Article by Llewellyn Matthews
Introduction/History (Why we love it)
Every one of us, from the youngest school child to the serious artist, has experienced the sheer pleasure offered by a new sheet of paper, and the little moment of excitement of making the first mark. This act of bringing a creative idea to its first tangible representation then may proceed in any number of directions depending on the intention of the artist. The paper chosen should reflect that intention.
Few materials are as important to the success of drawing as the paper used by the artist. Today there are a bewildering number choices in paper that can quickly become overwhelming. Complicating matters is that terminology and descriptions may not mean the same thing from one manufacturer to another, especially as pertains to artisan papers made in small batches.1 You may settle on a particular paper and later find the manufacturer no longer provides it and must renew your search again.
Two important things can simplify and guide your choices: buying the best quality you can suitable for the purpose you have in mind, and whether you take pleasure in using the particular paper. As an artist who may spend many hours on a particular drawing or making any special piece, you will want to know you have used a quality paper that has archival properties. In other cases, a drawing may simply be a practice piece or something intended for disposal later.
To match our intention to our paper choice, it helps to know a little about paper.
What is Paper?
Paper was invented almost two thousand years ago by Ts’ai Lun, a Chinese court official who likely mixed a variety of fibers such as mulberry bark, bamboo and rags with water, mashed it into pulp, pressed it into sheets and then dried it. The ancient Egyptians stripped delicate layers from pithy reeds and pressed them into a laminate as an even earlier version called papyrus. Although our word for paper is derived from it, papyrus was not true papermaking. The beating of the fibers into a pulp and drying allows a hydrogen bond to form that gives it strength. The idea of beating the fibers to make paper came naturally to the Chinese who had long before been beating hemp to produce what some might call a deterrent to society, narcotics.2 The Chinese also introduced the idea of using chemicals, lime, to soften the fiber to further aide the papermaking process.
For almost six hundred years, the Chinese kept the papermaking process a secret, but ultimately the Arabs broke the monopoly when they conquered Samarkand, on the western limits of Chinese culture and captured papermakers and their equipment. Gradually the art spread across the near east and became common knowledge reaching Europe about the 12th century. By the 13th century, some of the earliest paper mills were constructed in Europe.3
Historical Use of Paper by Artists
Widespread availability of paper in Europe in the 12th century did not immediately result in widespread use of paper by artists of the time. Paper was at the outset more economical than the alternative, which was vellum or parchment made from animal skin4. The motivation of artists differed from the use of paper for the printed word in mass quantities. Artists of this time often used “pattern-books” to illustrate the objects, animals and graphics a client might select for a commissioned work. A pattern-book was a prized resource intended to stand up to long-term repetitive use. Paper was viewed as not as durable. On the other hand, the learning artist used a table of slate or wood for practice drawings that was wiped clean after use. “With the emphasis on craftsmanship and medieval aesthetic that only the complete was regarded as perfect, the idea of sketching in the modern sense did not exist.”5
Artists began to use more paper when several trends emerged. As artists evolved into being more in control of artistic content and producing more independent works of art, paper use increased for preliminary sketching to work out concepts. Eventually paper was appreciated as a useful medium for the learning artist. Also, particularly in Italy, large quantities of large sized paper were used as full-scale “cartoons” for frescoes. These were thought to have been largely recycled at nearby mills.
Michelangelo is said to have burned hundreds of his drawings so that we would not see the extent of his struggle. This fact alone speaks volumes about the use of paper by artists of the time and the evolution from crafts to the professional artist. Paper was probably not considered a valuable commodity even then and drawings were often not intended as an end in themselves. Artists were beginning to take advantage of the perceived lack of durability of paper by using it for shorter term purposes, and for working out preliminary concepts. By using paper as an active tool, artists freed themselves from the constraints of pattern books. Michelangelo, in a sense, marks this transitional time. “The father of Michelangelo opposed his son becoming a “stone cutter” and consented only after Lorenzo the Magnificent explained to him the difference between a stone cutter and the new occupation of sculptor.”6
Ironically, some of the papers produced at the time, with higher cotton content and simpler paper chemistry did have longevity to rival some modern papers. Based on modern standards, good art paper should have a longevity of hundreds of years.7
1There is be more standardization in commodity grades than in specialty papers.
2Ainsworth, “Paper, the Fifth Wonder,” (series of 12 booklets)
3Some of these mills still exist today. The Fabriano was constructed in the 1283; the Magnani mill at Pescia has been in operation for over 600 years. Hahnemuhle Paper established its first mil in 1584. In France, the Arches paper mill was founded in 1492 and the Canson mill in 1557 (Canson now owns Arches). The Summer 2010 issue of American Artist Drawing Magazine has an article with a short description of the history of European and US manufacturers of quality drawing papers.
4In the late 19th century, paper was made with similar qualities and is called paper vellum.
5Mickelewright, Keith, “Drawing, Mastering the Language of Visual Expression,” (2005) P. 12
6Micklewright, p. 13
7American National Standards Institute/National Information Standards Organization(ANSI/NISO) (1992) publication, “Permanence of Paper for Publications, Archives and Documents in Libraries,” sets out criteria and test methods for permanence in response to the tendency of acidic paper to become brittle. The authors note that, “This embrittlement has made probable the loss of the original hard copy format of much of the published record from the 19th and 20th centuries.”