As I mentioned in the first part of this series of painting equipment articles, artists make unique decisions regarding the equipment they select to create their artwork. Part I focused specifically upon the creation of an adjustable easel system designed to support a watercolor paper stretching board. While many artists find no need for a paper stretching device, I really prefer the buckle-free surface that stretched paper provides. The very wet washes I often use for a painting’s background dry more evenly without pigment settling into troughs created by a slightly wrinkled paper.
My early paper stretching experiments began with simply soaking watercolor paper in cool water for about 10 minutes to allow the paper to slightly expand. I then stapled, bulldog clipped, or postage taped the paper to a slightly larger piece of gator board or apple wood plywood. While this technique adequately supported the paper, I still had some minor buckling occur. Additionally, I found the bulldog clips awkward to work around, the staples were a pain to remove, and the postage tape was a mess that needed to be scraped from the mounting surface every once in a while after it built up. Although these methods worked adequately and plenty of artists who will read this article will militantly defend one or more of these techniques, I was looking for a solution that provided a cleaner and faster procedure. Although I mainly paint within a 1/4 imperial sized paper (11″ x 15″ or 27.94 cm x 38.1 cm – 1/4 of a full-size sheet of watercolor paper), solutions for 1/2 imperial (38.1 cm x 55.88 cm – 1/2 of a full-size sheet of watercolor paper) would be nice as well. I rarely use a full sheet of watercolor paper (33″ x 30″ or 55.88 cm x 76.20 cm) and find that the portability of that size is awkward for outdoor use.
Initially, I thought a do-it-yourself paper clamping system might be the perfect solution. I began with a large section of apple wood plywood cut slightly larger than a 1/4 sheet piece of watercolor paper. I then cut four 1.5″ (3.81 cm) wide sections of aluminum bar stock with 45 degree angled cuts on each end so the bars butted up against each other at the corners. When assembled, the bar stock appeared like an aluminum picture frame. I drilled holes through the aluminum pieces and the board, inserted a bolt into each hole from the underside of the board, and had wing nuts available to provide tension to clamp the paper to the board’s surface. It was a simple matter of wetting paper to get it to expand, laying it on the board, putting the aluminum pieces on top, and clamping the paper into place with the wing nuts. When the paper dried, the resulting surface was very nice and flat. Unfortunately, the clamps didn’t quite grip the paper adequately and buckling would still occur to some degree. I began to look for a better commercially-available solution.
One nice product I discovered was built in the Mount Vernon, Washington USA area. Although there are only a couple places to obtain them, they function very nicely and are very reliable. The Otto Watercolor Paper Stretcher uses four long wooden clamps with Allen head screws to adhere each edge of wet paper to a piece of 1/2″ (1.27 cm) thick gator board. This light-weight option does a great job and I still use them today. I have literally painted hundreds of paintings with the same Otto units and they have worked great. But, as a continually inquisitive tinkerer, I had to explore some of the other stretchers on the market.
While most clamping, stapling, and taping systems are designed to hold an expanded piece of wet watercolor paper in position as it dries in order to create a taut surface, there are solutions available that will actually stretch the paper. Homebrew systems derived from canvas stretchers have become popular and innovators are constantly providing other solutions. One of the first products I ran across that actually stretched watercolor paper was invented by Joe Leahy from Seattle, WA USA. It had channeled aluminum clamping bars that ran the length of each edge of a piece of watercolor paper. The clamps actually gripped the edges of the paper that had been soaked in water and gently stretched it outward. With the paper fully saturated or completely dry, the surface remained tight and buckle-free even during the wettest washes. Unfortunately, Joe was the victim of a car accident and stopped making the product before I could purchase one. The production of the watercolor board was suspended until further notice. It was a tough situation for Joe and a loss for the watercolor painting community as well. Unfortunately, this forced me to seek another solution.
After extensive Internet searching, I discovered a similarly designed unit from a vender in the UK. It was being produced in Sweden and marketed through a couple UK sources. It is called the Keba Artmate and one of the interesting aspects of it is that you can interchange the sides of it with lengths from other sizes of Artmate products. I purchased the quarter-sheet size and thought it worked great. It pinched the edges of the wet paper and pulled them down and outward. This left the dried paper drum-tight. In fact, the paper would be so taut that the center board piece could be removed and wasn’t even needed. A major advantage the Artmate possesses that its counterparts lack is the fact that the aluminum pieces that press down on the paper edges for stretching purposes are below the surface of the paper. This keeps them out of the way when one is painting to the very edge of a piece which creates a much more pleasant experience. Similar products I have investigated have these pieces above the plane of the surface in a more picture-frame-like manner. This can make it awkward to accurately paint to the very edge of a substrate.
A couple years ago, I tried to order the kit of extra pieces to allow the stretcher to be manipulated into other size configurations but the shipping cost from the UK was exorbitant due to the size of the center board. It is unfortunate since I would very highly recommend this high-quality product created by Ben Haslam.
[UPDATE] I was recently able to get the parts for the Keba Artmate that I had been wanting through Jackson’s Art Supplies in London. The shipping was actually very reasonable considering it came with a 1/2 Imperial board and sides.
Eventually I found a great replacement product by Guerrilla Painter that was initially available through Judson’s Plein Air Outfitters and now through many other major art supply retailers in the United States. The Guerrilla Painter Watercolorboard is actually based upon Joe Leahy’s original design, is produced in China, and is marketed under the Guerrilla Painter brand name. I have a couple different sizes of this stretching system and really enjoy using them. A nice addition to this unit that gives it an advantage over many of the other solutions on the market is a built in tripod mount which makes for an instantly portable painting solution. The board does have some sharp corners which could be a problem for some users and it is also fairly heavy which might deter some painters. The weight can really make the 1/2 sheet size pretty awkward to wield. Since I use mine in conjunction with the easel system from Part I of this series of articles, the weight isn’t really a problem. If I had one negative thing to say about the Guerrilla Painter Watercolor board, it would be that the quarter-sheet size only has a useable painting surface of 9.75″ x 13.75″ (24.76 cm x 34.925 cm) which is just slightly smaller than the 10″ (25.4 cm) minimum dimension requirement set by many watercolor society exhibitions.
Obviously, I am continually looking for the perfect stretching system. Of all the options I have found so far, I am most impressed with the Keba Artmate but shipping costs prohibit me from being able to purchase the larger sizes. It actually stretches the paper, is self-contained, has an adequate working surface, possesses no sharp corners, and is a pleasure to use. The Guerrilla Painter Watercolorboard is an excellent substitute even though its sharp corners and lesser build quality are slight negatives. The Otto Watercolor Paper Stretcher is the lightest-weight version available which makes it very appealing for the avid plein air painter. Unfortunately, the Otto system only clamps the paper and doesn’t actually stretch it. Regardless, the Otto system is great to use, lightweight, very well designed, and Ron Otto is a pleasure to deal with if you purchase directly through his website.
Clearly there are many options on the market when it comes to stretching watercolor paper. I have found several that I really enjoy using but I would also love to hear from readers who use methods of which I am not aware. If you know of the ultimate system or have created a paper stretcher you would like to promote, please feel free to comment below.Tagged with: art, equipment, painting, paper, stretcher, watercolor