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Paper is a mixture of fibres mixed with water and traditionally made by hand in a mould, but these days more commonly made by machine.  The fibres come into the machine in the form of a slurry mixture which is drained of as much water as possible and the resulting wet, felt like, material is pressed between rollers and dried.  

If the finishing rollers are smooth and hot, the paper will be smooth and referred to as ‘Hot Pressed’.  If the rollers are cold, the paper will be ‘cold pressed’ or in old ‘artspeak’ - NOT - or ‘NOT Hot Pressed’ - (Who said artists don’t have a sense of humour ?).

There are also Rough papers where the paper is pressed between rough woven blankets or rough textured rollers at the stage where the surface is established. These are usually the heavier weight and more expensive papers, but they are also less suitable for CP work, so we will not get excited about them here .  

Papers can have opposite sides of different grain, so do check that you are using the side of the paper you intended to.

The fibres used can be Cotton, wood pulp - buffered by chemicals to delay internal acid rot,  or mixed fibres, including a Bamboo mixture paper recently brought out by Hahnemule.  Wood Pulp tends to feature in the lower cost papers, and Cotton in the papers designed for Archival use.  There are also more exotic papers using other leaves and generally found sourced from the Far East

The paper can have Size - a gelatine like ingredient - added to the pulp when it is originally mixed, and will then be called ‘Internally Sized’.  If the surface of the hot paper coming off the machine is sprayed with size as a final coat, the paper will be referred to as ‘Externally Sized’.  If it has no Size, the paper will only be suitable for dry media.

If wet media ( e.g. watercolour ) is used on unsized paper, the colour will spread and edges of colour will bleed and merge a little like blotting paper though hopefully not as bad !.  The gelatine size enables colour to stay where it is put, but is not essential for Dry Point Pencil work.  Internal and external sizing is good if there is any risk of adding water to the paper and pigment

A Hot Pressed paper with a very smooth  finish, like Arches paper, may be initially too smooth for ideal Dry Point CP work, but a wipe over with a damp cloth before use will remove some of the external size ( good ) and also raise the grain of the paper slightly to give more tooth (even better).

Another feature of paper is the fact that it expands when it is wet and contracts when it dries, and if it is re-wet, it expands again.   Finally, paper also becomes partly translucent when wet and looks grey in colour.  

This is why watercolour appears darker on wet paper and lighter when the paper dries - the colour reflects better against the opaque white of the paper.

Because a paper stretches under a wet media, the even nature of the paper can be disturbed and the paper finish up with a buckled surface even after drying.  To prevent this, we can stretch a paper before using watercolour - and also for watercolour pencil media - if we intend to use any appreciable amount of water on our painting process.

If we are only using modest amounts of water and simply damping the paper surface, there is a simple technique for anchoring the paper so that when it distorts, the paper is held, and then dries back to it’s original flat state.  See the item at the bottom of this page.

Using thin papers like Cartridge paper (an unsized paper) is fine for dry point CP, but I usually hold the paper down to the drawing board with either pins or White Tac to stop it moving about.   It is worthwhile checking that your board is perfectly smooth before working with a thin paper, otherwise, place a sheet of smooth paper below your working sheet to smooth out any unevenness.

I also place a second sheet of fresh cartridge paper on top, secured at the top edge by White Tac so that the artwork is protected  whilst being transported or stored during the painting process.

I have now split the topic into two parts.  

When the paper is going to get wet  we need to stretch it first

and when the paper is going to get damp, we may not need to


If there is ANY possibility that I might use a wet process, I will use a sized paper of 300gm weight or more and pre-stretch it on a board.  

If I do NOT later use water or solvent, it doesn’t matter, but if I do, the paper will stay smooth at all times.


The aim is to wet the paper enough so that it ‘relaxes’ and spreads out.

We then fix it down to a board

and when it dries and contracts again, it comes under tension, and stays under tension while we paint.  

When we add water media to the surface of the paper, that part may well expand, but as the paper as a whole is still under tension from the original treatment when it was put on the board, the paper stays flat.  How wet we want to get the paper depends on the weight of the paper.

Some 300gm papers are very strong and have the power to bend the drawing board as they dry, so in those cases it is wise to limit the amount of water and then allow time while they relax, before fixing them down .

Thinner papers may need wetting with a large brush rather than soaking in a water bath, to limit the amount of water applied.  

From this you will see that it is the TIME the damp paper is stretching that is crucial, rather than the amount of water used.

The 300gm Daler Rowney Botanical paper I use, needs a short water soaking treatment ( usually in the Bath ! ),

a further relaxing time to stretch, and it will then require fixing to the board with both wide brown paper ‘Butterfly’ tape, and also staples.  Without the staples the paper may well tear itself away from the brown paper tape as it dries..  

I can’t give you precise times and amounts of water as only experience will tell you the perfect combination for your paper.  

In the past I tended to prepare a batch of paper to a batch of boards (all in one go) as that had a higher success rate and a lower mess rate.  Fixing wet stretched paper to wooden boards is an unreliable method though.

Lately I have tended to use a commercially made aluminium framed board that firmly holds the wet paper down at the edge and this has had a much more reliable result.  The Keba Artmate is not cheap, but is easy to use and trustworthy and comes in a range of sizes (based on the old imperial paper sizes).  I now have a full set and find them invaluable if I need to stretch paper at a show or for a demo and have limited time.

Latest revision October 2014

Keba Artmate Paper stretcher

Holds up to a 300gsm (and more) paper firmly in the aluminium clamps on each side of the white plastic surfaced board.  

All the elements take apart into separate components and the sides of other Artmate board sizes can be used in combination to make square and letterbox shaped boards.

Once paper has been stretched and dried on the board, the paper can be removed dry and replaced later if required as a heavyweight paper will take up the shape of the board surface

- as can be seen to the left hand side of the board illustrated.  The fastening  bolts have an inset to take an allen key.  The whole is very well built and the price reflects this.


or wet in some areas

We may not need to go to the trouble of stretching the paper.

If we wet an area within a sheet of paper, that area will expand, leaving a bump in the paper that may not return to it’s original flatness later.

If we can anchor the paper firmly to the drawing board in such a way that it can be removed later without major damage, and keep the paper under tension as it becomes moist ( and expands) and then dries ( and contracts ) we will encourage the paper to return to a flat state.

If we use drawing pins to hold down the paper, the points where the paper is controlled are spread apart and we don’t have full control.  Tensions may also result in pressures from the paper tearing away the weak point where the pin is sited.

If we use double sided tape, The paper will be difficult to remove later .the control may be absolute, but we could damage the drawing surface when we come to remove it from the board.  

There is a middle way and this is ideal for times when we are only moistening small areas of the paper with modest amounts of colour wash, such as when we may be underpainting, or working on a relatively small area with water, softening and bedding down dry pigment into the paper.

We can anchor our paper firmly on the board so that when the wet area expands, the paper is controlled.

Once it dries, it will return to the same flat surface it started with.  The paper can also be easily removed from the board afterwards.

The magic solution is masking tape.

We need some self adhesive masking tape ( the brown paper sort ). The one inch wide tape works well, but is a bit fiddly to apply. The 1.5 inch wide tape might be easier to handle if you can get it..   I have used the 1 inch variety below.

Place your sheet of drawing paper, working surface side down on the board.

First tear off a strip of tape the same length as one of the sides and affix the long edge ONLY to a line just in from the edge of the back of  the paper.

Roll the sticky side over and back down to form a tube of tape with one side down on the paper and the other sticky side face up towards you.  This is easier demonstrated than explained, but try it out and you should soon get the idea.

Complete the four sides of adhesive so that the paper has now four sides that will stick down to the board.   

You will find that if you use a 300gsm (140lb) watercolour paper, and moderate amounts of water when you paint your undercoat, the expanding paper surface that bulges out when you paint, will settle back down to complete flatness once it dries.

See the illustration below :

YES, you could use double sided tape, but that is usually designed for permanent use. It will lock the paper to the board and you may find the paper tears when you try to lift it.  Masking tape is designed to be lifted, but the four long strips you have added to the back of your drawing paper will resist sideways movement of the paper whilst still being removable by gently lifting afterwards.

Try it out and see how you get on………

Just make sure that you keep your painted picture to the area away from the tape - if you have a problem you may need to trim the paper afterwards.  At least you will not need to trim as much as you would have done with stretched paper !

No guarantees, as I have no control over your paper, board, tape or the amount of water you will use, but I find it has worked for me, and it worked for the person who showed me the method.

Experimentation is sometimes a joy and sometimes a pain. I hope you find this is a joy !

There are other commercial paper stretchers for sale through art materials suppliers

Jacksons Summer 2009 catalogue contains details of a paper stretcher of a simple design which looks very promising and is less than half the price of the Artmate.  It has four plastic clips which hold the paper to the foam board backing - one along each side.  

I purchased a couple of these boards to test and the one to take a sheet of A4 paper is  £11.40.  The next larger model is the A3 (approximately 12 x 16 inches for our USA friends ) and sells for £18.70.  The system works well and stretches the paper securely.  

I have tested it on 300gm Fabriano and it holds it firmly.  The boards are made by Educational Art & Craft Supplies.  

For those who like to get their paper wet and stretch several sheets at a time, the price isn’t too dear and  the result more reliable than using boards and sticky tape.  The only snag I can report is that the plastic clips that surround the board stand proud of the paper surface and this can be uncomfortable if you like to rest your hand along the paper edge.  Possibly using a larger sheet of paper and the larger board would ensure a sufficiently wide margin around the picture edge to enable comfortable working.  

There are other alternatives that work well, however......

Ken Bromley sells a reliable paper stretcher through his web site

( http://www.artsupplies.co.uk/item-perfect-paper-stretcher.htm ) for around £36 for the half imperial size ( 13.5 x 20.5 ins ).  This is a good middle of the road option and uses edge strips to lock the paper into a wooden board.  Bromleys have sold these boards for years and they have a good track record.

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