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It Looks Good on Paper

(April 2011) posted on Tue May 10, 2011

Nothing is more disconcerting than to lay down a background layer of ink and watch your paper do an impression of the North Atlantic in storm season.

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By Andy MacDougall

One of the first art prints I made hangs on the wall in my living room. It’s been around since 1982, and although the basic elements are still there, some of the colors, especially the reds and purples, have faded to the point that they can’t be distinguished from each other. If this print is like many from that time period, if popped out of the frame, it has probably yellowed as well.

Being young, stupid, uneducated, and naïve (pick any four) about the art-print game, I used a speckletone parchment paper that was all the rage in graphic design at the time. We bought this from our paper supplier, who sold tons of cover-weight paper, with all kinds of finishes. What they didn’t sell
was rag paper—paper made from cotton, which, along with other characteristics, is also acid-free and has neutral pH.

Once I started working with artists and talking to other printers, I quickly learned about the difference between cellulose (tree-based) papers, which make up most of the paper we see in our regular lives, and so-called rag paper, made from cotton and used almost exclusively for fine-art prints, watercolors, and archival documents. Its other major usage is for banknotes.

From its invention in 105 AD in China until 1840, when a Canadian and a German both independently discovered how to pulp tree fibers, most paper was made from cotton or rags and some plant fibers, including hemp, mulberry, rice, and bamboo. For you trivia buffs, the word paper is derived from papyrus, used since ancient times in Egypt, but not considered true paper because it was not pulped, only flattened, a technicality.


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