Enthusiasm for the artform: a little look at the history of papercuts

It’s confession time, I’m a (not so) secret geek. Reading is one of my favourite hobbies and learning about how a medium started leads to so many new ideas. This post is a little glimpse into the background of papercutting as an art form. If you can recommend readings on papercutting art let me know in the comments.

Papercutting is a traditional artform using cutting tools such as scissors or knives to form designs onto paper. In China, paper cutting was called ‘Jianzhi’. Nowadays, when paper is so commonplace, it’s easy to forget what a luxury item it once was. Papercutting pre-dates paper (which has only been around since 2 CE), before paper surfaces such as gold leaf, silk or hide were used.1

As the quality and availability of paper expanding during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE) papercuts became the most popular folk artform in China. Papercutting functioned as the opposing artform toe calligraphy, which was considered an intellectual discipline. Motifs in papercutting passed from mother to daughter.2

A modern day papercut master Ho Yumei3 explains how she learnt the art below:

Artist Ho Yumei explaining how she learnt traditional papercutting from her mother

As papercutting expanded across China the art was used to decorate homes during festivals and celebrations. There was a ritual spiritual aspect to papercutting with sacrifices adorned too.

On the occasion of a marriage, one will find papercuts of dragons and phoenixes or a pair of mandarin ducks that denote marital bliss on the gift containers (fig. 2). Xi hua or “happy flowers” are papercuts found on presents, dishes, cakes, and candles for family celebration. During ancestral or religious worship, symmetrical geometric patterns are used to decorate ritual utensils. These patterns include cuttings of Chinese characters that carry an auspicious meaning, e.g., the character fu for “luck”. 4

A Glimpse of Chinese Culture Through Papercuts (asianstudies.org)

From the 14th century onwards papercutting spread from China to other regions. In Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries papercuts decorated objects and books. European Jews often decorated their marriage contracts using papercut art, a traditional that continues to this day.

What was interesting to me was that many cultures have a traditional paper colour, in China red papercuts are lucky, in Switzerland traditional papercuts are symmetrical on black paper and in Polish culture white paper is favoured. 5

black papercut "E sältene Vogel" (20cm diameter, 1986) from legendary Swiss artist Ernst Oppliger. Image in the public realm Mutual Art Auction.
Above: black papercut “E sältene Vogel” (20cm diameter, 1986) from legendary Swiss artist Ernst Oppliger. Image in the public realm Mutual Art Auction.

This is, as you can see the very briefest of histories touching lightly on papercutting. However, there’s one artist who sprang to mind first, Henri Matisse. In the final decade of his life, no longer able to paint Matisse used papers coloured with gouache and scissors, alongside studio assistants to create his papercuts. They are some of my favourite works of his.

A great video from MoMA talking about Matisse’s process and the conservation of his giant papercut masterpiece ‘The Swimming Pool’.

Papercutting continues to evolve and inspire new generations of artists. With the growth of technology laser paper cuttings are seen everywhere from greeting cards to wedding invitations. Taking it to a whole new level is artist Rogan Brown6. This phenomenally intricate papercut from the Wellcome collection London blew me away with it’s breathtaking complexities.

Rogan Brown "Magic Circle Variation" laser cut paper, 2018, Wellcome Collection, London. Terrible iPhone photo by Charlie Kirkham
‘Magic Circle Variation’, Rogan Brown, Laser Cut Paper, 2018. Photographed at The Wellcome Collection, London 2023. This sculptured papercut explores the world of microbial communities close up in all their glorious complexities. I apologise for the appalling photograph, it does not do this work justice

Thank you for joining the whistle stop tour of papercutting. If you can recommend readings please let me know in the comments. In the meantime you can keep up with how I’m using papercuts as templates for laser cutting discarded acrylic signage into artwork via my Instagram, or be the first to hear when they’re leaving the studio here.


Exhibition- 2009-10 Zurich and Bejing, The Art of Paper Cutting East Meets West” Exhibition (hausappenzell.ch)

MoMA | Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs

Vellum: what is it, how to use it and where to buy it (artweb.com)

Cutting edge of tradition | The Independent

Ho Yumei 侯玉梅艺术展厅 (papercutlady.com)

“Papercut Stories of the Manchu Woman Artist Hou Yumei”, Mareile Flitsch, Asian Folklore Studies, Vol. 58, No. 2 (1999), pp. 353-375 (23 pages), Nanzan University

A Glimpse of Chinese Culture Through Papercuts (asianstudies.org)

Swiss artist Ernst Oppliger’s papercutting Ernst Oppliger | Biographie Ernst Oppliger (ernst-oppliger.ch)

The extrodinary works of artist Rogan Brown

If you want to learn more about Vellum (a popular hide surface) there’s a great post here Vellum: what is it, how to use it and where to buy it (artweb.com)


[2] Ibid.

[3] 侯玉梅艺术展厅 (papercutlady.com)

[4]  A Glimpse of Chinese Culture Through Papercuts (asianstudies.org)

[5] 6 Traditional Papercutting Styles – Guild of American Papercutters

[6] Rogan Brown – Paper Sculptures

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: