Monday, March 28, 2011

Extending The Life Of Your Watercolor Paintings ; The Importance Of Doing Your Own Lightfastness Experiment

It is summer now and as we are nearing the month of April, the sun seems to be blazing hotter than usual.  I'm talking about sunlight that can cook an egg on concrete in minutes.  Hot and painful on the skin and with a brightness that impairs your vision for the first few minutes when you go indoors.  Perfect weather though for testing your paints for lightfastness.  Shown above is my setup. I take out my test frames whenever we get this blazing sun every summer and pack up whenever rainy season starts.  I borrowed my dad's cart/table and placed the framed testing strips on it.  The mobility is perfect for realigning the frames to receive the most direct sun on the strips.
I took the cart aside to take a closer shot and for that few minutes, the sun exposure was really painful on the skin.  Talk about sun-baked.

For those who have already done the test, the setup might be familiar and you would be right if you're thinking I used the procedures as a guide.  One of the most wonderfully extensive and free online resource for a watercolor artist.  The link to, on how to do the setup, will be provided later.  That will take care of the How To.  I used it more as a guide though and made changes because of inavailability of some materials.  Handprint's was more extensive and more thorough.

What we will be discussing instead is Why... why you should perform the test.  True, it is time consuming and will cost you money.  You will also be using up paint for non-rendering purpose.  Artist grade paints and papers are expensive.  But maybe, after considering the factors below, you would come to the same conclusion, all the effort and expense will be actually saving you money later.

One of the most important reasons to do the test is for your ease of mind.  The question you would most often get asked when people realize your painting is in watercolor is about the expected lifespan of your painting.  Because of careless practices in the past and use of student grade paints for "professional" watercolor paintings, collectors were left with the impression that if it is in watercolor, it should be good only for a few years.  Either they pass your painting up to look for more durable art, or they price it way below its value (in consideration for its shorter lifespan).  But if you are confident and know you used lightfast colors on your palette, then you would know and can demand the true worth of your painting.

Another good reason to do the test is because you might find the manufacturer's ratings for permanence and the actual performance of the paint to have a discrepancy.  I'm not saying they are deliberately manipulating the test so the results would be favorable for their product.  Far from it. The companies are subject to the same test standards.  Just that what if your expectancy regarding their rating and the true meaning of their rating do not match in the first place.  It is better when you do the actual test and see the results for yourself.

Also, in the past, I tended to rely on other artists' recommendations, thinking if it is good enough for them, it must be ok to use.  Which is how I ended up with 3 tubes of a yellow that not only tends to gray on its own but also pops (small exploding sound) and tries to escape its tube when the cap is opened... an expensive yellow too.  A red that shows fading within 10 years and a blue that unexpectedly faded even faster than the red.   Relying on other's judgement may cost you not just money for materials you would end up discarding later.  It may also cost you your reputation.  I'm actually relieved that the paintings that had unexpected fading (early paintings 10-15 years ago) were very few. And that when I decided to sell professionally, I have long since changed to a lightfast palette.   Do the test to save and use the money to buy better performing paints.

The knowledge you would gain can also help guide you on how to use the "questionable paints" that you have.  Many of these fugitive paints have colors or characteristic that are distinctive and desirable but cannot be reproduced by their synthetic but more lightfast replacements. You can still use these colors if you take advantage of the technology of prints.  Giclee prints of original paintings can be as marketable as the originals and they have the added advantage of being lightfast for 75 or 100 years.  (Depends on the inks used by the printers, by the way.  Handprint even advises you to test the inks used and that is what I call being thorough).  That way, you need not sell the original if you have fear that it may fade.  The original can be kept under archival storage.  Protected and hidden from light, they will not be subject to the same fading.  By doing the test yourself, you can better advise your clients on how to care for particular paintings.  You will know also when it is reasonable to give a discount on your painting price so your client can better afford the UV filtering glass that would prolong the life of your painting that used not so lightfast colors.  You will be able to suggest appropriate lighting options for the painting considering how UV light affects it, suggest areas in the client's house that would not subject the painting to direct sun exposure, etc. By doing the test, you are actually broadening or adding to your options and lessening your liabilities.

Follow the link below to go to's lightfastness test.'s doing your own lightfastness test

Some changes and observations regarding the lightfastness test I did.
I don't have access to some of the materials like the blue wool scale.  But I did inspect the swatches regularly and made notes and noted the hours.  I was counting only the hours spent under full sun and not the hours the test swatches were out on cloudy skies.  There is no way you can convert the hours to predicted days or years your work would remain lightfast though but you sort of get an idea which colors will have fading and in what sequence. Gives you an idea which colors to avoid or use with caution.  I also prepared double swatches.  One set was subjected to full sun exposure which I posted a picture of earlier.  The other I set up inside the house on a wall where they get part sunlight through the windows for certain hours of the day.  Conditions a painting might get normally subjected to in a client's home.  Started at the same time. So far, there was no fading for the artist grade colors left inside the house even though they were exposed to direct and indirect sunlight that enters through the windows and also exposed to the electrical lights inside our home.  A very promising sign that investing in artist grade watercolors is a good decision.

Just in case you are wondering what kind of results happen in a lightfastness test...

Photo shows the result after four months of exposing one of the framed test sheets to direct sunlight.  Just one brand of artist grade paints I have tried. I will not show the results for the other brands as our aim is not to do comparisons.  I deliberately made the resolution just big enough that you will be able to see the change but not enough to read the brand - to be fair to the companies and also so you would be motivated to do your own testing.  I have pictures of when I opened the frame several additional months later but will have to find the files first.  Laptop's hard disk conked out a year ago and I'm still reinstalling the backups and searching for missing document and picture files.

Can you see the changes in some of the colors?  If you see them, don't panic.  It does not mean that in four months' time, your painting that used the colors will fade.  I think your clients will have sense enough not to leave their paintings to the mercy of the sun as was done in the test.  But the test will sort of give you an idea which colors might fade in 5, 10, 15, 20 or so years later, that is if they were less carefully cared for. Protected paintings might not show any change at all.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Gator Boards: The Stretcher Boards That Don't Bite

If you constantly find yourself pressed for time when painting in watercolor, then an upgrade to gator boards may just be what you need to reduce your paper preparation time.

For those still not familiar with gator boards, a Gator Board or equivalent is a lightweight, sturdy foam core board with hard eggshell-like surfaces on either side used for stretching watercolor paper.  The hard eggshell-like description is just my observation.  For the sound it reminds me of when I punch through it with staples. It produces a very soft cracking sound but unlike an eggshell, the surface of the gator board is hardier.  Gator boards come in several sizes (for full sheets, half sheets, and quarter sheets) but may be cut easily to your preferred size with a regular cutter aided by a metal ruler.  It comes in white and also in a light brown color for those who do not like the glare of white seen from the sides when they work on their painting.

gator board with stretched paper in place  

While it does get holey after you have stapled paper on it several times, it can take a lot of abuse.  The holes are self-contained and will not radiate cracks unless you really have a heavy hand.  Best also to get rid of the giant staplers you try to make do with (the office kind where you crack it open 180 degrees) and get yourself a gun tacker (you don't need the industrial kind) to lessen the likelihood of damaging the board.  The surface may also stain with paint but will not pose any problem if you get get most of the loose paint off when next you use the board.  Not advisable to use any chemicals to clean the surface itself as this may get absorbed and affect the next paper you stretch on it.  It it takes in paint stains, it may mean the surface is porous.   You can wash off surface dirt easily by running it under water and using your hands to disturb the particles.  Just take care not to get any oil on it as gator boards do not seem to have any built-in protection against oil.  Oil will not affect the sturdiness of this board but it may transfer to any paper that you stretch on it.

Best thing about foam core boards is that no matter how many times you wet and re-use it, it will not leech acid on your watercolor papers.  The gator board surface also dries with the paper so you will not have the prolonged damp, paper problem.  And because both sides are usable, you can flip over and use the other surface once the other one croaks.

Gator boards, being lightweight and less rigid than wooden ones, have a tendency to bow or distort slightly under the pull of the paper.  Noticeable when you stretch full sheets.  Paper still dries flat and I have not had any problems with framing gator board stretched paper yet.  It might be advisable to use alternate sides to straighten your boards back to flatness again.

I highly recommend gator boards specially if you are a busy person and if you are starting to have wrist pain problems common with aging.  Gator boards will cut down your preparation or stretching time considerably because it is always ready for use, easy to staple and tape papers on.  Because the surface yields easily to staples, your wrists and hands will not be subjected to jarring trauma as happens when you staple on wooden stretcher boards with hard spots on them.

If you have children in the house or family and house guests you think might have failed the marshmallow test in their childhood, it is highly advisable to warn them about the presence of your gator boards.  Failing that, hide your gator boards when expecting company.  The temptation to try Karate chopping it in half may prove too great for some.  I know because I sometimes get the urge to see what would happen.  It is only the knowledge that each of the boards may cost around 17 to 35 dollars that is stopping me.

Gator boards are a good investment that will give you years of excellent service.

And no, I'm not a stockholder in the company.  :D   I just love the product.

One nice thing about using facebook and blogging is you get to meet fellow artists and exchange ideas.  For the same reason, I very much welcome viewer comments and experiences because their advices not only add more knowledge but most often prove very beneficial to our pockets as well.

I'm reposting Judy's comments below:
1.  In the US I can buy 4 x 8 ft sheets (half-inch thick) at a sign company, and cut them to various sizes.  Tricky to cut, use box knife and heavy metal straightedge.  Much cheaper this way than buying from art supply places.
2.  The cut edges can be sharp enough to cut you; best to file the edges so they aren't so sharp.
3.  Rather than stapling, I like to use water-soluble kraft paper tape to stretch the paper.  The adhesive easily washes off the Gatorboard after removing the painting, and leaves the G'board surface undamaged.  (I have never done whole or even half-sheets this way; might not hold as well as staples).

Also a good thing Judy mentioned paper tape as I have forgotten to elaborate on that.  Using paper tape instead of staples would prolong the life of your Gatorboard.  It works very well on the surface of the gatorboard because once you activate the glue and allowed the stretched paper to dry, the paper tape really has a firm hold and will not lift unless you get the paper really really wet.  It holds even for bigger sheets. (Paper tapes do not work as well on plastic covered boards though.)  Care should be taken when removing the watercolor paper once you are finished with the painting.  Once anchored, you either have to rewet the tape to get it to lift off the gatorboard (which can cause warping problem with your watercolor paper) or you can use a cutter to cut it out of its taping.  You have to be very careful though and cut just the paper without damaging the board.  There is also the matter of adhesive residue. I will repost Judy's solution and mine afterwards.

About the paper tape, I just cut my paper off the Gatorboard with a box knife at a very low angle along the edge of the paper underneath, so as not to cut the Gatorboard surface, then trim off the tape and the paper it covers with a rotary paper cutter.  I lose the nice deckled edge of the paper that way, but unless you mount your painting on top of a matboard or something, it doesn't show anyway, and you don't have any of the tape adhesive fouling up your paper. (This also gives me many scrap strips for testing colors/values and practicing signatures, etc.  Also, the strips work nicely for laying over finished painting to visualize various crop options.) Then you can just use a very wet sponge and soak the tape off the Gatorboard. Get the tape really wet and let sit for several minutes; it comes right off, and the adhesive is also easy to wash off after soaking.  

We use the same method.  Cut away from the painted side.  You can usually tell where the watercolor paper is under the tape.  It will have a contour pressed on the tape.  This is where it is most advisable to insert the cutter, working at a very low angle, almost flat.  Just a small slit that would allow you to insert the blade in between the paper and the gatorboard.. Once the blade is in (insert only an inch or less (make sure way beyond the painted surface) and filet the paper off the board.  One danger is, you can cut your painting accidentally.

Once the painting is off the board, be sure to trim away the parts that still has paper tape on it.  I trim an extra centimeter off.  Sometimes, the adhesive of the paper tape can go beyond the taped area.  You can tell if you view your paper at an angle, the glossy film you see on the paper is the adhesive.  It is advisable to cut off the paper tape because although it may be acid-free or are of neutral pH, over time, it may still cause discoloration on your watercolor paper because the paper tape's natural color may leech onto it.

Once the painting is off, you can use a sponge to moisten the tape for lifting off the board.  Just make sure to use a clean sponge.  Another alternative is to use clean tissue instead of a sponge.  You may also just wet the paper under the sink which is what I do because I sometimes I just cannot help but think the sponge may be contaminated with algae.  Whatever your method, make sure to rinse off the adhesive from the board.  You can tell the presence of adhesive because these areas would have a slimy feel to it.  Because I noticed I was spending too much time cleaning after using the paper tape, I switched back to stapling.  But that is only because I am an obsessive compulsive and something like this seems to trigger it.  You might find paper taping a better option though.

The gatorboard from the sign shops may be available locally.  When Judy mentioned that the edges of this gatorboard can be very sharp, that somehow triggered a memory.  I think I may have come across such a board.  But probably, because this board's surfaces was twice as thick, (the outside layer that reminds me of eggshells) I had misgivings whether it would function the same.  But it seems to be doing well as a stretcher board for Judy so I think I'll go and hunt for its like again.  I could use a gatorboard for oversized paintings.

One concern that arises though, is this alternative board also of neutral pH?  We'll see.  Time for a science experimentation again.  At least, once I get a sample of the material.  More feedback on this appreciated specially from local artists who find it.  I'm interested about the size it is available in, the price and your feedback on its performance as a stretcher board because we may get a kind slightly different than what Judy has access to.  If it proves to be very affordable, this sturdy material even has potential as shipping protection for our watercolors.

Many thanks to Judy Waller for her contribution to the discussion.  You may view art works by Judy on her site linked below.
Watercolors by Judy Waller

Gator boards are not yet popular items where I am at (Philippines) and may still not be as readily available locally as elsewhere.  But for those interested in obtaining them, most online art supplies company carry the item.  If you are a bit short on the budget though but need a waterproofed stretcher board badly, you might want to try out my waterproofing solution for wooden boards.  Easy to do and very kind to your wallet.  Follow the link below
Affordable and easy solution for unprotected wooden boards for stretching watercolor paper

Other related articles:
Troubleshooting watercolor paper discoloration
Additional protection you can do yourself for your framed watercolor paintings
Paper stretching guide: understanding watercolor paper weights
Understanding Sizing: guide to wetting your paper

How To Make Your Own Stretcher Boards Without Much Carpentry Knowledge

This is just one way to waterproof your boards.  There are many more suggestions on waterproofing boards online.  I'm hoping to share mine to add to your options.  

Materials you would need are:
  • Marine Ply (plywood) of at least 1/4 inch thickness.  
  • Sandpaper
  • Plastic sheet locally known as mantel.  Available in most market places in the Philippines (dry goods/kitchen ware section.)  This plastic is a popular liner for picnic tables.  It may be possible to look for its equivalent in your area.  Clear plastic book covers are not recommended for this purpose as these do not have the give or stretch possible with the mantel kind.  Available in a wide range of colors and design.  I used green so you can see better.
  • wide clear tape (at least 2 inches)
  • cutter / scissors.
1.  Cut plywood to the desired size.  Use sand paper to smoothen the sides and especially the surface that you plan to use for the stretching.  Marine ply is a better version of plywood less prone to particles sticking out and falling off.  Still, you may have to pick a side with the least depressions and knots on it.  For very imperfect plywoods, you can apply masilya or filler coating and then sandpaper it smooth.  You do not need to apply paint or any other finish on the plywood.  Plywood shown here has been painted.  A previous attempt by me to follow the other suggestions online on how to paint seal your stretcher boards.  The problem there was I was not sure if the paint that I used was the correct one.  I noticed that the painted finish seems to take on surface dirt permanently.  So I went back to my previous method of covering the board with plastic.  Back to the project.  Once you've ascertained that the side you are planning to use is acceptable, proceed to the next step.

2.  Place your plywood on the plastic sheet and cut the plastic, leaving about 2 inches of allowance on all sides.  
Shown in the picture, plywood on top of mantel plastic

You can actually work with less allowance but for your first try, the two inches gives you better leverage to work with.  Check the cut plastic sheet for damages before you proceed to the next step.  Look out for holes and tears.  You can use either side of the plastic sheet.  

3.  Once the plastic sheet passes your inspection, lay it flat on the table and place the good side of your plywood facing the plastic sheet.  Use tape to anchor the four sides at the center of each side.  Imagine an equilateral cross configuration.  

To ensure smoothness on the finished side, when you work on one side, do the side opposite it next.  I colored and numbered the areas where I placed the clear tape.  (Clear tape was invisible on cam).  Do not scrimp on your tape but extend it at least 4 or five inches inward when you place.  The pull exerted back by the plastic may be enough to dislodge 1 or 2 inch tape strips.  

4.  Next, work on stretching the plastic edge adjacent to the already taped areas. In the illustration below, I used color coding and numbering to give you an idea of how to progress.  

You will probably notice that I seem to have gotten confused with my counting by starting at 3 and 4 but as I find it very funny myself, I left it as is.  Tape to the left and to the right (shown in orange) of each central axis point (cross area shown in red-orange).  Again, when you work on one side, work on the areas on the opposite side next.  Then proceed to the yellow areas and so on, until you get to the corner part.  

5.  The whole process really is about patience and controlling your strength.  The work is slow and methodical. When you get to the corner area, first tape one side that will go under.  You may have to tape it diagonally.  Important thing is, this should smoothen the plastic on that side of the board.  

Next, do a fold and then tape this over making sure to take up the slack left in that corner.  

Your finished stretcher board should look like this when you turn it over.

6.  Be sure to wash this new surface before use with soap and water to get rid of any oil that may have gotten on it from the market place or when you were working on it.  

Streching the plastic over the board this well takes a lot of practice.  Over time, you will develop a feel for the right amount of pull to keep the plastic taut but not take it past the breaking point.  So if at first, you find yourself having to redo the application over and over, do not be discouraged.  Balance the pull forces to get it just right.  

The advantage of using plastic sheeting include being able to use a sturdier support for your watercolors because you can use rigid plywood.  The cost is also much cheaper overall.  If I am not mistaken, a yard long length of plastic sheeting costs about 25 pesos.  The width of that is about 4 feet.  This also does not require extensive carpentry knowledge.  It also is easier to check the integrity of this board covering.  Just wet the surface.  Any breaks water can enter through will be marked because the wet spot underneath will be apparent on the plastic.  You can apply first aid to it by placing clear tape over the break. 

There are times when lack of options make using non-biodegradable materials necessary but we should minimize our carbon footrprint as much as possible.  Reduce wastage by re-using or recycling previously used plastic sheets.  After removing the paper and staples, tape over the holes punched by the staples and use the smaller undamaged inside area for another bout of stretching.  It helps also to have several plywood pieces in different sizes.  For new plastic sheets, I start out covering big plywood pieces.  Then as these get used, I would put the undamaged left over plastic on successively smaller boards.   Please re-use what can not be recycled.  

I hope you find this article and project useful.  Thank you for reading.  

This method is very labor intensive though.  If you have the dough, you might want to learn of other ready made alternatives sold commercially.  Read about one option by following the link below.
Gator Boards.

Other related articles in my blog:
Troubleshooting watercolor paper discoloration
Additional protection you can do yourself for your framed watercolor paintings
Understanding sizing: guide to wetting your paper
Paper stretching guide: understanding watercolor paper weights

Monday, March 14, 2011

Watercolor Woes. Troubleshooting Paper Discoloration

Ever find yourself wondering why your watercolor painting done a year or so ago has started yellowing or browning despite you making sure you used acid-free paper?  Chances are, you may be unknowingly doing something that is putting your art at risk for early deterioration.  

Acidity is only one factor among many that may cause early damage to your painting.  But if you can eliminate acidity as a potential problem, it will be a big contribution to the long term preservation of your painting.  What exactly does acid do?  Acid can cause premature breakdown of materials in paper, canvas and wood.  It may also degrade your pigments, specially the paints that contain elements of metal in them.  

When you buy your acid-free watercolor paper from the manufacturers and suppliers, it is as they claim, in a state of being free of acid.  The paper has been processed so that naturally occurring acids and acids used in the processing of the paper pulp are neutralized and thus made harmless.  However, this claim is not a guarantee that the paper will be immune from whatever treatment you are bound to subject it to.  The responsibility of keeping your watercolor paper acid free is yours, once you get your hands on the paper.  

How do you get acid on  your paper?  By getting chemicals on it that change the pH of your paper and by putting it into direct contact with materials that may leech acid.  

Some advice the use of distilled water for your watercolors, for just this reason.  A bit extreme and expensive.  I, myself, only use the distilled water for the water mister I use to wet my palette (distilled water prevents the water in the bottle from getting mossy).  But the use of distilled water for wetting may be the best solution for those who get their water from untested sources.  E.g.  Some ground pumps produce discolored and metallic hinting water which could not only stain your paper but also might turn out to be acidic.  
Another source is the use of bleach to whiten or erase a mistake.  You may even read of instances where people (most likely students and not professional artists) immerse whole papers in it to bleach out color on an already used watercolor paper.  Technically speaking, most bleaches are strong bases (very high pH).  But strong bases have the same degrading qualities as acids.  You are still messing with the pH of your paper.  
One popular technique for achieving beautiful textures in watercolors uses salt.  I've seen wonderful works of artists using this technique. Done right, you will not even be aware, salt has been used.  I'm tempted to try it myself but the use of it is quite controversial so I'm holding out.  Lately it has been claimed that salt is actually acidic or causes the paper to be acidic.  Who would have thought, eh?  But as that is still under contention, it probably is best that we wait for the official findings before we put a final verdict on its use.  Meanwhile, I'm experimenting on safer alternatives.  If ever I turn out a closely similar effect using very neutral materials, I will share on the blog.  

The most common cause of getting acid on your paper though is by the use of unprotected wooden boards for stretching.  Most beginners do not realize that the reason wooden boards sold in art workshops and art stores are expensive is because these have undergone more labor intensive treatment than your regular boards.  These stretcher boards have been sanded, primed and sealed several times to make the surface as non-porous as possible.  These are made to withstand getting wet paper on them.  Students and beginners often improvise on a lot of things in an effort to save money and the drafting board is often used as a replacement stretcher board.  They surmise, both boards look similar anyway.  But most drafting boards are just something a little better than bare plywood.  Most often, their manufacturers only sand the surface to give the students a smooth surface to do their drafting on.  They were not intended to get wet.  Now what does unprepared wooden boards have to do with acidity?  Just this.  Even with oven dried / sun dried wooden boards, the moment you wet the wood fibers (as what would happen when the wet paper gets in contact with the dry board), you start reconstituting the dried acid in the wood with water.  Think tea.  As your paper dries, it would pull the now acidic water from the wood onto the back of your watercolor paper.  The damage can sometimes be readily obvious and you're lucky if you spot this right away.  It would save you the effort of painting on damaged paper.  But sometimes, the damage may become apparent only after weeks, months, or years. By then, too late.  More than the loss of paint and paper, I think I would be sorrier for the time invested in a painting that would get ruined earlier this way.

Protect your art, use a safe stretching board or use paper that require no stretching.

On my next post, I will upload a simple yet very affordable solution that would help make your untreated/unprotected wooden supports, waterproof.  This is for fellow watercolorists, specially in my country, who have no access yet to gator boards.  (The only way you can get gator board or similar here is through online stores abroad).  I'm still employing this method to waterproof the support for my watercolor paintings, specially the ones that have unusual dimensions that do not fit on the gator boards that I have.

Here's a pic of a watercolor painting that I stretched on a home-made waterproof board (taken years ago).  I like how you can go as big as you like.  Even make a support the size of the whole plywood board 4 x 12 feet.

Other related articles:
Additional protection you can do yourself for your framed watercolor painting
Affordable and easy solution for unprotected wooden boards used for stretching watercolor paper
Stretching guide: understanding watercolor paper weights
Understanding sizing: guide to wetting your paper
Gator boards


Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Water Color Papers and Sizing

I will attempt to share with you a simplified explanation of what sizing is, just enough to give you an idea why it is important to learn of it and how sizing can affect your preference for wetting your paper for stretching.  We do not need to go too deep into it for our purpose.  But should you wish for a more comprehensive explanation, you'll find a lot of more technical information available online. 

So what is sizing?  Sizing is another term for the addition of gelatin to water color paper.  Gelatin makes the paper less absorbent and this is what prevents paint from just spreading on the paper uncontrollably.  Picture what happens when you dab your brush loaded with water and paint on rag or tissue paper.  It spreads, right?  Well, the same thing would happen to paper, if it is not sized.  This would help explain why there are some papers that look very nice, like handmade paper, but you can't seem to gain any control when you try painting watercolor on them.  Handmade papers for crafting projects are often unsized. 

Different paper manufacturers and brands offer different sizing options but generally, you can say that some gelatin sizing is incorporated into the paper pulp or mixture before it gets pressed.  Additional sizing is applied as coats on the paper's outside layers (front and back surfaces).  

Now why should this knowledge affect how you would wet your paper?  Just this.  We know sizing makes the paper less absorbent.  The more sizing, the less running of paint.  If you want more absorbency, you lessen the sizing.  Conversely, if you want less absorbency, you keep the sizing.  The presence of sizing also makes your watercolor pigments look more brilliant or intense as it keeps most of your paint on the paper's surface.  You lessen the surface sizing, you increase the permeability of the paper.  With less or absent surface sizing, your colors will sink deeper into the paper and will bond more with the paper's fibers.  Some mistake this for paint disappearing or pigment bleaching (colors not so lightfast) but the paint is not really gone, it has just gone into hiding deeper among the paper fibers hence the lightening of paint applications as it dries.  

We wet the paper to expand the fibers and then staple or tape it while in this expanded state so the paper will have an anchor at its edges to pull on as it dries.  This is what allows it to shrink flat (when you do it right) hence the term stretching your watercolor paper.  

Some soak the paper completely for several minutes, not just to ensure all of the fibers get wet in preparation for stretching, but also to lessen the sizing of the paper.  The correct timing for the soaking takes practice.  You will not want to soak it too long because sometimes the sizing have a tendency to coagulate in spots if the paper is left too long by itself.  This is the reason why some may find those irregular and slightly yellowish spots on their stretched paper that do not go away when the paper dries.  For some reason, these spots also wouldn't take in color as well as the other clear areas which is why I surmised, it must be sizing.  These spots will resist any color placed on it.  They may ruin your painting.  The too long soaking is one explanation for it. Another is that the spots may be the result of accidental drops of pure sizing as the manufacturer applies surface sizing on the paper.  Accidents can happen, right?  Or, you may have gotten an old stock paper with the sizing already going stale.  Whatever the reason, I find that spots are less likely to happen when I wet by running water than by soaking.

For the running water method, you can just put the paper under tap or running water.  Make sure all surfaces get wet (front and back) and continually move the paper around.  Don't just point the water jet on one area as this may also produce the same sizing spots on your stretched paper.  For bigger paper sizes, use the shower for more manueverability.  This takes less of the sizing off than what complete submersion does.  Again, more sizing present, the less tendency for paint to spread uncontrollably.  Your colors also will tend to be more brilliant per application as you will have most of the pigments sitting on or closer to the surface of the paper because of the sizing's effect on permeability.  

But my personal choice is putting the paper under tap water and removing most of the sizing by mechanically running my hands over the surfaces of the paper.  Your preference would depend on how you want your paper to behave.  I like letting more pigments sink into the paper fibers.  It allows me to play or take advantage of transparent watercolor layering.  It also seems to add brilliance to layered colors (in my opinion and observation only), when you have more it sunk into the fibers. This method also offers the least chance for the sizing to coagulate as you let it run off the paper when you do the sweeping motion.  No chance for displaced sizing to stay in  one place and make spots.  You have to develop a gentle touch though when you run your hand over the surfaces or you could end up agitating and damaging the top fibers.  Lessening the sizing works for me because I like to blend a lot for the first part of my painting process.  For detail work, which I prefer to do on the last stages of my painting, I mostly use dry brush so even with less sizing, I still maintain enough control over my paint application.  By this method also, I remove mostly just the outside sizing.  Remember, there is still sizing mixed in with the paper pulp or mixture itself so the sizing is not gone completely.  It is possible to maintain still a lot of control with your paint application.  

If you want the sizing to be intact, you can always just staple the dry paper onto a board (for 140lb) or use a heavier paper to do away with stretching altogether.  If you want to staple or tape in place, you can just wet the paper on top of the board with a wet sponge prior to anchoring.  Take care not to agitate the surface too much with the sponge.  An alternative is to use a water spritzer or mister to wet the paper so you don't touch the surface of the paper with anything.  When the paper dries, the sizing would still be there.  

I wish to include here a contribution by Stan Hughes regarding additonal paper options.  "There is a 200 lb cold press paper produced by Saunders Waterford. I have used it for years. Easy to work with and does not need stretching. Not as expensive as 300 lb but more durable than 140 lb. " 

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Watercolor Paper Weights / To Stretch Or Not To Stretch

I'm trying to teach some of my friends about painting in watercolor.  And since I've yet to finish the small projects I'm working on and can't post new finished painting pictures yet, I thought I'd use the time to share some knowledge instead.  I recently got asked about stretching watercolor paper so here goes.  

We will focus on paper weight first, as it will have the most significance with the process of stretching watercolor paper.  

Watercolor paper comes in various weights, sizes and types.  Because many of the other options such as yupo and boards are still not readily available in my country, we will concentrate first on what is, which is paper.  Common paper weights for watercolor paper are: 190 gsm (also known as 90lb), 300 gsm (140 lb) and 638 gsm (300 lb).  A most common mistake is to interchange 140lb with 300lb because both use 300 values but with different units.  This has caused many to wonder why their watercolor paper is buckling despite being 300 of something.  

190 gsm is the lightest or thinnest of the three.  It can tolerate the least amount of water when you paint.  That means your paper will have a tendency to get out of shape or warp when you wet it with water.  It can take dry brush but warps with watercolor washes.  The pros and the cons:  90 lb paper is cheaper, takes less paint to achieve color brilliance, and is easier to roll into canisters for shipping or posting unframed but it is also easier to damage, takes less abuse when you're the type who likes to rework areas, requires frequent drying time in between applications (the waiting can be a hassle and disrupts your momentum) and you definitely need to stretch it.  Stretching ensures that, though there may be buckling while you are painting, the paper will revert back to its flat or stretched state when it dries.  When you stretch 190 gsm (90lb) paper, you have to work fast.  After wetting the paper and laying it down on the board for stapling (especially true for large format paintings), if you do not work fast enough, you  might find yourself  trying to staple down an already warped or misshapen paper.  

300 gsm or 140 lb paper is the "just right" paper, at least for me it is.  Not too thin that it can't take water abuse and not too thick that it is hard to roll up for transport.  You may stretch or not stretch depending on your style of painting.  If you paint mostly dry brush or using only little water, you may forgo the stretching and securing part.  But if you like using washes, you will need to stretch it on a board to prevent buckling.  Again, stretching and stapling the paper on a sturdy support makes it possible for the paper to get back to its formerly flat state as the paper dries.  I'm not sure if others have experienced the same thing but I notice that since converting to 140 lb paper, I have been using more paint.  To get the same color intensity that I used to get so easily with 90lb, I needed to apply more layers or paint.  Maybe it is just my imagination or maybe it may also have something to do with the paper being thicker and paint pigments getting pulled deeper into the fibers thereby appearing to lighten as the paper dries.  To counter, I add additional layers of color on top of previous applications until I get the brightness that I want.  This capillary action or pulling of paint deeper into the paper may actually be a good thing because paintings I did on 140lb paper, done more than 15 years ago, seem to be standing the test of time well.  

300 lb or 638 gsm paper is the thickest I've tried so far.  Reminds me of the local cardboard we have because of its thickness and rigidity.  I remember being afraid to roll a finished painting I did on a 300 lb paper because I somehow was getting this feeling that the paper would get mini cracks if I force it into a tighter roll that would fit it in a canister.   I ended up shipping the painting flat and inside a heavy wood container to protect it when I sent it overseas.  It added a lot to the freight cost.  Of course, that's just my paranoia and maybe the paper could have stood the rolling abuse.  Anyway, its disadvantage is also an advantage because being so rigid means that it is structurally more able to stand water loading.  Even with no stretching and stapling on board, you can work on 300 lb paper with multiple washes without fear that the paper will buckle.  Within, reason, of course.  If your style is to immerse the paper under colored water for minutes at a time, even the hardiest of paper may give.  I have to say this because most beginners like to experiment and I just might find myself being challenged on my claim.  haha.  

The choice of paper weight is personal for every artist.  There are no rules that says you are to use only this kind of paper, this brand, this style.  But I find that any tool would serve you best when you know how to use it.  So take time to learn all you can about the materials you will be encountering and using for your craft.  This lessens potential problems while you paint and makes your painting experience more enjoyable.

You might miss this in the comment box so I added Stan's comment as an addendum on the article itself.
Hi Karen.  There is a 200 lb cold press paper produced by Saunders Waterford.  I have used it for years.  Easy to work with and does not need stretching.  Not as expensive as 300lb but more durable than 140lb.

Here is also an additional advice for watercolor painters who like to paint very wet.  I asked Laura's permission to repost here her comment on my page in facebook.
I work on both stretched and unstretched papers.  It all depends on how wet I'm going to work.  With my florals I usually do a lot of wet-in-wet and many glazes so will stretch even 300# paper... unless I do a float mount.  Those staple holes really ruin a deckled edge!

Thank you Stan. Thank you Laura.

Stan Hughes does not have a website but his art may be viewed on facebook.  He also showcases there the work of Jan, his wife who is also an artist.
Stan Hughes on facebook.
Stan is also the author of several blogs on painting and other interests.   I'm particularly impressed at how he is keeping alive the tradition of drum making.   Stan's Art (the new style) , Stan's Art (Dreams and Things) , Stan's Drums.

Laura Dicus' art may be seen on her website  She also has a facebook page where you can view her paintings and WIPS (works in progress).  Laura Dicus, Artist (page).

Other related articles:
Gator Boards
Affordable and easy solution for unprotected wooden boards used for stretching watercolor paper
Troubleshooting watercolor paper discoloration
Additional protection you can do yourself for your framed watercolor painting
Understanding sizing: guide to wetting your paper
How to transfer your drawings to watercolor paper
Watercolor paper roll: which side to use

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Pintura de Flores

Pintura de Flores is a new watercolor blog by noted artist Fernando Pena.  It is all about flower paintings done in different mediums.  I'm very honored to have been invited and to have my work included. 

Please visit and see beautiful floral paintings done in different styles and media by favorite artists in different parts of the world.  Links to each artist's blog or website are provided in the articles so you may view their works more extensively.

Featured artists include:
Ambar Labruna
Ana Hernandez Morote
Annalein Beukenkamp
Jillian Crider
Joyce Washor
Kay Smith
Fabio Cembranelli
and more to come soon.  Pintura De Flores

Thank you very much Fernando.

Fernando Pena has a website for everything watercolor.   You'll enjoy more watercolor paintings and see the works of featured artist specializing in landscapes, still lifes, portraiture and more.  Plus get tips on latest videos and books out by celebrated artists.  Visit and enjoy Watercolorspainting