The wonderful and exciting world of papers! There are so many varieties, weights, colors and surfaces to choose from it can become a little overwhelming when trying to select papers for your calligraphy projects.
If you have been practicing your lettering on graph paper or bond (printer) paper, you might have noticed that sometimes the ink will run or “bleed” into the surface. It might not be an issue when practicing letter forms or working on a layout, but there is nothing worse than lettering a final project and having the ink bleeding into the fibres – usually right in the middle of your work!
These are just a few terms and tips on what to look for when shopping for calligrapher papers, but don’t be afraid to experiment with papers – you can even try making your own!
The most common papers suitable for calligraphy are “sized” papers. Sizing refers to a treatment of the paper surface during the manufacturing process that inhibits the absorption of ink into the fibres. Since clean, sharp lettering is usually desired in calligraphy, a sized paper is the first consideration when comparing papers.
- Acid-free or neutral pH
Wood pulp paper will eventually yellow over time and begin to deteriorate. A common example of this would be old newspaper clippings that have not only turned yellow but have become brittle. Acid-free or netural pH paper is a treatment that neutralizes this effect and should be considered for works that are expected to last a significant amount of time and/or will be exposed to light (such as a framed work.)
- Archival or “Rag” Paper
Rag papers are made from natural fibres such as cotton or linen and are naturally a neutral pH that will not yellow over time. Professional artist quality papers such as those used for watercolor painting are usually made from rag fibres and contain a gelatin size that makes them an ideal support for calligraphy inks. Some drawing papers and even sketchbooks might also be labeled “acid-free”, “archival” or “rag” and would be suitable for a calligraphy project.
- Weight of the paper (in pounds or g/m2)
Paper weights can be a rather complicated calculation that determines the mass of the paper based on sheets per ream. For example, 500 sheets of 8 1/2 x 11 bond paper weighs 20 lbs or 75 g/m2 so we refer to bond paper as “20 lb”. As a comparison, watercolor papers generally are available in three standard weights: 90 lb (190 gsm), 140 lb (300 gsm) and 300 lb (638 gsm). I have found 90 lb paper to be suitable for calligraphy projects that contain lettering only or include a simple painted decoration, but any projects that would incorporate extensive painting or gilding are best executed on a 140 lb paper as the greater weight will provide a more rigid surface.
- Paper Surfaces
Smooth-surfaced papers are generally a suitable choice for calligraphy, but sometimes a little “tooth” or roughness will help “grab” the ink and can also be used for artistic effects. Watercolor papers are available in three surfaces: Hot-Pressed (smooth), Cold-Pressed (some tooth or roughness, sometimes referred to as Not because it is Not Hot-Pressed), or Rough (very rough surface.)
I generally prefer a Hot-Pressed watercolor paper for my work as it is well suited for incorporating all the elements of calligraphy, painting and gilding. Projects that require only lettering or other ink elements (pen borders or ink drawings) are a little more flexible for my paper choices but I still produce all work on at least 60 lb, acid-free or archival papers.
Note: Calligraphy Paper Pads generally range from about 20 lbs to 70 lbs and are sized, but may or may not be acid-free or archival. If you require an acid-free or archival paper, this information is usually printed somewhere on the pad cover. If it is not marked as such assume it is not acid-free or archival.
Other considerations when selecting paper:
- if the work is to be framed, you might consider selecting a paper or cutting a sheet into a “standard” frame size (8″ x 10″, 11″ x 14″, 16″ x 20″, etc.) as frames with mats can be purchased at department stores, are easy to frame yourself and cost considerably less than a custom frame. Be aware that most of these “pre-made” frames are not archival and might yellow your work either on the back or where the mat touches the paper.
- Some professional quality artist papers contain a deckle – this is a thin, uneven edge that occurs during the paper making process (or artificially created) and can be quite a beautiful addition to the work.
Tip: Found a beautiful sheet of paper but it’s not sized? Try “pouncing” the surface with a little gum sandarc – it will keep the ink from absorbing into the paper and produce crisp lettering.
For the ultimate calligraphy experience, try a calligraphy project on genuine vellum.