A Brief History of Paper and Why It Matters for Artists

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A Brief History of Paper and Why It Matters for Artists

When you visit an art supply store and you see the stacks of different papers, you may find yourself wondering what the difference is—paper is just paper, right? Wrong! Differences between types of paper go beyond just function (i.e., watercolor paper for painting vs. Bristol for drawing). Paper’s ingredients also matter, especially if you want your work to last. Discover the history of paper and why it matters for artists.

The World Before Paper

People have been writing and making art on flat surfaces for a long time. In the first week of an art history class, you’ll probably learn about things like cuneiform tablets and papyrus—these are just a couple of the really early mediums.

By the Middle Ages, people were mostly using parchment, a type of writing surface made from stretched animal skins. There’s also rice paper, which was popular in countries like China, Korea, and Japan.

Rag Paper

Paper, as most people think of it today, got its start in the Early Modern era (aka the Renaissance). People switched from parchment to rag paper because it was more efficient to make, plus it worked better for printing.

At that time, however, paper wasn’t made from trees. In fact, it was made from cotton and linen rags soaked in vats of urine, then spread out on molds. Some of these steps have been eliminated in the present day, luckily! You can tell paper is made from rags if it has “chain lines,” which are the grid-like imprints of the mold on the paper.

Wood Pulp and Industrialization

Things changed with the rise of industrialization. People figured out that it was a lot faster and cheaper to make paper from wood pulp. But what they didn’t realize was that wood pulp is highly acidic, meaning it breaks down over time. If you could compare a book from the 1600s and a book from the 1800s, there’s a good chance the older book will be in better shape.

Why Does Paper Matter?

So why does the history of paper matter for artists? Well, by now, people know about the acidity of wood pulp, and we actually add chemicals to our paper to counteract the acid. However, older styles of paper like rag paper are still better for some projects. And not all wood pulp paper undergoes an anti-acid treatment.

If you want to make high-quality and long-lasting prints to sell or display, your best bet is to use museum-quality archival paper. There are different kinds designed to support different mediums, but they all have the same thing in common: they won’t break down or cause your artwork to fade.

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