The Chemistry of Paints and Painting is a free textbook on chemical aspects of painting. See the editorial for more information....


As paper is used as the painting-ground for the vast majority of works executed in water-colours, and as this method of painting offers but slight protection to the pigments employed against hostile influences, it becomes of the greatest importance to ascertain that no unnecessary elements of danger are introduced in the paper itself. We will now proceed to consider briefly the sources and constituents of drawing-paper.

Linen from the common flax (Linum usitatissimum), and in the form of white rags, should be the basis of the pulp used in the making of sound drawing-paper. In actual practice the cheaper and weaker fibre of cotton (seed-hairs of Gossypium sp.) has almost entirely displaced flax, although during recent years a successful attempt has been made in England to produce a high grade of hand-made drawing-paper almost wholly composed of linen. Other vegetable fibres might, no doubt, be employed for this purpose. Thus, Japanese paper, prepared from the bast-fibres of the paper-mulberry (Broussonetia papyrifera), were it made less absorbent by the introduction of a sufficiency of size, would probably become an efficient, strong, and durable substitute for linen-paper; but at present linen-papers, cotton-papers, and papers made from a mixture of these fibres, are the only kinds with which water-colourists are practically concerned.

During his explorations of Chinese Turkestan, Sir Aurel Stein recovered many examples of early manuscripts written on felted vegetable fibre, that is, paper. In the British Museum are two scraps of such paper, with Chinese writing, which must be dated somewhere between the years a.d. 25 and 220. They are the most ancient specimens of paper known to exist in the world. But the manufacture of linen-paper in Europe has not at present been traced back farther than the second half of the twelfth century. Mr. W. H. James Weale, formerly Keeper of the Art Library in the Victoria and Albert Museum, informed me that the two first paper-mills in France were set going near Ambert, in the valley of the Valeyre, by men who, during their captivity in the Holy Land, were forced to work at the manufacture of paper at Damascus. One of these French mills was called 'Damascus,' the other 'Ascalon.' This was previous to the year 1189. To Mr. Weale I am also indebted for an opportunity of examining two early specimens, obtained from the 'Regis-tre des Revenus de l'Évêché du Puy.' As one of the sheets contains contemporary entries of the year 1273 - the other entries belonging to 1289 - these papers are, at least, as early as the years named.

Both papers present the creamy hue, the translucency, and the gloss of vellum. One hundred square inches of the earlier specimen weigh 127 grains; of the later, 163. Both are heavily sized with paste made from wheaten starch. The use of starch for sizing paper has been revived of recent years, but animal size or jelly is still extensively employed. Some paper is, indeed, made from felted linen pulp alone without size; but it is blotting or filter paper, and is quite unfitted for water-colour work, for when a wash of pigment is passed over it, the colouring matter and the water partially separate, while the outline of the brush-stroke is not preserved. Before entering further into the question of what are the essential and what the accidental and unnecessary constituents of paper, I give the summarized results of six analyses, which show the percentage proportions found in good samples:

  Water Size Ash Fibre
Hodgkinson, 1869 6.8 4.6 1.1 87.5
English, 1876 10.9 6.1 1.1 81.9
Dutch, 1876 11.0 4.8 0.9 83.3
Whatman, 1885 7.4 6.3 1.1 85.2
Arnold, 1894 7.4 7.6 1.5 83.5
'0. W.,' 1897 8.7 5.5 1.7 84.1

Last Update: 2011-01-23