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Book Review: Melichson, Art of Paper Cutting

Posted by Avital Pinnick on November 9, 2009

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Henya Melichson, The Art of Paper Cutting (Quarry Books, 2009)


Henya Melichson brings years of art experience to her book on paper-cutting, recently published by Quarry Books. Her background in painting and drawing is evident in her detailed, almost three-dimensional, quality of her paper cuttings. In fact, she likens paper cutting to drawing with a knife.

Born in Tel Aviv in 1953, Melichson worked in oils, aquarelles, and sketching until 1984, when she turned almost exclusively to paper cutting. She is a member of the Guild of American Paper Cutters.

Her book begins with general instructions for paper cutting. The body of the book is an extensive  selection of paper cuttings that she has made over the years. They are stunning. Her style ranges from classical to folkloric to art deco, with many cuttings devoted to Jewish themes. These photos provide a sense of her intricate and versatile style. (Note: if you want to see higher resolution versions, click the photos to go to the Flickr page. Click “All sizes” to see a larger size.)

I think my favourite is this paper cutting of a woman in a window overlooking a garden (below). The alternating positive and negative borders around the window are striking and unusual. The woman’s face is rendered in a 3/4 pose, much more common in painting and drawing than in paper cutting.

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Jerusalem is a perennial favourite among Jewish paper cutters. Here, the feathers of the doves surrounding the city of Jerusalem are in the spiky style of Polish paper cutting. Melichson’s more  elaborate cuttings are often accompanied by details with notes.

In the lower right corner, she shows layers of bricks cut in positive. If you look at the buildings on the left page, you can see bricks in the negative. The juxtaposition of positive and negative creates different values of shadow, a subtle means of conveying depth in a flat medium.

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The heart with animals (below) is a common paper-cutting motif in Europe, especially Switzerland. The tip on the facing page is to draw the “hidden” animals before the foliage.

If you want to see an extraordinary use of positive/negative, see how the vines cross the cherubs’ bodies at the bottom of the composition.  It’s almost subliminal.

Now look at the top of the trunk of the heart-shaped tree. The positive and negative elements are so evenly balanced so that you can’t tell where the trunk ends and foliage begins.

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The book concludes with a section of templates for simpler projects.

In all fairness, I should point that this book will not teach you to make paper cuttings like hers. The templates are, however, suitable for a beginner. If you have never attempted paper cutting before, this is something to bear in mind before you rush out and buy the book. If you already have paper-cutting experience or are an ambitious beginner, keep reading.

Most of the patterns in the main part of the book could well have the following directions:

1. Fold paper in half.
2. Draw insanely intricate drawing.
3. Cut.

In all fairness, most of her paper cuttings are too large to allow the inclusion of templates in a small format book. She would have to put them on a CD. Besides, the goal of a good how-to book is to inspire you to branch out in your  own directions, not to copy the work of the master. Her patterns are not patterns in the conventional sense. The value of her book lies in where it takes you after you’ve mastered the basics.

The Art of Paper Cutting fills an important gap in the available books on the subject, most of which teach the craft at an extremely basic level. Stewart Walton’s Craft Workshop: Paper Cutting is a representative example. Walton provides templates for a range of projects that are generally not too difficult. After you have  mastered greeting cards, shelf edgings, and a few bookmarks, what’s next? There are almost no books for the intermediate level of this craft.

If you have some paper-cutting experience under your belt already, study Melichson’s treatment of hair, facial features, architectural details, and perspective.  Her background in painting and drawing distinguishes her paper cuttings from most other artists’ work.

This book reinforces a notion I have long suspected: If you want to take your paper-cutting skills to the next level, you have to develop your sketching and drafting skills. Cutting paper is not a difficult skill to master, provided you have adequate coordination, eyesight, and a supply of fresh blades. The real test of skill lies in designing a balanced and effective composition. Melichson’s short section on negative and positive design in paper cutting is one of the few discussions of the problem of portraying three-dimensions in this most uncompromisingly two-dimensional  of crafts. She succeeds in creating a world of perspective, light, and texture, with tiny holes in paper.

I will leave you with one tip: tracing templates is tedious and inaccurate. It’s much easier to photocopy or scan and print the template on white paper and staple it (through areas that will be cut out, obviously) to your cutting paper. The stapled areas must be cut  last to ensure that the layers do not slip.

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One Response to “Book Review: Melichson, Art of Paper Cutting”

  1. Awesome book, absolutely breathtaking designs.

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