A celebration of Paper: from creation to modern times


Once at the forefront of communication and education, the role of paper in our daily life has changed over the centuries. Our lives are increasingly ‘paper-free’. Information is stored in computers, e-readers are commonplace, and email is quickly replacing written communication; indeed last month saw the last ever telegram sent in India.

At the heart of significant historical developments, this versatile material has provided access to information and ideas in books and documents and has influenced many consumer products.

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

Today, 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, including Freya Douglas-Morris use paper now, in contrast to its early beginnings.

Paper; the beginning

The world’s first recorded paper making process dates to 105 A.D.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 paper making was not without conflict. Kept as a closely guarded secret, in 751 A.D. when the T'ang army was heavily defeated by the Islamic Abbasid Caliphate; Chinese soldiers who were paper makers were captured and brought to Samarkand where, under duress, they gave up their paper-making secrets. Following this, the first Arabic paper industry was established in Baghdad, 793 A.D.

 An image of a Ming dynasty woodcut describing five major
steps in ancient Chinese papermaking process as outlined
by Cai Lun in 105 AD

See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons   

Papermaking then spread from the Arab world via the Iberian Peninsula to the rest of Europe. In the 13th Century, papermaking centres included Fabriano and Amalfi in Italy, making paper from fibrous cloth rags such as hemp, linen and cotton.  
Paper, the Saatchi Gallery, 18th June – 29th September

In contrast to the high regard in which paper was once held, living in a large city today makes discarded newspaper, 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 these with crazed, intricate designs that are a celebration of the imagination and the need to draw in the face of mundane daily realities.                  

 Paul Westcombe5_Thum (5)     Paul WestcombeSpurgeon
 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 spontanoeus and measured, casual (their surfaces speckled with dripped coffee) and baroque in their flamboyant grotesqueries.

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 spontanoeus 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.
      Dawn ClementsMovie (detail), 2007, Sumi ink on paper, 298.5x1029 cm
Dawn Clements’ works use drawing as a way to document and describe durational experiences: watching a film, for instance. Employing a painstaking precision of description and often writing notes directly onto the paper, Clements uses the act of drawing as a parallel to remembering: these are aides-memoires, attempts to hold transient things in the mind. Like the tracking shots of cinema, they sweep through interiors, gathering visual information,
but by eliding the human presence, abstract place and setting from their narrative contexts.
Courtesy the artist and Pierogi gallery

Moving from 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 and glueing down to make these fragile structures.
 Tom Thayer, Crossing the Methane River, 2012

Paint, ink, pigments, graphite, crayon, collage on cardboard, wire, string, wood, felt, cloth, 156.2x123.2x6.4 cm

Courtesy the artist and Derek Eller Gallery
  Tom Thayer, Congregation, 2010

Corrugated cardboard, crayon, masking tape, string, and wire, dimensions variable

Courtesy the artist and Derek Eller Gallery 
At first glance, Freya Douglas-Morris’ paintings appear slight and hurried. Closer inspection sees the drips and marks of Winsor & Newton Designers’ Gouache and Winsor & Newton Professional Water Colour evoke mysterious landscapes.

Freya 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. Freya 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 Freya’s practice; she likes to work with it on the floor as this creates a direct and spontaneous dynamic. Amongst her materials is a large bag containing pieces of paper collected and bought abroad, mainly in European cities. Freya 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; Freya finds that working with paper makes her work more fluid and open.

Freya Douglas-Morris, They Visited Twice, 2012

Watercolour on paper, 70x100 cm
   Freya Douglas-Morris, Dance of the Shadows, 2013

Watercolour, ink and collage on paper
55x75 cm     

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