dyed lens paper showing vibrant colours and transparency

Lens paper is so thin, it’s almost transparent. It is also known as ‘spider paper’, possibly because it looks as though it could be made from spider webs.

This fine gossamer tissue has three excellent qualities for printmakers; it is very thin, very strong, and not expensive. I first stumbled upon lens paper, in the dark corner of an art shop in Cambridge, and in this post I want to introduce you to some of its potential for printmaking.

What is lens paper?

Lens paper is very fine lint free tissue, designed for cleaning optical lenses. It isn’t actually made from spider webs, but manila hemp, aka ‘abaca’. This versatile fibre is made from banana plants and traditionally comes from the Philippines, hence the name ‘manila’.

The fibres are long and strong, so the lens tissue can be made very thin, in paper weight terms it is usually 9gsm, with a ph value of 6.8.

a manila hemp factory in the Philippines

Where to get lens paper

The lens paper made for science labs is generally sold as packs of small sheets to be used as disposable lens cleaning wipes. These can sometimes be treated with silicone so I am assuming would not be great for printmaking. However, if you have access to a supply, it could be worth trying. If you do, let us know how it works.

The lens paper from art suppliers is untreated and is more usually used for paper conservation repairs and bookbinding because it is so strong and almost invisible.

I bought my current batch from Intaglio Printmaker, a great source of all sorts of printmaking supplies and fine papers.

In my research I found Hewits, leather merchants who supply bookbinders, and also have in interesting supply of various thin Japanese tissues as well as lens paper.

The Bookbinding store was the only place I found that sells lens tissue on a roll rather than in separate sheets, although this was not necessarily any cheaper, just bigger. They also have very tempting washi and gampi papers…..

What’s so special about lens paper for printmaking?

1. It’s thin
It is so thin it is almost transparent, but not quite. I love this misty affect and the fact that when it is printed or dyed you can layer it in interesting ways.

 2. It’s strong
Lens paper has excellent wet strength, so remains really strong even when soaking wet – this is an important characteristic needed for chine colleé, and lens paper is brilliant as a supple and subtle chine colleé paper.

 3. It’s natural
It is made from natural fibres and is quite absorbent so it takes ink well and soaks up dye.

 4. It’s cheap
There are other lovely Japanese tissues which do all this, but they can be very expensive. Lens paper is very reasonably priced; it is a practical hardworking paper, nothing too fancy so you don’t have to be nervous about using it.


Lens paper for printmaking with chine colleé

Lens paper is always white, so to use it for chine colleé you will need to add colour yourself.

Inks and dyes
As it is so thin, if you want good strong colours; liquid inks and dyes work well. I found some old silk paints and these are great, acrylic drawing inks are good to use as well.

bottles of acrylic inks
bottles of silk paint

Acrylic paints
In order to keep the lens papers’ natural transparency, the paints need to be very liquid. Golden fluid acrylics work well, not the cheapest, but the colours are very concentrated, even when diluted a lot, and produce lovely clear results.

box of Golden fluid acrylics

Use what you’ve got
The main thing is to make sure whatever you use is waterproof when dry. If you are using the lens paper for chine colleé the colours must not run out when you re-wet it, or they will stain your whole print, and the press blankets too!

Water the colours down as much as you want to, and either dip the lens paper in the ink, or paint it on. Also try splashing and spattering it, scrunching the paper up or wringing it out – it is strong enough to withstand rough handling.

painting dyes onto lens paper
soaking lens paper for printmaking in dye

Dry it carefully
Once you’ve coloured the lens paper hang it up to dry as the wet acrylics can stick to other papers or to itself as they dry. It is so thin it dries in no time.

I like the way the edges can fold up on themselves, and you can introduce deliberate folds and wrinkles at this stage which give a lovely sense of movement in a print.

lens paper for printmaking hanging up to dry

Relief and mono printing on lens paper

Making yourself a supply of decorated chine colleé papers is a great way to start a printmaking session and get your creative juices going.

Conversely it is also a nice relaxing thing to do to unwind at the end of the day. If you have a few pieces of lens paper by you when you are clearing up it is easy to create interesting papers with the residue of inks from rollers and slabs.

lens paper for printmaking, inked with a roller

Working with textured wallpaper

Samples of textured wallpaper are great for printing onto lens paper.  The most terrible looking wallpaper can produce wonderful printed results.

In the examples here I rolled a thin layer of ink on the wallpaper (very thin – you don’t want to clog up the delicate lens paper) and simply pressed the lens paper onto it. Alternatively run it through the press for a really crisp print.

rolling ink on textured wallpaper
lens paper crumpled before printing

If you fold or scrumple the paper up before printing on it you will get broken images with printed patterned textures.

It is a good opportunity to just play around, overprint in different colours on the same piece of lens paper, just have some fun with it.

These are Hawthorn printmaker linseed oil-based stay open inks.

students work with lens paper for printmaking chine collee

This lovely print, made by one of my students, is a collagraph plate printed onto decorated lens paper as chine colleé.

The subtle textures and colours on the lens paper show through the darker textures of the collagraph.

The lens paper is glued down onto heavy weight printing paper, and the edges have been left folded and wrinkled producing a lively effect of movement.

By the way the white peg is a magnet fixing the print to the magnetic exhibition wall in my studio!

How does wet strength tissue compare with lens paper for chine colleé?

I have written previously about using wet strength tissue for chine colleé, this is also thin, strong, and cheap. The main difference is lens tissue is more transparent and has a softer more absorbent texture. Wet strength tissue has been treated with resins to make it strong, so it is a bit stiff, and this sometimes means it wrinkles on the printing paper as it dries.

The more open texture of lens paper means that when you paint on it the colour will come through to the other side, and the same is true of glue. The first time I tried using lens paper for chine colleé I used pva glue and it soaked right through the lens paper in the press making a right mess. The secret is to use dry glue, and the best stuff is tylose powder. This is a recent discovery, suggested by one of my students – see the post about the best glue for chine colleé for more info.

Dry point printing on lens paper

As with most intaglio printing the results are better on damp paper; to dampen the lens paper lay it on a clean sheet of newsprint and spray it with water immediately before you print it. It sticks to the newsprint which helps to keep it damp for longer. Pick up the damp newsprint with the lens paper (temporarily) attached to it and lay the lens paper on the printing plate with the newsprint still stuck to the back of it. Then run it through the press.

drypoint plate and print on lens paper
drypoint print on lens paper showing transparency

Lens paper is a great tissue to have in your printmaking paper supplies. It works well for relief and mono printing, enabling you to produce beautiful delicate prints without much expense. It is a definite winner for chine colleé.

For intaglio printing I am sure there is a lot of potential here still to be explored. I hope this blog post will inspire you to have a go yourself and contribute your findings to the ‘lens paper for printmaking’ body of knowledge! Please add any useful information in the comments section below…….