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What is Paper?

Artists have far greater control over their work when they have knowledge of the materials with which they work. For many of us, paper is an essential element in the process of creating artwork either in the preliminary work or the final product. Yet surprisingly, many people know very little about how to choose the paper that embodies the characteristics that would be most beneficial in achieving their creative goals.

The most important aspect in choosing a paper is to know your paper fibers. The first papers made in the Orient were made from fibers found in the bast of shrub-like trees. The bast is the long strong fibers that grow between the wood of the tree and the bark. In making these papers, the bast is stripped from the inside of the bark. The fiber is then beaten to separate the fibers and through one of several processes can be made into paper. The longer the fiber, the stronger the paper. High quality papers are made from long fibers. The four most common fibers used in the Orient to make paper are Mulberry, Kozo, Gampi, and Mitsumata. For a discussion of Oriental papers please refer to our online newsletter.

Many of the fine art papers commonly found in the US are made from cotton or wood pulp, also called sulphite. Cotton is naturally acid free and is manufactured in two grades or qualities of paper making fibers. The highest grade is cotton rag made from fine fabric grade fibers, which are long and strong. The second grade is cotton linter, which are left over from the ginning process and found near the seed.

Wood pulp is another popular fiber in paper manufacture. Wood pulp is plentiful and fairly inexpensive, however is acidic by nature and must be buffered to produce a pH neutral paper. Because wood pulp is comprised of short fiber, lower and mid-quality papers are produced. However, recent technologies have been able to produce alphacellulose removing the acid causing component, lignin. Papers made from alphacellulose rival in quality those papers made from cotton rag. For more information about cotton and acid free papers please visit our online newsletter.

Determining Paper Weight
The thickness of a paper is decided by the paper maker and is measured in a number of ways. In the US, paper is typically measured in pounds per ream. An example of this is a 140lb watercolor paper. A ream of 500 sheets weighs 140lbs. This system can not be used to accurately measure all paper because while a ream will always be 500 sheets, the size of the sheets may vary. The European system of measuring the thickness of a paper is grams per square meter or gsm2. This is a more accurate way to measure paper because a square meter measures all papers. A 300 gsm2 watercolor paper means that a square meter of this paper measures 300 grams. It is very common to find both of these measuring systems in the description of the paper.

Another way to measure paper thickness is expressed in "ply". This system is often used to indicate the thickness of Bristol. "Cover" and "text" are also indications of paper thickness. Cover weight refers to a thicker paper and is usually compared to the thickness of a greeting card (card stock). Text weight refers to a thinner paper, which can be compared to typical typing, writing, or notebook paper.

Surface Qualities
Surface or texture is a characteristic of paper determined by the quality of a paper and how the fibers lie in the sheet. When it comes to paper finishes, a consumer has many options from which to choose. Watercolor papers are typically made in three different surface created during manufacture. The smoothest surface available is "hot press". Hot press papers achieve their surface by pressing the formed sheets between hot rollers. A slightly textured surface is called "cold press", also termed "not" in Europe. Rolling the formed sheet between cold rollers forms cold press textured papers. Rough papers are just what they sound like, papers that have the most texture of the surface types. To add to these three surfaces, Fabriano has recently developed the "soft press" surface. This surface lies in between hot press and cold press.

When discussing drawing and printmaking papers, surfaces can be described as "vellum" and "plate". Vellum surfaces, not to be confused with vellum papers, are typical of the majority of papers that possess a medium tooth. Plate surfaces are very smooth due to a thin clay coating and are excellent for mediums such as ink that do not require tooth for gripping. The rougher the surface, the more gripping ability it will have allowing for multiple layers of drawing media such as charcoal, graphite, and pastel.

Sizing is an important consideration when choosing papers for use with water or wet mediums. Sizing refers to the substance added to a paper to make it moisture or water-resistant in varying degrees. The absorbency of a paper is controlled partly in the preparation of the pulp but mainly in the addition of size to the paper.

The two methods of sizing a sheet of paper are internal sizing and tub sizing. When a size is added to the wet pulp during the paper making process it is considered internally sized. Tub sizing occurs when the size is added to the paper surface after it has been made and dried. Passing the paper through a tub full of size and hanging it to re-dry does this.

Many fine watercolor papers are both internally sized and surface sized. Sizing a paper keeps the paper from absorbing too much water and pigment and keeps the colors vibrant and true. This is also true for inks. There is no need for sizing in drawing, pastel, and charcoal papers.

Paper Handling
Maybe one of the most important aspects to understanding paper is handling. Even the most experienced artists who properly chooses the paper that embodies the exact qualities recommended for a specific project will have trouble achieving their artistic goal on a damaged piece of paper. Papers crack, bruise, and buckle very easily.

From the time a paper is made, it travels through many hands packing, unpacking, storing, purchasing, rolling, and transporting home. By the time a sheet of paper makes it to the point at which it is used, it has already lived a long life. Paper should be handled as little as possible and when it is handled it should be done so with both hands holding corner to opposite corner diagonally.

When an artist has a vision of creating a work of art, talent and skill of expression are important, but lack of understanding of basic tools can keep any artist from achieving that goal. Understanding the ground to which the medium will be applied is essential in choosing a paper that will showcase full artistic expression.



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