Mastering the Material: A Comprehensive Guide to Printmaking Paper - Gel Press

Mastering the Material: A Comprehensive Guide to Printmaking Paper

Printmaking is an age-old art form that has captured the imaginations of artists for centuries. Central to the beauty and tradition of printmaking is the medium of paper – a canvas for creative expression that can influence the entire artistic journey. In this extensive guide, we will peel back the layers of what makes paper such a crucial component in the world of printmaking. Paper is only one of many essential tools for printmaking.

Whether you're a seasoned printmaker looking to deepen your understanding or an aspiring artist ready to embark on your printmaking journey, there's much to learn about the intricate relationship between paper and art. Let's dive in!

Understanding Paper in Printmaking

Before a print begins to take shape, monumental decisions are made regarding the paper it will grace. The choice of paper is as important as the ink, the press, and the very act of printing. Different prints require different papers, and understanding these distinctions is key to achieving the desired aesthetic in your artwork.

The Importance of Paper in the Printmaking Process

Paper is not just a backdrop; it is a partner in the printing process. The pure, organic nature of paper allows for unique qualities that can add depth and emotion to the art. Its pores hold ink in a way no other medium can, bearing witness to the impressions of plates, woodblocks, or lithography stones.

Different Types of Paper Used in Printmaking

Printmakers have a wide array of paper options to choose from. Whether it's the traditional handmade elegance of Japanese Washi or the contemporary artist-quality archival papers, there is a specialty paper to suit every printmaking method and aesthetic preference. The thickness, texture, and even the color of the paper play a crucial role in shaping the final impression. Here are some examples of different types of paper that printmakers may consider:

  1. Japanese Washi: Known for its strength and versatility, Washi paper is handmade using traditional methods in Japan.
  2. Watercolor Paper: Designed to withstand the moisture of watercolor paints, this paper has a textured surface that enhances the artistic effects.
  3. Drawing Paper: Ideal for pencil, charcoal, and ink drawings, drawing paper offers a smooth surface that allows for precise detailing.
  4. Printmaking Paper: Specifically made for printmaking techniques like etching, engraving, and lithography, this paper has excellent ink absorption and durability.
  5. Rice Paper: Thin and translucent, rice paper adds a delicate and ethereal quality to prints and is commonly used in Asian-inspired artwork.
  6. Bristol Board: With a smooth finish and heavyweight construction, Bristol board is perfect for artworks that require a sturdy surface and vibrant colors.
  7. Handmade Paper: Each sheet is unique, crafted individually by hand, and can provide a distinct texture and character to prints.

These are just a few examples, and the world of paper selection for printmakers is vast and diverse. The choice of paper is an integral part of the artistic process, allowing printmakers to create stunning and impactful prints.

What's the Best Paper for Monoprinting?

There's no single "best" paper for monoprinting, as the ideal choice depends on several factors, including:

Desired outcome: Do you want bold textures and vibrant colors, or delicate lines and subtle effects?

Technique: Are you using water-based or oil-based inks? Will you be using a gel plate, glass plate, or other method?

Personal preference: Do you prefer smooth or textured paper? Heavyweight or lightweight?

For bold textures and vibrant colors:

  • Japanese Washi: Strong, handmade paper with a variety of textures and weights. Can be expensive but offers unique results
  • Handmade papers: Offer unique textures and character, perfect for adding depth and dimension.
  • Heavyweight printmaking paper: Provides a sturdy base for bold techniques like monoprinting with heavy ink application.

    For delicate lines and subtle effects:

    • Hot press watercolor paper: Smooth surface ideal for fine details and control.
    • Drawing paper: Offers a good balance between smoothness and texture.
    • Lightweight printmaking paper: More delicate and absorbent, suitable for lighter ink application and softer effects.

    Here are some popular brands and types of paper used for monoprinting:

    • Fabriano Rosaspina: High-quality Italian paper with a smooth surface, good for detailed work.
    • Rives BFK: French paper with a slightly textured surface, good for both detailed and expressive monoprints.
    • Strathmore 500 Series Printmaking Paper: Heavyweight paper with a variety of textures, good for bold monoprints.
    • BFK Rives Heavyweight: Thick, textured paper, perfect for bold monoprinting techniques.
    • Hahnemühle German Etching: Smooth, heavyweight paper with excellent ink absorption, ideal for detailed monoprints.

    Factors to Consider When Choosing Paper for Printmaking

    Every type of paper has its strengths and limitations. As a printmaker, it is crucial to consider factors such as the printmaking technique, the desired finish of the print, and the thematic elements of the artwork when making your choice. The interplay between these factors and the paper you select is where the magic is born.

    Exploring Paper Characteristics

    The characteristics of paper are the principal variables that play with light to create the effect you seek.

    Weight and Thickness

    When it comes to printmaking, the weight and thickness of paper play crucial roles in both handling and presentation. Here are some common paper weights and thicknesses along with their advantages:

    1. Lightweight paper (60-80 gsm):
    • Ideal for delicate works and intricate details.
    • Allows for easy handling and flexibility.
    1. Medium-weight paper (90-120 gsm):
    • Offers a balance between lightweight and heavyweight papers.
    • Provides good durability and versatility for various printmaking techniques.
    1. Heavyweight paper (140-300 gsm):
    • Adds a sense of substance and durability to larger prints.
    • Enhances the overall appearance and creates a monumental quality.
    1. Extra-heavyweight paper (above 300 gsm):
    • Provides maximum rigidity and durability for high-quality prints.
    • Suitable for demanding techniques like relief printing and engraving.

    Remember, choosing the right paper weight and thickness can greatly impact the final outcome of your printmaking projects.

    Surface Texture

    Different surface textures in printmaking offer a range of benefits and disadvantages. Let's explore:

    1. Rough Texture:
    • Benefits: Adds a sense of depth and richness to the image, creating a tactile experience.
    • Disadvantages: May result in less sharpness and detail in the printed image.
    1. Rugged Texture:
    • Benefits: Provides a unique and expressive look, adding character and personality to the artwork.
    • Disadvantages: Can make the printing process more challenging and may limit fine details.
    1. Smooth Texture:
    • Benefits: Offers a clean and crisp appearance, allowing for precise and detailed print results.
    • Disadvantages: May lack the texture and visual interest that rougher surfaces provide.
    1. Sleek Texture:
    • Benefits: Imparts a sleek and polished look to the print, enhancing the overall aesthetic appeal.
    • Disadvantages: May create a more reflective surface, resulting in potential glare or light distortion.

    Each surface texture brings its own charm and impact to the printed image. Experimenting with different textures allows artists to explore new dimensions and create unique visual experiences.

    Absorbency and Durability

    Absorbency is a key factor in printmaking paper, as it affects how well the paper accepts ink. Different levels of absorbency offer various benefits, including:

    High Absorbency Art Paper:
    • Allows for vibrant and intense color saturation.
    • Ideal for creating expressive and bold prints.
    • Enhances the texture and depth of the artwork.
    Medium Absorbency Art Paper:
    • Provides a balance between color intensity and ink control.
    • Offers versatility for a range of artistic styles.
    • Suitable for both detailed and textured prints.
    Low Absorbency Art Paper:
    • Delivers excellent ink control and precision.
    • Ideal for intricate and fine-lined prints.
    • Reduces the risk of ink bleeding or smudging.

    Determining the absorbency of printmaking paper can be done through simple tests:

    • Ink Drop Test: Drop a small amount of ink on the paper and observe how it spreads. A fast spread indicates higher absorbency.
    • Blotting Test: Press a blotting paper firmly against the printmaking paper. The more ink transferred to the blotting paper, the higher the absorbency.

    When choosing printmaking paper, finding the right balance between absorbency and durability is crucial. This ensures a consistent, high-quality mark while also maintaining the longevity of the prints.

    Paper Preparation Techniques

    The preparation of paper can be as intricate as the print itself. In some cases, it might even define the success of the printmaking venture.

    Sizing and Priming

    What is paper sizing? Sizing is the process of treating paper with a substance that makes it more resistant to water and ink. Paper sizing can be internal or external.

    Internal Sizing:

    • The sizing agent is added to the pulp during papermaking.
    • Creates a barrier between the paper fibers, reducing absorbency.
    • Helps control ink spread and improves overall print quality.
    External Sizing:
    • The sizing agent is applied to the surface of the paper after it has been made.
    • Offers more control over sizing levels and can be applied to specific areas as required.
    • Allows for greater flexibility and experimentation with different kinds of sizing agents, such as gelatin or starch.

    Paper priming is a similar process that involves applying a coating to the surface of the paper to create a smooth, even surface for printing. This not only improves the print quality but also helps protect the paper from moisture and other external factors.

    Preparing the Paper for Different Printmaking Techniques

    Each printmaking technique demands a specific preparation. Be it soaking for relief prints, dampening for etchings, or the application of grounds for lithography, understanding these techniques can save you from a myriad of pitfalls along the way.

    Best Practices for Handling and Storing Paper

    The delicacy of fine art paper demands attentive care. Mishandling or improper storage can lead to heartbreaking results for your hard work.

    Tips for Storing Art Paper at Home

    For artists and collectors alike, maintaining the quality of art paper at home is essential to preserving the integrity of prints. Proper storage involves protecting the paper from environmental factors that could compromise its condition over time. Key measures include:

    • Climate Control: Keep art paper in a stable environment where temperature and humidity levels are consistent and moderate. Avoid areas like basements or attics where fluctuations are more extreme.
    • Avoid Sunlight: Direct sunlight can cause discoloration and deterioration. Store paper in a dark place or in protective sleeves that guard against UV rays.
    • Use Archival Materials: Invest in acid-free folders, boxes, or portfolios to store your prints. The acid-free material ensures no harmful chemicals come in contact with the paper.
    • Stay Organized: Keep your paper neatly sorted to prevent bending or crumpling. Ideally, store each print flat and never overcrowd your storage space. If that's not possible, consider two pieces of bristol board two hold paper flat and store in a large bag to protect your art from dust.
    • Handle with Care: Always use clean hands when handling prints to avoid transferring skin oils or other contaminants - like paint or charcoal smudges!

    By implementing these practices, you can create a safe space for your artwork, ensuring it remains pristine for future enjoyment or exhibition.


    The printmaking process is a dance between the artist and the medium. As we've now come to understand, the choice of paper is a choreographed step, a critical element in this vibrant performance. Each piece of paper that meets the press is an opportunity for innovation and expression.

    Embrace the journey of experimentation. Try different papers, get to know their voices, and let them harmonize with your artistic intent!