Today we have digital watermarks. 500 years ago you would go the paper maker to have a personal logo designed.
Today, you can order paper and stationary with your own watermark online. Or put your watermark into the various digital files you send out into the world. Paper factories also place their logo inside the paper in the form of a watermark.
Several hundred years ago, affluent Europeans would do the same thing. Back then, the process involved a visit to the paper maker, who would use a metal thread to trace the insignia of kings and noblemen into the wire frame used to create the paper.
The paper makers and paper mills of the time also elected to feature their own logo in the hand-made papers.
When artists such as Peter Paul Rubens, Leonardo da Vinci, and Michelangelo – to mention some of the greatest – required paper for a drawing, they would go to the nearest paper shop to stock up on supplies.
The watermarks allow us to determine which paper maker or paper mill created these papers. Thus, the watermarks can help date a drawing or print. The watermark can also offer hints suggesting the geographic location of the artist.
If you have several drawings where the artist’s identity is unknown, features of the paper and the paper’s watermark can help supply the crucial clue.
An active open source database of watermarks in art on paper
The National Gallery of Denmark is home to large collections of masterpieces on paper with watermarks. The School of Conservation in Copenhagen houses a large collection of papers with watermarks from Danish paper mills.
A collaborative project aims to build a database of watermarks in art on paper; the database is to support research on the history of paper and art history in Denmark and internationally.
The first collections to be documented will be those of the National Gallery of Denmark and the School of Conservation.
Through the years, art historians and conservators have documented watermarks by means of less-than-ideal tools, e.g. hand-drawn copying, time-consuming X-ray photography, and inaccurate photographs.
Since 2002 specialists from the EU have worked on opportunities for digital documentation, finally arriving at beta-radiographic X-ray technology with great advantages. The method is fast and offers accurate reproduction. It is safe for the works of art, and the information obtained is available digitally.
In November 2009, a pilot project testing the X-ray equipment at the Gallery – connecting it to loaned scanning and software equipment – yielded very promising results.
Once the digital photographic and X-ray recordings have been made, they will be uploaded to ”The Memory of Paper”, an active open source database completed in 2009 by the EU Bernstein Project.
At present, funding for a Europeana-Imperealle project via the EU is being applied for; the National Gallery of Denmark will be a partner in the project. The project proposal will incorporate master drawings from the National Gallery of Denmark’s collections.
Doctor Jørgen Wadum, Head of Conservation, project owner, SMK
Anja Scocozza, B.Sc. (art on paper), project manager, SMK
Chris Fischer, MA, Head of the Centre for Advanced Studies in Master Drawings, SMK
Ingelise Nielsen, PhD., Head of the Department of Graphic Art, The School of Conservation, Copenhagen.