Though I don’t make paste paper all the time, when I do it is a big, messy, blissful event. So let’s share the bliss.
Here’s how to make it:
Don’t use printer paper unless you are just practicing. Choose an acid free paper that takes water well (it will likely have “rag content”). The thickness of the paper will depend on what you will be using your paste paper for; if you will be gluing it to another surface (which is how I usually use paste paper), a light-weight paper will be fine; but if you are going to have the paper stand alone, you may want to used something thicker. Papers are one of my favorite things; there really is so much to choose from. I suggest going to your local art supply store and looking through the paper options they have. DickBlick and other online art stores also have wide selections of paper, but you may need to know the jargon of paper description (e.g., weight, finish, rag content, etc.) to understand what kind of paper you’ll be getting. I’ve learned mostly through trial and error, and it’s also a matter of personal preference. I primarily use discarded maps to make my paste paper. (Anecdote: When I went to get more maps the last time, they only had one, and when I got home, I realized it was a map of the city I live in from 30 years ago. Funny coincidence, huh?)
NOT glue. There is actually a big difference between these things, though people often use the words interchangeably. Paste is a vegetable-based adhesive. I usually make my paste, and it is very simple and affordable. There are several different kinds of paste, flour, cornstarch, methylcellulose; I prefer to use cornstarch since it is the easiest, least expensive, and has a nice, smooth consistency. The basic recipe I use is 1 part cornstarch to 10 parts water mixed together in a pan, brought to a boil, and then boiled for 5 minutes. Make sure you stir every now and then while it’s boiling. The best thing about this paste is that is totally nontoxic, so if you’re clumsy and accidentally stick your paste-covered brush in your bowl of cereal, it won’t hurt you to eat it (this may have actually happened to me. . .).
I use acrylic paint primarily since it is what I have and I hate painting with acrylic. I had to buy some for one art class in college, and since then I’ve only ever used it as my pigment-source in paste paper. You could also use watercolor, but the colors may be less vibrant, depending on how much you use. I’ve never tried tempera paint, so I don’t know how well it would work. Don’t use oil (I don’t know if this is an obvious statement, but I’ll say it just in case).
- Large brush or ink brayer
- wood-graining combs (like those seen here and here)*
It’s nice to have more than one, but you can make it with just one. I just use a kitchen sponge, but big photographic sponges are nice too.
- Buckets for water (just some receptacle big enough to dip your sponge in will do)
- Flat, smooth surface
I use a discarded aluminum plate that was used for lithographs, but a large piece of plastic works also. When I first made paste paper, I used a metal cookie sheet (aka, jellyroll pan), which works fine, except it limits the size of paper you can do. I’ll refer to this as the “plate” from now on.
- Newspapers or plastic drop cloth, paper towels
*You can make your own “wood-graining” combs by cutting “teeth” into old credit cards. Mark out the intervals you want between your teeth, then cut out notches with a box-cutter (you can use scissors, but it may bend the teeth funny, like in AmericanExpress card). Example:
Prep Work and Set-up
- Cover your work surface with newspaper or plastic drop cloth, or whatever you want to use to protect your area.
- Designate your paper-drying area. You will want to cover this with newspaper as well. Or, you can dry your paper on a fancy paper rack (if you have one) or on a clothes-drying rack. Just know if you use the latter, your paper will dry somewhat wrinkly, so you may have to iron it if you are planning on using it stand-alone; if you will be gluing the paste paper to something else, it will smooth out once you glue it down.
- Mix up your paste paints. Add as much of the acrylic/watercolor as you want to get the desired color. You can mix up just the primary colors and then mix the paste paints to get the rest of the colors, or mix as many different colors as you want to use. I usually use about 2 tablespoons of paint to a half-cup of paste, but this really depends on the paint and what I’m going for. Use more paint for a more opaque look and less paint for a more transparent look. (Just a note: It is best if you mix your paint in with your paste after it has cooled only slightly. If you wait until your paste is completely cool, it will be gelled and harder to mix.)
- Set up the rest of your supplies: plate, bucket(s) with water, sponge(s), brushes/brayer, and combs.
Make Your Paste Paper
- Lay your paper face down on your plate. Get your sponge damp, but not dripping wet, and go over the paper, dampening it (there shouldn’t be water running all over).
- Pick up our paper and flip it over so it is right side up. Hold it at an angle so only about 3–4 inches at the top are contacting the surface of the plate.
- Using your dampened sponge, press the paper down to the plate in parallel motions from the top to the bottom, trying to press out all the air bubbles.
- Once your paper is “stuck” flat to the plate, you can cover it with the paste. You will want it to lay the paste paint out in a fairly even, thin layer, because thick layers may crack when drying. I usually plop a dollop of paste paint directly on my paper and use my brush/brayer to spread it out.
- Now it’s time to make your design. Really, the sky is the limit with this step. You can drag your comb(s) over the paper to form any number of patterns; you can fold the paper in half and then open it to create and “ink blot” type texture over the whole surface; you could even write words or do handprints. And you can use anything you want to create a pattern, hair combs, spatulas, chopsticks, whatever. The best part is, if you don’t like what you did, just smooth it out again with your brush/brayer, and start over. You can also blend several colors directly on the paper, or lay down stripes and let them blend as you comb in the patterns. (I wish I had taken more pictures of the different possibilities, but it was hard to take pictures while I was doing it, sorry about that.)
- Set it out to dry, either flat on a table, countertop, or paper-drying rack; or hang it on a clothes-drying rack. If you are satisfied with the way your paper turned out, you’re done.
However, you also have the option, once the paste is mostly dry, of going back over it with a second layer of paint, and a second design. The results for this can be somewhat unpredictable but also really charming. Give it a try. Here’s an example of how it looks:
This is a very forgiving medium, and the possibilities are endless. Happy mess-making!