A Gum Printer’s Nightmare: Paper Potholes

Peter J. Blackburn wrestles with the constant quality changes of art papers and discovers a surprise choice for gum printing.

Writer and photography / Peter J. Blackburn


Burger Palace, gum bichromate print on Richeson bulk watercolor paper. Notice the bright, clean whites — an indicator that the paper sizing is quite good for gum and casein printing.

“They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
Within a dream.”

—Ernest Dowson

After more than thirty years of gum printing, I am still dumbfounded by the perpetually precarious state of our art materials, especially paper. Quality paper with robust sizing is the foundational bedrock for many gum printers. Yet, this crucial underpinning for our work is always in danger of being discontinued, replaced, or modified for the worse.

Using Dowson’s poem as a sort of Cinderella shoe, I believe I can express my paper exasperation in a snug and fitting manner.

Over and over, the path emerges revealing a wonderful gum paper only to close and take up residency in our memories. My journey of creating high quality gum prints began when Fabriano Uno graced the art supply shelves a few decades ago. It was one of the first papers to incorporate a safe, inert, synthetic sizing agent which rendered the use of gelatin papers hardened with formalin, glyoxal, and other toxic components unnecessary. However, without warning, Fabriano decided to Uh-oh the Uno and transfer the synthetic sizing qualities of that paper to their Artistico line. Easily enough, I simply switched to Artistico.

Whew, that was a close call.

For several years afterward,  I merrily skipped along the primrose paper path of Fabriano Artistico Extra White for my gum and casein work. The hard alka ketene dimer sizing allowed my pigments to rest nicely on top of the paper, thereby minimizing stain and enabling vibrant colors. But, just like clockwork marked by a cheap Timex, the day came when a new batch of paper gave me a big batch of headaches!

Casein bichromate prints in the drying tray. Richeson bulk watercolor paper. I’m printing small now as the vendor which prints my large negatives is closed for quarantine.

Something happened to the sizing. They changed the sizing! Nuts!

All my images suddenly donned that muddy, low contrast look often found with other papers. Print after print after print took a detour off the path and slid down into the shredder blades. It was the end of the trail. Voicing the sarcastic words of Onslow from the British TV sitcom, Keeping Up Appearances, “Oh, nice.”

You could say that my once productive road was now riddled with sizing potholes! Staining here, staining there, in fact, there was staining everywhere! How annoying. Like it or not, I was back to the drawing board wasting energy and money testing replacement papers.

In due time, a fresh path emerged from a misty dream with Strathmore 500. In fact, it performed significantly better than Fabriano. The synthetic sizing was even harder and more durable. Readily available and costing about the same as Fabriano, I paved over the potholes and once again cruised down my smooth path of dreams.

That is, until a few months ago. Like I knew it would, the path closed again and my dreams came to a screeching, shuddering halt.

The sizing. The bloody sizing was off again. Off again! Off again! Say it ain’t so, Ernest! 

Paper potholes, indeed.

Thankfully, around the same time the Strathmore paper was veering off a cliff, a very different and most unexpected paper path emerged into view. And I owe it all to an elementary art teacher and a recent visit to see her remodeled art classroom in Dallas, Texas. It was a beautiful new space designed with much care and foresight. As I was examining all the new art gadgets, my eye caught sight of a large stack of lovely, white watercolor paper. Like a magnet, I was compelled to feel and discern the sizing characteristics. It felt slick, smooth, slightly waxy — a synthetically sized paper on steroids!

“May I borrow a few sheets? This feels like a paper quite different from any other I have used for my work. If I can manage to create a great print, I will send it to you as a token of thanks.”

Within four days, a marvelous gum print of ballet dancers leaping across the stage hung in her classroom.

So, what is this new paper emerging from still another dream?

Richeson Bulk Watercolor Paper.

What a completely unexpected option for a gum paper. It’s true! One really can make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear! Now, I realize that statement might seem harsh, but after creating well over one hundred prints on this Richeson paper, I am very impressed by how a bottom of the line product intended for students can render gum prints which rival those I have printed on far more expensive, luxury papers.

This paper is very low in cost, comes in a variety of dimensions, does not need to be preshrunk, and dries very quickly.

There are a few drawbacks, however. I am not a fan of wood pulp papers. They damage very easily, and this paper is no exception. Most tapes will rip this paper. You must use considerable finesse when making prints on RBWP. Maintaining registration is a bit tricky, too, but manageable.

Richeson bulk watercolor paper in the package. Comes in many dimensions and two weights.

Now, instead of strolling along with Nike shoes and sweatpants, I would better describe my current trek as edging tenuously along a lengthy tightrope. And while I am making progress, my workflow has changed dramatically.

No, it’s not exactly wine and roses, but the Richeson paper has provided new options to explore, propelling me further along the path for the time being. Meanwhile, I continue to experiment with other professional cotton papers.

May all your printing endeavors be paper-perfect, and keep your eyes on the road!

Peter J. Blackburn, MA, has been working in gum and casein bichromate printing for over thirty years. He is represented by Afterimage Gallery, Dallas, Texas. You can also see Peter J. Blackburn’s gallery or read more articles he has written.

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