Ever have a day when you sit down to a familiar task, something you’ve done a thousand times before, only to have your brain drop down a rabbit hole and suddenly you’re stumbling through the fog, your thoughts and ideas vaporize, and you can’t make sense of any of it? That’s what happened last week when I tried to finish a series of little mixed media paintings. Nothing worked, I felt clueless and clumsy, there was no flow, nothing felt right. When that happens I try to change things up. Usually a long walk through the woods will do it. Absently wandering, letting accidental discoveries and perceptions penetrate and blow out the dusty corners in my head. But a hike through a sleet storm sounded more like a survival trek than an inspirational pilgrimage. Sometimes, in order to shake things up I’ll switch media, work on collage instead of painting. Or change palettes, work in color if I’ve been stuck in neutrals. Or I’ll sketch with my eyes closed or with my left hand to try to evoke a new language of gestures and shapes.
This time I turned to paste papers. The last time I made paste papers was forty years ago with an elementary school teacher friend. More finger painting than anything else. But last year a Canadian artist, Elaine Rounds, sent me an envelope stuffed with intriguing arty paste paper samples, along with recipes and even a simple beginner’s patterning tool. I propped that envelope on my drawing table, rifled through the samples from time to time, and wondered. Elaine and I have traded art and letters for sixteen years. She’s a gifted artist and her enthusiasm for paste papers made me think there must be a lot more to it than just an afternoon activity for aproned first graders.
In fact, there is a very long and distinguished history behind paste paper making. It all started hundreds of years ago when bookbinders added pigment to leftover bookbinding paste, brushed it onto paper and created patterns in the colored paste with simple tools. They used the decorative papers as endpapers and cardboard covers and these were also less expensive than cloth or leather bindings and marbled papers.
Armed with Elaine’s instructions, three bucks worth of construction paper and foam brushes from the dollar store, and some “combs” made from cardboard, I set out on my little adventure. I was stuck anyway so what could it hurt? Learn something new. Think different thoughts. All for three bucks. It was so much fun I had to force myself to stop after three days. And I’d only just gotten the hang of it and begun to see all the possibilities. I’ll use these papers in collage, bookmaking and other projects and then… I’ll make some more. Sometimes it takes a detour to find your way back to the main road.
4 tablespoons rice flour
3 tablespoons wheat flour
1 teaspoon dish detergent
3 1/2 cups water
Measure the flours into a saucepan, add a little of the water and whisk until smooth. Whisk in the rest of the water and bring the mixture to a boil, stirring constantly to prevent sticking. Cook for five minutes, stir in the dish soap and let the mixture cool. The paste will thicken up considerably as it cools and also form a skin. Carefully whisk the cooled paste, adding in a little water if necessary, to achieve a smooth, creamy texture. Divide the paste into bottles or bowls and stir in pigment. Any water soluble pigment will work… watercolor, gouache, casein, acrylic. The paste will last for several days but you must whisk it again after if it sits unused. To decorate papers, first dampen the paper slightly and get it to “relax,” then smoothly brush on one or more colors and you’re ready to add design. All of the papers shown here were made with cardboard combs notched with a variety of tooth sizes and combinations, but all sorts of things can be used to pattern the papers: bottle caps, foam stamps, sponges, brushes, fingers.