Mary Kay Colling: Notes on Hand Papermaking

My paper relief wall art distinctive for its original execution, huge dimensions and colorful beauty. It established my professional reputation and put my gallery on the map as a must-see attraction in Rochester. When I installed my first website in 1994-95, paper relief made a splash on the internet, too. Papermaking sites linked to mine and stayed linked, even though I changed mediums. Old links still bring visitors in seach of papermaking info and art examples to my site. This page is for them.

About My Paper Relief

My choice for casting and sculpting pulp was abaca, with its long stretchy fibers that will not conform precisely to the contours of the mold. Abaca's main use in papermaking is to form translucent, laminated sheets that are strong enough to stretch over armatures. I was not interested in the translucent property. I liked the laminated layers that made lovely wrinkled surface texture and the stretchiness of abaca. I tried other fibers – hemp, cotton, cotton linters – but always returned to abaca.

Formation Techniques

Some of my paper relief was made from flat sheets, hand-molded over collagraph plates and shallow 3-D objects. Some was cast in molds. Some was built from cast paper segments that I fused together into single huge sheets before the paper was sized. I soaked cured paper with methyl cellulose surface sizing that I brushed on to soften sharp points.

Surface Design

After sized abaca paper is dried to the consistency of freshly rolled piecrust dough, it does not release globs of lint into a paint brush or dissolve into mush. I used watercolor and Oriental collage papers on it when it was not quite dry. They bonded with it. If I wanted the brilliance of acrylic colors, I had to wait for it to become bone dry.


I made molds by pouring plaster of Paris over maquettes that were constructed like collagraph plates. The maquettes had to be coated with vanish to seal joins and cracks. (I used water base varnish.) Then I sprinkled them with talc or greased them with thinned Vaseline (a drop of paint thinner thins it). The maquettes were destroyed in the molding process.


If I wanted to make something bigger than the size of a mold, I fused cast pieces together. For giant pieces, like the 6'x4' Ceremony, I tore the cast paper into small pieces that I fused together onto backing sheets of handmade paper. Plastic screen is another option for giving extra body to huge pieces. It goes between the art and a backing sheet.

Display & Documentation

Paper always has water in it. It should be framed and protected from direct sunlight and rapid fluctuations in temperature. Either one of those conditions can draw the moisture out of the paper and turn it into fog and water droplets on the inside of the glass.

Paper relief, particularly white pieces, require special lighting for photos.The trick is to light from an angle to get shadows that show texture but aren't dark enough to look like black paint or washes of color on the surface. A good photo means one that is in focus with the art centered in the frame, showing the art's texture and accurate color. If the art doesn't look exactly like its photo, that is a problem.

Outdoor Shows & Handmade Paper

We went to ten outdoor shows during the twelve years I had the gallery. The photo is from our first time at Hudson, Ohio, Society of Artists. The weather was lovely. The other nine had disastrous weather.

Paper always has water in it because it absorbs moisture from its environment..Sunshine on the frame draws out the water and makes mist on the glass. Rainy weather adds extra moisture to the paper. Wind merely blows dirt up under the glass. Babysitting for the art is a challenge in mild weather. It's a nightmare in less than ideal weather.