Buying the Right Paper

Q. I’m a watercolor artist and have done work on rice paper. Do rice papers discolor with age? Should an art supply store be able to guarantee whether its rice paper is acid free?

A. The use of the term “rice paper” is somewhat generic. Asian papermaking originated in China and was introduced to Japan in 610 A.D. Japanese paper referred to as washi describes three principal types of fibers used in manufacturing: kozo, gampi and mitsumata. Kozo, harvested from mulberry bark, comprises about 90 percent of Japanese paper production. The fibers are prepared in a centuries-old, traditional manner that results in the distinctive look and feel of Japanese papers.

By design, most kozo papers are acid free, so the yellowing seen in many lignin-based papers containing wood pulp doesn’t occur in high-quality kozo papers. Some Japanese papers, however, are manufactured with lignin fibers added, so check the technical literature or description provided by the manufacturer to determine the type of fibers used.

When purchasing Japanese papers, remember that since you’re using the paper for watercolors, proper sizing is necessary to enable you to control the absorption of color applied to the paper. Japanese papers tend to shrink and wrinkle when copious amounts of water are applied, so sizing is critical. A number of kozo papers are sized specifically for watercolor use. As you start your search for watercolor-appropriate Japanese paper, you’ll want to investigate seichosen and kurotani papers. Both are fairly heavy-bodied papers, and several have sizing that makes them ideal for watercolor. Use an Internet search engine such as Google ( to find manufacturers and technical descriptions of these Japanese papers. Many art supply stores sell loose sheets of paper and don’t provide enough information to determine if a paper is acid free. The key to becoming a knowledgeable consumer is to find a specific paper that meets your needs, and then to identify a retailer who stocks it in the sizes and quantities you desire.

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