Kaitlin Binkley, Marketing Coordinator
Paper is an ancient material, invented in China just before the Common Era with writing samples dating back to 8 BCE. The precursors to paper were papyrus in Egypt and amate in Mesoamerica. Both of these were made from plants; papyrus was made from strips of the papyrus stem cut and laid side to side, layered, and pounded together while amate was made from the bark of a tree soaked in water, stretched and beaten on boards, and left to dry. Both were thicker than paper and made differently, so cannot be considered true paper. True paper, while also made from plants, is created using a different process.
Paper is a thin, nonwoven material traditionally made from a combination of milled plants and textile fibers. These fibers are separated from the raw material, beaten into a pulp, and then diluted and diffused in water. Using a screen to strain the fibers from the water, the strained material is then pressed dry to get paper. At least, that is the process in its most general sense! There is a lot of talent and scientific knowledge that goes in to making paper. Humans learned how to create paper using the previous papyrus and amate processes, refining and experimenting to get the thin white sheets we know today!
The invention of paper spread out from China in the 8th century to the Middle East, where they created paper money. In Europe, papermaking was introduced in the 11th century and refined over the decades with the discovery that wood-based paper pulp was an easy and abundant material to create paper.
What about parchment, you may be asking? We think of parchment today as an old-timey yellow paper, but it was actually animal skins! Usually sheepskin, other animal skins were called something else; for example, calfskin made vellum and was a higher quality and more expensive. It was because of this expense and the rapidly increasing need for correspondence that paper replaced parchment in Europe by the 19th century. Great advancements were made in just 100 years as more people experimented to find better, faster ways to make paper. As paper’s pervasiveness grew, so too did people’s access and spread of knowledge. Like a snowball down a hill, advancements, ideas, and information spread wildly; helped by other writing inventions like the fountain pen and the mass-produced lead pencil, so that modern paper was born by the 1850s.
Just like papyrus is not like parchment, neither types are like modern paper. There are many kinds of modern-day paper with varied uses based on the paper weight, texture, and properties. Paper comes in many textures, or tooth. It also comes in different weights, with heavier weights being able to stand up to rough artistic techniques or saturation from the media without falling apart. Paper is weighed in two different ways – grams per square meter (gsm) and pounds per ream (lbs). A ream of paper is 500 sheets and is usually the amount you get at the store to replace your printer paper. As a graphic designer, I deal with text weight versus cover weight all the time when it comes to printing material for the museum. Text weight is good for letters or small catalog books. Cover weight is preferable for the postcards mailed to your home letting you know about current exhibits and events! I have whole books of types, tooth, and weights to choose from; and some are pretty fancy with shimmers or transparency to them.
Artists have used modern-day paper and their predecessors to create since their invention. Ancient Egyptians drew on papyrus just as the people of Mesoamerica painted on amate bark. Artists must choose their paper carefully based on what they want to create. Sketching on wood-based, machine made paper is common as this type of paper is abundant and cheap. Handmade, deckled-edged paper is more often used for painting or refined drawings. Coated papers with rough tooth are good for dry media artwork like chalk pastels. Nontraditional papers, made from uncommon fibers like mulberries, are interesting mediums and good for printmaking. Canvas is a staple of creation, but it is only paper-like as it is a woven material. In the photo gallery below, you can see the deckled edges of artist’s paper, as well as the lines from watercolor and acrylic paint on paper.
From papyrus to today, there are many, many types of paper! There are post-its, envelopes, paper money, construction paper, sandpaper, cardboard, toilet paper, and more! How many can you think of? When you visit the museum, look closely to see what kinds of paper the artists on display used and ask those around you why they think the artists chose as they did.