There is an interwoven history of papermaking and printing criss-crossing back and forth over centuries. Paper was not necessary for the invention of printing, but printing would not have been a commercial success without it and led to the explosion in paper production across the globe. This comprehensive overview by Jill Watton, details the history and characteristics of today’s leading printmaking papers, and how they can help you achieve the qualities you seek in your work.
Above image: Awagami Kozo paper
History of Printmaking Paper
Block printing was practiced in China 1400 years ago using paper, a multifunctional product manufactured into hats, clothes, stiffened for armour, and thinned for windows, screens, books, maps and money. The relative economy of paper compared to vellum meant that libraries of the Islamic world were vast. Islamic calligraphers wrote with bamboo quills on plant fibre paper smoothed over with chalk and wheat starch. Early European paper became very refined and resilient with the utilisation of old linen garments as opposed to unspun plant fibres. Coated with gelatine size it resembled valuable vellum for the writing of manuscripts, left unsized it was ideal for printing copperplate engravings. It was just such fine white paper that Gutenberg printed on using his intense black inks, with sensational results. When printer John Baskerville wanted to redesign his metal type in a refined and elegant manner he demanded a paper that was smooth and even, and purpose-made for letterpress. He collaborated with James Whatman, inventor of the wove mould, to develop a machine that could smooth and polish the surface of fine paper creating ‘hot pressed’ sheets.
What is Printmaking Paper?
In theory you can print on any type of paper so long as ink will adhere to it. The paper that you choose will become integral to your work and if you experiment by printing the same plate on a selection of papers you will see how each makes a unique contribution to the finished result. Not only will the image vary but the overall feel of the print as an object will change with the weight and texture of the paper. Margins around the image and the edges of the paper traditionally remain on show. They differentiate the hand printed piece from a reproduction. Artists will commonly sign and edition the print in the margin and collectors will appreciate the choice of paper and whether a deckle edge remains or has been trimmed.
Generally speaking papers recommended for printmaking benefit from being strong and dimensionally stable, meaning they hold their size and shape well. The paper you select is likely to undergo ample handling and treatment. It might be picked up by the corners, left to soak in a water bath, squeezed through an etching press, vigorously rubbed with a baren or covered with multiple layers of silkscreen ink. Western papers with a high cotton content and Eastern papers formed with long plant fibres are perfectly suited to the rigours of printmaking. Alpha cellulose papers of high quality are manufactured for and trusted by printmakers around the world and less expensive papers such as cartridge work well, particularly for proofing. How the paper receives the ink is an important factor. Printmaking paper contains a lower amount of size than a watercolour paper, enabling the ink to penetrate the surface. Size is added to the pulp before forming the sheet, this ‘internal’ sizing renders the paper soft and absorbent in varying degrees depending on how much is added. Some printmaking papers contain no size at all and are referred to as ‘waterleaf’. If we outline the most common printmaking techniques we can see what stresses the paper is put through and what properties we might look for. It should be said though that many papers will print effectively across all print techniques and printmaking papers can work wonderfully with other artistic mediums.
Relief printing includes linocut, woodcut, wood engraving, letterpress and collagraph. The print is taken from the ink on the block’s surface with the cut-away areas remaining unprinted. Printing can be done by hand or by press and you will want to consider the paper surface and how it makes contact with the ink, so a smoother surfaced paper, such as Fabriano Rosaspina, is ideal for relief printing. If printing is done by hand then lighter weight papers are ideal. Smooth surfaced papers by Zerkall and delicate washi papers such as Kozo and Kitakata will pick up the finest of detail. The silky delicacy of many washi papers belie their incredible strength, especially when dampened. They can withstand the pressure exerted by the printmaking baren as it rubs the back of the paper and still retain their shape. If you are experiencing picking of paper fibres when using fast drying water based inks, it is worth looking to try some of these resilient printmaking papers.
Intaglio printmaking incorporates etching, engraving, drypoint, mezzotint and some forms of collagraph. Marks made in the plate hold the ink below its surface and when dampened paper is pressed down into the marks, the ink is transferred to the paper under the pressure of the press. The ink will penetrate the paper and an internal size that softens during soaking is ideal for this. The printing plate will be embossed into the paper along the image lines as well as all around its outer edge creating a ‘plate mark’. Papers used for intaglio need to be exceptionally strong even when damp, especially for printing multiple plate images which require passing the paper through the press several times. They need to be compressible and supple as well as being dimensionally stable such that they won’t distort and affect registration. The linen papers of Renaissance Europe perfectly fitted the bill and cotton papers of today come a close second, Somerset being just such a favourite. Much can be said for alpha cellulose papers in intaglio printmaking; for many years Hahnemühle have manufactured etching papers made from 100% alpha cellulose that are soft, pliable and very sensitive to detail.
Silkscreen and Lithography
Flat printing techniques where the ink and paper are on the same level are referred to as planographic and include lithography, silkscreen and monoprinting. Again many papers are suitable with a smoother surface working better for these techniques. In lithography strong papers with a high cotton content will help avoid picking, where a tacky ink can lift surface fibres from the paper, and internal sizing will allow the paper to absorb both the oil based ink as well as the water from the surface of the stone or plate. The smooth, absorbent Arches 88 was designed specifically for screen printing with oil based inks, it is ‘waterleaf’ with no size at all. However when laying down multiple layers of water-based screen ink, papers with a modest amount of surface size, referred to as tub sized, will cope best. Legion Coventry Rag and Somerset Tub Sized are examples of such.
Considerations When Choosing a Paper for Printmaking
100% cotton rag or ‘rag’ paper is how manufacturers describe paper made from cotton linter fibres. They are strong papers that retain their shape during printing, so are dimensionally stable, which is helpful when registering multiple plates for colour printing. Genuine rag papers, those made from the spun fibres of discarded garments, are rare and occasionally used for watercolour papers such as Jackson’s Two Rivers and Khadi 100% Rag. Papers made from a combination of cotton and wood cellulose make strong archival papers designed for printmaking. Plant fibres in Asian papers are naturally very long enabling incredibly strong papers to be made very thinly, if you try tearing a Japanese kozo paper you will appreciate its inherent strength. The type of fibre can affect how the ink penetrates the paper, and how the paper takes up water, a consideration to bear in mind across all print disciplines.
Surface texture can affect ink pick up as well as how your colour looks. A textured paper can work very well for deeply etched intaglio prints and a smoother paper can work better for lithography or silkscreen. How colour reflects from the surface of the paper will affect how bright it will appear. A more textured paper will bounce back the colour in a more diffused manner and look less bright than a smooth paper.
Internally sized printmaking papers will be soft with a porous surface to take up the ink. Most size used today is synthetic as opposed to animal gelatine. Unsized waterleaf papers will be occasionally referred to as ‘copperplate’, will only require a sponge over or spray of water to dampen. These are better suited to oil based inks. You can tell if a paper has more or less size by touching it with the tip of your tongue. If your tongue sticks it is likely to have little or no size.
A genuine deckle edge occurs when the paper slurry slips between the mould and deckle of a hand formed sheet and is a beautiful aspect to hand made paper. These can be left in place and other edges torn down to compliment them depending on your registration system. You can tear down a machine made paper to create a similar effect. Of course if you want to register using the paper edges you will want to trim them off, ensuring that your edges remain perfectly square to one another.
This is a very subjective area with colour choices extending from radiant white to deepest black. Some printmakers love a bright white paper for their cool black inks and a warmer white for the browner blacks. Metallic inks look fabulous on a deep black paper such as Somerset Velvet Black.
Thinking about what and how you print will inform this aspect of your choice. A thicker etching plate or deep collagraph will need a thicker, heavier weight paper, perhaps over 300gsm to mould around the sculptural aspect of the plate and adequately emboss. A delicate drypoint on a thin plate could take a much lighter paper. A hand rubbed relief print will take less effort to execute on a lighter weight paper such as 36gsm Awagami Kitakata.
Preparing Your Paper
When it comes to preparing your paper for printing you will want to consider the margins around the image and what form of registration you are using. Traditionally the margins will be of equal width on both sides and above the image, with a slightly wider margin at the bottom. This gives the effect of the image being placed centrally on the paper, an optical effect especially evident if you sign and number your print in the bottom margin. If you are printing an intaglio you could be registering your plate on the press bed while holding the paper trapped under the top roller and the beautiful deckle edges can remain untrimmed. There are numerous forms of print registration and you can leave your paper edges, tear down or trim to a crisp straight edge accordingly. Some editioning studios will print with the paper larger than intended and trim down afterwards, this has the advantage of removing any unwanted inky finger marks or damage but can be costly.
If you are dampening your printing paper then each will have its own optimal soaking time depending on the amount of sizing, sheet thickness and fibre content. Cotton papers with their long fibres need to be dampened or soaked longer than wood cellulose papers because wood fibres will take up water faster. Waterleaf papers that contain no size will only need a sponge over or spray of water before stacking and covering to damp through. You want to achieve evenly dampened fibres throughout, the paper should feel limp and cold without any visible water remaining on the surface. A good way to ensure this is to prepare your paper the day before printing and form a damp pack.
A damp pack consists of wetting your paper either by dipping or sponging, creating a stack and wrapping it in plastic and placing under a board to add some weight. Any paper you do not use can be dried and then re-damped at a later date. This will avoid mould forming and staining your paper.
Your beautiful sheets of paper will be handled quite a lot during printing. Always use (at the least) two hands to avoid cockling the sheet. Large sheets are best picked up at diagonally opposite corners. After printing dry sheets can be hung up or placed on a drying rack. Dampened sheets will need flattening out during the drying process. Acid-free tissue should be placed over the image before placing the prints between sheets of blotting paper underneath boards to add weight. You can change the blotters periodically if required.