Paper Chase

I’ve been teaching summer school at Oxford Brookes Art School (which incidentally smells exactly like my old art school, whipping me back to a time when I lived on iced buns and lived for printing big linocuts of Aberystwyth’s distinctive architecture and town life) and one of the questions that kept coming up was ‘what paper do you use for printing your woodblocks?’.

The answer is that I haven’t settled on a paper in the UK. As I write there are rolls of paper about to be launched onto the high seas from Japan for me, but in the meantime I am using 200g Fabriano. The paper I was taught to use was washi – a long fibre mulberry bark paper – and, fatally, we were taken to the factory where the highest grade handmade washi is produced. Thanks to the usual extreme Japanese generosity I was given paper and unwittingly printed away, not realising that I was being ruined for life and that no paper I can afford in the UK would ever compare.

Fabriano 200g does work well, but I have found that it needs sizing with alum first. The alum acts as a mordant, making the colour more brilliant. I discovered a document about 17th century western paper making (I admit I was stumbling rather than engaging on personal improvement through rigorous research) which pointed out that the very same alum mordant used to prepare wool to accept dye would improve the appearance of watercolour on paper. Since I spin and occasionally dye my own wool this all made sense and, even better, I had the alum* to hand so was able to plunge into a series of experiments. My semi-scientific (I was wearing surgical gloves and a very inky lab coat) findings are that 32 – 64g of alum per 500ml water improves the colour brilliance no end.

Try it yourself. I should warn you that you shouldn’t get the stuff on your hands or in your eyes or stomach. Mind you, my mum used to lean over the kitchen sink and burn out her occasional mouth ulcers with neat alum. She swore by it, but I only ever did it once: it worked well, but felt exactly how you would expect burning a mouth ulcer out with acid would feel. Not a cheering experience.

*use Aluminium Potassium Sulphate and not Aluminium Sulphate as the latter is not as good for the paper as the former. You will find the powdered alum through any textile or wool dying suppliers.