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Archive for the ‘paper cutting’ Category

Doodling with a Knife

Posted by Avital Pinnick on February 2, 2012

Freeform Papercut

I haven’t done a papercut for quite a while. This is a small (5″x7″) freeform papercut that I made this afternoon. Basically, I drew a bunch of leaves and cut them out.

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Video: Handmade Portraits: Rob Ryan

Posted by Avital Pinnick on October 16, 2011

I found a link to this video about Rob Ryan on Patricia Zapata’s blog, A Little Hut. What a lovely way to start the morning! I’ve long admired Rob Ryan’s work. Sometimes it seems as though paper cutters are like lace-makers, creating soaring flights of fancy out of the humblest materials, while receiving little recognition. Rob Ryan, who grew up in the UK and moved around a lot as a child, narrates the entire video and talks about the themes of his work, like being human and loving others.

The photography is superb, with lots of close-ups of his work. Rob often integrates text with images in a whimsical and naive style. He is currently working on a book whose characters are based on birds, “A Sky Full of Kindness.” The fairy-tale story is about overcoming fears and growing old together. I love the cutting with the husband bird singing: “All we can do is live from day to day, and I want to grow old with you until my feathers go grey and my beak wrinkles up and my wings are too weak to fly. All we can do is live from day to day.”

He has two other books in print:

If you love paper-cutting, I strongly recommend this book: Paper Cutting Book: Contemporary Artists, Timeless Craft. Rob Ryan wrote the preface and is one of the 26 artists whose work is featured (Yulia Brodskaya is also in this volume!). My copy is getting a little battered because it seems to live permanently in the pile of books that I can’t bear to put away on the bookshelves.

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Paper-Cutting Tutorial: Hanukkah Lamp

Posted by Avital Pinnick on December 1, 2010

Paper Cutting: Hanukkah Lamp

My only qualification for writing a tutorial on the art of paper-cutting is that I consider myself a beginner and the learning process is fairly fresh in my mind! Since Hanukkah starts tonight, I thought a Hanukkah lamp would be an appropriate subject.

One of the biggest hurdles, I find, is drafting the actual design for cutting. If you’re a natural artist and can sketch anything you like, then skip the main part of the tutorial and go straight to the cutting tips. If you’re not sure of your drawing abilities, this tutorial will show you how to turn a photograph into a paper-cutting.

The image I used is an 1873 silver Hanukkah lamp from the collection of the Jewish Museum in Prague. It was lent to the White House for Hanukkah, 2009. I chose this design because the photo was clear and the design seemed suitable. You’ll have to judge your own tolerance for fiddly details!


  • Photograph (digital image)
  • Xacto knife With No. 11 blades
  • Self-healing cutting mat, 18 x 24 inches (this is a good size because the corners of a small mat can snag the edges of the cuts when you are turning the paper)
  • Paper for cutting (I used ordinary printer paper. You can use something else as long as it’s not too thick or delicate)
  • Stapler
  • Staple remover
  • Pencil with hard lead (e.g., 2H or 3H, so that the lines don’t smear)
  • Tracing paper (tracing paper comes in different weights. A thin weight is easier to see through)
  • Paper for backing
  • Glue stick
  • MagEyes with #7 (2.75X) lens (optional, but they make a big difference)


1. Insert the photo file into an MS Word document. (I chose Word because it’s readily available and allows you to resize the photo. Also, Word compresses graphics, which will make it easier to print than if you were using a graphics program like Photoshop or a photo-editing program like Picasa.)

Paper-Cutting Tutorial 1

2. Print the page (yes, I know I need to replace my toner cartridge).

Paper-Cutting Tutorial 2

3. Staple thin tracing paper to one half of the design.

Paper-Cutting Tutorial 3

4. With a sharp, hard-lead pencil, trace the outlines of the design. Remember that you don’t have to reproduce the design slavishly. If some parts are too fiddly to cut, feel free to simplify. Where there are areas of overlap, for example, between the oil cups and the back plate, you’ll have to figure out how to interpret the design. The design must remain interconnected so that pieces don’t fall apart, unless you plan to glue them in later.

Paper-Cutting Tutorial 4

5. Carefully remove the tracing from the printed sheet with the staple remover.

6. Fold your paper-cutting paper in half.

Paper-Cutting Tutorial 5

7. Staple the tracing to the folded white paper, aligning the fold line and the edge of the tracing.

Paper-Cutting Tutorial 6

8. Cut the small bits first. On the right side of the photo you see my MagEyes. I strongly recommend getting a pair because they really reduce the eye strain and make it much easier to see fine details.

Paper-Cutting Tutorial 7

9. Lattice-work is easier to cut if you draw the criss-crossing lines as bars and then cut out the spaces between the bars. You get a more accurate representation that way. The blobby finials at the top were turned into fleur-de-lis because it was easier for me to cut them.

Paper-Cutting Tutorial 8

10. Carefully cut out the design, working from small pieces to larger areas. Occasionally turn your work over to check the accuracy of your cuts.

Paper-Cutting Tutorial 9

11. If parts of your design are asymmetrical (e.g., the shamash or lamp on the left side), leave that area uncut. You will work it after the symmetrical part has been unfolded.

12. When you are finished cutting the symmetrical parts of the design, carefully unfold and flatten the piece.

13. Cut asymmetrical design elements.

14. You’re not finished yet! Go over the design carefully and neaten the edges, cutting wispy bits away, straightening corners, and refining curves.

15. Use glue stick to glue the cutting to a background paper or card stock. Don’t try to apply glue to the entire cutting. A dab in each corner will be sufficient. Note: I recommend that you wait a few hours or a day before mounting your paper-cutting. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve mounted a piece and then noticed something that I wanted to fix, after it was already glued to the backing.

16. Last but not least: Sign and date your work.

Cutting Tips

  • Before you dive in, make some practice cuts on a folded piece of paper. Curves will be harder than straight lines but eventually you’ll get the hang of it.
  • Cutting a double thickness of paper requires a bit more force than a single layer, but avoid pressing too hard with the knife. Beginners tend to use too much pressure, causing the blade to sink into the cutting mat. This creates drag on the blade and makes cutting curves a lot harder. Try to use just enough pressure to cut through all the layers of paper without sinking the tip of the blade into the mat. Remember that you’re not carving a linoleum block!
  • Each time you cut out a small piece, gently poke it out of the folded paper. I use the knife tip to pin the cut-out bit to the mat, while gently lifting the folded paper. It should make a satisfying little popping sound if your cuts are clean and meet at the corners. If you encounter any resistance at all, stop. This usually means that some of the cuts don’t meet at the corners. Turn over the folded paper and cut from the other side. Do not use force to separate the cut-out because you may tear the paper or leave feathery little fibers at the corners.
  • After you have poked the cut-out piece, sweep it out of the way. You must poke these bits out so that they don’t get caught between the paper layers and interfere with the cutting. If a piece does slip between the layers, gently open the layers and shake it out. Every now and then, stop to brush the cut bits into a wastepaper basket. This is a very messy craft!
  • If you are cutting lots of similar motifs like the candle flames, do each part assembly-line style. I cut the central flame for each candle, followed by the left part and the right part. This makes repeated motifs more consistent.
  • If you mess up a part of the design, considering cutting it out or changing your design on the fly. I frequently change my mind about a design while I’m cutting it.
  • Repeated rectangles: Cut all the straight parallel lines in one direction first. Turn the cutting 90 degrees and cut the straight parallel lines perpendicular to the first set of lines. If you’re not sure whether your cuts are meeting at the corners, turn the design over and go over the corners from the back side.
  • Curves: Work slowly with the knife (don’t press too hard!) and anchor the paper close to the curve with the fingernail of your left index finger. This will reduce the chances of the paper tearing or stretching (paper is surprisingly stretchy).
  • Long, skinny shapes: Cut the long sides first, without cutting the ends. Then cut the ends.
  • Corners: Generally, it’s easier to start at the corner and work outwards.
  • Intricate edges: For designs like the fleur-de-lis finials, cut them at an early stage without cutting away the entire background. Leaving the background attached gives you a more stable piece to work with. When it’s time to cut away the background, you’ll only have to cut the simpler curves and edges.

Good luck! If I’ve forgotten anything, please tell me.

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Lady of Shallott Finished

Posted by Avital Pinnick on November 29, 2010

Paper Cutting: Lady of Shallott

I made a few changes in the “Lady” this morning. I removed the frame, because I decided it didn’t add much. I reworked the willow on the left and pruned the tree on the right. Then I got a little carried away with the rushes, and threw in some flowers, a dragonfly, a couple irises, and a bullfrog on a lily pad. I could have done more with the willow but I didn’t want to over-work that part of the design, so I added a few random leaves and called it a day. Next time I’ll give more thought to the direction of the leaves. This is the first time I’ve tried doing something that resembled a natural landscape (rather than, say, biblical plants), so I didn’t take into consideration the fact that the leaves should be a little less rigid.

I added it to my Flickr set. This is my tenth paper cutting.

In progress shot of paper cutting from yesterday:

Lady of Shallott

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Paper Cutting: Lady of Shallott

Posted by Avital Pinnick on November 28, 2010

Lady of Shallott

I haven’t done a paper-cutting in nearly two years. I finally found my knives and cutting mat and asked my son to move them into the living room. I drafted the picture last night (about half an hour’s work) and cut it today. It took me a little over two hours to cut the entire thing.

It hasn’t been mounted yet. I’m not even sure it’s finished. I will probably change the willows on the left because they’re a bit too stiff. Some more movement in the leaves would be an improvement, so that it doesn’t look like one  of those American memorial samplers with willows and epitaphs that were so popular in the 19th century.  On the other hand, the samplers and painting are from the same date. I’ll have to give it some thought….

Apart from generally simplifying the composition, I placed  willows on the left and bare branches on the right to show the progression from life to death. I also changed the tapestry rondels on the cloth draped over the boat to geometric designs because there are limits to what I can do with a knife.

This paper cutting is based on the 1888 painting by the pre-Raphaelite painter, John William Waterhouse, of a scene from Tennyson’s poem, “The Lady of Shallott.”

The painting illustrates part IV of the poem:

And down the river’s dim expanse
Like some bold seer in a trance,
Seeing all his own mischance—
With glassy countenance
Did she look to Camelot.
And at the closing of the day
She loosed the chain, and down she lay;
The broad stream bore her far away,
The Lady of Shalott.

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Book Review: Melichson, Art of Paper Cutting

Posted by Avital Pinnick on November 9, 2009


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.


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.


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.


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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