The Art of Paper Cutting
Generations of paper-cutting artists have been developing and improving their skills, bringing out the charms of this folk art.
Chinese paper cutting can be described as one of the most popular forms. Generations of paper cutting artists have been developing and improving their skills, bringing out the charms of folk art.
With a pair of scissors, a few pieces of red paper, and no special tools or skills, you can present the beauty and harmony of the world with only a pair of hands. In the ever- changing Chinese folk art family, paper cutting can be described as one of the most popular and grounded forms. Before papermaking was invented, ancient Chinese had been using techniques like carving, engraving, picking, cutting, and scissoring to create patterns and decorations on gold foil, leather, silk or even leaves.
After the invention of papermaking in the Han Dynasty (206 BC–AD 220), the use of paper, which had then become a common and easily accessed material, was applied more widely. Paper cutting works of art have become decorations and symbols for celebration, funerals, birthdays, blessings and other events. Because of this practical value, the art of paper cutting has been passed down for thousands of years. It has a wide distribution in China and is divided into different styles and features. After developments, it has gradually grown into a lively folk art representing traditional values. In September 2009, China's paper cutting was included in the list of the representative works of human intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO as a world-class intangible heritage.
Paper cutting, is a form of art that requires scissors, a knife or other tools to engrave or carve on a variety of paper with different methods to create shapes and patterns, such as window grilles, door letters, walls, ceiling and lamp flowers. The carrier of this art is mainly paper, gold and silver foil, bark, leaves, cloth, leather or other sheet materials. Its characteristics are mainly manifested in a two-dimensional concept, the sense of scissors and paper, the lines and decorations, freehand expression, implied meaning and other aspects.
The history of paper cutting can be traced back to the Han (206 BC–AD 220) and Tang (618–907) dynasties when folk women cut gold and silver foil and colour silk into flowers and birds posted on the temples as fashionable decoration. Later, whenever there were festivals or weddings, people would cut colour paper into a variety of flowers, animals or characters in stories, post them on windows (“window grilles”) and door headers (“door letters”) as ornaments, and use them as gift decorations or
embroidery patterns to add to the festivity.
During the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) Dynasties, the art of paper cutting matured and reached its heyday. Folk paper cutting art was applied widely. Floral ornaments on lamps, fan decorations and embroidered patterns originally were all paper cutting works before undergoing other processes. More often, people would cut paper into home decorative items like window grilles, cabinet, happy and ceiling flowers that were used to decorate doors, windows and rooms.
Paper cutting in different regions comes in various styles. Shaanxi paper- cut is rough and unrestrained, Hebei is good with colour, Shanxi and Shandong ones are plain and heavy, Guangdong is good at using gold paper lining, Jiangsu paper cutting is fine and detailed, and Zhejiang is skillful at the decoration pattern on the sides. In Xicheng District of Beijing there is an intangible cultural heritage project called “Beijing School Paper Cutting (Shen Peinong).” The representative and inheritor of this art Jin Henian believes that the development of modern Beijing paper cutting has its unique side. He believes that Beijing's paper cutting and that of the northwest share similar origins: “The northwest has a strong regional style of print and paper cutting. ”
In Beijing's paper cutting circle, many would remember Shen Peinong. This paper cutting artist, who passed away more than ten years ago, has by far published the most paper cuttings. In an era of few publicity channels, Shen and his mentor Teng Fengqian, a professor at the Central Academy of Craft Art (Academy of Arts & Design, Tsinghua University at present), brought on People’s Daily and Beijing Evening News and other newspapers the folk art of paper cutting which most people thought belonged to the fields and farms. They also showcased art at Jingshan Park and created the Beijing School Paper Cutting.
In the development of Beijing School Paper Cutting, the role of folk art expert Teng Fengqian cannot be ignored. He was the first group of artists after the founding of the People's Republic of China to create paper cutting works. He is also the founder of Beijing School Paper Cutting. In 1956, he created Blossoming Sunflower Toward the Sun which won him the Silver Award of German Leipzig Trade Fair, which was met with popularity.
Paper cutting work is a handmade artform, with scissors and carving knives as the basic tools for creation. Scissors generally can cut two or three at once while knives can carve five or six. The artist generally holds the knife vertically, and cuts out patterns according to the underlying model. Compared with scissors, the advantage of using the knife is that it processes a number of patterns simultaneously, saving time and energy.
After the idea is determined, you can design the draft and layout, and bring out a black and white effect. For skilled artists, technique is not an issue. Great ideas and compositions are the key to creating great paper cuttings.
With paper as the essential material, other basic units are the lines and block surface, along with basic design of point, line, and plane. Due to material constraints, paper cutting is not adept at presenting complex content, nor does it emphasise light and shadow. An artist must focus on strength and avoid showing any weakness in the paper cutting. This can be done by using a flat composition, simplicity, using concise lines, so that viewers can always see the highlights.
Talking about the unique expression of paper cutting, Jin said: “Paper cutting requires exaggeration and summarising, so the characters in the work are generally short and thick; the proportion of height is not as strict as it is in painting. In one of the patterns a crane stands on a pine tree, but in reality, this isn't possible.
For a second example, the mud-toy style children are generally compressed to a proportion where the head is as large as the body.” He said that the facial features in paper cutting are connected in a more unique way. Exaggerated eyes come together with the two temples; eyebrows, nose and mouth are also connected with one line. As long as you master the use of line and modelling, the images of the characters can be beautifully made.
Cutting or carving is the most important procedure in the paper cutting process. With the use of cutting, carving or both techniques, one can make a beautiful window grille. In this process, the scissors is used like pen. Every cut should be clean, every line should be full, and it must be accurate. Folk artists use a variety of paper folding techniques to obtain different decorative effects. These techniques are widely applied in a number of continuous patterns for window grilles: First fold the paper, cut it according to the intended shapes, unfold the paper and you will get a symmetrical pattern.
In the paper cutting process people mainly adopt two techniques: yin and yang cut. The yin cut refers mainly to the technique of hollowing out the paper. When making the phoenix pattern, an artist would cut with the tip of the scissors into the paper, and cut out the hollow shapes according to the required decorative pattern. The feathers of the bird, the eyes, and the peacock tail are all made with the yin cut technique. In contrast, the yang cut is more difficult because the artist needs to have good control of the tip of the scissors and be cautious in every cut.
If not careful enough, the sharp blade is likely to go beyond the overall shape, and destroy the design. The yang cut is focused on making a silhouette on a large sheet of paper with the use of sharp scissors. Paper cutting requires variation, so the combination of a variety of techniques is widely preferred. The combination of yin and yang cut enables a multilevel expression.
Paper cutting with scissors requires only one pair, but when using a knife, this will require more than one. In every papercutting artist's toolbox, there is a pad about a square of one chi (33.33 centimetres), coated with oil about five millimetres thick, containing yellow wax and charcoal ash at a proportion of seven to three. This pad is used to protect the blade when carving on paper.
If the waxy surface becomes less smooth as time goes on, it can heated up and melted again to be reused. Paper cutting artists who do not use scissors have a sharp knife, but it is now often replaced by a scalpel. The upper part of the blade is clamped with a brush tube and wrapped around with thread. There is also a sharp awl, iron tweezers and four or five small nails. With all these tools, the paper cutting artist is ready to go.
The paper cutting artist will first put the white paper on the pattern, and then hold them over an oil lamp to smoke out the lines; or when creating a new pattern, it can be painted it out on the white paper with a brush. After that, place a few pieces of thin paper on the pad, and then the smoked or painted pattern over the thin paper, and finally fix the position with four small nails. Press the paper, and at the same time cut it according to the pattern, starting from the fine lines. Then layer by layer, from the inside to the outside, keep cutting until complete. If a small hole is needed, it can be made with an awl.
After cutting and carving, the four small nails are removed gently, pick out the paper scraps one by one from the pattern on the pad, and finally pick up the work with tweezers and put it into the box. If creating window grille, the paper should be thicker. Whether alone or in pairs, the composition must be symmetrical. This can be done by folding a piece of red paper on the red side and aligning it with the backside. Then cover it with the smoked or painted pattern, keep cutting until complete, unfold it and it will show a symmetrical pattern.
Once upon a time, ancient art history books would comment that folk paper cutting was “not elegant enough for the hall of artwork.” After Shen's works were published in People’s Daily and Beijing Daily, this folk art that came from the fields and farms has been recognised and deemed worthy of entering “the hall of artwork,” and its popularity and publicity has greatly increased.
On March 25, 1958, Beijing Evening Post published Shen's paper cutting titled design, the first time his work was ever published in the newspaper. “It was something new at that time. In particular, the paper cutting work that was the size of a stamp was very impressive and attractive. It had both the characteristics of rural window grilles and the current elements; the article that accompanied complemented the art work well.”
Shen, a student of Teng, was an idol of that time. As a seriously disabled person, Shen found it hard to raise his head because all of his joints were hard. Fortunately, with dexterous fingers, Professor Teng taught him patiently without any reservation. “I admired Shen for his art and his character, and he is a role model to me.” Chen Yuan, a Beijing writer, spoke of ideas that many young people also had at that time.
Shen's students respected their teacher. Yang Yingying, an artist who followed Shen to learn the art of paper cutting at seven years old, recalled: “The first time I saw him, he was creating with his deft fingers, and I was fascinated. It was amazing watching him use the carving knife. While studying paper cutting, I really felt his charisma and saw in him what a true master he is.”
In 1975, Jin Henian who was just over 30 came to the cultural centre of Xicheng District for the art program because he liked painting. Leaders of the centre brought him to meet Shen. At that time, Jin was already a big fan of Shen, and he began to learn from Shen. He would sometimes escort his teacher for walks or buy him some books and paper. In 1978, Jin and his teacher held a Beijing paper cutting art exhibition in Jingshan Park. The exhibition not only presented Jin and Shen's works, but also the best paper cutting collections from across the country.
Over the years, Jin has always collected his works. In the collection are Jin's copies of his teacher's works. In the last page, Jin wrote: “Take pictures of the works and print them out in different sizes. You can achieve success since you got this opportunity of having a sample to study. Opportunity comes only once and it will not come again. You must keep working hard, for success does not come easy. April 28, 2011.”
Beijing School Paper Cutting has a history of more than five decades, and each generation of the artists tried to change and innovate the techniques. But Jin did not justimproved the techniques; he achieved breakthrough in the aspect of material. In his home, he showed us an A4 paper sized work, inspired by a trademark of a northern Shaanxi noodle shop. When Jin saw the trademark, he knew it was something he could work with. So, he created something new based on it, a modern paper cutting in a rural style. More specifically, Jin passed by the shops of North Xidan Street and saw a poster on the door of a noodle shop. It was a black and white paper cutting of a northern Shaanxi farmer, wearing a white vest and with white towel on his head, raised his head and ate noodles with chopsticks.
Jin was suddenly moved by the picture for its rustic style. He immediately got to work at home and used a colour separation method to give the characters and text different colours such as red, blue, orange, and pink, and added goldfish and lotuses, symbolising abundance. On the body of the fish's body here were also golden sequins. He put a black frame around the title “Shaanxi Food Family” and used six colours including pink, yellow, orange, ochre and others as the background, adding in colour and taste to create a wonderful rhythm for the work.
When it comes to the development and heritage of Beijing School Paper Cutting, Jin said that copying and learning the works of the ancestors was necessary, but one should not be limited by tradition because innovation and personal style are also important. Paper cutting artists should have their own views on beauty, better understand what people like, study what should be expressed, and how to make it happen. The biggest role of paper cutting is bringing beauty to people's lives.
Designing a draft
Cutting out a rabbit pattern with a pair of scissors
Carving a pattern with a knife