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The Lush World of Oil Paint: From Pigment to Palette.

We all know what paper is, it’s something that every one of us relies on every day. From an early age it is the physical representation of our imaginations, a blank area for us to enrich with the wild and fantastical thoughts that rush through our minds. As we grow older, we are taught to turn shapes into letters, letters into words and words into meaning, but the paper is still there, absorbing the inks of our creativity.

In our day to day life it can serve many purposes: from mindless scribbles, to jamming up printers or even to sketch out a priceless picture. Regardless of the use, there is always a type of paper to accommodate. Different thicknesses, different blends, different weights, all serving their own unique purpose. But why did mankind settle for such a material? What is it about paper that fascinates us so much and how did it find itself being such a big part of everyone’s lives?

Let’s start by looking back at the first uses of paper. As archaeologists have discovered, mankind has always enjoyed drawing. Cave paintings and tapestries have always been a part of human civilisation, proving that fundamentally all humans have had that base urge to scribble all over things. But in the grand scheme of things, paper is actually a fairly recent concept. The earliest known examples of paper are found as recently as 200BC, long after mankind had hung up his bear pelt gown and replaced it with a nice pair of linen slacks. Of course, the paper used back then was not like the paper we would use today. The materials used did not come from trees but from a flowering plant known as Cyperus Papyrus. You may have noticed the second word of that name: Papyrus, this is where the word Paper actually originated. But this was not like the paper we used today, if anything it’s more the grandfather of paper. It was made using the pressed stems of the aforementioned Cyperus Papyrus, which would be hammered flat, and left to mesh together. The finished product was quite different to the paper of today. Instead of a sheet, the papyrus would come in a large roll; also its surface was much more uneven as the stems it was created from would have been a variety of different size. Though it was far from perfect, papyrus was popularly used by scholars and merchants alike all across Eastern Africa.

Papyrus was largely used within Egypt, but unlike most nations, the Egyptians found uses beyond written text. Egypt is famous for its wall paintings and tapestries; their depictions of mighty Gods pulling out people’s organs and doing dance moves that spawned unforgivable songs in the 1980s, are spectacles that have remained a solid state in history. It was thanks to Papyrus that these images were able to move around the world, allowing emperors and kings to marvel at their brilliance and Mark Anthony to raise an eyebrow or two. This new innovation finally gave the art some form of mobility spreading the opportunity for others to marvel at the creativity and talent behind it.

However the days of Papyrus were very much numbered. Other countries had little interest in using Papyrus for anything other than writing, which limited its general usefulness and thus its value, especially with a cheaper competitor on the scene. Parchment, made from the skin of animals, was not only cheaper to manufacture but also had a much higher durability. Parchment was manufactured simply by stretching out the skin of an animal, usually a sheep or goat, removing the fur and leaving it to dry. The hide would then take the shape of the surface it was placed on and would retain it after removal. This method proved cheaper, if not smellier and proved popular among the western world especially. For centuries parchment remained the ideal writing tool (we should note that at this time the majority of people didn’t know how to read or write), whilst the once popular Papyrus, which was now seeing very little production, was now becoming a rare and expensive luxury.

A modern example of art printed on Papyrus

It was once again in the East that paper made its grand arrival. Though no longer manufactured from our good friend Cyperus Papyrus, new methods were found by removing the pulp from plants, materials and pretty much anything that was lying around and simply squashing all the pulp out of it and stretching it out into a flat surface. Obviously it was a good bit more arduous than the way I described it as originally this would been done almost completely by hand, laboriously pressing and squashing the pulp into the shape needed. By the 8th century water powered factories had been introduced that would mass produce paper using machinery that could press the pulp into shape more efficiently. This made paper cheaper to manufacture and easier to produce. Not only were books becoming more popular, but different thicknesses of paper could be introduced, paving the way to new innovative ideas and uses for paper.

However the western world was greatly lagging behind. Still content with writing on bits of dead animal, Europe did not see any paper mills until well into the 10th Century. This was still the very early days for paper as very little consideration went into the ingredients of the pulp. Fibres taken from hemp or even old pieces of material would be used in mass production, with no real consideration of their properties. This meant that the paper produced back then had much less durability and generally a lower quality. However, this would not be considered an issue as writing was still considered a novel skill and the ability to read said writing just as so. The important thing was that paper was now something that wasn’t in short supply. Sadly the true potential of paper was not seen for some time after, especially among artists who overlooked it and turned their talents to working with Canvas and Linen.

Interestingly enough, though paper was not playing a huge role in the world of art at the time, it did play an important part in the birth of an event that would revolutionize the world of art. It was thanks to the rise of literature as a direct effect of the newly created printing press that the entirety of Europe was able to be enriched by one of the biggest art movements in history. The Renaissance spanned from the 14th, well into the 16th century. With paper being easier to create than it had ever been, many talented authors and playwrights were able to see their visions come to be. The world of print brought us Shakespeare, Rabeleis and Vives, which in effect inspired individuals in every area of the art world. The Renaissance also saw a revolution in the development of artistic techniques as painters discovered new ways to bring their work to life, whilst artists such as da Vinci owned blank books which they used as sketchbooks to map out their ideas or da Vinci’s case, a range of ingenious inventions. The world was changing; new technologies and advancements were bringing life to creativity, and it couldn’t have done it without our good friend paper.

In the early 19th century the most common material used to create the pulp for paper was linen, which was being used in a multitude of industries. The rise of industry and the formation of factories had made it easier than ever to remove the pulp from some of the more complex raw materials. It was the pulp made from soft wood trees that soon proved to be the most viable choice. Not only was it cheaper to harvest pulp from trees, but the paper that it ultimately produced was more durable and had a much clearer finish. With wood now acting as the cheapest material available, it was up to the factories to find cheaper ways of extracting the pulp and creating the paper. Research focused on producing chemicals that would help to accelerate the pulping process by breaking down the raw materials. The manufacturing of paper then evolved with the world of industry, as new ideas and innovations came to light that would find better ways to create stronger products of a higher quality.

And now we arrive to the modern world, where paper is practically everywhere. Family photos, old books that you were told to buy in university and never read, cardboard boxes full of old stuff you meant to take to the skip weeks ago and of course, the dangerously depleted toilet roll. Each example is a completely different type of paper, most likely created with a variety of different blends of pulp. In a future article I will explore the modern manufacturing of a variety of different types of paper products and how the future will affect its creation. For now, let us look back to Cyperus Papyrus, the plant that set it all in motion, because without it the world of art, the world of literature and in part the world of industry just wouldn’t be the same.

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