A celebration of paper: from creation to modern times

Once at the forefront of communication and education, and at the heart of significant historical developments, the role of paper has changed over the centuries.

This versatile material has provided access to information and ideas and has influenced many consumer products. But our lives are increasingly paper-free. Information is stored in computers, e-readers are commonplace, and email is quickly replacing written communication. In 2013 the last ever telegram was sent.

The art world is also affected by these changes: in 2012 artist David Hockney exhibited a series of drawings at the Royal Academy made using an iPad.

Paper, an exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery in London, celebrates the use of paper by contemporary artists: as a surface for drawing and painting but also as a product rich in association with our daily lives. We look at how some of the exhibiting artists use paper now, in contrast to its early beginnings.

Paper: the beginning

The world’s first recorded papermaking process dates to 105 AD. Ts’ai Lun, a court official for the Chinese Han Dynasty, pulped mulberry tree fibres together with used rags and fishnets to create the first recorded paper – not to be confused with alternative surfaces for writing and communication. In ancient Egypt, the papyrus plant was used to make a thick material similar to paper and many ancient cultures used dried animal skins known as parchment for writing on.

The history of papermaking was not without conflict. In 751 AD, when the T’ang army was heavily defeated by the Islamic Abbasid Caliphate, Chinese soldiers who were papermakers were captured and brought to Samarkand where, under duress, they gave up their papermaking secrets. Following this, the first Arabic paper industry was established in Baghdad in 793 AD.

 five major steps in ancient Chinese papermaking process
An image of a Ming dynasty woodcut describing five major steps in ancient Chinese papermaking process as outlined by Ts’ai Lun in 105 AD
See https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Making_Paper_4.PNG for author [public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Papermaking then spread from the Arab world to the rest of Europe, via the Iberian Peninsula. In the 13th century, papermaking centres included Fabriano and Amalfi in Italy, where paper was made from fibrous cloth rags such as hemp, linen and cotton.

Paper, Saatchi Gallery, 2013

In contrast to the high regard in which paper was once held, living in a large city today makes discarded newspapers, packaging and other types of paper debris a daily eyesore, rather than a valuable asset.

Working as a car park attendant in London, artist Paul Westcombe dealt with the boredom of his dull job by compulsively drawing on any surface he could find. After trying mop handles and receipts, used paper coffee cups became his surface of choice. He covered them with crazed, intricate designs that are a celebration of the imagination and the need to draw in the face of mundane daily realities.


Combining Hieronymus Bosch’s hellish distortions of the human body with Viz magazine’s lurid satires of middlebrow taste, Westcombe’s drawings are at once spontaneous and measured, casual (their surfaces speckled with dripped coffee) and baroque in their flamboyant grotesqueries.

Dawn Clements‘ large-scale drawings and gouaches amplify the function of a notebook. (Untitled) Colour Kitchen (2005) begins with her painting a bunch of roses. As her attention moves from the flowers into the kitchen so extra sheets of paper are added, allowing her to draw and paint the walls and curtains. Folds, creases and joins in the paper are left to form part of the image.

Moving from the painted surface through collage and sculpture, it is also difficult to see which elements are found or made new in Tom Thayer‘s delicate constructions. Pigments, crayon and cardboard combine with found coloured cloth to create storks hung on wires and spindly trees. The versatility of paper makes it ideal for painting on, drawing on and glueing down to make these fragile structures.


At first glance, Freya Douglas-Morris‘s paintings appear slight and hurried. Closer inspection sees the drips and marks of Winsor & Newton Designers Gouache and Winsor & Newton Professional Watercolour evoke mysterious landscapes.

Douglas-Morris stores a wide range of papers at her London studio. An initial thought for a painting – “a figure, the type of landscape, intimate in atmosphere and scale, or more broad” – helps her choose the right type of paper to suit the idea. She uses heavyweight paper to support the loosely handled water-based media she likes. It is important that the paper is “apparent” in the final work and to this end she leaves areas blank or an edge rough and torn, exposing the fibre and fabric of the paper.

Using paper has opened up Douglas-Morris’s practice; she likes to work with it on the floor as this creates a direct and spontaneous dynamic. Among her materials is a large bag containing pieces of paper collected and bought abroad, mainly in European cities. She admits these are probably no different to what is available in London, but for her they have important personal associations with travel, a sense of which she seeks to include in her work. This paper is stained, painted and collaged into the work, torn out if not successful and re-painted. Different materials encourage different approaches: Douglas-Morris finds that working with paper makes her work more fluid and open.


Despite recent technological advances, paper is still the surface of choice for artists. Whether for a rapid sketch or delicate watercolour, Winsor & Newton offers a range of artists’ grade papers.

*Lead image: Dawn Clements, Movie (detail), 2007, Sumi ink on paper, 298.5 x 1029 cm, courtesy the artist and Pierogi gallery