Paper is a seductive support for printmakers. We, in the process of making our editions, become intimate with its qualities: its smell, texture, relative softness or firmness when torn and pressed, how it takes water and ink, how much it stretches and sighs when put between metal rollers at high pressure or pressed into the craggy textures of a wood block. Paper is part of the personality of a print; its tone and texture support the image (or should, in a well-made print). There are hundreds of fine papers to choose from, each with a unique tone, feel, and function. I love paper. I love handling it and love seeing the edge of my plate through it after running a copper plate through a press, before I lift it up and turn it over to see the image impressed on its face.
For several years, I worked in art supply retail. I was queen of the paper aisle, lording over the rows and stacks of flat files with glee–even though the paper aisle could often be the most nightmarish part of the store to face and front. Packs of paper came wrapped in brown paper or plastic, and had to be unwrapped and hefted into drawers that want to slide closed. All the paper looked relatively the same (largish, mostly shades of white and cream) and random sheets would wind up in the wrong drawers, unnoticed until someone thought they had picked out a surprisingly nice piece for $3.95 only to discover that it was $5 or more at the register. This situation was often unpleasant for all parties, so please be kind to the associate if this happens to you.
My interest in the paper grew as my love for printmaking developed. I could tell a subtle pink-cream from a subtle yellow-cream. I knew by touch the difference between a 160gsm sheet and a 120gsm. I knew which side was the right side to print on (papers do have a “front” and “back” and I find it’s difficult to explain to beginning printmakers how to tell which is which). Printmakers get to know paper, and paper is as important as the quality of line or solidity of black. I choose the paper I do for a given project because it prints well, works with the image, has a pleasing sensual quality when handled, and fits in my budget. That list accurately represents the order of my priorities when choosing paper, though the cost does sometimes interfere with my preference for the sensual quality of the surface (which, after all, usually winds up under glass).
Sometimes price, and familiarity with the performance of certain papers, leads me to choose the same small pool of paper options over and over. My knowledge of paper is limited mostly to the papers that were sold at the shop where I used to work, so I’ve definitely been in a “paper rut” for a couple of years and haven’t had a budget that has room for much experimentation. My mentor for the PAN Emerging Printmakers Residency generously gave me some new paper to try, and told me that it would be good for the subtle aquatints and fine details I tend to like in my work. I’ve printed on this paper a few times, liked it, and decided to look into purchasing some for myself. It’s the Hahnemüle Copperplate Etching Paper, which is available for a very reasonable price.
I wondered how this nice paper could be available for such a good price, so I looked into it: the paper is 100% high alpha cellulose. Wood pulp! I’ve always been told that wood pulp is an inferior material for paper and that the best papers are 100% cotton–specifically cotton rag, which refers to longer fibers and thus stronger paper. Knowing already that I was pleased with the paper’s performance, I wanted to know what “high alpha cellulose” is. Turns out, my knowledge of paper is a bit behind the times.
This is what I learned (from Archival Concerns: A Discussion of Fiber and Process by Coral Jensen, an undated article):
The best papers are made from plant cells that are very high in cellulose. …One of the first fibers that became part of an artist’s vocabulary is cotton. Cotton in its natural state is pure cellulose and does not require much preliminary treatment. …Wood pulp is now being used in a newer process that breaks down the pulp and isolates the cellulose fibers from the resinous substances in the wood. This produces a high alpha cellulose wood fiber paper which promises to be comparable to most rag papers in its longevity.
High alpha cellulose is a relatively new material, made possible by modern industrial processes. It hasn’t stood the test of time simply because it hasn’t been around long enough, but all of the (few but varied) sources I tracked down repeated the claim that it is “expected to last” just as long as cotton rag, if not longer. This is, I suppose, a reminder that it is impossible to know everything, and that even a surprisingly complete education isn’t worth much if not maintained. I am happy to expand my pool of paper, and rather like the crispness of the Hahnemüle Copperplate.
Have you tried any new papers lately that you’ve liked?
Also, a fun fact (and a small reward for reading this whole long post): I can’t crease paper with the pads of my fingers. It gives me the willies, like nails on a chalkboard. Sometimes I can’t even watch other people do it, particularly if the paper makes a lot of noise when creased. I used a bone folder or the flat of my fingernail. Who ever heard of a printmaker having this problem?