The Case for Handmade Paper: Pros and Cons

Trends come in waves and technological advances have made paper choices abundant (to say the least) and accessible to almost everyone. But there’s just something about going back to the beginning and using a substrate similar to what our ancestors had available to them. Handmade paper has character, and it provides a surface for creating that’s already interesting on its own. In this excerpt from Drawing magazine, Bob Bahr explores the pros and cons of this essential substrate.

Daydream (1999; mixed media on handmade wove paper made by
Dieu Donné, 29×21.25) by Jamie Wyeth. Collection David Wyeth
© Jamie Wyeth

Custom and Handmade Paper by Bob Bahr

A successful drawing requires the right mix of several elements, including the artist’s ability, the artist’s vision or idea, and the chosen drawing material. Artists have drawn on all sorts of surfaces throughout history, including handmade paper—the only kind of paper around until the advent of machine-made papermaking in the early 1800s. Today, a small, devoted group of artists still seek out the more expensive and rare handmade paper, maintaining that it both enhances their working process and adds to the viewer’s experience. For them, a few small art-supply chains and mail-order companies are invaluable sources of the artisanal product.

Printmaker and paper artist Laurence Barker once called handmade paper the hyphen in “support-medium,” stressing its assertive role in the creative process. Those who sell both handmade and machine-made paper are also quick to point out handmade paper’s collaborative personality. “The main difference between the two is that handmade has more character; there’s more of a sense of the person who made the paper,” says David Aldera, the paper buyer at New York Central Art Supply, an artist, and something of a paper guru in New York art circles. “The main reason someone would choose handmade paper is for the aesthetics. It is for people willing to work with the inconsistencies that handmade paper is more likely to have, inconsistencies in texture, absorbency, weight, and other traits. Papermaking is like baking a cake—you can follow a recipe, but it won’t always come out the same way. It’s an issue of human error and skill.” Adds his co-worker and paper-department manager Kathy Hyde, “You might notice a richness to the surface. I think you can build a relationship with the surface of a handmade paper.” Hyde and Aldera both say the appeal of handmade paper is largely aesthetic and perhaps even romantic.

The difference for artists usually comes down to two factors: aesthetics and cost. Handmade paper will cost two or even three times the price of a good, machine-made paper. (But Hyde points out that handmade paper’s higher cost may work to the artists’ advantage, forcing them to “commit to what they are doing, invest in the piece of paper and the work on it.”) With machine-made paper, an artist is trading uniqueness and the artisanal aspect of a handmade item for consistency and inexpensiveness. “Machine-made paper is so regular that it is aesthetically boring,” claims Kathryn Clark, co-founder of Twinrocker Handmade Paper, a papermill in Brookston, Indiana. “We make paper as consistent as we can make it—it’s not wild or uneven. But just by making it by hand, there’s an aliveness to it. The person who looks at it goes, ‘Wow! What is it about this that’s so different?’ The artist gets to work on a surface that is really exciting to draw or paint on.”

Cost and convenience may dissuade many artists from working on handmade paper, while others have no choice—their artistic vision involves a paper that doesn’t exist. Jamie Wyeth has worked with both Twinrocker and Dieu Donne´ in search of an unusual surface for his art. “My quest has been to find an archival cardboard,” Wyeth says. “I want it to look like junk. I’d gone to cardboard manufacturers and the only archival cardboard they could supply was gray. In order to get brown archival cardboard, I’d have to make 50,000 pounds of it at once.” ~B.B.

Subscribe to Drawing magazine for more articles like this. And tell us, do you prefer machine- or handmade paper for your mixed-media art projects?

Until next time,

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Blog, Paper Art and Zen Doodle

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