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The Art of Paper

Updated: Dec 18, 2020

A piece of forgotten art arrived at my house the other day. Not a missing Monet but a handwritten thank you note. What a pleasant and unexpected surprise by happy clients. Once I got beyond their gracious gesture, I couldn’t help but notice the way in which it was done - the exquisite, colorful and decorative paper, the calligraphy fountain pen, the wax seal. It transported me back in time.

I love beautiful paper. The note had been written on Florentine stationery – I’m sure you’ve seen it in various patterns from elaborate vines, paisleys, and peacock feathers to marbled shapes and swirls. It comes in all pastel colors and rich jewel tones and often with accents of gold. I wanted to learn more.

Although I’ve always thought that this decorative art form originated in Renaissance Florence, I’ve since discovered that it dates back to 10th century China. It was later known in Japan as “suminagashi” or "ink floating" and as “ebru” or "cloud art" in Persia. By way of the Silk Road, it traveled west, most notably to Venice and Florence.

The paper’s lasting appeal is, in part, due to the intrigue that surrounds the manner in which it is made. The decorative technique has been passed down from masters to their apprentices (usually family members) under oaths of secrecy. While no longer a secret today, the steps are virtually the same.

The first is to produce glue by boiling seaweed in water and then pouring it into a tray large enough to encompass the blank paper at hand. The second step calls for the craftsman to dip a paint brush into paint and then tap the handle of the brush over the tray splattering paint onto the glue. This second step is repeated over and over until all desired colors have been splattered. Some shops make their own paints using generations-old recipes mixing liquid pigments with ox gall (derived from ox livers).

Once the colors are in place, patterns are produced using tools such as homemade combs, skewers, and even porcupine quills. This third step requires a skilled and experienced hand as specific patterns are created with specific movements using specific tools over the glue's surface. During the fourth step, a sheet of paper is gently placed on top of the liquid to absorb the pigmented patterns. The fifth and final step again requires a gentle hand to lay the paper out to dry.

The results produce elegant and hypnotic shapes, visual textures, swirls, and colors laden with traditional mystique. Throughout its history, this paper has been treasured. Sixteenth century Istanbul (Constantinople at the time) had a thriving bookbinding industry using these papers as both covers and end pages – some of these antique books are still in existence today.

Visit a local stationery store and you’ll see it not only in the form of stationery, but as gift wrap paper, box covers, pencils, bags, and journals. While you’re at it, pick up a stick of color-coordinated melting wax, and if you don’t have a personalized stamp, pick up one of those, too. My decades-old wax and stamp, as well as my worn St. Apollinaris fountain pen, are in my desk’s top right drawer.

My clients’ note and my research have inspired me to resurrect the romantic and thoughtful ritual of handwriting – made more special with beautiful paper and sealed with wax. How about you? How about introducing this ritual to your text-addicted kids? You never know what kind of artistic or historic curiosity it might spark!

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