Oriental Papers

(Excerpts from ART HARDWARE: The Definitive Guide to Artists’ Materials, by Steven Saitzyk © 1987)

“A painting, a poem – how paper reveals a man’s nature.” This old saying reflects the style of Oriental papers. Because their absorbency, texture, and weight instantly show any lack of skill with the brush and hesitation in the mind of the artist, they can reveal the degree of mastery of one’s body and mind. Most Westerners find this intimidating and prefer to use Oriental papers only as print paper, since printmaking places distance between the insecure hand and the final result. Perhaps an introduction to the aesthetics of Eastern art would make these materials more emotionally accessible to Western artists.

By Western standards, most Oriental papers are highly absorbent. This allows the artist, as the ink or watercolor is applied, to create shading or a multivalued edge as the brushstroke is made. The character of this edge is determined by the quickness of the stroke and how it is executed, and by the density of the ink in relation to the specific absorbency and texture of the paper. Success is based simply on developing skill, by experiencing how each particular paper will respond.

Oriental papers tend to be made thin for a number of interrelated reasons. Since the artwork is produced with a minimum of ink or watercolor, with little if any rendering, there is no need for thick papers to compensate for the buckling that occurs when using Western water-media techniques. The fibers in Oriental papers also have a natural resistance to swelling when exposed to water; therefore, they do not have to be thick to resist buckling. These papers are made thin for a practical reason, too. Eastern materials and techniques preclude easy correction of accidents and errors; thus a substantial amount of paper may be used before success is attained. It is less costly to practice on thinner paper than on thicker paper. After a successful painting is produced, it can be mounted to another heavier paper for handling and display. Even master calligraphers and painters do not get it right the first time every time!

My advice to those who would like widen their horizons by trying such papers as these is to start with a few sheets of the less absorbent papers and work to the most absorbent. When you find a style of paper that you feel you can work with, find the cheapest variety of it, buy a lot of it, and experiment. After you understand the paper’s habits and characteristics, you can acquire a better quality. But you should always remember to do a few warm-up stokes on the cheaper version.

The artwork produced on Oriental papers has been traditionally protected first by mounting it on either a heavier paper or a piece of the same paper, and then by mounting it on silk. It was discovered that adhesives break down with time so, to minimize this problem, artwork is mounted with only enough adhesive barely to hold it to the backing. This allows easy removal for remounting at the first sign of deterioration. The purpose of the traditional presentation of artwork in the form of scrolls is to protect the artwork by storing it rolled, thus reducing its exposure to air and light. The artwork is unrolled for special presentations, for a short time, and then rerolled to be stored. In the West, a work of art is usually displayed continually, which is not safe for unprotected scrolls. When creating or collecting Oriental-style artwork, it is important to frame it in a Western manner if it is to be displayed continuously.

The tradition of Oriental papermaking is more than eighteen hundred years old. Tragically, there are many traditional papers that will never be made again, because the information about how they were made was not transmitted and has been lost for all time. Nevertheless, there are still almost unimaginable varieties being made today, of which only a select few are available in the West. One of these, for example, called hosho, is made in almost one hundred varieties. I have selected eight distinct groups of papers that are available in the West. They are referred to by their most common names. Many importers and distributors make up their own names for these papers and it is not uncommon for the same paper to have several names. It is usually more practical to shop for these papers with a sample in hand than to ask for a paper by name.

The following papers are listed in descending order of their absorbency. The absorbency of a paper is determined by the arrangement of the fibers and the addition of sizing. Traditionally, the sizing used in Oriental papers is the natural vegetable adhesive mucilage, although the use of Western alum sizing has become prevalent. Many of these papers are available in handmade and machinemade varieties, but be aware that being handmade is no assurance of a paper’s purity of fiber or neutrality of pH. As a result of diminishing sources of raw materials, more and more of these papers are being contaminated with such fillers as wood pulp, straw, and rice straw, while the price remains high. Some manufacturers have begun to use such traditionally Western sources of raw materials as pine trees. They claim to use the same methods of collecting and cleaning the inner bark, or bast fiber, of the tree that are used to collect kozo, mitsumata, and gampi fibers. The core of the tree, which contains the highest lignin content, is not used. They believe that time will prove that these papers will last as long as those made from traditional Eastern sources.

Since few Westerners have any expertise in determining the quality of Oriental art materials, the best guideline of quality, for the time being, is price.

Hosho first appeared around the fourteenth century in the Echizen Province of Japan. The best grades are still made primarily from kozo fibers. Occasionally, mitsumata may be added to improve the paper’s elasticity. The lesser grades contain mostly sulfite pulp.

This paper is very absorbent. It is thick and fluffy, with a porous surface that is not durable for hard pencil or erasure. Its finishes range from vellum to cold press, and it has a uniform formation with moderate to heavy tooth. A fine quality hosho is one of the most beautiful of white papers. It does not shrink, tear, or expand easily, and it is especially good for woodblock and linoleum printing. Because it is not sized, hosho is also good for soft, semiabstract watercolors, but it is not recommended for the beginner. Only an experienced hand is quick enough to prevent the uncontrolled spread of the ink into the paper. The handmade variety has four deckled edges. The most common size is approximately 18″ x 24″.

Kozo is similar to hosho, but it has a tighter arrangement of fibers, which results in slightly less tooth. It also has smaller pores, which means it has less absorbency. Made from 100 percent kozo fibers, it is the most common variety of paper, as well as the largest category of paper.

Kozo can be sized, making it less absorbent and slightly more durable. Its surface ranges from vellum to a coarse form of cold press. The formation of the fibers appears slightly mottled because of the way the long kozo fibers arrange themselves. Kozo is slightly thinner than hosho, and more versatile. The name “goyu” is sometimes used for the heavier variety of kozo, which is less absorbent and gives a drier, slightly mottled look with watercolors. A common size for kozo is 24″X36″. It is a paper that Westerners can be comfortable with for watercolors and printing.

Moriki could easily be placed in the kozo category because it is also made of kozo fibers, and some medium-quality grades are made of kozo and sulfite. This paper looks and feels very much like a thin kozo paper. It is, however, significantly less absorbent than kozo or hosho, and thus even more versatile for most Western techniques. Moriki has a delicate and translucent appearance, and a slightly shiny surface. It has a finer tooth that is more durable than other kozo papers and will hold some detail with watercolors. The formation is a mixture of evenly arranged fibers and longer mottled fibers, which can be easily distinguished because of the paper’s translucency. Full sheets are about 23″x34″.

Mulberry paper is kozo paper. Mulberry is actually the Western name for the plant from which the kozo fibers are derived. Lesser varieties are made from kozo and sulfite pulp. However, there still are enough distinguishing characteristics to set it apart from the other kozo papers. Mulberry paper is very similar to moriki in appearance, but it is more opaque and somewhat less absorbent. Its surface is durable enough to take light drawing, but with very little erasure. It is the paper of choice for linoleum and woodblock printing. Mulberry is commonly used for stone rubbings, hinges in picture framing, and document repair, and is also the paper which is used to make the decorative mingei papers. Full sheets are about 24″x36″.

Troya is a paper made from kozo fiber, but it does not resemble any of the other kozo papers. This paper has a uniform formation, which, on close inspection, appears to have an open pattern like a fine mesh. Troya has the unusual characteristic of being less absorbent and more porous than other Oriental papers. This means that when watercolor is used, it tends to go right through the paper, but does not spread (if the paint is not allowed to pool underneath). Troya is one of the thinner Oriental papers, and because it is porous, it appears to be very absorbent when in fact it is not. Working with this paper over a blotter will give rewarding results.

In the West, troya is rarely used for artwork, but rather for slip sheets to protect the surfaces of artwork. It is made in two weights; one is like tissue paper, the other like that of moriki. This paper is machine-made and does not have deckled edges. Its size is approximately 24″X36″. One of the major importers is no longer distributing this paper, so it has become difficult to find.

Gasen and Gasenshi. Gasen, which originated in China, is the oldest type of Oriental paper still used for artwork. Both the Chinese and Japanese traditionally prefer this paper for calligraphy and for Chinese-style painting. There are other Chinese papers, but since the Revolution, very few have the quality and permanence necessary for fine artwork. Gasen is one of the few Chinese papers exported to Japan and North America.

The name “Gasen” is derived from ga, which means “painting,” and sen, which is a location in China. The Japanese added the shi, which means “paper,” to the name “gasen” to make the translation more fluid, thus “gasenshi” means “painting paper from Sen.” Although the Japanese tend to use the names “gasen” and “gasenshi” interchangeably, a paper called gasenshi often indicates that it is a gasen-style paper made in Japan. Gasen was originally made of 30 to 40 percent tampi and rice straw. Today, most gasen is made of either kozo or tampi mixed with straw and bamboo. Although the straw and bamboo considerably reduce the longevity, the traditional working qualities of this paper are considered more important than permanency.

This paper is thin, highly sized with a platelike finish, and remarkably strong. The surface is the most durable of all the papers discussed thus far, but it is still not classed as a drawing paper. Many Chinese paintings are done in great detail on this paper. Because it is very thin, it must be used with an absorbent surface underneath it to prevent the paint from pooling and spreading. The pattern of the bamboo mat that is used to pull the fibers from the pulp vat is left clearly imprinted, like a watermark, throughout the paper. This obvious laid pattern is one of the most identifiable characteristics of this paper. The most common size of gasen is 27″x54″, and gasenshi is usually found in 18″X27″. Both are without deckled edges, and are probably no longer handmade.

Torinoko means “child of the bird,” or “egg,” and its surface resembles an eggshell. It was introduced around the eighth century, and was made of pure gampi. Torinoko made from gampi is probably the most permanent paper made. The Treaty of Versailles was written and signed on this paper because it was believed to be the most permanent paper in the world.

The plant from which the gampi fibers are collected is now rare in Japan, and the plants from other Asian countries are not of the same quality. It is therefore difficult to find a torinoko paper today-even in Japan-that contains gampi, even in combination with mitsumata. With the one exception of a gampi torinoko imported by Andrews Nelson & Whitehead, torinoko is made of kozo, or kozo with mitsumata. The method of manufacture and the addition of sizing have, however, helped to create a paper that looks and behaves like the original.

Torinoko is a nonabsorbent Oriental paper, which means it will take watercolor very much like a Western drawing or watercolor paper. The surface durability of this paper varies, depending on its method of manufacture and on what substitute for gampi was used. It is a thick, heavy, strong paper, with two workable sides-one a fine vellum and the other a nappy, cold-press finish. Machine-made torinoko comes 18″ x24″ without a deckle; handmade torinoko is roughly 24″x36″ with a deckle.

Masa paper is the least absorbent of all the papers and the easiest for a Western watercolorist to work with. In overall appearance it greatly resembles torinoko, but today it is made primarily of sulfite pulp, and when it is soaked with water it tends to fall apart. Although this paper is not strong, it does allow the control that Western painters prefer, and it does have one additional advantage over the other Oriental papers-it is available in rolls of 42″ X 10 yards, as well as in sheets of roughly 18″ x 24″. Masa is machine-made and has no deckle.