Paper Thin and Perfectly Imperfect

Although there were some who predicted that personal computers, email and the internet would make the use of paper obsolete – that hasn’t been the case; at least not in my life.  True, I get less and less paper mail but it still seems to be everywhere.

Prior to yesterday I considered paper to be utilitarian and an instrument of my art only as it relates to printing out a page for an old-fashioned review or something to sketch on.  I may have stopped to admire pretty notepaper or enjoy the texture of pages within a leather-bound journal, but I never gave a second thought to the process.

I never wondered…

Where does paper come from?

How is it made?

What exactly is pulp?

Why does some paper ‘feel’ different than others?

Where did the flecks of color come from?

Could paper be art?

Over the weekend I received an email from my friend and artist Kathy.


Due to a surplus of various kinds of pulp, I am holding a couple of papermaking open studio sessions and papermaking classes at my studio.  I have Japanese pulp, casting pulp, high shrink flax, abaca and pigmented pulp for painting. 

I jumped on the opportunity.  I didn’t know much, but based on my breakfast conversation with Kathy a few weeks ago, I knew I wanted to learn more.

I joined two other lovely ladies in Kathy’s studio for preliminary instructions and introductions. We helped carry out buckets of pulp while learning about the qualities of the material we’d be working with.

Kathy showed us beautiful examples of her work and how a single piece of paper can stand on its own as a work of art as well as how it can be used to create sculptures and paintings.  The possibilities are endless.

I took pictures and listened intently as she described the process of beating the plant fiber and immersing it in water in preparation for the process of making paper.  It was hard to imagine how the tan spongy substance floating in a yellow bucket would transform into anything beautiful.

bucket of pulp for paper making

She walked us through the steps of adding the thick, gloppy pulp from the bucket to a tub of water and mixing it into a smooth and soft sea of fibers that would become a sheet of paper.

Instructions on Mixing Pulp and water for paper making

“How do you know when you’ve added enough pulp?” I asked.

Kathy swirled her hand in the water, “You learn how to feel it.  After you work with it a while, you know.”

A year ago that would have made no sense to me.  Now it’s completely logical.  Art, like life, is about learning, observing, and experiencing.  And as we live, we somehow “just know.”

I slipped my hand into the cloudy water and let the feathery pieces of fiber sift through my fingers.  I don’t know how to describe it, but the water felt soft and alive.

Kathy demonstrated how to put the mosquito netting over the screened frame and the best way to hold it in place with a second frame.

Step by step she walked us through the process.

“Put the side in the water first and then pull and scoop up the pulp, just like you’re panning for gold.  After that you shake the mold and let the pulp settle, let the extra water drain out, and then you’re ready for the next step.”

She removed the top frame, lined the screen up with the edge of a wet shammy, and hinged it forward to release the fragile sheet of wet paper.  Little by little she rolled the mosquito netting back and revealed a form that, when dry, would be a beautiful piece of paper.

I was surprised, but it didn’t take me long to catch on and before I knew it I had two sheets of future paper and couldn’t wait to do more.

first sheets of paper  - pape rmaking

We took a break halfway through the morning to enjoy fruit and chit chat.  We gobbled up blueberries and a refreshing organic and beautifully orange watermelon.

organic watermelon

After the break, Kathy added blended pieces of marigolds to one of the vats and added pigmented pulp to three open tubs to create pools of orange, blue, and green.  She showed us how to make a base sheet and then add a layer of color.

I couldn’t decide which part was my favorite.  It was a toss-up between trying to scoop up the pieces of petal from the marigolds and spreading water drops with my fingers to make a design.

So of course I found a way to combine them both and created beautiful orange and blue designs to accentuate the natural beauty of the pulp and bits of flower petals.

paper making - pigmented pulp over marigold and pulp paper

The morning flew by and our time was up before I knew it.

It hadn’t occurred to me, but paper requires time to dry.  Kathy showed us what to do and sent us home with detailed instructions.  Of course, me being me, I had to try the quick method of drying on at least one sheet of paper.  I was way too impatient to wait a whole week to experiment.

I picked one of the less than perfect pieces out of the bunch and laid it on my kitchen counter.

paper still drying

I knew it was thin and fragile and had more than a few flaws.  I selected a paint brush with soft bristles and carefully stroked the moisture out of the paper.

It came to life before my eyes.

It won’t be a sheet I can draw, paint, or print on. The edges are frayed and uneven, it’s thinner than paper thin, and the webs of fiber barely support the splashes of marigold.

paper thin

In my eyes it’s beautiful and it’s perfect in its imperfection.