so i realized i was going to make an art book. and i realized i wanted it to reflect my journey not just in the words and pictures, but the structure of the book itself. which means i would have to make paper from local materials as a concrete example of my journey. so i needed to learn how to make paper.
so i got a lot of books. and my eyes started to swim. so i searched the internet for papermaking workshops, and there was one, with fabulous robert thompson, so i signed up, and yesterday afternoon i showed up at my local sam flax and got shown how to do it, and got in a couple of hours of practice, and made myself a bunch of sheets of paper that are now plastered to the walls and tables of my studio, drying. (where i can look at them, but i can’t mess with them, because they’re still wet, and being wet, they’re just pulp. i found that out already. so, don’t touch, not until they’re completely dry and i can peel them off the walls.)
the workshop was beautiful. not only because many of the registered participants didn’t show up. because present were a store employee with an art degree, an art teacher, and me. later on a bunch more people showed up, one or two at a time, learning how to make paper by plunging their hands in and getting wet, and then leaving again with a sheet of paper dripping onto a plate, fired up about papermaking. it was an infectious enthusiasm, as we all understood that 1) anyone can make paper, and do it simply and cheaply, and 2) there are a million actual ways to make paper, and a billion things to do with it.
i can do this.
when i walked in, all the samples were spread out, so i got some pictures. the guy teaching the workshop is robert thompson, a real sweetie, and full of information and tips. he concentrates on natural and local materials, and doesn’t use anything recycled, or animal, or fillers or additives, not even cotton rag. and this is good, because if you’re going to teach something, you need to know your own preferences and why you use the techniques you’re teaching.
he’s got a great way with paper, the samples all crying to be picked up and fingered and flicked. and the materials are very simple. and like cooking, there are so many variables that you can wing it once you understand the basics.
and here’s your one stop shop for the world of papermaking.
we immediately got to talking about technical things. every artist brings their depth of experience to every new thing they do, so a class of artists learning new things is a very powerful place, because each artist approaches the matter from a different angle, for a different purpose, and with a different history. so every other moment is an aha moment for someone in the class. we had a lot of those in this workshop, because as soon as he told us the rules, we started trying to think how to break them. it was starting to get to the point where we’d be in the middle of a piece and get an idea, and almost fling the piece we were working on across the room in our haste to get down to the new idea.
robert had already prepared our work stations, meaning a plastic tub with water and wheatgrass (hay/straw) pulp in it,
a mould and deckle, which couldn’t be easier (or cheaper) – just 4 stretcher bars and some screen stapled in for the mould, and just the same 4 stretcher bars for the deckle,
a felt sheet, and a bunch of muslin sheets to absorb the water and cushion the paper.
he’d prepared the pulp by taking a bunch of hay, cutting it into small chunks, and then simmering it for i forget how long with a caustic agent. i would use soda ash, he uses lye, kids can use baking soda.
it looks like this when it’s cooked, before you blend it. this is wheatstraw.
you blend up a bit with some water, and how much is up to the machine’s tolerance, and dump it into a vat of water, how much is up to you, but you’ll want to replenish the pulp with every sheet or so.
now to make a sheet of paper. the mould catches the pulp, the deckle forms the edges of the sheet. assemble the mould and deckle, taking the mould (stretchers with screen), with the screen side up, so that it’s a flat surface, and putting the deckle (stretchers and no screen) on top of it. they’re the same size, so they fit. fancy sets have latches to hold them in place. some deckles have attached foam strips for a better seal.
now to make a sheet of paper really. first you stir up the contents of the vat, so you have an even dispersion of pulp in the water. holding the mould and deckle together, slip them into the water, just like the correct way to dip a spoon into soup.
it’s a dipping, sloshing motion with the mould and deckle until you’ve got enough pulp in it. how you know that is to practice. then gently and slowly lift it up and let it drain thru the screen and off the edges of the assembly.
see it dripping from the low edge?
you sometimes have to let it drain for awhile. let the water drain off the mould and deckle, let it drain some more, put it on the edge of the vat and let it drain more more more.
it’s goopy, i guess the technical term is pulpy, and you can easily disturb it with the slightest touch, and if you haven’t drained it enough, the slightest bump.
now’s the time to do stuff with the pulp if you’re going to. see below.
when you’ve finished fucking with your pulp, gently remove the deckle by lifting straight up, and put it aside. if you don’t lift it straight up, you will be shearing off an edge, or distorting the whole sheet.
now take the mould with the pulp sticking to it, turn it over, and lay it down on top of a single sheet of muslin that’s resting on the damp felt. then take a wet sponge, and pounce the back of the screen, trying to force water in between the screen and the pulp, basically a slow motion running-the-screen-under-a-faucet kind of thing to dislodge the pulp.
then, hold down the muslin with one hand and lift one side of the mould with a kind of pop, a sudden, decisive motion. the mould comes up while the pulp stays on the muslin.
theoretically. in practice this is the most frustrating part of making paper. (i can only say this at this point, at the beginning of my knowledge. i’m sure there’ll be more most frustrating parts later.)
in practice, we pounced water with a sponge and nothing happened, and we used more water and nothing happened, and we forgot to wring out our felts and nothing happened. at one point we were all holding the moulds upside down and trying to pick the pulp off in a single sheet. at another point we had a ripped pulpy mess and just dumped the whole thing back into the vat to try again. at yet another point we were pushing the torn bits back onto the muslin with the rest of the sheet and trusting that since it was still pulp, it would flow together and mend itself, like pastry dough.
every time we successfully got a sheet of pulp off the mould and onto the muslin, we gently lifted the muslin up, with the sheet laying on top of it, and draped the muslin flat onto a nice aluminum baking sheet robert was thoughtful enough to provide (so we could cart home our goodies). when we pulled another sheet, we stacked the muslin and pulp on top of the pile.
here’s the below part, about messing with your pulp.
for inclusions, in this case some thread and a button, you simply put them on top of the pulp and gently press them in so that there’s a little pulp covering them. the surface you’re messing with will be the top surface of your paper, so you don’t want to bury things, but you don’t want them peeling off, either.
this is how it looks once the mould has been lifted. you’re looking at the wrong side of the paper. you might also notice that there are rips in this pulp, from handling. they can be repaired by mushing the sides together, like with pie dough, or even patching with either more pulp from the vat (but beware water marks) or another piece of pulp already made into a sheet. for instance i was making a bunch of 1″ dots and the woman next to me had a sheet that badly needed patching, and the dots were perfect. they just mush right in.
this is one of the samples that were already there. this is what the one we did will look like when it’s dry.
you can layer (embed/laminate) stuff by making a first sheet of pulp, putting stuff on top, and layering a second sheet of pulp on top of that. when dry, the whole thing seals up and makes a wonderful, lumpy piece of art paper.)
here’s a freshly pulled sheet, released onto its muslin sheet.
put a piece of journal paper on top of it, and draw a second, thinner sheet of pulp. remove the deckle, and invert the second sheet on top of the first one, being real careful to line them up properly. there are probably jigs for doing this, or maybe you could figure out a system.
then you somehow miraculously get the second sheet to release on to the first, and there you have it.
this is an example of what you can do with lamination. you have to carefully sponge the pulp down around the inclusions, eliminating air bubbles that weaken the structure. you can do it with your finger, but using the side of a sponge give you a more even tamp.
once he showed us how to do all these things – prepare pulp, pull sheets, do inclusions, laminate, he set us loose on our own vats of pulp and our own mould and deckle and our felts and muslin pieces.
i started with the mould that was in front of me, which while on 6″ stretchers produced a roughly 3″ sheet of pulp, and did a fair number of sheets of plain wheatgrass pulp. then robert blended and added some canna pulp (way dark) to a vat of wheatgrass, and a blender of wild grass to another vat, and somebody did something else to their vat, and we started dipping in and out of all the vats with our screens.
that was about the time robert told us we could use the other screens he’d brought. one was an inch square (the sheet size), and they went up in various proportions (roughly standard frame sizes, and several long, for folding into booklets or cards) to 8.5×11 screen size, which is the screen he demonstrated with, the only screen he’s ever actually bought, back when he first started doing papermaking, and it’s still working.
i left off the starter mould and deckle and went for the screens robert uses. i started with one that was about 2″x5″, and it made lovely palm sized sheets. then i went for one that was 1″x3″, which was hell to pounce with a wet sponge, because it was so small.i left that off entirely when i remembered the large screen, and made as many full sized sheets as i could, finally running out of pulp and having to switch to the smallest screen of all and filling up a muslin square with 4 rows of dots.
i soon learned that when the mould and deckle are small enough, there’s no need to pouch it with a wet sponge to get the pulp to release. all you have to do is slap the mould down on the muslin, and the pulp transfers immediately. then you just lift the mould off and there’s your pulp on its muslin. that saved a great deal of time. i’m sure it’s a bit more problematic with large sheets.
why did i run out of pulp? because i got deeply into pulling sheets and stacking them on my aluminum tray, and sort of didn’t notice the other workshop participants (at one point the places were nearly full, because a man and his wife stopped by and got really excited, and at another point these two women stopped by and put their bags on a chair and started working like they were serious. but by the time i had to switch to the 1″ dots, they’d all left ages back, and robert had cleaned everything up and packed everything, and i would have continued to ignore them (lalalala i can’t hear you) if i hadn’t run out of pulp in the vat.
my workstation was a total wreck, with a sopping tablecloth, pulp drying on every surface, a thousand sheets of muslin stacked on the aluminum tray, and me with my sleeves rolled up above my elbows, holding up dripping hands like some doctor scrubbing up.
since this was a one day workshop, we didn’t dry our sheets there, but took them home to dry. i believe one part of the papermaking process has to do with building a nice stack of identical sized sheets placed precisely on top of one another, and then smooshed with a hydraulic press, but that’s beyond me. robert lets his air dry, and then if he wants them flattened, he spritzes them with water and flattens them under boards.
as for me, when i got home with my goodies, i plastered the pulp and muslin, face down, to my wall. and when i ran out of wall space, i put the remaining muslin and pulps face down on the worktable (which will transfer the texture of a worktable as well as the pigments of the last batch of pastels jim made). that’s because i want my paper to start out flat. i want flat because i want to do stuff precisely on them. or not. for this first batch, flat it is.
actually, i might have gone overboard. i not only stuck them against a flat surface to dry, but i also took a roller (brayer) to the muslin, pressing the paper very thin, too thin perhaps to hold together. i figured out that i was doing bad things when i noticed a bunch of pulp pressing out from under the muslin. so at that point i used less and less pressure on the roller, tho none of them were allowed to dry without being rolled. maybe next time i’ll just leave it alone.)
so, next morning, something i’ve learned. don’t fuck with the pulp before it’s completely bone dry.
the batch i stuck to the table has mainly remained on the table. i had to use my largest palette knife (almost a trowel) and force it up, meaning cutting myself a new sheet as i scraped it away from the table. the bits aren’t remotely sheet-shaped, but blobbish and partial. and that, of course, is because i rolled the hell out of them last night with a brayer.
these all started off rectangular. i’m going to have to take a wet rag to the table later.
of the ones i stuck on the wall, i haven’t touched them, except for i pulled one of the muslin sheets off of one of them before i went to bed, and managed to pull a lot of it off the wall this morning. it’s still damp in the middle, so i’m not proceeding, and i’ll have to deal with the curl later. when it’s dry it just peels off (carefully, slowly), but when it’s wet you’re fucked.
(two days after the workshop) i left the paper on the wall all that next day, because it was raining outside, and when i came down to finish this blog i started peeling the rest off the wall. i wonder if a damp rag wouldn’t make it come off more smoothly, without having to cut it away with a palette knife. or maybe a damp rag would make it instantly dissolve back into pulp and then it would rip?
let me tell you about damp rags. i sponged one of the pages stuck to the wall, because it just plain wasn’t coming up. it turned dark right away, which is good because that’s a great way to know if it’s dried yet. it quickly became damp, and then flexible, and easily pulled away from the wall. but it also became very weak, and started to stretch and pull, so i let it half-dry on the wall (it wasn’t that wet to start with) and got it off.
mainly, tho, i used my giant palette knife and pried the paper off the wall (or mirror). this is a delicate operation, because if you try to cut it up, or scrape it up, then you get a bunched, distorted, and ripped underside, because you’ve been hacking away at the fibers. what you need to do with a palette knife is to pull it up, not scrape it up. you’re trying to use the stiffness of the paper against it, to make it pry itself off the table, to basically pop it up all at once.
i had various degrees of success getting the paper unstuck. if it was still a bit damp, going over it with the roller helped to press the pulp back into the surface of the paper, which might help improve its shaved ice-cream texture.
the main mistake i made in drying the paper on a wall is that i put it paper side to the wall, when i should have stuck the muslin to the wall, or the table top, or the mirror surface. because when it’s dry the muslin peels right off the paper. but when paper is dried onto a wall, it’s like wallpaper. duh. so i won’t do that again, and i won’t have as many ripped and torn pieces again.
oh the horrors involved in learning something. oh the learning curve. i had this vision in my mind of the perfect bound book, first time doing it. and of course i might as well throw this whole first batch away. but i won’t. i was mistaken to expect a perfect bound book out of a three hour workshop. what i have is a bunch of samples illustrating all the things i’ve learned, and all the things i’ve gotten partly right, and all the things i know not to do next time. and there’s not that much. it’s not as difficult as learning how to silk paint. it’s about as difficult as learning how to make a good pancake. and that can take years.
thanks robert thompson for saving me six months on that learning curve, because i was prepared to teach myself but you taught me instead. if you want to learn papermaking in the atlanta area, you should contact him. he even does parties, and you can’t spend a more entertaining afternoon in a group setting without getting drunk.