The ancient Egyptians were the first humans to use paper as long ago as 3700 B.C. Previously, writing had been done on clay tablets, but the Egyptians made a form of paper from the pith of the papyrus plant. The famous Egyptian Book of the Dead (anciently compiled beginning with Egypt’s Old Kingdom through the Middle Kingdom) was written on papyrus and ancient Egypt is particularly famous for its artistically rendered hieroglyphics on papyrus.
Another form of papermaking was invented independently between 200 B.C. and 220 A.D. in China during the Han Dynasty. The world’s oldest dated book, the Diamond Sutra (c. 868 A.D.) dates to China. The Chinese form of papermaking is considered the precursor to modern papermaking. Its paper was thin and nearly transparent so that only one side could be used. China was also the first people to print paper money.
Although papermaking spread slowly from China, it next spread to the Middle East and later throughout Europe. These early papers were comprised of mulberry, hemp, and linen fibers. Modern paper is produced from pulp as well as plant fibers and cellulose. These ancient papers were sometimes tinted and even fragranced. While they were used to wrap items like tea, they were more importantly used for writing and paper is still the basis of the book-making industry.
The invention and spread of papermaking was immensely important to the art world. Painters and illustrators rely on paper whether they render their art in water color, India ink, pencil, or even charcoal to name a few examples. Yet paper has been used for art in other dynamic ways. Origami, for instance, is the art of folding paper to create familiar shapes. It originated in Japan where it still thrives as a traditional Japanese art. Popular images of origami sculpture include cranes, insects, and even tessellations.
Intricate paper cutting was popular through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries especially in the creation of silhouettes. Essentially outlines shaded in black, silhouettes might depict the bust of a man or women or an intricately rendered scene from a parlor or a landscape. While these old silhouettes are collected as art today, they are still created. Hans Christian Andersen is one of the artists most famed for his paper cuts.
Paper cutting is also essential to the art of decoupage. Paper cuts or decorative paper is glued to another surface such as a table or even a wall and coated with layers of varnish or lacquer. During the eighteenth century this art form was known as Japanning. The art of decoupage has gone in and out of fashion, but it is still a mildly popular art form today.
Today, paper is essential to the art world. Even cutting edge digital art makes use of paper during the printing process. And while books are increasingly downloaded to be read on electronic devices, publishers are still printing more books than ever on this medium with ancient roots.