Japanese Papermaking and Suminagashi
For our project, we will be combing two Japanese papermaking practices: (1) the formation of Japanese washi paper and (2) the use of that paper with the Japanese marbling technique known as suminagashi.
In our project, the first purpose of our experiment will be to determine what sort of paper works best with suminagashi. This will entail the comparison between standard Japanese washi paper made from kozo, printer paper, watercolor card stock and sized paper made from cotton pulp. As a result, we will see whether the suminagashi technique will work with better with some form of western style paper or with Japanese washi. Furthermore, we will experiment with suminagashi styles: blowing, fanning, stirring, etc.
The ink floats on unthickened water and bumps into other colors on the water’s surface without blending. An effective paper will accept the ink as it transfers from the surface of the water to the surface of the paper. The paper must be able to sustain the wetness without deteriorating and quickly accept the ink from the water.
Our original interest in this experiment came more from the aesthetic appeal than the scientific. The idea of working with paper and ink sounded interesting and peaceful as it involved very few chemicals and no loud machinery. As this is a chemistry class, however, we were interested in taking a scientific approach to what would normally be an artistic endeavor. We had already experienced Western style papermaking in the Stevenson papermaking factory and in laboratory procedures, but we were curious about the Eastern method. We were also fascinated by the marbleized papers we had seen in books or film.
Washi is a kind of Japanese paper that can be made from ganpi, bamboo, hemp, rice, mitsumata or paper mulberry (otherwise known as Kozo). We used kozo wood as it is the most plentiful material here in the United States. Washi is stronger than most paper made from wood pulp and is used in a variety of traditional Japanese arts such as Origami, Shodo (Japanese Calligraphy) and Ukiyoe (woodblock prints). Making Washi is simpler than normal paper because it requires fewer chemicals.
Suminagashi is the Japanese technique of decorating paper with inks and is arguably the oldest form of marbling, dating back 2,000 years. The process is simple. You drop a small amount of Japanese ink onto a water surface, use a liquid, called sumifactant, to disperse it across the water’s surface, and then pick up the ink with a sheet of white paper laid across the water.
Our prediction for this experiment is that the washi paper will do the best job of absorbing the inks and that the use of stirring and black inks will produced the clearest image.
Raw Materials and Chemicals
5 sheets of watercolor card stock
1 sheet of paper made from cotton pulp
Washing Soda (Na2CO3)
Polyarcrylamide synthetic formation aid1/5 table spoon + 800ml water
Mould and deckle
Large plastic bucket
One large tub
3 Japanese Brushes
6 liquid paints
1 bottle of surfactant
Washi Making Observations
At first, we would have attempted to beat the fiber into pulp and make the paper after the first cooking. However, papermaking expert Julie Jones pointed out that it would be best to cook the fibers again until they parted effectively, and I am glad that we did so. The fibers were still much too tough after the initial cooking to be beaten effectively.
During cooking, the water changed from colorless to dark brown. After cooking, it was necessary to wash the kozo fibers with cold water. It was also essential to remove the hard, black crust from the fibers, as these would not be beaten and would disturb the paper formation process. The cooking itself did not seem to have much of a smell, although it did have an odor similar to boiling pasta. Kozo bark itself does really have a smell, nor does soda or wood ash.
The beating process was fairly simple. The soaked and cooked fibers were placed in clumps on wooden boards and beaten until one heard more wood colliding than mashing fiber. Then the fiber was folded, like a burrito, and wetted and then beaten again. When we could take a pinch of fiber, put it in water and not see any long strands, it was possible to make the pulp into washi paper.
The paper formation was messy, but not difficult. There was a lot of water splashed around. We were told to keep dipping the su and pouring off the excess water until the su mat seemed slightly blurry. Washi paper is not supposed to be thick, so it only takes a thin layer of pulp to make a strong, effective sheet of paper.
Variations in Suminagashi: involve creating the “lines” of ink
1) Amount of color/surfactant in given application, determined by:
Further manipulation of lines into patterns:
This type of marbling leaves lots of room for the whim of the artist. We found that it is best to start with the water still. Blowing from the corner of the tub produces a wide circular swirl, while blowing from the side makes a ripple. Stirring irritates the dye, and we found that it is best not to invade the ink with anything thicker than a human hair. Dragging a single human hair allows the dyes to make delicate, slim lines in the dye. It looks quite impressive as very small amounts of dye can be manipulated. Using a hair and then blowing makes the best patterns. Not only do the delicate lines appear but ripples and swirls augment the complicated look of the hair enhancement.
Suminagashi Color, Type
(R)ed (B)lue (G)reen (Y)ellow (Bl)ack (O)range
Plain printer paper
Faded colors, clear lines
Paper made from cotton pulp
Indistinguishable image, vague lines
B,G, blowing, stirring
Solid image transfer, blurry lines, runny ink
Solid image transfer, blurry lines, runny ink
Nothing, no styles
Nothing, plain paper
Clear lines, solid blue
Faded, difficult to see
B, G, Bl nothing
solid blue, no real pattern
B, G, R blow
Faded red, lines of blue, massive green
G, B blow/hair
solid blue, dominant green
G, B hair/blow
B, G, R hair
B, Y, G blow
R, B, G, blow, hair
Lines of blue, solid green
O, B just hair
Strong shapes, good color
B, Bl hair and blow
solid blue, faint black
R, Bl, blow
R, B, hair blow
O, B blow
Our hypothesis was half correct. The printing paper worked worst of all. The cardstock was mildly effective but tended to blur and show indistinct lines. The lab paper was too dark to show the ink and had too much sizing to accept the ink and water at all. The best paper was the kozo washi.
The best suminagashi techniques involved using the blue, red and green colors. Black was a disaster. The best method of creating patterns was to blow lightly on the water or fan it with a sheet and stir the image with a single human hair. Too much stirring blurred the colors and mixed the ink in with the water. The ideal amount of ink was 2-3 drops of ink per brush and then 1-2 drops of sumifactant.
Chemistry Project Schedule
April 25th, 26th and 28th
If we could do this paper over we would like to use many different paper types, we would experiment with oriental paper, inkstones from zen monks and very fresh kozo. We would like to stick as close as possible to the ancient ways that the Japanese made the paper and marbled it. We would like to use different techniqes such as feathers to fan the ink, and also experiment with making different images with they dye.
Chemistry & Art Website
More information on Suminagashi
Barrey, Timothy. Japanese Papermaking: Traditions, Tools and Techniques.1993. Weatherhill. New York.
Guyot, Don. Suminagashi: An Introduction to Japanese Marbling. 1990. Brass Galley Press. Seatle.