Paper Terms

A Quick Review of Art Paper Manufacturing and Related Terms

By Rick Jones

Paper is nothing more than a thin layer of moist fibers that when pressed dry become paper. This simple process has been around for over 2000 years. The biggest manufacturer of paper is China, where paper was first made. The fibers in better quality art papers are typically cotton, rag, and various plant materials such as rice and mulberry. Commercial papers are typically made from wood and recycled materials pulverized into pulp. Most quality art papers today are acid free meaning the ph is neutralized so the paper stays strong and does not become brittle and yellow over time. The most durable art papers are made from one hundred percent cotton fiber and can take water very well making them ideal for printmaking and water-based mediums like watercolors and techniques using ink washes.

Below are some common terms used in paper production that have meaning for the artist:

  1. Acid-Free—paper made with a neutral ph giving it higher resistance to yellowing and becoming brittle over time.
  1. Grammage—the weight of the paper measured in grams per square meter of paper (gsm). The higher the grammage of paper the more it can endure coats of paint or amounts of water.
  1. Cold Press (CP)—sometimes referred to as “Not” meaning it has not been pressed by warm rollers. This paper has a light texture and is the paper surface most used by artists. The 140 1b. and 300 lb. weights work well for watercolor and printmaking.
  1. Vellum—smooth surface found in Bristol board and papers and tracing papers. Excellent for highly detailed drawings.
  1. Hot Press (CP)—paper that is made and finished on hot rollers giving the paper a smoother surface than cold pressed. Artists who do detail work such as portraits prefer hot press.
  1. Laid—Laid papers have a very subtle line texture created by the manufacturing process. Ideal for softer mediums such as graphite, colored pencils, charcoal, and pastels.
  1. Rough—papers that are close to some handmade papers with a heavy textured surface. It produces textural qualities in drawing, pastels, and charcoal valued by some artists.
  1. Pounds (lbs.)—the weight of the paper measured in 500 sheets (ream) of a particular size. For example, standard 22″ x 30″ ream of watercolor paper that weights 300 lbs. is a 300 lb. paper. Even if that paper is in larger than standard sheets and weighs much more, because a standard 22″ x 30″ ream weighs 300 lbs., it is still a 300 lb. paper.
  1. Deckle edges—a natural occurrence in handmade papers. The deckle is the wooden frame that holds the screen in papermaking. The deckle leaves the edges of the paper uneven and wavy. Papers made by hand produce unpredictable and uneven textures that are desired by many artists.

In handmade papers fibers and plant materials can be pressed into the paper during its production and that creates interesting visual effects and possibilities.

Machine-made papers are molded on rollers and are less expensive than most handmade papers. They also tend to be smoother and depending on certain types of rollers, the papers are quite smooth and less expensive.

The heavier papers like 140lb and 300lb take water well and are good for watercolor and washes as well as printmaking. Some artists also prefer to draw on the smoother surfaced papers in these heavy weights like vellum or smooth finishes. Lighter weight papers like 90lb and under work well for most drawing needs in pencil, charcoal, markers, etc.

Quality papers made by Strathmore, Winsor & Newton, Arches, Canson, and Legion Stonehenge, to name a few, are readily available both in pad and sheet form in better art supply stores.

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