The craft skills of paper illustration are finding favour

The intricacy and artistry of paper illustration continues to appeal in the digital era, its suggestion of craft skills finding favour with private and commercial clients alike. Anna Richardson enjoys the stunning effects of the discipline

Last year, Phaidon’s Sonya Dyakova wooed the design industry with her paper alphabet cover design for Sculpture Today. The success was put down in part to the appreciation of the physical and sculptural in an increasingly digital world. But there was also a certain ‘How do they do that?’ reaction, triggered by the simple and effective paper typography.

The work of illustrator Yulia Brodskaya has recently sparked a similar reaction, as her finely sculpted, decorative typographic illustrations for The Guardian brought her to wider attention.

Brodskaya believes the craft element is key to the increasing popularity of her illustrations. ‘People see there is a lot of work [involved]. It’s time-consuming and requires a lot of effort,’ she says, ‘hand-made work is much more appreciated.’ Each illustration is based on detailed sketches, and Brodskaya then selects paper colours, cuts them into long strips and glues them to the original sketched lines in a distinctive quilling technique.

Fellow paper sculptor Calvin Nicholls has been plying his craft – paper sculptures of wildlife that can take up to six weeks to complete are his speciality – since the 1980s and shows an almost poetic enthusiasm for his medium. ‘Paper is very tactile and so much is possible with it,’ he says. ‘I love how the light interacts with the scores and textures that I impose on paper. It is soft enough to accept embossing yet structurally sound enough to hold a desired form, while retaining its smooth elegance.’ Nicholls, whose works include art pieces as well as commercial commissions, likes to use archival paper where possible to enable the illustration to stand the test of time. ‘Cotton-based, lignin-free papers are terrific,’ says Nicholls.

Illustrator Gail Armstrong uses all sorts of papers – ‘I can’t go into Paperchase without walking out with a huge roll under my arm,’ she admits – and also creates her own paper using scanning and other digital technologies. ‘Although [paper] is a very crafts-based medium, technology has had an influence,’ she says. Armstrong has noticed a growing interest in her work. ‘I don’t know whether it’s because craft is popular at the moment, but certainly the past year and a half have been phenomenally busy,’ says Armstrong. Her recent clients include The Guardian, Men’s Health and the Guernsey Post, which commissioned six stamps to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Henry VIII’s coronation. ‘It was a very open brief, the main stipulation being to not use one wife on each stamp,’ says Armstrong of the latter. ‘It involved a lot of historical and visual research.’

Paper sculpture is used by advertisers looking for an edge, says Nicholls, especially in companies with a connection to paper, but also among those that want a subtle surprise factor. In a campaign for Stella Artois last year, Nicholls said the white-on-white paper work provided the unexpected, prompting people to take a second look.

Photography is an integral part of the process. ‘One of the qualities or rewards in paper sculpting is how light interacts with the low-relief final piece – it results in a powerful illusion of depth and full dimensionality,’ explains Nicholls. ‘I love the process of doing my own photography. It rounds out the entire process.’

‘Good photography adds another dimension to the sculptures,’ agrees Armstrong. ‘The lighting can emphasise a mood or atmosphere or indicate a time of day. Many of my sculptures are built with a false perspective to create a more dramatic depth and good photography can really help emphasise that.’

As in other forms of illustration, paper sculptors straddle both the commercial and art world, with commissions abundant from both. A new book on paper from Black Dog Publishing – Paper: Tear, Fold, Rip, Crease, Cut – features Brodskaya’s illustrations alongside those of artists such as Claire Brewster, who cuts entomological installations from maps and atlases, and Ingrid Siliakus, whose paper architecture is inspired by artists such as MC Escher and architects including Hendrik Petrus Berlage and Antonio Gaudí.

Jonathan Milne, who embarked on paper sculpture after a career as a studio lettering artist, creative director and graphic designer, talks of the creative joy as a two-dimensional concept sketch is transformed into three dimensions and ‘is then kissed by applied subtle lighting that brings it to light’.

‘Although on a different plane, I guess we have an affinity with the likes of Michelangelo,’ he says of his fellow paper illustrators. ‘After all, it is sculpture too.’

Paper: Tear, Fold, Rip, Crease, Cut will be published this month by Black Dog Publishing, priced £24.95

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