to staple or tape the paper so it stays in place.

Personally, I never had much luck with the tape method, so I prefer to use a stapler. Start stapling the paper to the board, starting at the by the center of each side and working toward the corners, separating the staples by a few inches.

Note: You will loose some space on the sides of the paper, so when planning your painting, allow for a few extra inches around it.

drying after stretching watercolor paper

Step 6:

Let you paper dry in an horizontal position so the water is equally distributed. After a few hours, it should be drum tight and ready for your next painting.

stretched watercolor paper: it won't buckle when painted

Stretched paper won’t buckle even if lots of water is used

You might also enjoy our posts Painting Effortless Watercolor Washes. See also our list of 6 supplies you will need to start Watercolor painting

What are your favorite paper stretching methods and tools?


Barbara Tibbets

This is exactly how I’ve been stretching my w/c paper for over 25 years. It works like a charm.

Annmarie Clarke

this is good to know can one buy paper that has be done?

Kevin W

How do you go about removing the piece when finished with the painting?

Sandrine Pelissier

With the stapling on foam board method, I just remove the staples with a round tipped knife. You will have holes on the paper but the trick is to make your painting area smaller than the paper so you don’t end up with holes in your painting.


If I was in a situation where I had to remove my paper from the stretching board before I actually painted on it, would I still have to hold it down flat on another surface while painting? Or would I not require such restraints, as the paper is already stretched and will therefore never buckle?

Sandrine Pelissier

Good question! Once you wet the paper it is susceptible to buckle again. You could take the paper off the board and paint if your way of painting is on the dry side, but any significant amount of water will make it buckle.

Isabella Rooney

Hi! Just wondering if the staples don’t rip the paper as it dries? And also is it ok to draw on the paper before wetting and mounting it or would that have to be done after?
Thank you 🙂

Sandrine Pelissier

Hello Isabella,
The staples won’t rip the paper but they will leave holes so you might need to cut off that part of the paper. I would wait until the paper is dry before drawing as water might wash away most of the graphite. Although you could test the water resistant properties of your graphite on a sample of paper. I have a feel that maybe a harder graphite like 2H 4H might resist better to water.


Can I leave it to dry completely? I don’t want to mess up or can I get prestretched watercolour paper or do you still have to soak it?

Sandrine Pelissier

Yes Natalie, you have to soak your watercolor paper, that what makes it expand a bit and allows it to be stretched. Soaking your paper won’t damage it. You can buy watercolor paper in pads that is glued on the sides and somewhat pre stretched but it will still buckle if you use a lot of water.


Do you paint on it while it’s still damp or wait to dry completely before painting?

Sandrine Pelissier

You could do both, depending on the technique you are using. If you like to start painting while the paper is still a bit wet, you could start after waiting for the paper to dry a little bit.
You can also re-wet it once it had time to completely dry.

Michele olinde

Can you staple or tape watercolor pad paper prior to using it and control the wrinkles?

Sandrine Pelissier

yes, but it will expand once wet and buckle. You have to stretch it and staple it before painting.

Devitt Liptak

can I restretch watercolor paper? It has buckled after I wet it and stapled it!


Why do people often say they cant stretch their paper using the tape method !
I have been using this method for over 40 years with small to full sized sheets and never had an issue. Perfect results every time.
Just apply a 2 to 3 inch border of marine grade varnish all around your mounting board.
it helps with adhesion and allows you to use the board for ever.
No staple holes to eat away at the outer rims.
Being very patient and dabbing excess moisture as the sheet dries is a must.


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