How I make my paper sculptures

I first started making paper sculpture in 2007, but during the first few years I tried a variety of techniques and media before I settled into a pattern that works for me. I have drawn upon my background in printmaking, graphic design, and pen-and-ink illustration to develop my own way of doing things.

1. It starts with a drawing.

During the early years I experimented with cutting freehand shapes out of acid-free paper of various colors, but this didn’t give me the flexibility or the control I wanted. I’d always been a pen-and-ink artist, so eventually I gravitated back to that. 

First come the pencils, then the ink. I erase the pencil lines after the ink dries if I want a more clear, crisp line, but leave some or all of the pencil lines in, if I want a softer look in the scan.

I draw on tracing paper to create wings or other overlapping levels: pencils, then inks.

I sometimes draw my original ink drawings on acid-free, finer-tooth white drawing paper, while other times I’ll use tracing paper overlays to make separate parts of an image.

2. Next step: a scan.

I love using hand-applied colors, especially with Prismacolor pencilsgouache, or acrylic paint. However, I soon discovered that a scan can turn the pigment colors muddy, when reproduced. Now I nearly always scan my ink drawings before I add any color.

3. After the scan, I add color.

I use Adobe Photoshop and/or Adobe Illustrator to add color to my ink drawings. This gives me several advantages. I can make variations on the base drawing’s colors–or make versions in entirely different colors–depending on the effect I’m going for.

Using digital media makes it possible to make the same “base drawing” in several different color variations.

4. Create “pieces to print” pages.

Here’s where using the digital component really comes in handy. I normally export the color work as a JPEG, once I’m ready for the next step. This gives me a lot of flexibility. I can adjust the size of the printed images according to my needs, and I also can make a master “to print” page that contains several repeats of the image I want.

This is one of the “pieces to print” pages for Coming Through!, a multiple original edition I started in 2012.

5. Print copies of my “pieces to print” pages.

I always use archival-quality, acid-free paper and fade-resistant inks for my printouts. No ink is totally lightfast in direct sunlight or high humidity, but I try to ensure that with proper care I’ve used inks that will keep their bright colors as long as possible. I also like to print on several different weights of paper.

Whenever possible, I print what are to become the upper layers on 20-lb. paper, for maximum flexibility with strength. The Southworth Archival Business Papers I normally use take embossing quite well without tearing, and hold the impressions without losing their sculpted form.

I prefer to print the base layer for any image on heavier stock, ideally 62-lb. paper (sometimes I’ll print intermediate layers on 32-lb. paper, depending on need and availability).

2-up dragon wings, one of the “pieces to print” pages for my Common Cliff Dragon–Male multiple original edition.

6. Cut out the images.

Now comes what I call the “lap art.” Cutting out the images is exacting work, but it also can be tedious. I normally station myself in front of the television, with a lap desk or corkboard to catch the clippings, for this part. It’s also a great thing to do with my hands while talking on the phone–kind of like some people crochet or do cross-stitch.

A lot of people ask if I use an X-ACTO knife for this. In general, no. X-ACTO blades get dull way fast for this kind of work, and then they tear the paper. I vastly prefer a small pair of very sharp scissors for most of this work. Until they grow dull (which takes a lot longer), they give me considerably more control on curves or intricate shapes. If there’s an inner shape to cut, sometimes in that case I’ll use an X-ACTO.

Here are pieces of a Coming Through! in various stages of being cut out, on a corkboard with two of my more indispensable tools: small, sharp scissors and my favorite tweezers.

7. Sculpt the cut-out pieces.

Now comes the actual sculpture-part. I have a variety of tools, some originally designed for leather working or bookbinding, a few stolen from my old set of etching tools, and others taken from my pottery-making tools. They help me burnish, crease, emboss, and otherwise manipulate the paper (especially the 20-lb. stock) to stretch and mold it into 3-D bas-relief forms.

Here are some more of my favorite tools.

8. Assemble and glue together. 

Once the pieces are sculpted, it’s time to put them together. Normally I ensure the raised forms will stay raised to the desired level by gluing little rolls of paper to the backs. These become the anchor-points for attaching upper layers to the heavier, lower layers.

Two layers of the Protector dragon: the 20-lb. layer is easier to emboss and crease. The 62-lb. layer (at right) anchors the sculpted top layer so it holds its form. The rolls of paper (on the back of the piece at left) provide dimension and anchor points.

If there are little creatures, leaves, etc. that are distinct parts (such as a dragon, a unicorn, a clump of grass, or a tree, I’ll sculpt and assemble them first, then layer them into the larger image I’m creating. Once it’s all assembled and glued together, it needs to dry at least overnight.

Once I’ve sculpted them and stabilized them on a solid base layer, I can create quite a bit of dimension, even at a very small size. These guys (made for the editions Protector [L] and Brave) would just fit into a 2-inch square.

As you can see, it’s a rather complex process from concept to finished piece. Sometimes a work is so complicated, I can’t face going through all that rigamarole more than once. Or perhaps I had to use some kind of hand-coloring or embellishment to finish it to my satisfaction. In such cases, there can only be one. 

But for most of the pieces I’ve been making in recent years, my little printmaker soul can’t stand to do all that work and only end up with one piece as the final product. Instead, I’m turning them into limited editions–but as you see, each is made individually by hand, and if you look carefully it’s easy to see small variations. Thus, each is unique: a true multiple original.

A Common Cliff Dragon–Male waits to be matted. Pieces need to dry at least overnight, after they’ve been sculpted and assembled.

So far, all my editions are limited to 25 copies. I figure that’s about all of any one design I’ll be able to stand making, and by then I’ll have made others I’m more interested in doing. Unlike traditional plate-based multiple-original print editions, however, I’m discovering that as I make these pieces I find better and more effective ways to give them a truly sculpted and well-defined execution. I make each piece to the best of my ability, but the latter ones in the edition may actually be “better” than the earlier ones, thanks to the learning curve.

9. Sign, number, etc.

The piece is not complete until it has been appropriately marked. A one-off original will usually have my signature hidden in it somewhere, but other times that’s not possible. In those cases I’ll sign and date it at the bottom.

The multiple-originals follow a more traditional numbering-and-signing format: the marking “AP” and/or a fraction-like number, frequently along with the date or dates (those also may be on the right), goes in the lower left-hand corner. In the middle, I’ll write the title in quotation marks. On the right is my signature. Here are a couple of examples, along with a guide to how to interpret those otherwise-possibly-cryptic markings:

This edition originated in 2017 and this particular piece was made in 2017. It is #2 of an edition of 25 originals. The title is Protector, and it was created by yours truly.
This one’s a little more complicated. It’s an Artist’s Proof (AP), the second of three experimental works I created from several printed pieces. I’ve been trying to find a good way to complete these pieces since 2013, but I think I’ve figured it out.

To alleviate the mystery a little more, each piece comes with an information sheet that tells about it and explains the markings.

IMAGES: All photos were taken by me of my artwork. You may use them unaltered, IF you include an attribution and a link back to this page. Thanks!

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Kansas City-based Jan S. Gephardt is a writer, artist, and teacher. She makes nationally-recognized paper sculpture and writes sf mystery novels about a sapient police dog.

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