Exploring Synthetic Paper

By M. Stephen Doherty
American Artist Magazine
March 2000


Homosassa, 1999, watercolor, 18 x 25.  Private Collection.

   Ikin and a friend were traveling in a pontoon boat along the Homosassa River when she took the photographs that inspired this painting.
   Florida artist Taylor Ikin observed a workshop taught by Mark Mahaffey several years ago and was immediately attracted to the paper on which he was painting.  "It had a sophisticated and sexy feel, almost like butter," she remembers.  "It was a slick, nonabsorbent paper with a satin finish.  I painted on it and knew immediately it had the kind of surface I had been trying to find."
   Like many watercolorists, Ikin prefers to work on a smooth paper that allows paint to Flow freely.  She has used hot-pressed illustration board and sheets of watercolor paper coated with a layer of acrylic gesso.  "I gave up on 140-Ib cold-pressed paper about eight years ago because the highly absorbent surface made it difficult to apply fluid strokes of color," she explains.  "I wanted the paint to sit on top of the paper long enough for the colors to dance and flow together as one shape touched another, creating exciting forms and patterns unattainable with a brush.  This is the groundwork for my painting, the energy and razzle-dazzle that can only happen in the very beginning of a work.  The next process is reshaping, and the final step is the crisping and refining of the image.  The less absorbent the support, the more likely this process will happen."
   After painting on Mahaffey's paper, Ikin found it to be ideal for her approach to watercolor.  She jotted down its name, Yupo, and the address of the company that sold it.  She immediately called for information about the paper and was directed to the manufacturer, the Yupo Corporation in Chesapeake, Virginia.  "I needed to know what the paper was made of, how it would hold up, and how I could purchase sheets," Ikin explains.  "They asked what company I worked for and were surprised to hear that I was an artist.  They couldn't imagine why an artist would be interested n Yupo.  I assured them it was a dynamic surface for painting, and from then on it's history."
   Ikin learned that Yupo is a completely synthetic paper that is waterproof, stain-resistant, tear-resistant, foldable, and incredibly strong even though it is lightweight.  More important to artists, the paper has a neutral pH rating, which means it is long lasting.
   As Ikin experimented with Yupo, she developed a completely different set of expectations and techniques for applying pigment to the slick surface.  "Because the paper is synthetic, it doesn't absorb any moisture," she explains.  That means watercolors only dry by evaporation, and they don't bind to the support as they would to paper.  Artists can blend and lift paint as long as they want.  Even after the paints are dry, the stroke of a wet brush or damp sponge will remove them completely from the paper.  What a thrill to be able to retrieve and create whites without the resist process.  I can lift and design shapes using the original surface of the paper, and I can dig back through layers and be carried away by the unexpected happenings that are waiting for me.  A staining color such as Prussian blue can be wiped off just as easily as a non-staining color like cobalt blue."
   Ikin discovered it took very little water to make a workable solution of paint, and the colors would flow quickly into any damp shape on the surface of Yupo.  "I found myself leading the paint around on the paper, not actually brushing it into a predetermined shape," she explains.  "I created a whole new range of textures, brush marks, and layers of vibrant color.  Once I applied paint to the surface of Yupo, things began to happen that I couldn't have anticipated, and they continued to happen until the paint finally dried.
   "Painting became an exciting journey full of surprises and unanticipated opportunities," Ikin says as she continues to explain the creative possibilities of synthetic paper.  "I just let the colors flow and blend in random patterns.  Later I could adjust the values and shapes by wiping off paint or modifying it with additional strokes of transparent color.  The paper offered a whole new approach to watercolor."
   Ikin paints a variety of natural subjects, but she is particularly attracted to scenes that include water.  She finds that Yupo helps her Capture the appearance of an ocean, meandering stream, or the still reflections of a swamp.  "The paper offers the most user-friendly way of creating the image of water," she comments.  "I can direct the water on the paper, and the paint will follow to create the appearance of a flowing, blended shape.  And when I'm painting trees along the shoreline I can scratch the texture of the bank into a blend of earth colors."
   Because Yupo is so different from traditional watercolor paper, it requires certain precautions and considerations.  The surface of the paper is sensitive to oils, and the fingerprints from handling sometimes act as a resist to watercolor paints.  A remedy is to apply several layers of paint to the area, lift a bit, let it dry, add a bit more, lift some more, and so on.  This process makes a more receptive surface.  "I personally look at any unexpected marks as another opportunity to create an interesting texture," Ikin says.
   Another consideration is that Yupo never completely holds watercolor paint to its surface.  What Makes Yupo unique, its amazing lifting quality, can also make it difficult to use.  A wet thumb can leave an imprint, just as it would on hot-pressed paper.  Applying a light spray of fixative-such as Ikin's choice, Blair 201 Matte Spray-to secure the completed painting will resolve this problem.  She warns that although it is possible to make adjustments after spraying an image with fixative, the process is tedious.
   Ikin also points out that artists who like to speed up the drying time of their paints with the heat from a blow-dryer should use caution with Yupo because it can buckle in the presence of excessive heat.
   Ever since discovering Yupo paper during the Kanuga Watercolor Workshops in Hendersonville, North Carolina, Ikin has been preaching its virtues to fellow artists and students.  "I've mailed sheets of the paper to many artists I know, and I've introduced it to my workshop students," she says, pointing out that she has no financial ties to the manufacturer.  "Some artists reject the paper, but most get excited by its creative possibilities."
   The professional artists who received the sample sheets used transparent watercolor, watercolor ink, gouache, crayon, pastel, and acrylic on Yupo and achieved very different results than did Ikin.  Some cut up sheets and worked them into a collage, while others folded and creased the paper to create a sculptured appearance in their pictures.
   Ikin believes experimenting with synthetic paper brought a renewed passion to her work.  She hopes that passion is relit for other artists, too.  "Everyone needs to pursue their own journey in painting, and if this paper can help them, that's great," says Ikin.  "Working with Yupo is a magical experience."

Previous Back to Articles & Publications