Portrait in Paper: It's Not What You Think!

comments (11) August 25th, 2008     

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Jeff_Rudell Jeffery Rudell, contributor
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This detail of a portrait in paper extends the boundaries of what is usually called paper craft. This picture is 5 feet tall by 4 feet wide. It
is cut from a single large sheet of black paper using an X-Acto knife
and it is mounted on a piece of stretched canvas.
This is not a drawing in ink. This is not painted. This is just paper
on canvas.
A detail showing relative scale between a craft knife and the left pupil. The overall dimensions of the work are 48 x 60.
Viewed from across a room, one would never guess that this picture was actually carved from a single piece of black paper. 
This detail of a portrait in paper extends the boundaries of what is usually called paper craft. This picture is 5 feet tall by 4 feet wide. It
is cut from a single large sheet of black paper using an X-Acto knife
and it is mounted on a piece of stretched canvas.
This is not a drawing in ink. This is not painted. This is just paper
on canvas.

This detail of a portrait in paper extends the boundaries of what is usually called "paper craft." This picture is 5 feet tall by 4 feet wide. It is cut from a single large sheet of black paper using an X-Acto knife and it is mounted on a piece of stretched canvas. This is not a drawing in ink. This is not painted. This is just paper on canvas.

Photo: Jeff Rudell

If you've ever found yourself in a creative slump, out of ideas, frustrated, you are not alone. Some time ago I found myself in just such a funk. I hated all of my ideas. Everything I wanted to do seemed to have already been done (and done better) by someone before me. My skills seemed to be deserting me, and I was at a loss as to how best to reverse the situation. I wasn't particularly "blocked"—I mean, I was making things—but I wasn't very satisfied with my work.

I talked about situation with my friends, a few coworkers, others. Everyone had a bit of advice ("Keep your hands busy," "Don't worry, it will pass," "Try taking up a different craft for a little while to 'mix things up' a bit"). Nothing seemed to help. Then a stranger offered a comment (yes, it had gotten to the point where I was complaining to strangers). He said, "You're discouraged."

"Yes, exactly," I replied. "I'm discouraged; I've lost all hope."

" 'Losing all hope' is hopelessness," he countered. "You don't seem hopeless. You seem discouraged, as in 'deprived of courage.' "

What?! Was he calling me a coward? I was immediately defensive and indignant and I was quite certain he was wrong ("What does he know? He's just some stranger.").

Well, as everyone knows, some comments—especially those that have a ring of truth to them—sometimes refuse to cooperate when you try to ignore them. This was just such a comment and it got me thinking a great deal about how I work, what I think about when I think about my work, and how I think about creating new work. What I discovered was that I was approaching everything I did from the position, "What can I do with paper." That "with paper" is important because it was causing me all manner of trouble. When I thought about what I could do "with paper" my mind went immediately to all the things I had seen done with paper in the past and this led directly to my feeling discouraged (see above).

I tried rephrasing the sentence a few times, using a different preposition. Finally, I just shortened the sentence altogether: "What can I do?" The answer to this question was infinitely more interesting. I could do whatever I wanted, presumably. I could do anything. Anything. So, I decided that I wanted to do a portrait of a friend of mine. It was only after deciding what I wanted to do, that I actually came back to my medium of choice—paper. The order in which I thought about all this was important, in my case: 1) I can do a portrait; 2) I can do it in paper.

So, I set about proving this all to myself and the result is the work I am sharing with you this week.

Just to be clear. The picture here is 5 feet tall by 4 feet wide. It is cut from a single large sheet of black paper using an X-Acto knife and it is mounted on a piece of stretched, unprimed painter's canvas. This is not a drawing in ink. This is not painted. This is just paper on canvas.

There are some curious things about this piece. It is a silhouette, of sorts, but certainly not your everyday, garden variety silhouette. It is not a line drawing, either, since I never put pen and ink to paper, yet it is composed of lines. It is not built up of strokes, like a painting, yet it appears to be "sketched and shaded" much like a drawing. In fact, I never added anything to the paper. Rather, I cut away bits and pieces in an act of careful reduction, until the portrait of my friend was "revealed" in the paper itself. Most curious of all, though it is not the world's most beautiful or accomplished portrait of a person, there is something very special and sort of spectacular about it all the same.

Just as important to remember, however, is that the skills necessary to create something of this sort are relatively modest. The skills needed to create the little row of paper flowers, the coral napkin ring, or the bird place cards, in my previous posts, are exactly the same skills needed here. The difference occurs in the scale of the object (admittedly, this is pretty large) and in putting paper to work in service of a project one might not normally expect paper to be used for.

All of this brought me back to that word "discouraged." Of course, now I realized I was discouraged; I was "deprived of courage" because I kept limiting myself to doing with paper only those things that I thought paper ought to be used for. The truth is, paper can do more than we think it can do. What limitation there is, lies not in the paper but in the mind of the crafter. This was not a particularly fun thing to learn, but the lesson has served me well ever since. I've made oven mitts, a belt, some buttons, a picture frame, lots of pink and white flowers, and countless other things out of paper since making this portrait. Much of this work looks distinctly like something only I would make and very little of it looks like something I've seen before.

I'd like to thank all the visitors to the site who have been so generous with their compliments of my work. I am deeply grateful for each of them. But, I want to stress that there is no real secret to any of the work I do. The skills are, for the most part, very simply and easily mastered. Scale, scope, and patience sometimes play a role with larger or more complicated projects, but what crafter doesn't have some experience with scale, scope, and patience?!

If you love working with paper as much as I do (and I love it enormously), I encourage you to take on projects that are larger than any you've done before; projects that are complicated or challenging; projects that promise to be more beautiful than you think possible. Pull out some paper. Pull out a craft knife or a pair of scissors and cut it out: Don't stop until you've surprised yourself with something beautiful.

 


A detail of the eye section reveals that the piece dissolves into abstraction and a tangle of intersecting lines upon close viewing.

 


Paper, one of the so-called "fiber arts," has a tendency to droop or sag when hung vertically. To prevent this, I borrowed a technique from the quilting world and attached my cut-paper work to a piece of stretched canvas with hundreds of individually tied threads.

 


This 18" x 20" maquette was cut free-hand in order to explore how a larger piece might need to be designed. I liked the "looseness" of the line in this work so much that I incorporated it, along with greater detail, into the finished, larger piece.

 


If capturing a likeness seems too daunting, try something free-form, such as this tree in winter. I cut this from a white piece of paper and framed it against a black piece of paper to give it a more "wintery" and less "sinister" look. (18" x 30")

 


Instead of asking yourself what you can make out of paper, try deciding what you want to make first, and then choose paper as your medium. The truth is, you can do more with paper than you think is possible. (24" x 30")

 

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Comments (11)

fatewineroses writes: Just wanted to thank you for your article. Not only for sharing your work, but also the process and the inspiration it took to get you there. For those of us who struggle to work towards being an artistic being, your words become a mantra within the mind.

Thank you.
Posted: 3:13 pm on October 22nd
agonza writes: Yes, your work is amazing, but more than that I find your articles more inspiring. You have some insight. I enjoy reading your articles because there is always a jewel of encouragement that is usually exactly what I need to hear.
Thanks!
Posted: 7:46 pm on September 6th
paperrain writes: This is one of the most mind-blowing ideas I've seen in a long time! It seems so simple, given all the stenciling and masking and papercarving that I've tried and that's come to my attention, but this portrait and the tree are just over the top fabulous! Thanks for sharing!
Posted: 1:07 pm on September 2nd
Jrsjewels writes: This is amazing! Thanks for sharing!
Posted: 10:04 pm on August 30th
nifer writes: I'm in awe that is some piece of work absolutely beautiful.
Posted: 4:14 pm on August 30th
Lillyspence writes: How many of us have been stuck in the same place? Dis-couraged. Thanks so much for encouraging us to play and take chances! Wow!
Posted: 9:43 am on August 30th
rabbitgirl writes: Fantastic. Inspiring. As always edging outside the box.
Posted: 9:52 am on August 28th
LauraMM writes: Wow!!! THIS IS AMAZING!!! I love how you detailed the eyes - below the eyes - well, that whole piece is just amazing.
Posted: 9:42 pm on August 25th
Jen_W writes: This completely blew my mind and it was just what I needed, as I'm in the homestretch of writing a book on outdoor crafts. Maybe I can finish the pesky manuscript today!
Posted: 4:07 pm on August 25th
artZgirl writes: Wow! This is more than just a hobby for you I guess?

Brilliant!
Posted: 12:17 pm on August 25th
NicholeAnnette writes: These are awesome! I will continue to watch for anything with your name on it with excitement.
Posted: 11:29 am on August 25th
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