Pulling a Rabbit Hole Out of My Hat


This is going to be a long story. If you have water on, go turn it off. Hit the bathroom on the way back while you're at it. Ok, ready?


So, there are three parts to this tale, each more absurd than the last. It all started when my customer brought his father in to get a quote. His father was an accomplished Sumi-e ink calligrapher in the Chinese tradition. He spoke little English so his son did the talking and translating. His father had never been trained to mount his own work, so he was going from shop to shop looking for someone willing to frame his artwork. I had little experience working with calligraphy on rice paper (which is a misnomer, as it's made from a type of bamboo). Most of what I'd handled was small scale. The piece they brought in was 60 inches long, and every single brush stroke had a pucker around it. Paper, much like wood and textiles, expands and contracts with changes in humidity, as well as contact with moisture. In cases like this the paint restricts the fibers of the paper it's in contact with, but not the unpainted surfaces. In this thin, vaguely translucent rice paper, puckers of this nature can be fairly pronounced .


The customer wanted his work to be very flat, either by using the traditional mounting method (which I describe below), or drymount press (this was not the first time he'd been around the block). I confessed I knew nothing about the traditional method, and I speculated the drymount would not be possible, so I offered to put his work under some heavy weight to help even it out. This method takes advantage of moisture already present in the air, so as the paper breathes in and out the unpainted surfaces have a chance to restrict slowly under the pressure. We worked out the framing design and finished the order. In a few days I took a gander at my prospects, and it didn't look good.


I have spent a great deal of time on a website called The Framer's Grumble. It has been a lifeline at times when I felt left out to sea. When the customer took a look at the results of the flattening process, he was disappointed. I had also gone forward with the plan to hinge the art with tape since we were avoiding drymounting, but ambient humidity was not kind to those contact points. The customer gave me puppy dog eyes and asked again if I could look into drymounting his work. I agreed, and immediately started poking around the Framer's Grumble forums. A quick search revealed what I had feared. Nearly everyone on the forum was saying the same thing: Don't touch this type of artwork with a ten foot pole. Turn around. Walk the other way. No one will judge you. I was not satisfied with that answer.


The traditional method of mounting Chinese calligraphy is one that had been developed and refined over generations. It's not something a person can learn over night. First, the artwork is placed face down on a flat poreless surface like a mirror or a wall, then lightly misted, preferably with distilled water to avoid mineral deposits. Unlike regular watercolor paint, Sumi-e ink can be wet because once it initially dries the ink sets and becomes permanent. Once the fine water droplets have been absorbed into the paper it becomes loose and uniform, and takes on the draping properties of cloth. Not unlike licking a suction cup before sticking it to a window, once the paper is wet it adheres to the flat surface, so it can be flattened out and left to dry. Once it's dry, a wheat paste is applied to the back of the art, and then deftly pressed onto another sheet of rice paper with a dry brush, making quick outward strokes. If you do it wrong you get bubbles in between the layers, or worse. Now, imagine trying to do this for the first time with a sheet of paper that's almost as long as you are tall. I needed to make some phone calls.


Since being a manager didn't afford me enough time to take up Chinese calligraphy in order to practice screwing up on my own work, I got in touch with a paper conservator that I used to work with in another frame shop. She had never done wheat paste mounting, and she had no idea if Sumi-e ink was heat safe (neither did the internet), but she referred me to a woman she knew out in the midwest who specialized in paper mounting and Sumi-e ink calligraphy. She'd written several books. After some emails I gave her a call, and her reception was lukewarm. She sounded hurried, like she had better things to do. I pressed her for as much information as she was willing to give before she started chastising me for even entertaining the notion of taking on this project, and pushing me to purchase her books. Realizing this was a dead end I slipped out of the conversation, pretending to be grateful. Back to the internet.


My research projects are consuming, and tend to take on a life of their own. Somehow I ended up on a website that had tutorial videos demonstrating an alternative to the traditional wheat paste method. They evenly sprayed the paper as usual, but then they placed it on top of a stack of cotton blue jean material, with several layers on top, and a hand iron is used to essentially steam press the paper within the fabric stack. Genius. They then placed the flattened art on top of a type of silicone sheet and ironed it so that the silicone transferred to the back of the artwork. The paper was then essentially drymounted to another sheet of rice paper with the hand iron. Blew my damn mind. What blew my damn mind even further was that I found a website that sells that silicone paper. It's unique to China, I'd have to import it. Not only was it cost prohibitive, but they didn't have anything in the right dimensions to fit this piece. Still, I was inspired, and a plan of action started brewing. I asked my customer for an expendable piece to practice on.


At first I tried the paper conservator's method of wetting the paper, placing it between two sheets of blotting paper and stacking with weights, a modification of the first flattening process. This didn't have lasting effects. But, the one solid piece of information the book lady bestowed upon me was that Sumi-e ink is indeed heat safe. So I made the wet paper sandwich again, slid the layers in the drymount press like a pizza pie, and heated it for a short low temperature steam. That sucker popped out of there flatter than a witch's tit. And the colors were still bright and cheerful. Jackpot.


Wait, I'm not finished yet! Oh you thought that was it? I just popped both calligraphy pieces in with some drymount paper, framed them, and sent them on their merry way? I mean, yes, that happened, but there's more. Oh dear god there's more. Stay tuned, for the harrowing tail of what I did with even BIGGER calligraphy pieces that couldn't fit in the drymount press.


DISCLAIMER: although this method worked for what the customer wanted, this is by no means a perfect solution. What I noticed after close inspection is that something the customer was mixing into his yellows was reacting to the water. Even though sumi-e ink is technically water resistant once set, the pigments added to the ink can come from a wide range of substances, and not only are they hard to identify, but they may react to what you do to them in unpredictable ways. I was extremely lucky that my customer wasn't bothered with the faint halos, and that he kept coming back with more stuff. Please take caution if you attempt any of the methods described in this article.