Using Canvas Stretcher Bars To Stretch Watercolor Paper

You may, like I do, have stretcher bars normally used for stretching canvas waiting to back your next canvas. But have you ever considered using those bars to stretch paper instead?

A sketch of a wooden stretcher bar
A corner of a wooden 20” stretcher bar

Here’s an easy technique for stretching watercolor paper with those bars—a technique that has many advantages over other ways. One, it avoids the awkward weight of a solid board. Two, the paper will dry faster because both sides are exposed to air. Three, you’ll have to be gentle while painting (which is what watercolor painting is about). And four, the clean-up time consists of simply removing pushpins from the frame. Afterward, the frame is ready for you to attach a new sheet of paper.

  • To begin, you will need to assemble your four stretcher bars into a frame. (I use 16”x20” because they’re easy to assemble and carry.) I glue my frame together and allow the glue to dry overnight before I begin attaching watercolor paper to the frame. This makes the frame permanent, but you can choose not to do this.
Once the stretcher bars are assembled, you can tack watercolor paper over the front
Once the stretcher bars are assembled, you can tack watercolor paper over the front
  • You will also need a box of pushpins and a soaking tray filled with room temperature water. My soaking tray is a shallow 24”x30” Formica baking tray that I bought from a bakery, but a large aluminum baking tray or a clean bathtub work just as well. Fill the tray or tub with a half-inch of water (I use the distilled kind).
  • The dimensions of your watercolor paper should be two or three inches longer than the height and width of the stretcher frame, which means I use 20”x24” sheets of paper.
  • Before attaching your paper to the stretcher bars, draw any information you intend to use in your painting on the paper’s front side. Do not draw on the paper after you have stretched it.
  • Next, soak the paper for a minute or two by submerging it in your water. Do not soak the paper too long. You may end up washing off the sizing and your pencil drawing.
  • When both sides of the paper are completely wet, drape the paper over the stretcher frame so about two inches overlap the edge on all four sides. (The frame should be laying flat on a tabletop or workbench, with the stretcher frame’s front facing up.)
  • Once the paper covers the frame evenly, attach the paper to the sides of the frame using your fingers GENTLY, and your pushpins to wrap and fasten the paper around all four edges. The stretching sequence goes:
  1. Wrap and pin the paper at the top center of each length (the side that would sit flush inside a picture frame). Start with the top bar. Place a pushpin in the paper and bottom bar, then the left side, and finally the right.
  2. Return to the top bar and place a pushpin half an inch to the right of the first pushpin. Then place a pushpin half an inch to the left of the first pushpin. Proceed to the bottom bar and do this until you have three pushpins on all four sides.
  3. Return to the top bar and pin again until you have five pushpins half-an-inch apart on all four sides.
  4. Continue until you reach the corners.
  • When attaching the watercolor paper to the frame it is best to gently tug the paper taut while pinning. If the paper is not taut, you may end up with a warped surface to paint on.
  • After you have attached the paper, allow about three hours for it to dry. Or, you can use a portable hair dryer to speed things up. Just don’t scorch your paper in the process. Keep the frame lying flat in a horizontal position—resist the urge to lift the frame and chance knocking it out of alignment (even if you glued it earlier) and warping the paper.
  • Once the paper is dry, you’re ready to paint. Use gentle touches when applying your paint so as not to tear your paper.

Give it a try, happy painting, and let me know what you think.

Painting Alla Prima, Part 2 of 2

Many years ago, I taught wildlife and landscape painting classes. This is a lesson plan from those classes.

Understanding and controlling values should be one of your first goals as a painter. When I began painting landscapes from life, I realized that the objects in my finished paintings lacked convincing form. When I understood how light reveals form and began looking at the world with this in mind, my work began to improve. So will yours when you learn to see light and understand what it does to show an object’s form.

Recognize value in color. An object’s form is made of valued tones of color. It’s imperative while painting to be able to see a color in your subject and translate its value into paint.

Think about the picture and its center of interest. Think in terms of composition first. Plan where the center of interest will be located and how you will emphasize that area. Make your center of interest stand out with color and value contrasts and an interesting shape.

Inside, Looking Out
Inside, Looking Out, Oil Painting

When painting a center of interest, keep your eyes on that area of landscape (or model or still life) and nowhere else. Use your peripheral vision for the rest of the subject, but keep your eyes on the focal point as you finish the rest of the painting. This will help you make the rest of your painting harmonious with the focal point.

What can you cut? Are you saying too much and cluttering the picture space with too many details? Is there anything extraneous that you can remove from the picture? Can you cut detracting background by moving in closer or by cropping the subject with a viewfinder?

The overall design. When composing your painting, do not think “up and down” or “side to side.”  Rather, consider the depth you can create within the “cube” I’ve talked about in class—that three dimensional rectangular space that will be your painting. Then work with the overlapping forms within your vision’s periphery as part of the overall design.

A Brief Pause in an Apple Orchard
Apple Orchard, Oil Painting

Put it on and leave it alone. This rule is often mentioned to oil painters, but I’m suggesting it to painters using acrylics, too. Fussing with passages of acrylic paint can be more damaging than reworking the slower-drying oil paints.

When putting in the lights mix up thick, opaque color and put it down with simple strokes. The amount of paint on the brush and proper brush pressure is vital when applying your paint. Putting thick paint down boldly forces you to make definite decisions. Believe your first impression. Paint quickly; if you look too long, your perception may change. Be decisive. A boldly applied stroke looks right because the artist made a decision and stuck with it. Putting down a stroke and then restating it once or twice pushes the paint into the underlayer, making the color muddy. If the underpainting is too thick, scrape it off. You can lay paint over a thick area by painting the next layer even thicker.

Oil on canvas board
Oil on canvas board

Criticize your work from afar. Step away a good distance from the canvas and decide whether some shapes and edges need more emphasis. Judge artfully from a distance, not critically with your nose against the canvas. From Leonardo da Vinci’s Treatise on Painting we learn that from a distance “…the work appears smaller, and more of it is taken in at a glance, and [any] lack of harmony or proportion in the various parts … is more readily seen.” Remember to emphasize major areas—do not stray far from your painting’s focal point.  Add detail, or sharp edges at the end of the process.

Sketches in the Sun
Sketches in the Sun, Oil Painting, circa 2001

Impressionist Claude Monet described painting alla prima as this: “When you go out to paint, try to forget what objects you have in front of you, a tree, a field. Merely think, here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow, and paint it just as it looks to you, the exact color and shape, until it gives your own naïve impression of the scene.”

Painting Alla Prima, Part 1 of 2

Many years ago, I taught wildlife and landscape painting classes. This is a lesson plan from those classes.

Alla prima is an Italian expression that translates into “at the first try.” The technique of alla prima is a wet-on-wet direct method of painting that completes the painting in a single session, without previous preparation or later stages. TV artist Bob Ross paints alla prima.

The Impressionists introduced the technique of direct painting; however, Rubens used an alla prima style when he mixed his colors directly on the canvas itself without waiting for the paints to dry. The Impressionists painted their landscapes in a single session taking only three or four hours to begin and finish a picture. They tried to capture the impression of the moment by painting directly. They did not allow themselves to go back over what had already been done.

As when using any painting method, ask “Why am I painting this picture?” as you prepare to paint alla prima. If you have no answer, then you’re not ready to paint that picture. When you are ready, sketch in the drawing with a round bristle brush loaded with a mixture of blue and umber thinned with turpentine. If you’re using water-based oils or acrylics, thin your colors with water. Simplify the scene’s complexity by sketching in the main elements. Once the initial drawing is done, it’s now a question of filling in the spaces with color.

Oak Sketch Oil on canvas board
Oak Sketch
Oil on canvas board

Establish the mood first, before worrying about creating depth. The mood is determined by light, so observe the color of light, then consider how to alter that color to create elements in deep space.

What color is the lightest light? A white shirt drenched in warm lamplight may be pink, orange or slightly yellow—not pure white, as you might think. Never use pure white, but white with a small amount of color in it.

Waterfall Study Oil on canvas board
Waterfall Study
Oil on canvas board

What is the darkest dark? What color is it? How dark is it? Darks have light in them, so double-check your first impression. Put the lights in later.

Pick the easiest color to get right without a lot of mixing. If an object is the same color as Cerulean Blue straight from the tube, that is easy. To check a rich, bright color in nature, hold up a pure color, such as Cadmium Red Light, on the brush. Compare how lighter or less brilliant that color may actually be. When it looks right, put it on your canvas.

Establish shadow patterns. It’s easier to control light colors by first placing in all the shadow shapes accurately. When they’re in the right place, this step is done. Laying in the shadows first guarantees clean color throughout.

Cow and landscape study, 1990; oil on canvas board
Cow and landscape study, 1990; oil on canvas

Lay in the lights. Keep all the colors of the light family lighter than the shadow shapes. Lay them down flatly and simply. Cover the whole canvas while thinking about shapes. Step away and recheck your color choices. Don’t hurry to produce a finished painting.

See objects in terms of simple shapes. Focus on shapes, not things. Think of your paintings as mosaics of interlocking shapes, some larger, some smaller, but all related. Make all shapes interesting and pay special attention to negative shapes. Start with flat silhouettes of color.

Describe the effect of light on forms. Use hard and soft edges to convey the character and solidity of objects. Start your painting by keeping edges soft.  Hard edges attract the eye, so keep shapes and edges loose and fluid in the early stages.

All surfaces reflect color on any surfaces facing the light’s reflection. This is called reflected light and reflected color, and we see it when the blue sky reflects off water and snow, as well as when green grass reflects from the base of a white house.

A study from the 1990s; oil on canvas board
A study from the 1990s; oil on canvas board

Evolution of a Painting

This is a re-post from my Facebook page, March 1, 2010.

In 1988, black bear weren’t a common sight around Corry, PA. I had caught a glimpse of one during the spring while I was on one of my many field hikes into the swamps in and around Corry. I was sketching a beaver dam when I saw the big bear ramble through less than 50 yards away. I stayed as still as possible for several minutes after it disappeared into the underbrush, then I disappeared in the opposite direction.

The sighting stayed with me throughout the summer; I purposely scanned the woods and waterways for another glimpse of the bear. I planned to photograph it, but we never crossed paths, although it may have been out there, nearby, out of sight, watching me. Swamps have a plethora of hiding places. That’s why deer take refuge in them during hunting season.

From this near encounter came the idea for my next painting.

The hardest thing for me as a painter is getting my signature right.

Although the painting looks done, I wasn’t happy with it. I changed my signature again and got rid of the halo around the front of the bear.

As you can see in the above photo, I glazed the water with Ultramarine Blue. I decided that it looked too “vivid” so I changed it back (see photo below). Now I had a finished painting. Here it is at the gallery, April 1989.