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A History of Paper and its Use

By: Mike Watson - Updated: 12 Jan 2013 | comments*Discuss
Paper Bristol Fabriano Choosing

Paper has been an artists and designers tool since as long ago as 3500 B.C. where an early form of paper called ‘papyrus’ was used in ancient Egypt made from flattened papyrus leaves. Paper as we know it was developed in the 2nd Century A.D. in China. Along with industrialisation came industrial machine pressed paper, which gradually became more affordable. Advances in printing soon meant that artists’ works could be transferred to paper and distributed around the world as reproductions.

There is a huge emphasis these days on the recycling of paper and the use of hand made paper.

For the artist paper is an essential tool of their practice, and one that if often not given much thought. Painters, draughtsmen, installation artists, conceptual artists, photographers and filmmakers all make us of paper either directly in their work, or in order to make sketches or notes.

What Paper to Use?

The type of paper an artist uses will depend really on their intentions. Ultimately, the quality of paper must reflect in part the status of the work. If it is just a rough sketch you wish to produce even printing paper may suffice. If it is a sketch that you may wish to later display (and you can only really know with hindsight) you may wish to use a quality paper such as cartridge paper.

If you are preparing to make a finished artwork, you may wish to use a Bristol paper, which is heavily pressed and polished to give it a great finish for drawing. Cotton trimmings are blended to make Bristol paper making it more durable than paper made from wood pulp.

Other quality papers include Fabriano and Strathmore (both of which are company names) and generally come in two finishes – ‘hot press’ and ‘cold press’. The former has a smooth finish, ideal for charcoal, ink and brushes. The latter has a semi-rough finish ideal for watercolour, but also for soft drawing mediums such as charcoal, pastel and oil pastel. There is also a ‘rough finish’ available, suitable for acrylic, gouache and even oil, providing the paper is primed and held in place with tape on all sides.

Paper Sizes

Sketchbook paper and single sheets often come in international sizes. These range generally from A1 to A10. The respective sizes of these papers are (in mm):
  • A1 = 594 × 841, A2 = 420 × 594, A3 = 297 × 420, A4 = 210 × 297,
  • A5 = 148 × 210, A6 = 105 × 148 A7 = 74 × 105, A8 = 52 × 74,
  • A9 = 37 × 52, A10 = 26 × 37.

A4 is by far the most commonly used paper size, and tends to be the size used for letter writing and for essay writing. A5 is half the size of A4, if you divide an A4 sheet in half along its longest dimension. A3 is twice the size of an A4 sheet if you place two a4 sheets side by side along the longest dimension. All the other sizes relate to one another in this same way.

Papers such as Bristol and Fabriano tend to come in rolls that measure two metres in one direction and up to several metres in length (you can often choose how much you want, and the shop assistant will cut the paper for you).

Paper size will depend on what it is you wish to do. It is always good to have a range of different papers and different paper sizes to hand so that you can work freely as ideas a rise.

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