3-D Paper scenarios

Landscapes, faces, characters, objects: with paper sculpture, in particular with bas-reliefs, it is possible to create veritable scenario having great potentialities and wide applications, as demonstrated by the works of some of the most famous "paper-sculpture" artists.

Laura Badalucco

Paper sculpture is a little-Know art to us, but one which offers incredible opportunities. This happens in half-reliefs and bas-reliefs - works created to be viewed only frontally, even more than in full reliefs. In England and above all in the United States, this art acquired some time ago a certain value and the works of paper-sculpture artists can be found more and more often in companies' advertisement posters. This is one of paper sculpture's main characteristics, in fact: that it can be applied to today's communication and image promotion systems, yielding extremely refined results. The paper sculpture therefore has two souls: the artistic soul and the commercial one. Side by side with the paper sculptures found in exhibitions are found works used in scenarios or as illustrations in advertising. In other cases, this art is applied at university levels for degrees in architecture and design in the USA, England but also in Italy to facilitate the understanding of the 3-dimensional project design or as a system of 3-D modelling. In the first case, what is of interest are the expressive potentialities and capabilities of the material and the realizations are often complex and laborious. But when the paper sculptures are used for didactic purposes, paper and cardboard are preferred because they are economical materials easy to manage with which a model can be made over and over without spending too much money or time. Furthermore, every sculpture derives from a specific project, studied in its most minute details, with attention aimed at rendering the three-dimensionality of the model using a two-dimensional material. This is very useful in teaching students to design. In order to obtain a paper sculpture, from the simplest to the most complex, all you need is paper and cardboard of different grammages, a paper cutter, glue, a bit of technique, great precision and a precise idea of what you want to make. And so it happens that we find paper sculptures not only in exhibitions and in books on paper art, but also in advertising illustrations, posters, TV commercials, company brochures, calendars and even on stamps, just to cite a few of the innumerable possibilities that this technique supplies. But how was all this born?


It is told that in the 18th century, Queen Anne of England liked to build small ships using paper and a cutter. And it is during this century that in England the art of making sculptures using paper assumed great importance. As proof, two bas-reliefs representing a ship made of paper in 1760 by Augustine Walker can still be found at the National Maritime Museum of Greenwich, England. Of this same period are also two paper bas-reliefs by the Dutchman Van Omeringh who represented entire landscapes with sailing vessels entering the port and sailors waiting to greet them on the wharf. Through the paper technique, this author has succeeded in representing the subjects' characteristic of the paintings of the time. The works of Van Omeringh, too, are present in the National Maritime Museum of Greenwich as well as in the Art Gallery of Manchester. During the following century, the growing production and commercialization of paper allowed a wider diffusion. For this reason, paper begins to be used in the 19th century for a wide number of applications. The window-dressers of London began for example to use paper scenarios in their shop windows, using the paper-sculpture technique.

The use of photography then permitted to enhance these works and use them further for promotional purposes. The shop windows were photographed and presented as advertising on printed paper. And so at the beginning of the 20th century, the technique of cutting, folding and gluing paper to obtain faces, characters and even entire landscapes begins to show its artistic value on one side and commercial value on the other.


The use of photography has allowed the potential of this art form to fully emerge.

Usually, bas-reliefs - very often used in illustrations and set designs, succeed in fully expressing their characteristics thanks to the skilful game of lights and shades obtained by the photographers. The sensation of depth of the bas-reliefs is derived from the combination of perspective and chiaroscuro more than from the actual depth of the work itself, which is usually limited to only a few centimetres.

Among the first sculptors who were able to fully exploit the possibilities supplied by the relationship between sculpture and photography are the Englishmen Bruce Angrave and Arthur Sadler, two illustrators who began to use paper as the basic material for their works. Sadler was also a shrewd promoter of paper sculpture as a technique adequate for commercial promotion thanks not only to his works but also to the books he has written on the subject. Presently, paper sculptures and their photographs are very much appreciated by creative directors above all in the United States, Canada,England and in some countries of northern Europe. So much so that, in the USA, an award dedicated to 3-D illustrations was born: the "3-Dimensional Illustration Awards Show" for the best 3-D works on a worldwide level.

TECHNIQUE AND PRECISION. To make the paper sculptures, paper and cardboard are curved, engraved, folded, rolled, cut and glued together. The type, grammage and superficial texture of the sheets used gain substantial importance in determining the final effect of the work. Many of the most interesting sculptures, as can be seen in these pages, are made exclusively with white papers, resulting in an extremely refined final piece of artwork. Above all in the case of white paper, all the more so if used in the bas-relief, the use of the contrast of light and shades in the photographs is of fundamental importance. The basis of it all is a very precise project, designed and tested before being used for the definitive work. The individual details that comprise the subject are then traced or re-drawn on the cardboard and then cut using a paper cutter or, better still, a scalpel. While full relief sculptures are generally self-supported because they are based on simple geometric figures like cylinders, half-reliefs and bas-reliefs require a rigid support, most of the time comprised of a very thick and compact piece of cardboard. On this piece of cardboard are then mounted, glued together, the parts comprising the subject, proceeding by subsequent levels until the desired thickness is obtained. The use and the choice of the glue are also very important. The pieces are glued together using the minimum quantity of glue possible, applied with the help of small sticks or spatulas. To enhance the three-dimensional effect, the surface of the single pieces is treated according to simple techniques that, when adequately applied, create incredible material effects: from the veined surface of wood, to the delicate petals of flowers, to the softness of hair, feathers and furs. All this is obtained by patiently applying some basic techniques on the individual details not yet glued together. Besides cutting, essential in any 3-1) work, the first among all the techniques of surface treatment is the superficial incision, or half-cut. This technique carves the surface so that it can be slightly folded along a precise line, straight or curved, thus giving three-dimensionality to the piece of cardboard. The other most frequently used technique is curling. In this case, the sheet or a portion of it is rolled around a wooden stick or a piece of steel or around the fingers to curve it. This system is also used to slightly curve the edges of the figures so that they attain a greater 3-D effect. If you observe the pictures contained in these pages closely, it is possible to distinguish these techniques. In the country landscape of Jonathan Milne, for example, the cane leaves are made three-dimensional thanks to the half-cut and the trees and the clouds are created through the edge curving technique. If you look at the stones of the wall in the foreground, you can notice another technique: wrinkling. It, too, is very frequently used when working with white paper. To increase the 3-D effect, colored and decorated papers, such as marbled papers, are used. Sometimes, the pieces comprising the subjects depicted are painted directly by the artists through spray or watercolours, as in the case of the man on the snow by Johnna Bandle or the characters of Sally Vitsky.

THE ARTISTS. In these pages are presented the works of some of the most famous paper artists from the USA as well as other countries. All these artists have won the first or second prize in previous years in the 3-Dimensional Illustration Awards Show. Each artist is characterized by the use of a particular technique, such as carving, curling or curving, or by the use of certain types of paper, from exclusively white paper to multi-colored, to painted paper in order to obtain special effects, to recycled paper and cardboard. Jonathan Milne, for example, a Canadian artist, has a preference for white paper which he uses to make extremely refined landscapes that have been used for example by The New York Times, IBM, American Express, New York University, BBC and the Banca Fideuram in Italy as illustrations, advertising, book covers, posters. So much so that they have been requested by the Canadian post office to be used for a series of stamps. American artist Johnna Bandle loves to use white paper together with colored sheets and even portions of photographs, as in the case of advertising for Fesilor of America. Among her most interesting pieces, there are the illustrations made for a calendar in which every month is represented by a paper bas-relief. These are very striking works even though not very complex in their structure. Her clients are, for example, 3M, Delta Airlines, Kimberly-Clark and Visa. Soren Thaae, from Denmark, uses almost exclusively cardboard to obtain subjects where the basic material used must be easily readable. For example, his is the image used for the Duracell poster where the simple game of colours perfectly renders the idea of half-light and of a bundle of light. Among his clients are Shell Denmark, the Baltic Insurance Company and Unicef. Even though they are also made with colored cardboard, the creations of Leo Monahan have a very different effect, due in part to their extreme complexity and the large number of pieces comprising his works. Just observe the geniality of the flock of birds created for a poster for the German firm Technocell or the posters made for Hammermill Paper and you can understand their complexity. The colored cardboard is often very cut-up and painted to give the idea of the plumage, and this characteristic is found in many other works by the same artist. His pieces have also been used by AT&T, Coca-Cola, General Motors and Helwett Packard. A different case is represented by Eugene Hoffman who prefers recovered materials for his works. And so, a lobster if born from a cardboard tube and the bas-relief of a factory from a corrugated cardboard box. His works are particularly requested by private and public companies of the state of Colorado, USA. The American Hal Lose has created bas-reliefs for, among others, Bell Atlantic, Ciba Geigy, Scott Paper Company and Smith Kline Beecham, while Sally Vitsky has created, besides book covers for Walden Books, pieces for Business Week, General Electric, IBM, Newsweek and Reader's Digest, specializing in colored illustrations for the publishing field. These authors are only a few of the many who have made paper sculptures not only their passion, but also their profession. The works of these artists are very well known not only in the USA, but also in northern Europe. The hope is that an art such as this one, whose expressive potential is so closely tied to our means of communication, can also find an adequate space in Italy, not only artistically or didactically, and that it can become the future profession of some young graphic designers.

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