China and paper go way back. We’re talking almost 2000 years back to the invention of paper, which was the brainchild of a eunuch of the Imperial Court named Cai Lun, during the Eastern Han Dynasty around 104 A.D. He received high praise from the emperor for introducing an alternative to the cumbersome, heavy and expensive materials used for writing at the time which included bones, bamboo slips, wooden boards, tortoise shells and silk.
Over time, his formula and techniques evolved into the factory-made, mass-produced product we load into our printers today, among countless other uses we have for paper. However, and thankfully for art lovers, the ancient tradition of making paper by hand for the sole purpose of creating beautiful works of art did not evolve, but was instead passed down through generations of families as an honored craft. Consequently, handmade paper is still very much appreciated for its distinctive qualities and the unique skills involved in its production.
Making paper by hand is a bit of a paradox. It’s simultaneously a tradition that is thousands of years old, yet artists around the world today are just at the beginning of expanding creative papermaking techniques, combining the medium with other art processes such as photography, sculpture and laser-cutting.
The ancient tradition of handmade paper has become synonymous with certain provinces in China, and some secrets regarding individual methods are kept very close to the vest. Local fibers and other natural resources pertaining to a particular region are often hallmarks of the areas from which the paper originates.
IMAX Worldwide Home for example, works with artisans from a particular province that has made paper for generations. Without divulging any trade secrets, let’s just say they know their craft. Our latest introductions include several exquisite examples of how beautifully tradition and technique become art.
The process in words and pictures:
The process for making handmade art paper begins by selecting the highest quality skins from Mulberry, White Mulberry and Yarn trees. The skins are placed in special spring water for 24 hours before being blended with plant ash and cooked for another 24 hours.
Then, they are placed into a brook for 24 hours and inspected to remove any remnants of sticks or blackened areas. Finally, the skins are bleached, rinsed, and drained of all excess moisture before being stored in an air-tight bag.
The skins are then molded, knit or otherwise integrated into designs drawn onto large sheets of paper. The sheets are then connected together and hung out to dry in the sun. Heat, smoke, color and other techniques are then applied to the design to achieve the desired artistic outcome.