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Paste Paper, with Diversion on the Uses of Methylcellulose

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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Paste Paper, with Diversion on the Uses of Methylcellulose

I went to a paste paper workshop last weekend. The instructor was nice and the company fun. I hadn't had an extended stretch of paper decorating in a long time. I picked up a few new tips and tried a different way of making paste paper. It was enjoyable.

But, as it turned out, I wasn't crazy about the way we were doing the papers. I'd originally learned to do paste painting on wet paper stretched taut on plexiglass. In this workshop we worked on dry paper. Judging from what I've read over the years, some people can do it this way. But I don't seem to be one of them. The paper curled and I found the process exasperating. Furthermore, we were using methylcellulose. Again, a lot of people do it this way. I've even made some pleasing methylcellulose paste papers over the years. But I usually prefer to use some kind of starch-based paste for the better detail provided. Once the papers from the workshop had dried, I wound up with hardly any that I liked.

However, I still found the class valuable. It reminded me how much I used to like to decorate paper. A few days later when I was back in my own studio and had access to my stove, I boiled myself up some paste, pulled out my sheet of plexiglass and a tray of water, and treated myself to some paper decorating satisfaction. The designs you see here are details from a couple of those papers.

I'm highly gluten sensitive and have some weird allergies, so I have to make my own baked goods from scratch. The upside of this is I get to have on hand all kinds of ingredients that some people might find strange, including a variety of wheatless starches—tapioca, arrowroot, and amaranth—along with the ubiquitous corn. I've made paste out of them all, as well as out of rice flour and some rice starch that I'd actually bought for making paste rather than for baking. All of the starch-based pastes are pretty similar in texture and workability, although the amaranth is a bit heavier and has a warm color cast to it.

The canister of methylcellulose that I've been using for years, in fact, came from a gluten free food supply company. It was meant to be used as a gluten substitute in baking (although I've never used it for that, only for bookmaking and paper work). It was less expensive than any methylcellulose I've ever seen in an art store, yet seems to be exactly the same stuff. Out of curiosity when I was writing this post, I looked to see if that company still sold it (it's not actually a popular gluten free additive for home cooks). Sadly, they do not, but I discovered some interesting facts about our old friend methylcel. In addition to being used by bookbinders and food manufacturers, it is widely used as an emulsifier and thickener in cosmetics and shampoos and is a common ingredient in pharmaceuticals. In fact, it is the "cel" in the laxative citrucel. Gelatin-free capsules are often made of it, as are the eyedrops that I use. Virologists and stem cell researchers use it in the lab. It is a base for creating fake slime and goo in movies (it was used in Ghostbusters, for instance). It is also, alas, used in the porn movie industry to simulate...things best not thought about.

Miraculous stuff, but nonetheless I prefer my starch-based painting mixtures. I have a further thought on paste painting, but it will have to wait until the next post.

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