Rembrandt van Rijn, Portrait of Lieven Willemsz van Coppenol, Writing Master (the larger plate), 1658, etching and drypoint; fourth state. In the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art:

Margaret Holben Ellis, the Eugene Thaw Professor of Paper Conservation at New York University, gave a recent Brown Bag Lunch talk entitled “Paper is Part of the Picture.” Ellis, who also serves as Director of the Thaw Conservation Center at Morgan Library and Museum, has done extensive research on the history of paper-making, paper’s forms and uses over time, and its conservation. Her talk at Bard Graduate Center focused on the present-day lack of understanding about the history and varied properties of paper in the museum, conservation, and academic fields. She pointed out that we interact daily with paper but probably do not consider its unique and significant qualities. “Most of us spend considerable time looking at and interpreting written, printed, and drawn marks on paper. We mentally untangle these marks that are on the paper, but what about the paper on which the marks appear?,” asked Ellis. She continued, saying, “Surely paper is part of the picture. Just like we can decipher or read the marks, we can also read the paper, and reading paper will increase its meaning.”

Ellis believes a thorough knowledge of the structural and visual qualities of antique and contemporary types of paper is necessary for understanding the multitude of objects that are made of paper or incorporate paper. She argued that paper “is overlooked and under-described” for two main reasons: paper’s properties are not nearly as important to us as they were in the past and these properties are hard to accurately describe. In the past, many people had a heightened understanding of different types of paper and their physical features for varied uses. She shared that one kind of antique paper had a distinct “rattle” when shaken due to a finishing process that entailed dipping the paper into gelatin. This coating prevented paper from absorbing ink, making it a valued type of writing paper. Artists, such as Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669), chose special types of hand-made paper to use for their drawings, paintings, and etchings. Rembrandt and other etchers would have used a specialized, fuzzy paper that enabled ink to transfer more easily from fine lines on copper plates. She stressed that paper has numerous qualities that should be studied, especially in the field of art. Knowing what type of paper an artist chose to use as well as the paper’s physical role strengthens the understanding of the whole work and helps reveal the artist’s creative process and intention.

Ellis noted how paper is not discussed often in art historical scholarship and that a correct, descriptive language for paper studies is needed. “I find it strange that few truly evocative and informative descriptions of paper are found in the literature of art. Not only are observations about the paper substrates of prints and drawings rarely mentioned. There exists a curious lack of language to describe the paper,” she observed. Ellis recommended studying paper more in-depth using multiple senses as well as expanding the terminology used for describing paper and its qualities, underscoring the importance of acknowledging the “mechanical/structural” and “optical” features of paper types. She shared examples of specific terms that she believes are key to helping scholars understand the varied properties of paper. For looking closely at the mechanical/structural qualities, Ellis recommended that it is important to study the grammage, thickness, texture (is it hot pressed or cold pressed?), grain, two-sidedness, formation (is it laid, wove, or wild?), porosity, and finish. For examining the optical properties, she advised gauging the transparency, opacity, brightness, color, gloss, and fluorescence of paper. “It’s only by becoming fluent in the language of paper as spoken by the paper industry, paper historians, and paper chemists, can we come up with more precise and consistent and thus more meaningful vocabulary to be used to evoke the properties of paper,” Ellis asserted as she concluded her talk.