Thursday, 1 March 2012

Elephant No. 151: Papel Picado

While editing a text for one of my museum clients a few days ago, I came across a mention of papel picado, which seemed liked a good idea for today's elephant.

Papel picado—Spanish for "perforated paper" or "pierced paper"—is a Mexican folk art that involves cutting layers of tissue paper into delicate designs using craft knives, awls and special chisels. Usually created in the home to produce banners for fiestas, Christmas, Easter and the Day of the Dead, papel picado often feature motifs such as birds, flowers, and skeletons.

Papel picado is derived from Chinese paper cutting, and was first produced in Europe during the sixteenth century as papel cortado, or "cut paper". The main difference between the European version and the Mexican version of this particular form of art is that the European version uses scissors, whereas the Mexican version uses chisels.

Although modern papel picado is usually produced in multiple layers of tissue paper, the first Mexican papel picado was made with bark paper. During the nineteenth century, when people were forced to buy products from hacienda stores, they discovered a much thinner paper known as "China paper". Although not as thin as tissue paper, artists began using China paper extensively, eventually migrating to coloured tissue paper. Although papel picado was originally produced with scissors, as in Europe, chisels are most often used today because of the precision and fine detailing they allow.

The Mexican art of papel picado likely originates in San Salvador Huixcolotla, in the southeastern state of Puebla. Even today, some of the finest paper cutting in the world comes from this community, which boasts a large number of papel picado artists. Most papel picado produced in San Salvador Huixcolotla relates to the Day of the Dead, and features elaborate silhouettes of skeletal figures.

Papel picado by Antonio Hernandez, Puebla, Mexico.

Around 1930, papel picado began to expand beyond San Salvador Huixcolotla, arriving in Mexico City sometime in the 1960s. From there, it spread to the United States, and even back to Europe, where it has influenced the related art of papel cortado.

Traditionally, the first step in making papel picado is to draw a design on plain paper, then attach it to multiple sheets of coloured tissue paper. The tissue paper should be stapled together on all sides to keep it from sliding around. Using various small chisels with different tips, the artist then cuts through all of the layers of paper to produce multiple copies of the design. The individual motifs are then either strung together to make a banner, or attached as single pieces to Day of the Dead altars and the like.

Specific colours of paper are traditionally associated with certain events and celebrations. Pink, pale blue and white, for example, are normally used for celebrations honouring the Virgin Mary. Yellow and white are used for patron saints. Purple is used at Easter. Bright pink, red, orange and purple are used for ofrendas, or offerings, related to the Day of the Dead (November 1–2). Independence Day (September 16), and anything to do with Mexico's patron saint, the Virgin of Guadelupe, feature red, white and green. And Christmas and other non-religious festivities use all the colours of the rainbow.

Today, traditional papel picado is still produced throughout Mexico and many parts of the United States by skilled artisans. Children and families frequently produce papel picado for various celebrations, and it is often taught in schools. In recent years, many artists have begun producing elaborate works of papel picado art, helping to rejuvenate a centuries-old tradition, while also taking it to new heights.

Three Graces by Catalina Delgado Trunk.

For today's elephant, I originally balked at the idea of using a stack of tissue paper, then decided I might as well try to do this the old-fashioned way. If it made me mad, I'd just switch to construction paper or something.

For chisels, I had a new set of craft knives given to me by my father years ago, which appeared to have some chisel-like things. In addition, I had a brand-new set of metal punches in various sizes. It's not completely old-school in terms of tools, but it was about as close as I was going to get.

To start, I cut a bunch of bright pink tissue paper, which is a traditional colour for Day of the Dead papel picado. I didn't staple it together yet, as I thought I'd wait until I could also staple the design on top of everything. These sheets measured approximately 12.75 x 17.75 centimetres (5 x 7 inches), which seemed a good size for something like this, and I think there were about 30 layers in all.

I didn't feel like drawing every last detail of the design, so I mostly drew the broad outlines, figuring that I could fill in any fancy stuff on the fly. The main skill you need for this (other than a facility for cutting things with craft knives, awls and chisels) is an ability to visualize negative space. Not always my forte, so this promised to be interesting.

I decided to include a calaca with my elephant—partly to honour papel picado's association with the Day of the Dead, but mostly just because I like calacas. I knew this design would change as I went along, but it was a good enough place to start.

Once I had the drawing, I stapled it to the sheets of tissue paper to keep everything in place.

I began cutting with a craft knife. This seemed to go pretty well, although I found it hard to tell with the drawing on top. For the circles, I used the metal punch.

This is what it looked like about halfway through the cutting.

Once I'd finished the elephant and calaca, I turned my attention to the background. For this, I punched round holes, then used a craft knife chisel blade to cut the flower petals. When it was as good as I thought it would get, I loosely scalloped the edges of the design.

When I flipped it over, I could see that I hadn't managed to cut all the way through. This worried me a little, but I figured that, if the top few layers were cut through, it would be okay. I didn't need 30 of these, after all.

The front looked pretty good, so I started peeling away individual tissue layers. The first couple of layers were a bit torn by the force of the craft knife blade, so I concentrated on the papel picado about three or four layers down. Unfortunately, I discovered that some corners and edges hadn't been cut all the way through. This is bad news when you're working with tissue paper, as cleaning up the edges of tissue paper cuttings is a total nightmare. It took me longer to clean this up and reveal my original cuts than it had taken to do the cuts in the first place.

The whole thing took me an entire evening, but would have taken just under two hours if every cut had been pristine. I was very careful when I did my original cuts, but tissue paper is tricky. I also think this would be much easier with proper awls and chisels, rather than a craft knife.

That being said, I don't hate the final result, as long as I don't look at it too closely. But I'm definitely not making a habit of this kind of thing, and if I ever try it again, it probably won't be on tissue paper.

Elephant Lore of the Day
According to recent research, elephants often squabble over the best route to take, just as we do on our own road trips.

For more than 40 years, researchers at Amboseli National Park in Kenya have been studying elephant behaviour, and one of the things they've noticed is that elephants appear to engage in complex discussions over directions.

These discussions usually begin with signal researchers have dubbed the "'let's go' rumble". Gathering together, the elephants engage in an exchange that can take up to an hour. Once they have finally reached consensus, the herd moves off in the agreed direction.

Herd of African elephants on the move.

Elephant's World (Thailand)

No comments:

Post a Comment