A Small Token…

I’ve been working on this year’s Valentine designs, and thought I’d share with you the process of doing a papercutting from start to finish! It takes a bit of inspiration to get ideas for a historic-style papercutting. I usually spend a few hours going through reference books on early fraktur. I rarely do exact reproductions of historic pieces, but instead, try to get a feel for the layout of antique papercuts. I’ll also doodle a bit, trying to create birds and flowers that look like they were drawn a couple hundred years ago. And, I’ll read through the translations of the German sayings to find an inspiring phrase or verse.

The Gift is Small, The Love is Great is one of my favorite resources for Pennsylvania German fraktur. It focuses on small works of art, such as the Vorschrift (writing samples), Book Plates, and Rewards of Merit that teachers once gave to their students. The Gift is Small also includes little love notes and tokens of remembrance given between sweethearts and friends, as well as other little fraktur-style drawings. None of the artwork in this book is particularly elaborate, but mostly just small tokens made by simple folk.

In coming up with new designs, other
sources of inspiration are also required…

(My art kiddos have asked about those little dishes of
chocolate chips hanging around the art room!)

And when the internal balance between visual references, doodling, coffee (or tea), and chocolate has reached the appropriate settings, I’ll start sketching. I start with a piece of paper cut to the size I need for the frame I want to use. I was trying to use two 6″ x 7″ frames that I had “ready-to-go,” so these cuttings are 4 & 1/2″ x 5 1/2″. However, there is actually a “historically correct” size that these little tokens should be! In the 18th and 19th centuries, “standard” sheets of paper were usually 13″ x 16″. Fraktur makers used either full sheets, half sheets, quarter sheets or eighth sheets to do artwork on, getting their finished size by simply carefully folding and tearing the paper. These tiny tokens were usually done on an eighth of a sheet of paper.

I almost always start my sketches from the outside in, establishing my borders by measuring carefully. Did you know there’s a correct way to make a square or rectangle? After years of being a frustrated young artist, I learned a few technical drawing skills in a college cartography class. Drawing “square” was one of them… Maybe that would make a Really Helpful Upcoming Post!

This will be the back of the papercutting. I have to keep reminding myself that everything will be backward on the finished piece. My originals will also get pretty smudgy from all the graphite dust, but it’s a necessary evil to designing. I keep trying to sketch on my Wacom tablet or my iPad, and I’m starting to get the hang of it, but there’s nothing like a real pencil and a kneaded eraser! Once I have the sketch close to how I want it, I start cutting…

I use a rubber-coated X-Acto knife with #11 blades. Any sort of padding or rubber on the handle is a HUGE help when doing lots of papercutting. Hand fatigue happens very quickly without it. I also go through blades like crazy… I cut mostly with the very tip edge of the blade, and curvy designs seem to snap them pretty quickly. Buy them in bulk! My knife… or my pair of scissors… are sort of like a second pencil to me. That’s what I use to straighten out my sketch lines and create the final design.

Once I have the original cut, I make a copy of it and use the copy to make a pattern for duplicate cuttings. As you can see, this is a relatively simple design… much of the artwork will be added in the painting process. But first, I’ll stain it to add some age. I make a strong solution of instant coffee and boiling water, and apply it to the papercutting with a natural sponge.

I’ll actually soak up the excess coffee with the sponge so the paper isn’t sitting in puddles of water. I let the paper dry naturally (Usually… sometimes impatience gets the best of me!) and then iron it between two sheets of white paper to smooth out any wrinkles. Here are the two new Valentine designs once they are stained…

And… although I had every intention of showing the painting and inking process, I got into painting and forgot to take pictures. So, here’s what they look like AFTER they’re painted…

I went with rather bright colors on these, which believe it or not, is quite true to history. The Pennsylvania Germans LOVED color. The colors in most of the antique artworks we see today have lost a lot of their original vibrancy due to sunlight and time. So I sort of compromise a bit… adding staining to make them look old, but also pumping up the color to make them look new. Artistic license.

Once they’re framed, they look like this…

I should be adding them to our shop’s Sweet Remembrances page very soon… Keep an eye out for them! We’re going to make a limited supply of each for this year due to time constraints, so if you need one let me know!

One thought on “A Small Token…

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