Leaf of the day: Cotton and Paper

This is my last look at the gorgeous Pima cotton for a while, but I am so looking forward to seeing the flowers go through the development stages and turn into fully formed real cotton bols .. how very exciting.

I found this very neat time line from a good educational site with a concise and interesting account of the history and cultivation of cotton at Cottonsjourney.com here It looks as though I have another 10 weeks to wait.

As well as being the friend of sensitive skin, cotton is a true friend to the sensitive artist. Possibly non artists don’t realise that the top quality watercolour paper is made from cotton, and of course many canvases are cotton too. I remember a tutor, many years ago, telling us penniless students that lack of money to purchase top quality “canvas” was no excuse for not painting, as Mark Chagall during his impoverished early days in Paris painted on his shirts and bed linen.
And here he is .. a “Self portrait with 7 fingers” in his bare Parisian atelier dreaming of his home.

But paper, beautiful paper, that inspires such passion in artists, collectors and historians, has a wonderful and fascinating story, inextricably bound up with cotton and hemp. Like many other fine and beautiful things paper originated in China, in AD 105 where it was made from hemp, and mulberry bark and far from being rough and crude was of the finest quality, comparable with the best handmade papers today.
It seems the process was kept secret until AD 751 when three skilled Chinese papermakers were captured during a battle in Turkestan.They started making paper in Samarkand and the process gradually made its way from the Near East to North Africa and eventually to Europe probably via the Muslim conquest of Spain. Incidentally the word “ream” meaning 500 sheets of paper, has its roots in the Arabic word rizmah meaning a bundle.

Just as I admire and am daunted by my sheets of pure pristine watercolour paper, white paper was then a luxury and also much admired. An image and poem from a German book of Trades with woodcuts by Jost Amman from 1568.

The translation;
Rags are brought unto my mill
Where water turns the wheel
They are cut and torn and shredded
to the pulp is water added
Then the sheets ‘twixt felts must lie
While I wring them in my press
Lastly hang them up to dry
Snow white in their loveliness.
from “Papermaking: The History and Technique of an Ancient Craft”
by Dard Hunter –

This unidentified image from the British Association of paper historians UK site here

Britain’s first paper mill was on the River Darent in Dartford built around 1588. It was set up by John Spilman and was immortalised in another excruciatingly long 352 line poem by Thomas Churchyard. Here is a very small section:

The Mill itself is sure right rare to see
The framing is so quaint and finely done
Built of wood and hollowed trunks of trees
The Hammers thump and make so loud a noise
As fuller doth that beats his woollen cloth
In open show, then Sundry secret toyes
Make rotten rags to yield a thickened froth
There it is stamped and washed as white as snow
Then flung on frame and hanged to dry, I trow
Thus paper straight it is to write upon
As it were rubbed and smoothed with slicking stone.

I love “sundry secret toyes”, paper making as a dark art!

Paper making was slow to get going in the UK due, in part to fears that the rags needed might be carrying the deadly plague virus and artists found it hard to obtain good paper to work on. It wasn’t until 1780 that James Whatman first marketed a fine handmade watercolour paper with a smooth finish. I have 2 sheets of treasured Whatman paper dated 1952 which is probably unusable now but is nice to have.

Paper from wood pulp is relatively recent, its development due to the observations of French entomologist Rene Antoine Réaumur, around 1719, who noticed a wasp making its nest from chewed up paper. There is a lovely paper nest that some wasps have been building on one of the cactus plants at Leu. I am hoping they will vacate it and allow me to draw it sometime. I am unfamiliar with Florida wasps but they all look large, alarming and ferocious.

Just to contradict my post of yesterday there are some very good resources about paper and paper history on the Web, the various papermills have interesting historical accounts and if I ever get to Atlanta and have some time to kill I will be heading for the Robert C Williams Paper Museum
Both of the papers I use, Arches and Fabriano are termed 100% rag ie 100% cotton giving them the absorbency and strength of .. well , an old cotton shirt I suppose. Will I be making my own paper from a few cotton bols? I might just try..

PS… ** We are 45 miles from the coast here but I just ran outside to watch the giant red flame of the space shuttle tracing an arc over the big low yellow moon in a clear dark Florida sky . It was completely and utterly beautiful and awe inspiring.

Pima Cotton Flower

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One Comment

  1. Looks more real than the real flower, LOVED the colors, detail and the simplicity of the composition!

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