Article by Llewellyn Matthews
You Can Navigate The Dizzing Array of Paper Descriptions With Some Basic Concepts
Knowing what properties make a high quality art paper is a useful framework because although the exact varieties or brands of paper may change over time, the basic concepts will not change.
In the above sections, the key variables in the manufacturing process that determine quality and longevity were discussed. In addition, the manufacturer has many options with respect to the type of machine the paper is made on, how thick it will be and what finishes to give the paper. At this point, the papermaker becomes an artist and shows off skill in producing paper with a wide variety of characteristics designed to appeal to you. There is even less standardization of meaning, but some basic concepts will sort it out.
Descriptions of How the Paper Fibers were Formed into Sheets:
(Mould-made/deckle-edged; hand-made, twin wire, single wire, etc)
Paper is made by pouring a dilute solution of fibers suspended in water over a wire screen of some type and then extracting the water. In a modern papermaking machine, the wire screen is a continuous loop with the paper fibers laying a little bit irregularly at the two edges. The continuous paper sheet can be cut and trimmed to give four straight edges or in some cases left as is with two deckled edges. If the paper appears to have been made on a machine and has four deckled edges, it is because the manufacturer added two torn edges. Yes, you are paying extra for this, but then again, the manufacturer is trying to convey a sense of quality. Some large sheets of art paper will have two deckled edges and this is fine.
Paper can be made by pouring the fibers suspended in water into a square or rectangular form, and these are sometimes called mould-made or hand made. Of course these will have four deckled edges and will have an interesting artisan look.
A paper machine may have a single-wire screen, a twin-wire screen or wire screen with a felt. This simply determines if the two sides are the same or not. Papers labeled for charcoal or pastel typically have two distinct surfaces, one of which has more texture. In most cases it is a matter of personal preference which side to use and these papers need not be limited to charcoal or pastel. Drawing papers also often have two distinct sides, just not as pronounced as papers labeled for charcoal and pastel.
“All-media” paper implies suitability for most wet drawing materials either because of adequate sizing or treatment of the surface, or both.
Descriptions of How the Paper Surface was Finished
(Water-color Paper: Cold/Hot Pressed/Calendered Paper and Smooth Plate Finish)
At the end of the paper making process (after fiber suspension is laid on the wire, water is removed and the paper is dried) the paper typically goes through a final machine finishing process called “calendaring,” “super calendering” or “plate finishing.” The calender is a series of cylinder rolls. Plate finishing is a smooth finish achieved by pressing the paper through metal plates. The terms all refer to the process of creating a smooth surface, much like ironing a garment.
Although the Chinese invented paper, smoothness was of no real concern as they applied their written characters with a brush. The Arabs, whose handwriting was finer and whose inks were more viscous, found they obtained a better sheet for their needs by rubbing the paper sheet against wood planks with smooth agate or flint. Like every other step in the process, there are varying degrees of final finish from ultra smooth and glossy to rough.
Water-color papers are where we see the most range in texture as a result of the final finishing. The typical categories are self-explanatory: Hot pressed, cold-pressed and rough.
Water color papers, particularly the smooth hot-pressed, are suitable for finely rendered drawings particularly in graphite but may lack sufficient tooth for charcoal. Cold-pressed has more texture, and depending on the manufacturer may work for some charcoal drawings. Rough, is well, rough and may have no final finishing.
It is useful to have a sense of the meaning of these terms because of manufacturers advertising descriptions, but keep in mind these are highly subjective.1 One manufacturers Bristol may seem like another’s vellum and so on.
Descriptions of Coating:
Printing paper, Sizing and Miscellaneous Coatings
The word “size” comes form the old Latin verb “assidere.” Early Italian papermakers called it “assisa,” which was eventually slurred to “sisa” and modified to “size.” It means “set into place.” Size coats the pulp fibers and imparts varying degrees of water resistance to the finished paper, depending on the amount used.
Papers may have a range of sizing materials from blotting paper (none) to butcher papers and coated fine printing papers which are “ hard” sized and virtually moisture resistant. In printing papers, the goal is to allow inks and dyes to remain on the surface rather than be absorbed into the paper. Sizing is not a necessity in drawing papers, but most have some.
Sometimes the manufacturer will advertise “internal” sizing or “tub sizing.” This simply means the size was mixed into the pulp before going onto the paper wire, rather than coated on later. This distinction may be important to print-makers, but I don’t believe this is important to drawing artists.
Most printing papers are more heavily sized than drawing papers. With a few limitations, most will usually be perfectly acceptable for drawing. Sometimes when rendering with a very sharp stick of charcoal you may find a bit of sizing coating the tip of your charcoal and the charcoal stops feeling as smooth. Also, some printing paper surface may not endure as much erasing as traditional drawing paper.
Descriptions of Weight:
Paper Weight and Thickness
Paper comes in different weights, a reference to how much a certain number of sheets would weigh. Beyond this, the system of classification in the US is ridiculously confusing.
Some typical ranges are 80-90 lb is student grade; 90-140 lb is a popular drawing choice, watercolor papers start around 200 lbs and 300 and up is sometimes classified as paperboard.
Also some manufacturers use an entirely different identifications based on grammage such as series 300-500.
Keep in mind that the heavier the paper the more expensive, but also it is likely to be more durable and stand up to repeated erasings.
Now Pick Out Some Paper
In sum, you have decided if your purpose is short-term or whether longevity is important with respect to your drawing and know how to sort out descriptions and advertising statements.
Let’s look at some paper descriptions:
- Strathmore Papers
- Canson Papers
- Hahnemüehle Papers
- Rives BFK Papers
- Fabriano Papers
- Magnani Papers
- New International Papers
- Twin Rocker Watercolor Papers
1I was astounded to find a web reference stating that cold-pressed watercolor paper cannot be paper because it did not go through the calendering process! We know that this is paper because it is made from cellulose fibers, regardless of how much it is pressed, plated, or smoothed at the end.
Drawing of Travis as St. John the Baptist by Llewellyn Matthews