PASTE PAPER

What is "Paste paper"? It may be easiest for you to picture if you think about finger painting: It is the application of colored paste to paper, followed by designs you create in the paste while it is still wet. You can stop at finger painting if you wish - it's lots of fun. However, the art, science, and history of paste paper open up new possibilities for papers that you can create for a variety of purposes.

In June 2007, I took a class at the San Francisco Center for the Book (SFCB) entitled "Paste Papers Old and New," with Michael Burke. Michael, a bookbinder and conservator now living in northwestern England helped established the book bindery at SFCB in 1996. With knowledge of technique, history and chemistry, he was able to lead a class that was both playful and informative. In addition to other venues, he often teaches at the Paper and Book Intensives held in different parts of the United States each year.

On my return home, I decided to do a little research and "advanced playing" of my own. What follows will be of limited to use to people whose work requires that they strive for archival integrity in their work. It simply represents my own admittedly limited "non-professional" exploration and experimentation. My approach is to learn by doing, and to learn from my mistakes, of which I have made many. So the only guarantee I can offer with this information is that if you enter into it with a spirit of adventure and playfulness, you can have lots of fun with paste paper, and you may even end up with something that is useful to you or to someone else.

This is not a "how to" guide. The resources section has some suggestions for books and web sites of people and places that have expertise in this area. I have tried to accurately cite sources where I've taken specific information, but otherwise these comments should be considered as those of an enthusiastic amateur.

If you want to do it yourself, check out local art stores, college continuing education classes, or centers for book arts. Go to this site's Book Arts Web Links and Do It Yourself page for ideas.

RESOURCES

Anne Chambers, A Guide to Making Decorated Papers. This very useful 79-page book was printed in 1989, but copies are available at both Amazon and AbeBooks or order it through a local bookseller.

Diane Maurer-Mathison, The Art of Making Paste Papers, 2002. This book is also available at Amazon and other outlets, or directly from the author/artist.

There are many suggestions, recipes, and ideas on line. If you're adventurous, simply go to your favorite search engine and put "paste paper" in the subject line. If you want to be more focused, the Book Arts Web has an archive of questions (and answers) regarding paste papers for the last several years. Go to http://www.philobiblon.com and click on Book_Arts L Archive; put paste paper in the search box. Click here for a link to a summary of ideas and suggestions from many contributors to the Book Arts web.

SUPPLIES

If you're fortunate to have a locally-owned art supply store, that's the first place to go. You will not only be supporting local businesses, but will be able to speak one-to-one with someone who knows the materials well. Larger locally-owned stores, such as Hollanders in Ann Arbor, often offer classes as well.

If you don't have a resource close by, there are many sources on line. A few that I've used are:

Daniel Smith carries many of the papers mentioned that are recommended for making paste paper, including Strathmore, Arches Text Wove, and Mohawk Superfine Text.

Sinopia in San Francisco is a source for the pigments referred to below.

Hollander's in Ann Arbor sells rice starch, wheat starch, and methylcellulose in bulk at a price considerably lower than the pre-packaged variety.

Dick Blick often has sales on acrylic paint and paper.

Talas in New York supplies materials for paper and book conservation and restoration, and is a source for archival papers, starches, methylcellulose, preservation waxes, and other much more.

MATERIALS

An apron or smock if you care about mess

Protective gloves or barrier hand cream if you want to protect your hands from staining, or if recommended by the manufacturer of the coloring agents you are using.

Paper (see below)

Containers and spoons for mixing paste. Containers should be wide enough to accommodate your largest brush. If you're planning on doing this often, consider raiding your cupboards or going to Goodwill to put together a stock of dishes and spoons dedicated to paste paper. Plastic spoons and large plastic cups work.

Lots of newspaper for laying papers out to dry.

Strainer for paste: Most paste (methylcellulose is an exception) must be strained a couple of times to remove lumps. If you don't want to spring for a $120 conservator's Japanese horse-hair paste strainer (paddle sold separately), there are other options. A very fine household strainer may be sufficient. A better alternative is silk-screening fabric (available at art stores). Don't use towels, old cotton shirts, or cheese cloth. These will exude fibers that will get into your glue, creating designs that you don't expect and can't control. Unless, of course, you're into serendipity.

1"-2" Brushes. Bristle brushes are traditionally used. Foam brushes will work also, and give a different effect.

Things that would make interesting designs:

Combs, bubble wrap, cord, wine corks, any kind of toy or household object that has an interesting raised design. Faux finishing tools, plaster spreaders (used to make designs in plasters), and similar home repair and redecoration tools are useful. The edges of those annoying plastic cards you get in the mail to entice you to get a credit card can be carved to create your own design for combing. A large piece of screen, the flat metal from a radiator cover, or other flat material placed under the paper creates an interesting base design that can be decorated with other tools. Use your imagination, and experiment.

SPACE

My studio is a spare bedroom, and my work space is the kitchen, dining room, or any other area that I can appropriate when needed. Since I do occasionally have to eat off of my dining room and kitchen tables, I've organized myself to be able to use those tables without damaging them.

You will need:

A smooth, unmarred surface that is longer and wider than the largest paper you will use. A formica or marble table is ideal. Carefully check your work surface for raised spots and indentations. The paste paper will pick up impressions from whatever is under it. If you don't want these to be a part of your design, put a smooth surface on top of it. A large wipe-off board, or a large piece of plexiglass will work.

Protection of the surface. Making paste paper is a messy process. The surface will be wet, and you will be using pastes and paints. If you need to protect the surface, use a piece of heavy vinyl (available by the yard in many fabric shops).

A piece of thin vinyl 2-3 inches large than your paper. This vinyl (also available by the yard at fabric shops) is your actual work surface. It's not needed if you are able to work directly on a smooth surface, such as marble or formica.

Access to water, and a good supply of sponges. To avoid having the paints from one piece getting on the next one, it is important to clean your space and your brushes between pieces.


I hope you can see my wooden butcher block table covered by a piece of thick vinyl. A large wipe-off board is on top of the vinyl. The board is covered with a piece of thin vinyl just larger than the paper. You should also be able to see some of the folds and buckles in the vinyl which will need to be smoothed before I work with the paper. The top vinyl sheet shows signs of repeated use, has actually been thoroughly wiped down.

CHOOSING PAPER

For purposes of playing and experimenting, virtually any paper will do. Try construction paper, brown paper bags, poster paper, computer paper, or drawing paper. Through trial and error, you will find which papers hold together and which fall apart.

In your experimentation, you will discover which papers have what is called "high wet strength:" A characteristic of paper that causes the paper to resist disintegrating when made very wet. Paste papers are placed on a wet surface, and are thoroughly sponged down to be uniformly wet. Colored paste is then applied, and tools are pulled, pushed, and pressed into and over the surface to create designs. Some papers will break down in this process, while others will hold up well. Papers often mentioned as both being archival and having high wet strength are:

  • Canson Mi-Teintes drawing paper
  • Strathmore 400 drawing paper
  • Mohawk Superfine Text
  • Arches Text Wove
  • DETERMINING PAPER GRAIN

    At a sale recently, we offered a free dip into my "boo-boo bin" for anyone who spent over $50. Many of the items in the bin reflected my lack of attention to the grain in the paper and book board.

    What is it? The grain is the direction in which the fibers that make up the paper line up. Most book board and machine-made paper has a grain.

    Why is it important? In folding with the grain, you are folding parallel to the fibers that make up the paper. A crease made in the direction of the grain will be smooth and crisp. In folding against the grain, you are folding the fibers. This can cause the fibers to weaken or split, resulting in cracks and tears. Also, it is difficult to get a crisp crease when paper is folded against the grain.

    Grain may or may not be important, depending on your use. On page 79 in her book "The Art of Making Paste Papers," Diane Maurer Mathison gives a useful explanation of a time when attention to paper grain would be very important:

    "Wet papers tend to curl with the grain, so it's important, when gluing them to each other or to book board, to make sure that the grain direction of both materials matches. If materials with opposing grain directions are glued together, they pull in opposite directions as they dry and create a warped product."

    And in that case, it's off to the boo-boo bin!

    Maurer-Mathison describes how to determine grain:

    "To test for grain direction in a sheet of paper, bend the sheet in half. If the paper easily collapses on itself, you're bending with the grain. If the paper resists your efforts, you're bending cross grain. Test the papers in each direction and then pencil an arrow on it to mark the direction."

    "To test for grain direction on book board, fold the long edges of the whole sheet in your hands and attempt to bend it. Little resistance means the grain is running parallel to your arms. Considerable resistance means you're bending across the grain. Pencil an arrow on pieces of book board as you cut them so you don't lose track of the grain direction. Because they don't bend easily it is more difficult to test small pieces of heavy board."

    MARKING THE BACK OF YOUR PAPER.

    Some papers are exactly the same front and back, and some have slightly different textures. Choose one side to be the back. Marking the paper is optional, and may not be necessary. If you are working with others, use light pencil to put your initials on the back. You think you'll recognize your own work, but chances are you won't. (In a class, I was admiring a particularly nice piece as it came off the rack, and was pleased and surprised to find out that it was my own.) If you are experimenting, you may want to write the type of paper and paste you're using on that piece, so that you can compare the different combinations. If you plan to join the paper to other materials that have a grain (for book covers, boxes, etc.) it will be important to mark the grain.

    RELAXING THE PAPER

    Relaxing the paper is a process of dampening the fibers in the paper to prepare it for the paste. If you skip this step, the paper will bubble, buckle, and crease. A couple of different ways to relax the paper:

  • Perhaps you find a dip in the pool relaxing. If so, you share something in common with paper; your paper will be more cooperative if has a chance to relax. If you have a shallow container as large as your paper, dip the paper briefly in a pan of water. Place the paper on your work surface and stroke from the center outward with a sponge to press out air bubbles and remove wrinkles. (Reminder: It is important for your work surface to be completely smooth.

  • Alternatively, wet the surface with a very wet sponge. Put the paper face down on the surface; rub the back gently with the wet sponge. Wait a few seconds and turn the paper over. Wet the front, smoothing the paper from the center to the edges to remove wrinkles and bubbles.
  • CHOOSING AND MAKING PASTES

    Commonly used ingredients for paste are those made from grains: wheat, rice, and cornstarch, all described in the books by Diane Maurer-Mathis and Anne Chambers and AbeBooks. Chambers has a section on vinegar paste, made from sugar and malt vinegar, and Maurer-Mathis even includes a recipe made from cake flour.

    Methylcellulose is another choice, and is also described by Chambers and Maurer-Mathison. Methylcell, as it is commonly called, is the basic ingredient in wallpaper paste. Methylcell shares many of the same properties as paper, and is also a common additive in foods. In fact, one could use wallpaper paste, but it has a fungicide, so if you use it, you should probably don a pair of gloves.

    Recipes abound, and each ingredient has its own advantages and disadvantages. I'm including a recipe for each of the three pastes I'm using right now: Methylcellulose, rice starch, and wheat starch.

    A few general notes about cooked paste:

  • My recipes for rice and wheat starch (which require cooking) are stove-top recipes. On a scale of fall-asleep-boring to heart-pounding excitement, cooking paste is slightly above watching paint dry. Don't be tempted to shorten the cooking time. Think of it as a great opportunity for off-the-cushion meditation. Turn on the radio and listen to NPR. Do it with a friend or two and share the task.

  • Strictly speaking, there should be a pot, storage containers, and utensils dedicated only to paste. Some recipes call for distilled water, and not tap water. As I understand it, this has more to do with the archival integrity of the product than with health and safety considerations. Soap traces and tap water can introduce impurities that and change the properties of the paste in ways that are unacceptable for conservation and preservation. These seem to be of less concern to the casual user. Since I buy my starches from a reputable art supply house and they have no additives or preservatives, the starches are probably more pure than the wheat and rice that I buy from the bulk bins at the local food co-op.

  • Some recipes call for use of a double boiler, which would probably work for these recipes.

  • Both of the resource books have recipes for microwave paste, and that topic is also covered in the summary in the Book_Arts L Archive.

  • When you make cooked paste for the first time, sniff it after it cools down so that you become familiar with the smell of fresh paste. You don't have to wait for mold to show up to know when it's time to toss it: The smell will leave you with no doubt.

  • With wheat paste, you can extend the life of the paste by a few days by covering the paste with water, and changing the water daily. I haven't found that that works for rice paste. To keep a film from forming on rice paste, place a piece of plastic wrap over the top of the mixture before you close the jar.

  • I've read mixed reviews about refrigerating cooked paste. I've had good luck with it for up to a week.

  • There are also mixed reviews about whether to use a blender to smooth the paste. I had great luck with this method, and even found that the paste didn't always require straining. It may be necessary to let the paste sit for a few hours to let the bubbles dissipate.

  • If you have time for cooking, you can avoid the spoilage issue altogether by making paste in small batches.

    Rice Starch Paste

      1. Combine 1 part rice starch with 6 parts water
      2. Cover and let sit for at least one hour.
      3. Cook in an enamel, Teflon, or glass pot over medium heat until thick and translucent (25-40 minutes), stirring constantly with a whisk or a wooden spoon.
      4. Remove from heat and allow to cool.
      5. Pour out what you need for immediate use. Put the remainder in a covered jar and store in a cool, dark spot. My experience in hot summer weather has been that it won't keep for more than a couple of days. See the note above about using the refrigerator.
      6. Strain the portion you will use through a strainer twice. Thin the paste to the consistency of heavy cream by adding small amounts of water and stirring. (Alternatively, see the note above about using a blender. Experiment to find what works for you.)

    Wheat Starch Paste

      1. Combine 1 part wheat starch with 4 parts water.
      2. Cover and let sit for at least an hour.
      3. Cook in an enamel, Teflon, or glass pot over medium heat until thick and translucent (15-30 minutes), stirring constantly with a whisk or a wooden spoon.
      4. Remove the pot from the heat and allow the mixture to cool.
      5. Pour out what you need for immediate use. Put the remainder in a covered jar and store in a cool, dark spot. My experience in hot summer weather has been that it won't keep for more than a couple of days. See the note above about using the refrigerator.
      6. Strain the portion you will use through a strainer twice. Thin the paste to the consistency of heavy cream by adding small amounts of water and stirring. (Alternatively, see the note above about using a blender. Experiment to find what works for you.)

    Methylcellulose


    At the SFCB Paste Paper course, Michael Burke explained the chemistry of methylcellulose. Methylcellulose is insoluble in hot water, and is soluble in cold. The powder disperses evenly throughout hot water, and becomes fully hydrated, resulting in a uniform solution as it cools down. You end up with a thick mass, which is then thinned with cold water. The recipe I've found successful follows. It makes a quart of paste.
      1. Sprinkle 5 tablespoons methylcellulose power into 1 cup of very hot water, stirring to prevent lumps.
      2. When the powder is thoroughly dispersed, slowly add 3 cups of cold water. Let the mixture sit for several hours or overnight.
      3. After this "rest period," pour off what you need for immediate use, thinning to the consistency of thick cream. The paste does not require straining.
      4. Store the remainder in a covered container. The mixture won't spoil.

    COLORING MEDIA

    Beyond choosing water-based paints (oils won't work), the choices are unlimited if you're just messing around. Tempra paint, poster paint, acrylics, gouache, and pigments all work. The first two are best used with children, or for "playing around." Tempra paint leaves a light powdery residue when dry.

    Gouache, acrylics, and pigments are more stable, and should be used for papers that need to last (e.g., for book covers). Professional-quality gouache and acrylics can give pleasing results but are on the expensive side. I have used the Liquitex Basic line, and it is more affordable. Many of the early paste papers (such as those made by the Moravian Sisters of Herrnhut in Germany the mid 1600's) are made from earth pigments, available from Sinopia.

    METHODS OF MAKING DESIGNS

  • Brushing on
  • Sponging on
  • Sponging off
  • Pulled paper
  • Combing
  • Blocks
  • Crumpling

    Brushing on:

    Most paste papers start with the colored paste applied to the wet paper with a brush, followed by the addition of designs. Use long, uninterrupted strokes. Try producing some papers just with a brush. The brush strokes themselves can create interesting designs.

    Sponging on: A sponge is used to apply the paste to the paper, giving a very different look than the work of a brush.

    Sponging off: Paste is applied with a brush, and then a sponge or other absorbent material (such as crumpled newspaper or tissue paper) is used to lift the paste off.

    Pulled paper: If you're a control freak, pulled paper probably isn't for you. While you have some control over the design when you brush, block, or sponge on the paint, the results of pulled paper are nearly always surprising and unpredictable. Paste is applied to two sheets of paper, which are then placed face to face. The simplest pulled paper is created by gently rubbing the surface with your hand, and then very carefully pulling the sheets apart.

    For more complex pulled designs:

  • Place a long length of cord on the bottom paper, leaving one end of the cord hanging out. Add the top paper, and run your hand gently over the top. Pull the cord out in a slow, swift move, and then carefully pull the sheets apart.
  • Use a solid color on one paper, and splotches of color on the second.
  • Run a patterned rolling pin over the top sheet before pulling the sheets apart.
  • Instead of using two sheets, use a single sheet and fold it in half. This will give you a mirror image, with a Rorschach-type design in the middle.

    Combing: Combing is the technique of pulling an object through the paint in some kind of design. The object displaces some of the paint, creating ridges with the displaced paste and showing the surface of the paper underneath. The object can literally be a comb, or your fingers, or any other object that moves the paint. If you don't like the design you've created, simply paint over it and start again.

    After brushing on, I created designs with my fingers, similar to the process used in the mid 1600's by the Moravian sisters of Herrnhut.


    Paint was first brushed on, and then two different sides of a plastering tool, called a notched spreader, were used to create the thick and thin lines.

    Blocking: Press something with a raised design into the paint, transferring the raised design onto the paper. This design can be repeated systematically or randomly. Again, if you don't like the design you've created, paint over it and start again.


    This design incorporates brushing on and blocking, using a rubber block with raised shapes that I picked up at a fabric store.


    A large square lego piece was used to create this design.

    Crumpling: You can only start over so many times, and then you just want to crumple it up and toss it. You can get a very pleasing effect by crumpling your paper into a tight ball, and then gently uncrumpling it. Set it aside to let it dry, and then decide whether you want to toss it.

    REMOVING THE PASTE PAPER

    What can I say? It's tricky and a little nerve-wracking. Before you start, make sure that you have a flat, protected surface (a newspaper-covered floor or table work). Very gently lift the upper right and upper left corners, and pull the paper off the surface in a slow and steady motion. Lay it carefully on the prepared newspaper. You will end up with thumbprints on the corners; leave them or trim them away as you wish.

    Just in case you have the piece in your grip and then remember that you haven't prepared the drying surface (as happened to me), a cry for help is in order. Or perhaps you will occasionally (like me) drop it on your way to the prepared drying surface. this happens, , see the section on Crumpling to turn these problems into opportunities.

    DRYING

    Drying can take anywhere from a few to several hours, depending on temperature and humidity, the amount of paste you've applied, and the type of paste used. Pastes made from rice and wheat starch dry more quickly than those made from methylcellulose. I haven't tried vinegar paste, but according to Anne Chambers it can take a couple of days to dry.

    FINISHING

    Papers can be used "as is" if the results please you. If you simply store them flat the curling edges will relax. You can also iron them (without steam) to eliminate curling altogether. Most paste papers can be rolled for storage with no ill effects. If you've used the "crumbling" technique, your flat, ironed piece will take on a completely different look, so try it out on a small corner before ironing the whole piece. For non-archival purposes, the paper can be waxed (either after or instead of ironing). Two methods are:

  • Rub the surface with crumpled waxed paper.
  • Rub a small amount of bees' wax on a soft cloth, and polish the paper with the cloth, adding more bees' wax to the cloth as needed.

  • If you've used archival materials and want to use the paper to cover an item such as a book or a box, consider using conservator's wax or the more expensive Renaissance wax, both available from Talas. These waxes will reduce wear and tear, and help the papers resist fingerprints, yellowing and staining. Application takes some practice, so practice first on papers that aren't important to you.

    OH, AND ONE LAST THING

    I started this section off by comparing paste paper to finger painting. While you're at it, why don't you just let loose and turn out a finger painting or two. Who knows . . . . maybe you'll come up with something you'll want to frame, or at least put on your refrigerator!

    Comparison of Wheat Starch, Rice Starch and Methylcellulose

    Confused about the virtues and vices of the various varieties, I scanned numerous books, articles, and web sites. A professional conservator, bookbinder or paste-paper maker may have a more accurate and sophisticated view, but for what it's worth, here's what I gleaned from my reading.

    IngredientFinishAdvantagesDisadvantagesStorage
    Wheat starchMatteLess expensive than rice starch. Best choice for non-archival projects.
    Somewhat shorter cooking time than rice starch.
    Requires cooking
    Requires straining
    Can be grainy
    Short shelf life
    Not archival
    Attracts bugs (a concern if items will be left on the shelf for a long time, as in a book or box cover)
    Store 2-3 days in a cool, dark place. Cover with water, and change water daily.
    Rice starchSheen, between matte and glossySmoother than wheat pasteRequires cooking.
    Requires straining
    More expensive
    Short shelf life
    Not archival
    Store in a covered container 2-3 days in a cool, dark place.
    Methyl-celluloseGlossyEasy to mix and use
    Longer shelf life
    Archival
    Smoother than wheat
    Doesn't require cooking
    More gooey and slower drying than wheat and rice starch; as a result, some of the designs can sort of spread out and become indistinct.
    Not strong if used as an adhesive.
    Doesn't require straining.
    Easier to make (no cooking), but requires soaking (a few hours or overnight).
    Store in covered container. Keeps for several weeks. Thin gradually with small amounts of cold water as needed