Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Master paper making at the Ruscombe Paper Mill - France

What a remarkable experience to visit the Ruscombe Paper Mill in Margaux, France last month. The reason why this is a big deal is that it is so rare in our age of 3d printers and social media to make paper by hand. The puzzle of the past was tantalizingly revealed to me by a master paper maker still following time-honored techniques. There are not many handmade paper mills left in the world that create watercolor sheets in the old tradition, well before machines took over the process. The Whatman Mill in England offered the first woven paper in 1788 which kicked off a 100 year plus golden era of high quality durable watercolor papers. Sadly, it is no longer running.

The Ruscombe Mill really fills that void though. They began operations in the 1980's in England, then later moved to France. They create various fine papers in the traditional vein, but it was the accurate historical watercolor papers that caught my eye after doing some research online. I especially love their blue and gray Turner watercolor paper and variations of the more textured Girtin and David Cox papers- a true facsimile to the watercolor/wrapping papers available to watercolorists in old England.

It is a dream to paint on these papers, and I knew I had to give this actual mill feedback and tell them thank you! It goes without saying you have to stretch these papers to make them work at top performance. Once you do, you are in for a treat.

After I lined things up with various emails and phone calls, my wife, daughter and I navigated the beautiful countryside in the Aquitaine region in our rental car. We passed cinematic fishing villages and coastal farmlands north of Bordeaux, which is strewn with chateaux and vineyards. I had the pleasure to meet the founder Chris Bingham, his lovely wife Jane and current master paper maker at the mill, Frederic Gironde. Frederic was very generous to show me the start-to-finish creation of a linen/cotton rag sheet of paper.

At a larger scale like this (he makes 50-100 pieces/day), you need the ever important Hollander-type beater, a brilliant invention first developed by the Dutch in 1680. To produce the paper pulp, a cylinder with metal blades sets to work in an elliptical tub, grinding up small pieces of rags - passing under metal blades/cogs in a circulating fashion that creates the perfect wet pulp for pulling sheets via the vat pool. This machine is the workhorse of the handmade paper making industry from what I gather. The mold (frame with the additional deckle frame) in the top photo is pulled through the vat by Frederic with the rag pulp confined within the shape of the screen, thus creating the individual sheet size. The best types of molds are made from mahogany and brass. In this case it is a woven mold, made using finely woven wire vs. a laid screen that has a more pronounced parallel wire pattern embedded into the paper. The woven screen gives a nice even, yet varied texture to the sheet of paper. These types of frames are exceedingly rare and only a few craftsman make them now.

After the paper is formed (pulled) it can be touched up with a watercolor brush if there are any lumps or holes while still flooded yet horizontal in the mold. It is really a dance of having the pulp not too runny or too thick to make the ideal watercolor sheet. The mold is then tilted to a 45-degrees angle and then drained for 10 or 15 seconds. The deckle frame is then removed and the mold is turned upside down and placed on fairly thick sheet of felt. The paper is released in a rolling movement so to have an even pressure as it transfers to the felt's surface. This transfer is called 'couching' which is really transferring the sheet to absorbing felts. A stack or 'post' of felts can hold a variety of sheets to be drained further in a large mechanical press.

The last steps can continue with adding sizing (gelatine) to the sheets. This makes them transform from blotting-like paper that is very absorbent to something that can handle repeated washes and ink lines without unraveling back to the original fragile wet pulp. Due to use of high quality linen and cotton rags and the addition of internal and sometimes external sheet sizing, you have some very tough paper.  Finally, there is additional pressing, drying and separation. What a wonderland to see stacks of paper of various textures, uses and colors stored in the racks nearby. Not only was there watercolor paper, but pastel, drawing, printing paper- even paper that can be used for photographic printing. Frederic helped me select a few sheets to take home. How incredible to buy paper from the person who made it! To have a deeper understanding of your materials brings another dimension to your art. This rare behind-the-scenes look at a true artisan's workshop makes me inspired to apply the same craft and dedication to my own work.

-Erik Tiemens