History of Artist’s Watercolor Paper

Papermaking has an ancient history. Traditional paper manufacturers such as Fabriano and Arches produce watercolor paper for painting.

The creation of images is an ancient practice. Marks and pictures were scribed on cave walls, clay tablets, bark, papyrus, and vellum. Watercolor paper is a relatively recent surface for painting and creating art. The history of the watercolor paper begins with the story of papermaking throughout history.

Papyrus and Parchment

The English word for paper comes from the Greek term for papyrus, the ancient Egyptian material for keeping written records. Papyrus was made from strips of a reedy plant beaten together to form a smooth wide sheet. It was produced in Egypt as early as 3700 BC. Papyrus was exported to both Greece and Rome. The ancient Greek term papyros led to modern word paper.

The papyrus plant only grows in tropical regions. When papyrus from Egypt became scarce, northern regions needed to find a replacement. As a result, parchment was developed as another kind of writing material. Also called vellum, this material was made of processed sheepskin or calfskin.

Paper is Invented from Rags and Fibers

China is credited as the birthplace for the first true papers. It was considered one of the Four Great Inventions of Ancient China. Although there are some earlier examples, the papermaking process was developed in China during the early 2nd century. Supposedly, the paper was inspired by the nest materials of wasps and bees. The paper was created from old rags, mulberry plants, and other plant fibers.

Paper and papermaking slowly spread to areas beyond China. First Japan and other East Asian cultures adopted it, then it moved into the Middle East. Finally, it was introduced into Europe in the 13th century.

Artist’s Watercolor Paper Production

In Europe, the paper quickly began to replace the use of parchment. It was lighter, easier to make, and cheaper to use. Paper and papermaking arrived in Italy around 1250. The papers were made from recycled linen rags as the pulp. Some of the first papermakers in Europe are still making fine artist quality watercolor papers.

  • 1283 Fabriano, in Italy
  • 1492 Arches, in France
  • 1557 Canson, in France

These companies all produced fine artists papers, mainly for drawing. Papers for watercolor painting originated in the 18th century with the development of a very fine wire screen that was like a wire cloth. This new process allowed a very even surface to form in the pulp fibers.

This fine art paper became suitable for watercolor painting with the addition of a “hard size” to the fibers. Sizing is essential to watercolor paper because it allows the color to stay on the surface as the water sinks into the paper. This is what makes watercolor paint so brilliant and allows the surface colors to be lifted and reworked.

Early paper was all made by hand. Paper production entered the Industrial age in the late 19th century with the first companies to use a cylinder mold to make the finest art papers. Machine-made papers create the consistent quality and texture sought by fine artists. Although handmade watercolor papers are still available today, they are harder to find and generally more expensive.

Paper, in history, has strong sociological connections for record keeping, information storage, and communication. Paper that is stored properly and taken care of lasts a very long time. Some of the world’s most beautiful artwork is maintained in images on paper.

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