Overview of Paper

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

TRUE PAPER has a long and rich history. It begins with Ts’ai Lun, who, in A.D. 105, requested the first patents for making paper. The actual inventor of paper is not known. Some of the earliest forms of paper were com­posed of tangled silk that had been collected as a byproduct of the processing of silk cocoons for silk threads. Ts’ai Lun’s paper was said to be made from old rags, hemp, fish nets, and tree bark. The recipe for making paper was a highly guarded secret within the Orient until A.D. 751, when an Arab conquest resulted in the capture of some papermakers, who divulged their secrets. The Arabs, in Spain since A.D. 711, took the art there, and the first European paper mills were established around 1100.

By this time the process of papermaking was no longer very secret and had begun to spread rapidly through Europe. From Spain, its production moved to Italy. Fabriano established the first Italian paper mills in 1276, and is still mak­ing some of the world’s finest papers. It was not until the nineteenth century, however, when papermaking machinery as well as a method for processing wood into wood pulp were invented, that paper became a common and inexpensive material. Prior to this time, papers were made primarily from rags and cotton, had great strength, and were relatively permanent. The conversion to ground wood as a raw material resulted in weaker papers that were impermanent. Much of the paper artwork, books, and numerous documents produced during the nine­teenth century and the early part of the twentieth century are decaying rapidly and require conservation to preserve them. As the understanding of the causative agents for the breakdown of wood-pulp papers evolved, various paper refining techniques were developed and are continually being modified today.

The artists’ paper that we know today started as a byproduct of the wallpaper industry. The first machine for making paper, invented around 1798 by Nicholas Louis Robert at the Essonne paper mills in France, enabled paper to be made in a continuous roll. Henry and Sealy Fourdrinier brought the invention to England and in 1807 developed it for commercial use in making wallpaper. Most artists’ materials are derived from industrial products. It has only been since the middle of the twentieth century that significant research and development has been done on materials specifically for the artists’ market.