The Art of Paper Cutting

Making your own unique framed art work, cards, invitations, and other cut-paper crafts requires little more than time, patience, a steady hand, paper, and a sharp pair of small scissors.

The Origins of Paper Cutting

Scherenschnitte (sheer-en-shnit) is a unique folk art that was brought to America by immigrants from the German speaking areas of Europe. The term, derived from the German “schnitte”, meaning to cut, and refers to cut-paper designs that produce a look of lovely lace. During the late 18th and 19th centuries, these cut-paper designs were made by the Pennsylvania Dutch and their European counterparts.

It is believed that the craft was historically performed by men, using small knives with sharp blades. Women, intrigued with the decorative art form, quickly learned that they could use their sharp embroidery scissors to cut out large design areas, and their embroidery needles could be used to create delicate details by pricking the paper to form poke holes.

Liebsbrief, or love letters, are probably the most endearing designs of scherenschnitte. Using designs of hearts and flowers, young men could create a handcrafted love note that they could present to their sweetheart as a token of their affections. Similar scherenschnitte designs were also created and given as gifts for birthdays or other special occasions by men and women of all ages.

The delicate designs were sometimes embellished with painted water colors, and often included quaintly phrased inscriptions that were extremely sentimental. Although they are made of a simple piece of paper, they are a true gift of love and affection.

The art of scherenschnitte later developed into cutting out elaborate designs of nature scenes, including birds and trees, and people celebrating special events and occasions, such as weddings and children.

Silhouette type images can be found on ancient Greek vases, and even on cave walls from the stone age, but the art form that we consider silhouettes originated in the early 18th century. It is believed that the first silhouettes were made in 1700. They were the profiles of King William and Queen Mary. At the time, the English called them “shades”. Unlike the German art form of scherenschnitte, where a design is cut from parchment paper and displayed on a black background, silhouettes are formed by placing a dark image on a white background. Many of the first silhouettes were created by using lamp black (soot) on glass or plaster.

The art form became popular in England in the 1720’s and spread to France, and later in the century to the United States. It was in France that the term “silhouette” was first used to describe this style of paper cutting, originating from a Frenchman named Etienne de Silhouette, who was a finance minister for the Duke of Orleans. Although he was not the first to practice the art, the French were so impressed with his works, they soon began to refer to all types of shadow art as silhouettes.

While many consider profiles of subjects to be the only form of silhouettes, the art, like scherenschnitte, also can include designs that depict scenery of nature, and people enjoying the joys of everyday life.

Getting Started

Parchment or silhouette paper
Background paper (acid-free)
Sharp scissors such as embroidery, surgical, or cuticle scissors
Large pin (to make poke holes)
X-Acto knife or snap-off blade cutter
Hard surface to use X-Acto knife on, such as a piece of wood, or a cutting mat
Acid-free glue

1. Choose your pattern. If this is your first attempt at paper cutting, I suggest a pattern that is not too intricate
2. If your pattern is symmetrical, fold your paper in half and cut through both layers at the same time. If you are working with silhouette paper, you will draw the outline of your design on the wrong side of the paper, resulting in a reverse image.
3. Begin cutting in the center of your pattern and work your way out to the edges. It may be helpful to use a low tack masking tape to hold your design down while you cut. Work carefully and slowly. One wrong cut can ruin the whole design.
4. Carefully pull away the areas that you have cut out, pull off tape and open your paper to reveal the finished product.
5. If desired, you can use colored pencils, or water colors to add embellishment to your cut-paper piece. You can also add lettering or a message.
6. Carefully apply glue to the wrong side of your work, and center piece on your background paper.
7. You can now frame your work!

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