Making Blue Paper in the French Countryside

By Penley Knipe
April 29, 2020
Roughly square in format, the black and white drawing on bluish-gray paper depicts a dromedary in three-quarter view. The animal’s head is turned to face the viewer. It wears a bridle, and long tufts of fur hang from its neck and sprout from its hump.
1982.36 Jean-Baptiste Oudry, French, after Pieter Boel, Flemish, Dromedary, 18th century. Black and white chalk on blue-gray antique laid paper. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Louise Haskell Daly Purchasing Fund and Director’s Discretionary Fund through the generosity of Paul Geier, 1982.36.

The stone steps were deeply worn from 400 years of papermakers treading on them. That was one of the first things I noticed when I arrived at Moulin du Verger, a paper mill in Puymoyen, in southwest France, for a weeklong workshop on blue paper and its use by artists through time.

As a paper conservator at the Harvard Art Museums, I have years of experience working with paper in the Straus Center. I have also taught class sections at Harvard about paper and papermaking, helping undergraduates make paper in our lab’s big metal sink. But being at Moulin du Verger was different. It gave me the chance to learn from the pros in a historic setting. I was thrilled, to say the least.

Four stone steps, leading to a sunny outdoors, appear moss-stained and deeply worn down in their centers. There is a wood door that opens into the building at left. A rough stone floor is visible in the foreground.
The stairs at Moulin du Verger. Photo: Penley Knipe.
A two-story stucco building with a red-tiled roof sits under a blue sky. One side of the stucco wall has two colors and looks to have been repaired. There is a fence to the right and a stone wall covered with blue-dyed clothing in front of the building.
Moulin du Verger. Photo: Penley Knipe.

The six other workshop participants and I started our week by touring the mill. We visited the rag room, where countless piles of old sheets and linens were stored, awaiting their turn to be cut up. We saw, in action, the very loud stampers that broke down these rags into fiber bundles and the Hollander beater that further converted the bundles into individual fibers ready to be made into paper.

That first afternoon, we began to make paper using fibers made from rags mixed with new cotton fibers. Jacques Bréjoux, master papermaker and owner of the mill, led us in this endeavor. I was surprised how hard it was to pull the paper mould smoothly from the vat of water and pulp. The process by which the fibers and water slurry were lifted up on a paper mould and coalesced into a piece of paper was absolutely magical. (For a basic introduction into making paper, this video by Chancery Papermaking is excellent.)

Jacques Bréjoux, wearing a straw hat, black glasses, and black clothing, holds a large stick that is submerged into a vat. He is stirring the foamy-looking contents of the vat; resting flat in the foreground is a dense wire screen in a wooden frame.
Jacques Bréjoux, master papermaker, stirs the water and pulp mixture in the vat. The papermaking mould is in front. Photo: Penley Knipe.

The workshop included lectures about natural dyes, the history of dyeing and the dye trade, the history of blue paper, and papermaking around the world. We learned about making natural dyes from master dyer Philippe Chazelle and took turns coloring wool with indigo, cochineal, madder, and other natural dyes, to learn more about the working properties of each colorant.

Five large vats sit in a row outside a stucco building. On top of each vat is a short pole with a skein of wool slung over it. The two frontmost vats show the wool submerged in colored liquid. The skeins are orange, magenta, yellow, brown, and purple.
Vats of natural dyes. Photo: Penley Knipe.

We made blue paper using the traditional blue dye, indigo, which comes from Indigofera tinctoria, a plant native to India and other tropical locales. Indigo and woad, a plant from which a chemically identical dye to indigo can be extracted, were traditionally used to color papers blue. Woad grew in the Toulouse area of France and was used until the importing of indigo from India became common. Indigo was preferred over woad because it had more coloring strength and grew more readily. Historically, blue-dyed fibers either came from blue textiles or by adding a colorant, usually indigo, to the paper pulp. Prussian blue, a synthetically produced pigment of ferric ferrocyanide, was developed in 1704 and was first used to color paper around 1770. Prussian blue was preferred because it tinted paper much more efficiently and did not need to be imported from the tropics.

One of my favorite parts of the workshop was hanging the newly made papers in the drying loft after most of the water had been squeezed from the paper stack in a press. Although I had read about and seen pictures of drying lofts, this was the first time I had been able to visit one. The loft is situated in the mill’s attic, where side louvers can be opened to allow for controlled airflow and humidity. Later, we also “sized” our papers by dipping them in a solution of thinned liquid gelatin so that any drawing or writing ink applied to the paper wouldn’t bleed. Because the papers were damp after being sized, they were hung again in the drying loft.

In a large room with a wooden floor, many pieces of blue paper and off-white paper are folded over slim wooden poles that run horizontally under the roof. To the left are vertical wooden slats partially open to let in sunlight.
The drying loft. Note the vertical vents at left that allow for controlled airflow. The blue-dyed paper hangs in front and the uncolored paper hangs behind. Photo: Penley Knipe.

Another wonderful part of the course was looking closely at old papers with Jacques and Leila Sauvage, the paper conservator who conceived of the workshop. In one forensic-based session, Jacques and Leila each shared examples of sheets that showed characteristics and anomalies of various papers. A group of people stared at the structure of paper made hundreds of years ago and hypothesized what happened to it during manufacture. This kind of close looking is exactly what we do at the Straus Center. My experience at Moulin du Verger will be put to good use when teaching with and examining papers in our collections.

The Harvard Art Museums collections include a large number of drawings executed on blue paper. Blue paper makes an excellent mid-tone for working in black chalk and adding highlights in white chalk, as seen in this figure study by Jan Asselijn and in the charmingly drawn dromedary by Jean-Baptiste Oudry, seen at the start of this article. Thomas Gainsborough made excellent use of black and white chalks in a landscape, where some of the black chalk (in the foreground) is blended using a cloth stump. The Harvard Art Museums own prints on blue paper as well, such as a wonderful woodcut by Hendrick Goltzius. There are also some stunning Japanese works on blue paper, including a Jingo-ji sutra that is painted and written in gold and silver on indigo-dyed paper from the Late Heian period (898–1185). More recently, Joseph Beuys used blue paper for his screenprint Joseph Beuys, 7000 Oaks.

  • The black and white drawing on blue-gray paper depicts a young man facing away from the viewer. He wears a floppy wide-brimmed hat, a fitted coat with buttons up the back vent, breeches, and boots, and he has a cloak slung over his right shoulder.
    of 1.2018.1 Jan Asselijn, Dutch, Standing Boy Seen from Behind, 17th century. Black and white chalk on blue antique laid paper; framing line in dark brown ink. The Maida and George Abrams Collection, Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Promised gift, 1.2018.1.
  • This landscape drawing shows a hilly terrain, with a pond in the foreground and a windmill in the background. Trees and foliage frame the landscape at either side. The lovers and packhorses are loosely drawn in the center of the composition.
    of 1956.216 Thomas Gainsborough, British, Wooded Landscape with Rustic Lovers, Packhorses and Windmill, 18th century. Black chalk, stumped, and white chalk on blue antique laid paper. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. William D. Vogel, 1956.216.
  • This small print shows a humble cottage at center, with a farmer and a defecating dog in the foreground and a woman at a well at left. There is a large stack of hay against the cottage, trees behind the cottage, and a flock of birds in the sky.
    of G7448 Hendrick Goltzius, Dutch, Landscape with Farmhouse, c. 1597–1600. Woodcut printed in black ink on blue antique laid paper, highlighted with white gouache. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Gray Collection of Engravings Fund, G7448.
  • The painting, done in gold on dark blue paper in a horizontal scroll format, shows the Buddha preaching at right, surrounded by four attendant deities. Above the figures are mountains floating on clouds. At left are calligraphed Chinese characters.
    of 1985.368 Jingo-ji sutra, Japanese, Late Heian period, 898–1185. Handscroll; gold and silver pigments on indigo-dyed paper. Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Bequest of the Hofer Collection of the Arts of Asia, 1985.368.
  • This bright blue screenprint shows at right a figure in a hat and coat holding a shovel; at left is the same figure shown partially and upside down. The text reads “Fiu” above and “Joseph Beuys 7000 Eichen” across the middle. A signature is in the center.
    of 1997.79 Joseph Beuys, German, Joseph Beuys, 7000 Oaks, 1982. Screenprint on blue paper. Harvard Art Museums/Busch-Reisinger Museum, Gift of Mrs. Mildred S. Lee, 1997.79. © Joseph Beuys/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

There are not many papermaking mills like Moulin du Verger left in Europe. This made the experience of being there even more special. This mill may close someday, so the opportunity to make paper by hand and to learn from people who make paper all day was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I hope you enjoyed this armchair travel to southwest France, and I encourage you to explore our collections of works on blue paper.

Ten small stacks of different colored blue papers lay on a rough wooden table. There is a very bright blue paper cut off at far left and in the foreground one of the stacks is off-white.
Blue papers made by workshop participants. Paper made with Prussian blue is at far left. Photo: Penley Knipe.

Penley Knipe is Head of the Paper Lab in the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies at the Harvard Art Museums.