Since the days when early Egyptians created some of the first known sheets of what we now refer to as paper, there have been many improvements and enhancements. Those early sheets were made by weaving the soft stems of water papyrus together and then pounding and pressing them to form cohesive sheets for writing and painting.
Chinese papermaking began about 100 B.C. and, although primitive, was used to create records and drawings, some of which still exist today. The primitive Chinese paper was made of mulberry bark and chopped hemp rags. The mixture was spread smooth and flattened to form irregularly shaped sheets. Although it sounds bizarre, this technique—or one similar—continued for many centuries.
The use of such precious materials as cloth made the first paper very expensive and something afforded and used by the very wealthy. Paper as we know it was not made on any scale until about A.D. 1200. On the same timeline, the Aztecs were also creating a paper-type material and using it for a variety of purposes.
From these simple beginnings, a very rapid development of varietal papers was begun around the time of the Industrial Revolution. With mechanization, factories and mass production, along with the advent of a chemical industry, the use of wood materials was incorporated into the creation of an affordable paper.
As artists today, we are fortunate to have at our fingertips – literally – a huge variety of textures, colors, finishes and weights of paper and rag content materials upon which to paint and draw. With the many choices at any art material dealer, it is often difficult to select the right ground for the application to which you intend to put the paper. Let’s examine some of the basic differences and uses of many of the papers available.
In the area of heavy, toothy, marginally absorbent paper like you might select to do watercolor, there are a number of extremely high quality papers that you should look at. The “rag” content of a watercolor paper is more than important in its life span. Those fibers add a wet strength and offer the option to scrub and gouge the surface to create detail work. The fibers are suspended and then bound with solutions that hold them tightly; and, once put under the pressure of hydraulic presses, they become a strong, useful surface. The heavier the rag content paper, the more “abuse” it can take. Soaking in a tub of water will not cause any appreciable decline in its strength nor will it adversely change the painting surface.
Padded watercolor papers are not usually as strong as the heaviest single sheets but can be extremely versatile for many artistic applications. Ink drawings with water-based washes, oil pastel, conte crayon and acrylic all do well on these strong sheets. For paper piercing work, paper cutwork and the like, lighter watercolor paper is very strong and the perfect weight.
Charcoal papers have a soft tooth surface and are able to hold the strokes of either charcoal or pastel. Although not specifically designed for pastel, charcoal papers come in soft, subtle colors with a smooth texture that allows fine detail pastel work. Charcoal, conte crayon and colored pencil do very well on this paper. Pastel papers vary greatly in their surface quality. Some are velvety and could make interesting experimental foundations for painting and do very well with charcoal, graphite and some styles of ink work. Although not designed for this application, it is always fun to experiment with papers to do new and challenging things. Velvet papers are great for a wide range of such experimentation.
Greeting card artists and those involved in scrapbook creation find papers that are designed for fine art applications work extremely well in their field as well. There are no “sacred” materials for many artists and they often seek out and use very unusual materials in their work. Take a look at some of their results to see what they do. Use of metal leaf over some surfaces, for example, is one technique used by scrapbookers to create unique photo frames for their photos. The list could go on and on, but the idea is to make you curious about how to use paper in new and unusual ways.
Corrugated sheets, super chunky handmade papers, papers with natural materials incorporated, super slick – mirror finished sheets, translucent velum, canvas papers…try some in new ways. The fun of experimentation and exploration is habit forming.