Paper sculptures can fool the eye into believing they are full-form sculptures made from solid, heavy materials, that is, until you get close enough to see that the sculpture consists of nothing more than paper. Artists use papers typically employed for watercolor or acrylic paintings to make both two- and three-dimensional sculptures. Sculpting with paper includes various techniques that fall under the broader categories of folding, cutting, scoring, embossing and curling. In most cases, acid-free papers provide the best media.
Using folding techniques, paper artists use a variety of folds to make a sculpture, including origami, which incorporates a series of varied folds in paper. Some basic folds used in origami and paper sculpture include pleats, reverse folds, mountain and squash folds, petal folds and triangle folds, to name just a few.
Razor and Scissor Cuts
Relief paper sculptors use a cutting stylus with interchangeable pointed, rounded or tipped razor blades that fit into the tool's end. Scissors are also used, but the razor-bladed tool offers more control when making intricate snowflake-like cuts. After coming up with an overall design, which often includes a series of layers to create dimension in the sculpture, smaller pieces are cut, wet and molded to specific shapes, and then glued in place with an acid-free glue. Another form of cutting is called fringing, which is done exactly as it sounds: A series of strips or fringes are cut along an edge of paper.
Embossing and Molding
Paper sculpture artists will use anything that can make an impression into a sheet of paper: found objects, elements of nature, foam-core cutouts, wood blocks, linocut blocks, textured fabrics, and even string or thread. To create raised, textured or recessed areas in the sculpture, the artist first wets the paper and then applies pressure to the item on the paper while it's sandwiched between two pieces of felt, which is why heavier and thicker watercolor papers work best. In the other method of embossing, the wet paper dries around the molded item. The thicker the paper, the more vivid the results. Another method of embossing involves using a hand-operated press and an etched plate that impresses its design onto the paper.
Curls and Spirals
To create curls and spirals, sculptors use square solid boxes, edges of tables, scissors or even round objects to make curls and spirals out of paper. By gently tugging a piece of paper along one edge of a wooden block while applying tension on the opposite end, you can create a soft S-curve in paper. To cut a spiral, start at one end of a cutout circle and begin cutting into the circle, following the curve of the paper until you reach the center. Sculptors also used rolling techniques to create cones and cylinder shapes.
Tools, Accessories and Scoring
Along with the artist's cutting devices, paper relief sculptors also use small flat oil paintbrushes to paint on glue where needed to attach parts of the sculpture to itself, pencils for curling or drawing out designs, or a metal or wooden stylus to score paper that creates an indentation in the paper medium. Safety compasses create nicely round shapes and include a small ruler for measurements. Gluing techniques involve holding the glued piece still for at least 30 seconds until the white glue bonds.
As a native Californian, artist, journalist and published author, Laurie Brenner began writing professionally in 1975. She has written for newspapers, magazines, online publications and sites. Brenner graduated from San Diego's Coleman College.