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Craftsman's breakthrough paints bright picture

Updated: Nov 23, 2023 By ZHANG YU in Shijiazhuang China Daily Print
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A visitor checks out Baohong Watercolor Paper at an art museum in Baoding, Hebei province, in October. CHINA DAILY

Perfectionist makes great efforts to develop nation's first high-quality watercolor paper

A paper-making company in North China is receiving an increasing number of orders for watercolor paper from overseas customers who are attracted by the product's high quality.

"This is a miracle achievement given that even the domestic market for high-end watercolor paper has been dominated by overseas products since the beginning of the century," said Shi Liming, a paper-making craftsman who has been working on watercolor paper research and production for over three decades.

Based in Baoding, Hebei province, Shi's Baoding Huarong Paper Factory was established in 1992 in the city's Jingxiu district.

The factory mainly produces paper for watercolor painting, sketching, oil painting and industrial use, with great efforts aimed at producing high-quality watercolor paper.

"Paper is one of the four great inventions of our country, but the development of high-end watercolor paper started relatively late," said 53-year-old Shi, adding that he wanted to do something to fill the domestic blank in making high-grade watercolor paper.

After 31 years, his product has grabbed more than half of the imported watercolor paper market share, and its domestic market share has exceeded 60 percent.

Additionally, overseas customers in more than 40 countries and regions have placed a number of orders in recent years.

Born in a small village in Lianchi district, Baoding, Shi's childhood revolved around his father's work at a nearby paper mill.

It was during these times that he developed a keen interest in the process of making paper.

Back in 1980, when he was 10 years old, he watched his father and colleagues work and became particularly interested in the paper-making process.

"My father often told me about the process and even let me try making it," Shi said. When he turned 19, he also found a job at a local paper mill.

Watercolor artist Michael Solovyev paints a piece at the inauguration ceremony of an art museum in Baoding, Hebei province, in September. CHINA DAILY

While working in the paper-making industry, Shi found that domestic mills at the time could only produce wood-pulp paper, with no technology for manufacturing high-quality all-cotton watercolor paper.

"The main material for high-grade watercolor paper is cotton, whereas ordinary watercolor paper is made of wood pulp," Shi said.

He then decided to establish his own mill to figure out how to produce watercolor paper and gradually improve the quality.

But the bold move not only required courage, but also persistence and determination.

Occupied with production and running the business, Shi didn't establish his research laboratory until 2012, when he began to devote himself to research and development.

He purchased various watercolor papers from abroad and tirelessly experimented with water usage, cold and hot pressing, and other techniques.

After more than eight months of dedicated work, Shi finally achieved a breakthrough in mid-2013, successfully producing his first batch of all-cotton watercolor paper.

"I was happy and excited about it because it proved that my research was headed in the right direction," said Shi when reflecting on the accomplishment.

His first batch of all-cotton watercolor paper underwent rigorous evaluations by professional testing institutions, showing the physical indicators and other key data meeting certain standards.

However, Shi realized that there was still room for improvement.

Seeking feedback from renowned artists, he discovered that the paper lacked durability and was prone to becoming fuzzy.

A worker inspects paper quality at Baohong Watercolor Paper's factory in Baoding on Nov 2. CHINA DAILY

Recognizing the importance of both color vibrancy and paper storage capabilities, he once again immersed himself in his lab, conducting countless experiments to fine-tune the manufacturing process, carefully controlling humidity and temperature.

After three rounds of final testing, the independently developed all-cotton watercolor paper with improved quality entered the market in March 2014.

The next year, his technology of making the paper was recognized by the China National Light Industry Council, stating that it filled the market gap for domestic high-quality watercolor paper and reached international advanced levels.

Furthermore, the paper-making project was awarded a prestigious prize from the council for technological progress in 2020.

Ding Chongqiong, a renowned watercolor artist in the province and teacher at Baoding-based Hebei Agricultural University, has been involved in multiple tests of the watercolor paper developed by Shi.

"When I heard that a local entrepreneur wanted to fully develop a high-end watercolor paper, I felt it was my obligation as an artist to help," Ding said.

"His paper is very advanced in terms of thickness, durability, water absorption and other important characteristics," she said, adding that it caters very well to the tastes of artists.

According to Ding, Shi has frequently discussed papers with artists like her, asking for their suggestions for improvement.

Shi's passion for relentlessly pursuing excellence in the manufacture of watercolor paper has not only helped improve the country's watercolor paper industry, but also received recognition both domestically and internationally.

He was chosen to participate in the drafting and formulation of a new national standard for watercolor paper that came into force in 2021.

A craftsman shows the paper-making process at Baoding Huarong Paper Factory in November. CHINA DAILY

During the process, he provided a wealth of experimental data on all-cotton watercolor paper, serving as a critical resource for watercolor paper manufacturers, enhancing the quality and meeting market demand.

His paper has also gained an overseas reputation as being the first Chinese independent brand of watercolor paper to enter the international painting world.

According to Shi, his high-end major product — Baohong Watercolor Paper — has better color rendering, texture and erasability than ordinary papers.

It can be stored for a long time and even after more than 10 years, it still retains its characteristics. "Our high-end watercolor paper has undergone professional aging tests and can even be preserved for a hundred years," he said.

With all the advantages, his company has established R&D cooperation and business contacts with various art academies in China, including the Central Academy of Fine Arts and the China Academy of Art.

Many university schools in art, fashion, architecture and animation have chosen the Baoding-made watercolor paper for teaching, he said.

According to Shi, the company has an annual production capacity of around 500 metric tons of watercolor paper, 20 percent of which is for export.

Although he has achieved his goal, Shi doesn't stop pursuing perfection.

"Watercolor paper quality has improved over the years, but I strive for perfection," he said.

A child learns to draw a watercolor painting in Baoding in October. CHINA DAILY

His current routine day consists of getting up early and spending hours in his lab.

In the afternoon, Shi visits his factory to inspect the equipment and ensure the quality of his products.

Afterward, he goes to his workshop to make a few sheets of hemp paper, immersing himself in the joy of the paper-making process.

"I am fascinated by the art of making paper and I find great joy in the process," he said.

Shi believes that the paper-making process often triggers moments of inspiration, offering innovative solutions to challenges. Thus, he often promptly returns to his lab to explore new possibilities based on inspiration gained from crafting.

"Each artist has different requirements for paper. Some prefer more resilient paper, while others seek enhanced blending capabilities," he said.

Shi's enthusiasm and dedication to paper-making already have an inheritor.

His son, Shi Xinkuan, who recently graduated from university, has also taken up paper-making.

"I found it fascinating to watch my grandfather and father make paper when I was young. Now, I have become very skilled in this, and I plan to continue passing down this technique," he said.

The craft of paper-making has been transforming from one generation to another in Shi's family, marking their dedication to preserving and developing this ancient craft.

"We hope to contribute to the ongoing legacy of Chinese paper-making and help shape the future of watercolor paper production," Shi said.

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