What to work on?

Four full months in 2010 went by in a blink of an eye. It’s time to work on the commission for a Swiss watchmaker’s Beijing boutique.

A commission I am working on


Questions from Whitney Tembelis, Student, Institute of Art and Design, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA

Whitney Tembelis wrote:

I am a student at Milwaukee’s Institute of Art and Design and I am writing a paper on the art of cut paper. I have been a fan of your work for a while and am wondering if you could tell me any personal history, thoughts on the media, or any knowledge of the art’s history.

I wrote:

I came across Chinese paper cutting long time ago and knew that it was a kind of folk art. But I didn’t start making my own until 2005. In college, we learned to practice “scholarly” art like Chinese calligraphy and landscape painting. Folk art was not part of the academic curriculum.

My father is an art lover and amateur artist. An interior designer by training, he likes all kinds of art. When I went back to Hong Kong in 2005, he gave me his small paper cutting collection. I immediately wanted to know whether I had the chops to make them because they looked so intricate and difficult to create.

And the rest is history.

My thoughts on Chinese paper cutting at the time was that it had a great sense of innocence, reflecting farm lives with playfulness and motifs of nature, children, and folklore. Our lives are so different now that the innocence is lost. To me, staying true to the spirit of paper cutting is most important and that means to reflect the life, psyche, and culture of our time.

The slide show below is a traditional paper cutting that inspired me to create “Childhood Torture–Covering Mouth” in 2006.

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I have done a lot of research on the history and contemporary development of Chinese and Swiss paper cuttings. I went to both countries to visit galleries, museums, and artists to see what was done and what’s being created today.

Chinese paper cutting has been around for thousands of years but it couldn’t be earlier than the invention of paper. China invented paper during the Han dynasty, around 206 B.C.-A.D. 220.

Many paper cuttings were hand cut by village women in their homes. Grandmothers, mothers, and daughters gathered after a day of household chores to create cuttings to pass time, earn extra income, or use as decorations for special occasions. Paper cuttings were not supposed to last. People glued them directly on window panes and walls.

The women used sewing scissors that were not very small. But I have seen some very experienced cutting artists who made fairly intricate pieces with the sewing scissors.

Traditional Chinese paper cuttings have many different styles, largely based on regions where they are/were made. Often, the paper cuttings were created using red paper because the color red is considered very auspicious in Chinese culture. Over time, many more colors are used and some of those in my collection are hand painted with an array of vivid colors. There’s also a technique to glue the paper cutting on top of gold foil or other painted papers.

In addition to being an art form in its own right, paper cutting was also used to make pattern/design templates for embroidery, lanterns, and textiles.

New Paper Cutouts

My photographer, Eddie Lam, in Hong Kong sent me the images of the new paper cutouts I have made so far this year. I just uploaded them on my Web site few hours ago.

You can see them under “Paper Cutouts”>”Paper Cutouts: 2010-present.”


Here’s one of the three cutouts from “The Butterfly Gown” series.

The Butterfly Gown I

The Butterfly Gown I, rice paper cutout on silk, 16x16," 2010

The Bird That Thinks It’s A Plane

In between cutting the fourth and the fifth pieces from “The Butterfly Gown” series, I made this little piece titled “The Bird That Thinks It’s A Plane.”

The Bird That Thinks It's A Plane

The Bird That Thinks It's A Plane, rice paper cutout on silk, 12x12," 2010

The Bird That Thinks It's A Plane, detail

The Bird That Thinks It's A Plane, detail

Questions from Lorriane Nam, Illustration Student, Rhode Island School of Design, Rhode Island, USA

How and why did you start using cut paper?

I was looking for a medium that could incorporate all my interests and training as a painter, calligrapher, and digital artist. And I wanted that medium to have a distinct aesthetics and creative process that suit my personality and abilities. In addition, the medium should allow me to mix the old with the new. Paper cutting fulfills all of those criteria and more.

Why do you go through the physical process of cutting paper instead of more time efficient programs such as Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop to create the illusion of cut paper?

After making digital art for nearly a decade, I missed making art with my hands. The physically demanding process of cutting paper is the best part of it all. After a long day of cutting, the aches in my body make me feel so alive. I don’t do it because it is easy and fun. I do it because it’s difficult and painful.

How do you keep your art from being too decorative and too distracting from the original message?

That is a great question. The heavy-loaded message in my work is what keeps it being too decorative. The ornate patterns and intricate compositions draw the viewers in and they soon realize the content is not “pretty.” This paradox is very important. As far as distraction, some of my works are very complex and can be overwhelming visually and conceptually. But that is simply how some things are in life. I try to tell the truth as I see it.

"Beach Ball Blast" computer rendering

"Beach Ball Blast," digital rendering, 2009 (used as template for the paper cutout by hand)

Beach Ball Blast

"Beach Ball Blast," rice paper cutout, 2009 (a complex piece about urgent environmental issues)

Who are your influences?

I have answered this question before. But I can answer it again differently. My influences are people who help to define my life early on. They are not necessarily big name artists but parents, teachers, mentors, peers, and people close to me.

But I do look at other artists, the trailblazers that are wildly successful and history making. These artists work extremely hard and never give up. They have network of friends and colleagues that helped in their success. They are insanely competitive because they have tremendous confidence in their ability and talent. Their work is highly relevant to the time they live in.

What advice do you have for up and coming illustrators/artists?

Here are several things I have learned or wish I had learned:

1. Learn the business of art while you are in school and can take courses other than art. This part of learning takes trial and error and a lot of proactivity because art school still doesn’t teach you how to survive as an artist.

2. Go to the best art program there is and in a location where you can immerse yourself in great community support and opportunities, good museums and galleries, and where you can build a network of friends and professionals in the field.

3. Exhibit as much as possible.

4. Learn to write and talk about your art.

5. Travel and see the world.

6. Work hard every single day.

7. Work with people you trust and respect.

8. A seemingly great opportunity at hand might not be all that great if it deters you from achieving the long term goal. Have the guts to say no and stay on course.

More Productive=Bigger Mess

So far, I have been exceedingly productive. In the picture is the fourth paper cutout from “The Butterfly Gown” series in progress.

Butterfly Gown IV

Butterfly Gown IV, rice paper cutout on silk, 16x16," 2010 (work in progress)

It means more mess on the carpet.

Paper on floor

I love the contrast between the meticulous order of the paper cutout and the chaos it left behind.

11 Questions from Jonathan Chapman, Graphic Design Student, Leeds College of Art, Leeds, United Kingdom

1.What methods do you use to produce a papercut design?

The Butterfly Gown II

The Butterfly Gown II, rice paper cutout on silk, 16x16," 2010

I spend a lot of time reading the news, observing people and things, researching from books, magazines, and the Internet. During this initial phase, I keep all the options open.

And then, I go through the process of filtering, refinement, and polishing the idea. This involves putting the idea on paper and/or on the computer. The laborious cutting occurs last because it is an irreversible phase. I have to be very certain of what I cut out and leave in.

2. What is it about paper that drives you to use it as a medium?

Paper, rice paper in particular, has both personal and cultural significance to me. It is the first art material I knew and used as a young student of Chinese calligraphy. China invented paper and I feel a sense of intimacy and legitimacy in using it in my work.

3. When creating a paper design, do you first illustrate/layout the composition using traditional illustrative material or go straight to paper and why do you do so?

Often times, I start by making pencil/pen drawings on paper. But sometimes when I am on the computer and suddenly an idea occurs, I go straight to the computer program to put the image together. I don’t normally start with the rice paper.

4. What is it about paper cutting that you enjoy most?

I just really love the sensation when the razor-sharp blade slices into the paper, cutting a clean, perfect line. And, I am continually amazed by the level of complexity paper cutting is capable of, given the simplicity of the materials, process, and tools I use.

5. How do you feel paper cutting is viewed as an illustrative method? Do you think it is viewed as an art, as design, a craft etc..

It is so interesting how my work is defined by others as so many things like illustration, fine art, craft, design, and so on. It shows how interdisciplinary the medium is. Contemporary paper cutting is really crossing the line all over the place and I love it to be so progressive and forward thinking, while it is backed by a long, traditional lineage.

I don’t think about the label too much, although a clearly defined label or discipline can help in some practical ways. There is not yet a universal genre named for cut paper artists.

6. Do you feel traditional layout & typography have an influence on your designs? If so, in what way?

Traditional paper cutting has tremendous influence on me. I salute to and am inspired by paper cuttings made by unknown folk artists in the past. For example, my use of flowers, insects, birds, and fish are also very common in traditional paper cutting. Symmetry, repetition, and symbolic figuration dominate a lot of compositions in traditional cutouts that are also found in my work.

Typography has less, obvious influence in my work because I want to communicate by visual language. But I appreciate the principles of typography to create subtle beauty and variations in each stroke I cutout and achieve distinctive style and aesthetic through extreme and detail manipulation.

7. Do you find hand drawn illustration of importance to development  of your papercut work?

The hand drawing process is very important to the development of my work. There is no better and more effective way to capture an idea in mind than drawing or sketching. Even after I digitally compose an image, I make hand drawn adjustments. Sometimes, I also pencil in details directly onto the rice paper while I am cutting.

8. What do you find influences your designs?

Traditional Chinese paper cutting, Japanese woodblock print, patterns in fashion, architecture, and nature, politics, current affairs, environmental issues, the tension between the old and the new, and the contrast between the East and the West.

9. Which of your projects do you feel most proud of and why?

I felt a great sense of accomplishment after finishing 4 months of painstaking cutting of “Atomic Jellyfish,” the first large paper cutout I made with extreme intricacy. It sets the tone for other pieces following it. Many people first know my work through “Atomic Jellyfish.” I also am really happy with “Hanging Gown,” an earlier piece I made in 2006 when I first began cutting paper. The chain link fence has become my signature motif.

10. As papercutting is becoming quite popular, how do you see its progression in the future?

I would like to see cut paper artists gaining wider appeal and major recognition in regions that don’t already have a historic tradition of the medium. I’d like for it to progress into a highly regarded, stand-alone contemporary art form.

11. Do you have any current interesting projects coming up that you can talk about?

I have been very productive in the start of 2010. I just completed the first three cutouts from the “The Butterfly Gown” series and two pieces from “The Memory Windows” series. These works will go to different exhibitions this year.