Sean O'Halloran: Getting Started

The first step for me when beginning a new painting is to stretch my paper. I work pretty exclusively on 140# Arches cold press. I'm a process person, which translates into my enjoying the process of stretching paper. (When I teach, a vast majority of my students groan when I tell them to stretch their paper; they prefer buying 400# stock to avoid having to stretch it. Me? I get a lot of satisfaction from it.)

I first start by cutting down a 22 x 30" sheet to 22 x 15".  I make sure to mark the backs of the cut-down sheets, so I know which side is front and which is back. The side from which you can read the watermark is the front. With the exception of Hahn papers, every watermark has verbiage of some sort, which allows you to know which side is the front; Hahn has an image of a rooster with no verbiage, so when I work with their papers, I have to log onto their website to see which direction the rooster needs to face in order to determine which side is the front. But I digress.

I then fill the bathtub with six inches of tepid water. (I make sure that the tub's free of any sort of soap residue, since soap will adversely affect how my washes will lay on the surface. [I also need to make sure there aren't any stray pet hairs in the tub.])

I place the sheet into the water, right-side-up, and carefully submerge it, making certain all of the air bubbles are removed from the underside of the sheet, and that the piece has been completely submerged. (Trapped air pockets will cause irregularities in the sizing that remains in the paper, and this, too, will adversely affect the way my washes lay on the surface.) I let the paper float in the water for fifteen to twenty minutes.

While the paper's soaking up the water and expanding, I collect a piece of 24 x 36" particle board and a staple gun, and return to the tub.

I lay the particle board on the counter, and carefully remove the limp sheet from the tub, picking it up by one corner, removing it from the water on a diagonal, allowing the water to run off easily, all the while supporting it from another corner, preventing the wet, fragile sheet from folding over on itself. (Good watercolor sheets with high rag content can take a lot of tear, but I'm still very careful not to bend or mar the paper, especially while it's this wet.)

I lay the wet sheet on the particle board, grab my staple gun, and attack! I shoot staples into the sheet, all the way around, every 1-1/2 to 2", about 3/8" from the paper's edge.

The cat and dog both hate the racket of the staple gun, and high-tail it out of the house.

When I've finished stapling, I place the board on a flat surface and let it dry. Any wrinkles in the wet paper will flatten out as the surface dries and shrinks. When we lived in New Mexico, the drying process took about ten seconds; here in Savannah, it takes a little longer.

When the paper is dry, I have a beautifully flat sheet of Arches, ready for the deluge of washes I'm about to apply.

In the photo, situated above the stretched sheet are four digital printouts of my revised sketch. I enlarged the image using Photoshop, and output it to letter-sized paper, which I subsequently tape together into a single image. After the taping is complete, I use a stick of 6B graphite to blacken the back of the pieced-together sketch. Then I'm ready to transfer the drawing to the watercolor paper.