The first paper-like sheets were made by the ancient Egyptians from papyrus, but it was the Chinese who discovered how to break plant fibres down to form sheets of what is recognisably paper. This knowledge came to Europe in the Middle Ages, by the eleventh century, and by the start of the Renaissance paper was being manufactured in water-powered mills.
Because even thick papers are so flexible, they don’t appear to have been used to any significant extent for paints such as egg tempera or oils which need rigid supports. However, the absorptive properties of paper are ideal for water-based media which form a relatively thin paint layer, most notably watercolour. Since the Renaissance, watercolours have almost invariably been applied to paper, serving as both its absorbent ground and support.
In the southern Renaissance, artists started to use watercolour to lay out works to be implemented in other media, such as fresco and tapestry. Some of the most remarkable early examples are Raphael’s ‘cartoons’, although some were probably painted in distemper rather than using gum-based watercolour paint.
Raphael’s The Miraculous Draft of Fishes (c 1515-16) is among the earlest large and complete paintings made using opaque watercolour. Because of limitations in the manufacture of paper at the time, it was made on many sheets which have been mounted on canvas.
At the end of the eighteenth century, some artists like Giovanni Battista Lusieri worked almost entirely in watercolour. His large panorama of the Bay of Naples measures around 1 x 2.7 metres (3 x 9 feet), and still had to be painted on six sheets of paper. During the nineteenth century, the paper industry started using wood pulp to give their products additional strength, and manufacturing methods improved further to result in paper, like woven fabric, being available on long rolls as well as in large sheets.
By the time that John Singer Sargent painted this wonderful watercolour Simplon Pass. The Tease in 1911, high-quality watercolour papers were widely available in a range of sheet sizes, on the roll, and in various weights and finishes. These enhanced the use of advanced techniques such as wet-in-wet and wax resist.
Papers were also developed with more abrasive surfaces suitable for retaining the powdery pigment particles of soft pastels, for which paper has long been the preferred ground and support for many artists.
This wonderful portrait of A Baby, painted in pastels by Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun in about 1790, shows how the experienced artist can use the texture of the paper for unique effects.
If finished oil paintings couldn’t be made on paper because of its flexibility, it was surely good enough for plein air and other sketches.
One of the most prolific of the early oil sketchers on paper is Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes. His sketch of Farm-buildings at the Villa Farnese: the Two Poplar Trees is an example made when he was painting in the Roman Campagna in 1782-85. This helped to form a large visual library of sketches from nature, and he recommended this practice in his influential book on landscape painting, which was still in widespread use a century after his death.
At roughly the same time, the father of Welsh landscape painting, Thomas Jones, was also in Rome, using the same practices, as seen in his tiny sketch of A Wall in Naples (c 1782).
The first major landscape painter to adopt Valenciennes’ practice and to show the sketches he made on paper was Camille Corot. During his first stay in Italy, between 1825-28, he developed his skills painting outdoors in the Campagna, producing classics such as those above and below.
Some oil sketchers apply their paint directly to unprepared paper, but impregnation of the ground and support by oil media can lead to its rapid deterioration. Those who intended their oil sketches to last longer sometimes primed the paper using pure linseed oil, and others applied size and a thin layer of more traditional ground such as gesso. When carefully prepared, such oil paintings on paper can last very well over time.
Painting with oils on paper or cardboard thus became the mark of the young, those still pupils, and artists too poor to purchase ready-made canvases. Alexandre Calame’s Swiss Landscape from about 1830 probably meets all three criteria.
Like Calame, Hans Gude started his career by applying oil paint to paper. His By the Mill Pond from 1850 seems to have been a plein air study which is so detailed that it would be hard to class it as a sketch.
In the coming years, some experienced older painters were to choose to paint on paper for its very different properties in contrast with stretched canvas.
In his quest for different techniques and effects, Edgar Degas painted occasionally with oils onto paper, as in his Women Combing Their Hair from about 1875-76.
Charles Conder and the Australian Impressionists were much more adventurous in their use of different supports, which included wood panels from cigar boxes and large sheets of cardboard, used here in Conder’s Herrick’s Blossoms from about 1888.
Elihu Vedder was another enthusiastic sketcher in oil on paper, as shown in his The Advent of Man from about 1913. This was probably intended to be worked up into a finished painting using a more traditional support.
In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, specialist paper manufacturers developed products which are intended for use with oils, and don’t need any protective coating before oil paint can be applied. Although these work excellently as a novel ground, they still need to be mounted on a more rigid support, an issue which I will discuss in a future article in this series.
My final example of an oil painting on paper is perhaps its most appropriate. Aōdō Denzen was a Japanese artist who in the early nineteenth century was among those who brought European painting techniques to south-east Asia.
His Mount Asama Screen (Edo, 1804-1818) was made using perilla-based oil paints on paper. Perilla is a drying oil seldom used outside the tropics, and paper was of course first made in south-east Asia, which is where this story started.