I’m still concerned about how paper is being used. Too many people are relying on the cartridge that the college supplies. So I thought it time to remind you all about why paper is important and in addition to perhaps question you as to how conceptually paper can be positioned within your individual practices.
The type of paper you choose to work on should be dictated by the particular use to which you are going to put it. This use value is both practical and conceptual.
The main role of paper is of course is to act as a support for the drawn, written or printed image and it is important to choose the right paper to support the practical application you are working towards. However it has other functions, in particular it will dictate how a work is viewed and its provenance will bring to the work other factors that will affect the reception and conceptual reading of the work. For instance by using school exercise book paper, you immediately shift the read because of everyone’s previous associations with that paper during their time at school.
There are two books by Silvie Turner that are essential reading if you are to get a basic knowledge of what is usually termed ‘fine art’ papers. One is ‘Which Paper?’ this is a review of a vast range of papers available to artists from world-wide suppliers. It takes you through technical terms and most importantly lists papers by name and supplier.
For instance, it has a section on Meirat papers. Below in black is the 'Which Paper' entry on the paper ‘Meirat Goya’ and in red my notes.
An ivory white paper, available in ‘board’ weights up to 1000gsm. Either side is useful and it comes in a range of weights with two surfaces, smooth and textured.
‘Board’ weights up to 1000gsm are extremely rare. ‘Board’ weights above 350gsm usually refer to card, so a paper of this weight is really solid.
Unsized Unsized paper is like blotting paper, i.e. it will soak water based inks up into the surface, therefore if you are printing on it use oil based inks, unless you want to use the unsized quality to get a slightly blurred quality to the image. Some artists prefer to use unsized papers to draw on as it makes for a more unpredictable mark. It can of course be used exactly like blotting paper, you draw with water based ink on one surface and when it’s still wet lay the unsized paper on top and then peel off so that you have a reverse impression on the underside. These can be particularly beautiful lines, soft and yet totally embedded into the paper.
Not Surface This means that the paper is not hot pressed, its texture will be open not compressed, therefore you can press things into it. In particular this paper is really good for embossing work.
Acid Free I.e. it will last a long time and is of archival quality.
Neutral pH As above.
Fast tints This is important as you don’t want the paper fading if it is exposed to light for a long period.
Four Deckle Edges This means that it is a mould made paper, deckle edges are the result of the paper slightly overspilling the edges of the frame when it is pulled out of the trough.
Colours include Ivory, cream plus grey, cream, green and blue speckled (fine threads) Fine threads usually implies that the paper is cotton based and that the fibrous structure uses long threads as a sort of reinforcement like steel mesh in concrete. It is therefore very strong.
Casting This means that the paper is so thick you can actually use it to make shallow casts of objects.
Every paper, and there are hundreds listed, is presented in detail, of course the book doesn’t include my notes, but I’m sure you would start adding your own once you started to get into this.
However what is perhaps more important is that Turner’s book is a good starting point for a much deeper investigation into paper as a subject of research. For instance those of you interested in environmental issues can learn about the impact of climate on how papers are made. Temperature is vital to the production of paper, a cool climate limits the growth of bacteria and thus ensures longer and better durability, in cold conditions ingredients do not decompose so quickly and cold strengthens and contracts the fibres, making papers crisper and firmer in appearance. Some Japanese papers made in summer can appear limp in comparison and an expert would spot the difference immediately.
As your research deepens and you begin to look beyond Turner’s books, you may begin to look at the wider political and socio-economic issues that relate to papermaking. In India, for instance, Khadi rag papers are made from 100% cotton rag. Cotton rags have long fibres and papers made from these have exceptional strength and durability. The cotton rag Khadi papermakers use comes mainly from T-shirt cuttings and these cuttings come from Western European charity shops and mass waste collections, as well as from local Indian rag picking. In parts of India free-roaming rag-pickers make US$2 to US$3 a day by picking up rubbish and selling the recyclable material to scrap dealers. In New Delhi alone, there are 300,000 ragpickers, with another 300,000 in Mumbai, of whom 120,000 are under the age of 14. For some of the poorest people in the developing world, recycling often isn’t a choice, but a necessity of life. In the case of these workers, they feel that they would have no livihood at all if not for rag picking. As wider research opens out an understanding of papers within both environmental and political concerns, perhaps our decision making changes in relation to the way we forground particular conceptual processes or select certain images. Paper now becomes a sign signifying other issues beyond simply being a surface to draw on.
Rag pickers in India
Going back to the cartridge paper so often used within college, this is usually made from bleached sulphate wood pulp with an addition of esparto grass.Esparto grass has been used in British papermaking since the 1850s and is usually combined with wood pulp, the highest quality esparto grass coming from Spain. Esparto fibers are short in relation to their width, therefore its resistance to shrinking or stretching when damp is very good, thus making it useful to the printing industry and easy to fold.
By the 1950s, a third of all the esparto grass imported into the UK came through the port of Granton in Edinburgh, a 100,000 tons a year. The grass being picked in southern Spain, in particular around the region of Aguilas, however it is now often picked in North Africa, where it is not cultivated but grows wild. During the 1970s the port of Granton began to lose this trade and coupled with the demise of other traditional imports the port began to enter a period of decline. Paper is entwined deeply into the changes in economic trade and this effects the UK as well as the rest of the world.
When harvested the traditional Spanish way of tying up the bales of esparto was like this, (see below) a particularly beautiful structure and one that is suggestive of its other use as a building material.
A bale of esparto grass
Esparto grass (L. spartum), has stiff, rushlike leaves, growing in rocky soil in the rugged parts of Murcia and Valencia in Spain as well as in Algeria, where it flourishes in sandy, ferruginous soils, in dry, sunny situations on the seacoast. It can grow up to 3 or 4 feet tall, the stems being cylindrical growing in clusters of from 0.6 to 3 m in circumference. Esparto has for a long time been used to make ropes, sandals, baskets and mats as well as paper, but perhaps for those of us in the UK our main exposure to esparto grass is as a tourist souvenir, esparto donkey heads being particularly popular.
As you learn more about cartridge paper (did you know the name ‘cartridge paper’ comes from the fact it was first used for gun cartridges), it may change the way you think about it and possibly affect your ideas generation.
The main ingrediant in cartridge paper is bleached sulphate wood pulp. This is a fascinating material because it can be approached in a variety of ways as a topic of research. One of the most interesting issues is the rise of bleached papers. Papers are not naturally white and if you look at old parchments and papers from before the industrial revolution you will find them much more ‘natural’ in colour. However our society demands white as a pure colour and therefore we have developed a whole system for measuring the whites of papers including a scale with which to measure the new florescent whites. The brightness of paper is measured by examining how much light is reflected by paper under specified conditions and this is usually represented as a percentage, so a higher number represents a brighter or whiter paper. Interestingly we can now have ISOs of over 100 because of the properties of florescent papers that ‘radiate’ light as well as reflect it. A cultural shift (our growing need for a kind of purity, an interest in ‘white goods’ which is itself a product of Modernism, another story involving the eradication of hidden germs) demanding the addition of bleaching products such as hydrogen peroxide (often used to bleach hair of course) which then began to cause a rise in pollution as chemicals were washed out into the rivers and lakes and thus started to have a direct effect on wildlife, in particular fish stocks.
One other effect of the bleaching process is to destroy the wood’s lignin, which is a photosensitive material. A paper such as newsprint has not been bleached and you can see the difference if you leave it in the sunlight for a couple of days with a book left on top of it. Lift the book off and you will see that the rest of the paper has yellowed around it, the newsprint operating as a very basic photographic paper. In this case it is the basic chemistry of paper that is being examined, another possible direction to take paper research into.
Any of this information may effect the way we make art, the art researcher could as a result of their findings end up drawing endangered fish on bleached paper, or constructing paper versions of Spanish souvenirs, sailing to the Baltic in search of Finnish pine trees, sending off waxed paper boats to test the waters, using newsprint as super-cheap photographic paper or working on sun-kissed Spanish beaches under paper umbrellas in order to reap the grasses? Perhaps not but as soon as these things are mooted as issues to think about, a series of poetic associations are built, possibilities that only become plausible because of the research done.
An artist’s ongoing background research is often done over many years and forms a growing collection of private knowledge, knowledge that only you as an artist possess and use in the way you do. Artists often look for poetic associations that help reveal hidden truths, and in order to do so they have to sometimes dig deep.
Whichever aspect of paper interests you, its physical properties or its ‘ur-history’ research can uncover all sorts of possibilities and as someone interested in drawing, I would hope you begin to take much more seriously the surface that you are using to draw on, rather than just accepting it as a given.
Another story of course is paper size, but that will have to wait for a future post, I’ll just leave you with this little fact: When they were developing modern ISO paper sizes, the length of the paper was chosen to be the width of the page times Pythagoras' constant, the square root of two (≈1.414). This means that when a paper sheet is cut in half, the resulting two pages keep the same aspect ratio as the original.