One of the best things about papercutting is that you don’t need to spend very much on tools or materials to get started. In fact, the low cost of the art form was one of the reasons I started working with paper as a medium, because I felt more able to experiment and make mistakes knowing there weren’t lots of very expensive art materials at stake. Expensive materials make me panic! Paper on the other hand practically grows on trees (sorry, sorry).
At the beginning I pretty much used any paper, including recycling envelopes and plain old printer paper. But over the years I’ve come to find the papercutting tools and materials that work best for me (I haven’t been sponsored for this by the way, I’ve just tried a lot of different things over the years and I thought I’d share them in case they can be of use to other budding papercutting artists out there!)
When I first began papercutting I used any paper I found lying about in my studio, but over time I’ve discovered that some types of paper work better then others. You get a better result with a higher quality paper, which is really important. Its pretty disheartening to spend 10 hours cutting out a delicate image and realise it doesn’t look as nice as it should!
For me the following factors are important when choosing a paper to use for a papercut:
Weight – You would imagine that the thinner a piece of paper is, the easier it would be to cut a design from it. However I’ve found that very thin paper increases the likelihood of your scalpel slipping across your image. I also find thinner papers also get more easily damaged (or tear!) in the cutting process and during framing. However you don’t want a paper which is so thick that it makes cutting fine details difficult or tires your hand and wrist out because you have to press really hard. I tend to work with papers that are between 120gsm and 160gsm.
Texture – This is purely subjective of course. I have seen very beautiful Chinese papercuts which use thin paper with no texture. I actually like my papercuts to have a little bit of texture as I think it makes them look less mass produced, because very flat paper reminds me of wall stickers and vinyl.
Colour choice – I like using colour in my work, but again that is entirely up to the individual. Because I make my images in a series I wanted a paper brand that had lots of colour choices which compliment each other. You can also make papercuts any colour you like by spray painting them once finished as Rob Ryan does, but quite frankly this terrifies me. Its important to remember that if you use darker paper it can make the tracing process more difficult if you have a design you want to transfer, but you can use coloured carbon paper for this.
Acid and lignin free – This is SO important if you are going to sell your original papercuts, especially if they are coloured. High quality art papers will be acid free, which means your artwork will last longer as papers which contain acids become brittle and disintegrate at a faster rate. Similarly, lignin is a substance which is sometimes used in paper, and as it breaks down over time it releases acids which cause papers to discolour or break down faster. If you’re a paper geek like me you might find this report by HP of interest. Of course, paper is an ephemeral material, so its always best to include a care card with your artwork recommending people don’t put their papercuts in direct sunlight or near sources of heat or damp.
I like to create coloured papercuts so I now only use professional quality pastel papers, my favourite being Canson’s Mi-Teintes Pastel Paper. It weighs 160 gsm, which means it’s strong without being too thick. It has two different grains, one is finer then the other, and I tend to cut on the rougher grained side so my final image is finer as this scans or photographs better for prints. It comes in a wide range of colours in A1 sheets, so I can make several images of different sizes from a sheet. Its also acid free and has been treated with mould-resistant chemicals.
When cutting an image you can use scissors or a scalpel, and because I cut paper like I’m drawing I like to use a scalpel. There are so many different makes and brands of scalpel out there it can be a bit overwhelming! You can get scalpels with padded handles or ring handles that you put your finger through, and there are blades available in different shapes and sizes – you can even get swivel blades which rotate as you work. I change my scalpel blade every 20 minutes or so as this makes cutting easier and reduces the chances of delicate details ripping. Because of this, I ended up using the Swann-Morton No. 3G Stainless Steel handle with their No.10A blades because these are easy to source, fairly low cost, and work really well. When I am working I tend to wrap the handle and blade with electrical tape so I can hold the handle close to the blade, but please make your own independent decisions about this as the blades are really sharp and its so easy to cut yourself!
A cutting mat is so important to keep your artwork, your table and YOU safe while you work! There are so many versions out there, from the cheap ones found in craft shops to more expensive professional mats. I change my mat every few months as I find otherwise the scalpel starts to slip into old cuts and I make more mistakes. I think that investing in a slightly more professional mat from an art supply shop will give you more success – look out for a mat that has a flexible surface as the cheaper ones will be more brittle. One thing that is worth spending on is the larger size, I would get at least A3. This is because even though you’ll still be moving the paper around while you cut, if you have a larger mat you are less likely to let your paper hang off the edge which can leave a small indent where this has been pressing while you work. Its a pain to try to smooth it out again, so its best avoided!
These are all just products I’ve discovered and selected along my way, but there are some great websites and blogs out there with lots of papercutting advice including All About Papercutting by the wonderful and amazing Elsa Mora, Papercuts by Joe and Folk Art Papercuts by Suzy Taylor, all of whom I referred to years ago when I first started papercutting. Good luck with your own papercutting endeavors, and I’ll be posting again about how I mount and frame my papercuts soon!