Handmade Paper

A look at the process and how four artists uniquely use paper as a medium

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The age-old craft of hand paper making traces its roots from China through the Mideast to Europe. The equipment used to transform the raw material into paper has been improved by modern technology, but the process and principles remain virtually unchanged. The possibilities for what can be accomplished with handmade paper and paper pulp are limitless. Like many crafts which have enjoyed a revival, modern paper making does not necessarily end with the production of a utilitarian item. Hand paper making is an energetic creative outlet and paper pulp has become not only a vehicle, but an artistic medium in itself.

Just one of the beautiful aspects of handmade paper is that no tree needs to be harvested to make it--handmade paper is a stunning example of recycling at work. It was, in fact, concern about the disappearance of forests, coupled with renewed interest in the quality of papers, that generated new study of the paper maker's materials, especially the pulps and fibers. The raw materials used in handmade papers range from all manner of vegetable matter (including leaves, tree moss, potatoes, flowers), old ropes, canvas, linen and cotton rags. Any raw material can be used as long as it has fibers capable of forming a continuous sheet. Also important is proper acidic/alkaline balance which will assure that the paper is archival and will last virtually forever.

The process

To learn more about the process and potential of hand paper making, we visited Watson Paper Company in Albuquerque, where the ancient process is repeated every day. Watson uses primarily 100 percent cotton rag, or unspun cotton which is washed and bleached. The cotton and water are placed in a beater which macerates and hydrates the fibers into pulp. The pulp is then put into a large vat of water. A framed screen is dipped into this pulpy liquid, scooping the pulp onto the screen-mold with a rocking action, front to back and left to right, moving the fibers in four different directions.

At this point, the "deckle" is flipped off, and here we must digress. The screen-mold has a separate frame, the deckle, which fits closely onto the screen and determines the size of the sheet of paper. The term "deckle" also describes the rough, ragged edges on handmade paper which result from small amounts of fiber being trapped between the deckle and the mold. Until the 19th century, the deckle-edge was usually cut away because it caused problems in binding and printing. With the decline of handmade paper production in the 19th century and thereafter, an increasingly scarce deckle-edge became the prized symbol of a handmade product.

To return to the process . . . After the deckle is flipped off, the wet mass of fibers is rocked off the mold in one continuous action without disturbing the formation of the sheet. The sheets are layered between wool felts and excess water is pressed out of the freshly made sheets. The immense pressure exerted also bonds the fibers. Individual sheets are then dried. Among these sheets are monotype papers, watercolor papers, archival drawing and printmaking papers, writing papers and papers customized to fit an artist's personality!

Contemporary artists have begun to experiment with paper and to confront this medium's potential with their own visions of an end result. In addition to the endless variety of sheets of paper that can be made, paper pulp is a versatile and flexible medium limited only by the user's imagination. As Nancy Young says, "If the artist can figure out how to do it, the paper pulp says 'OK, I will'"! Paper casting allows artists to work in three dimensions and still achieve effects possible only with paper. In addition, paper pulp can be made for the purpose of sculpting without losing the distinctive properties of paper . . . e.g. a paper-cast bowl bounces rather than breaks if it's dropped; a cast paper relief sculpture weighs a fraction of its counterpart in clay or wood or other material.

How four artists use handmade paper

The following are examples of pieces created by four artists, each of whom has discovered and experimented with the novel properties of paper. Using that intriguing medium of paper, each creates a thoroughly unique end result.

Robert Hooton began the creation of his multi-layered "Banner Series" with a base sheet made from an off-white pulp. Robert then poured pulp, to which he had added pigment, on to another screen and formed the circles, rectangles and squares which, one by one, layer by layer, were flipped onto the still-moist base sheet. Sometimes pigment was added to the pulp directly on the screen, so the color would blur and blend and even retain the texture of the screen. Then the base sheet, with its many layers of shapes, was pressed, squeezing out water and bonding the fibers. After allowing the piece to "cure" for several days between blotters, Robert wet it again and mounted it smoothly on gessoed masonite. Thus, the finished pieces from the "Banner Series," which are each 30" x 24," remain three-dimensional only at the deckle edges.

Hooten, Banner #3
Robert Hooton
"Banner #3"
Handmade paper
30" x 24"
Slaymaker, Metamorphosis
Martha Slaymaker
Handcast Paper
75" x 37" (Detail)

The late Martha Slaymaker's "Metamorphosis" was a challenge . . . the 75-inch-tall piece was the largest relief sculpture cast to date at Watson Paper Company. Over Martha's finely detailed original relief sculpture in porcelain, wood and mixed media, Watson formed a latex mold in which the paper cast would be made. Paper pulp was poured into the mold and excess water drained off. The wet pulp was pressed against the surfaces of the mold and allowed to air dry. When completely dry, the finished impression was pulled with great care from the mold. A latex mold, such as the one created from Martha Slaymaker's sculpture, allows up to four-inch relief and accommodates editions of approximately 50 impressions.

Nancy Young pic makes her own paper pulp from unspun cotton and linen. She creates molds for her bowls, masks and other shapes from clay, plaster of Paris, styrofoam and flexible plastic, wood and stones. Nancy experiments endlessly with paper strength and new shapes and forms . . . some work, some don't. That's part of the fun and never-ending newness of the process. From the brightly pigmented pulp Nancy makes sheets of paper to be formed, while still wet, around molds. The pressure which releases the water comes from Nancy's hands and fingers as she "sculpts" the final forms. Once air-dried, the pieces are pulled from the molds and Nancy completes her assemblages and constructions.

Young, SLient Memories Mask

Nancy J Young
"Silent Memories Mask"
Handcast Paper 28" x 15"
"Red Sky"
Handcast Paper 8" x 9"

JOnes, Strata

Norma Jones
Handmade paper
with mixed media
22" x 30"

Norma L. Jones creates her "paperscapes" by embedding cloth, felt, twigs and grasses into the wet sheets of paper pulp. Pieces of white silk, with white pulp holding them fast, form three-dimensional clouds; rice papers and yarns add contrast and texture. Norma sometimes adds strips of plastic, which are partially covered with pulp. When the paper is dry, the plastic is removed and a "flap" of paper is left. After the pieces are dry, Norma removes small bits of pulp and gently lifts up the yarn, cloth or other embedded material, further enhancing the three-dimensionality of her paper landscapes.

Originally appeared in
The Collector’s Guide to the Albuquerque Metro Area - Volume 4

Related Pages

Conserving Works of Art on Paper article

Works of Art on/of Paper article

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