Painting with Paper: Paper on the Edge

Painting with Paper: Paper on the Edge

by Yulia Brodskaya


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The astoundingly vibrant three-dimensional paper artworks in this book will stop paper art fans of all levels in their tracks. After the initial amazement, enjoy trying this method yourself, expanding your skills at your own pace with highly regarded artist Yulia Brodskaya's guidance. Using two simple materials—paper and glue—she's perfected the placement of carefully cut and bent strips of paper to "paint" images. Brodskaya offers not a predictable project book, but instead practical tips on how to work with her method in various ways of your own. See how this method gives new impact to lettering, nature themes, portraits, larger pieces, and experiments. Learn how to choose colors, the importance of testing compositions, which part of the image to start with, and when to consider it complete. Inspiring for its artworks alone, this is also a colorful starting point for anyone interested in working with paper, and full of practical ideas for artists who want to advance their creative thinking.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780764358548
Publisher: Schiffer Publishing, Ltd.
Publication date: 09/28/2019
Pages: 176
Sales rank: 303,699
Product dimensions: 9.10(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Yulia Brodskaya is a highly regarded paper artist and illustrator. She lectures internationally and has done brand collaborations with Hermes,
Starbucks, Target, Godiva, the Country Music
Association, Paramount Pictures, and many others.
Her works are in the collections of Oprah
Winfrey, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Wimbledon, and others.

Read an Excerpt


Paper Lettering

Typography was instrumental in getting my work noticed professionally in the first place. I had been interested in using graphic design, letters, and words long before I realized that paper was going to be my medium. I already used graphic pens and colored markers to design and decorate hand-drawn letterforms, and after working at them for a year or so I had put together a number of typographic designs good enough, in my opinion, to get me editorial commissions from magazines and newspapers.

My idea was to make a little self-promotional booklet featuring some of these designs and send it out to potential clients. The crucial thing that was missing was an eye-catching cover image that would make certain my booklet would be noticed. After a little consideration, I decided that it had to be my name masterfully illustrated and featured on the cover. I created several hand-drawn versions of my name — Yulia — but none of them seemed to be good enough or worked as planned, so I discarded them.

What happened next turned my career upside down.

I can't remember how the thought of using strips of paper entered my head or where I was at that moment — maybe I was holding a sheet of paper in my hands? But the fact is that I took a pair of scissors, cut two A4 sheets into thin strips, and began gluing them edges down, repeating the letter outlines that I penciled onto a piece of mount board. I used red strips for the outline and an off-white color for inside details, deciding on the go that it would be nice to break some of the red outlines and have the white strips burst out from the letters. The work took me a couple of hours, and once it was done I realized that I was definitely on to something more interesting than all my previous illustrations. I immediately dropped the booklet idea and instead immersed myself into this new territory of making words with strips of paper.

Most of my early experiments combined paper with hand-drawn elements. I think I was just cautious and wasn't ready to let go of drawing straight away. My switch to working only with paper didn't happen overnight, but artwork by artwork I was getting more confident, and after about five months of practicing and experimenting, all the hand-drawn elements were finally coaxed out of my paper artworks.

All this happened in summer/fall 2008, and in December that year I finally managed to get my first commission to create a number of typography-based paper artworks for the Christmas issue of The Guardian newspaper supplement. And that was it! It's not that I woke up famous, but I woke up with an amazing feeling of confidence, confirming to myself that everything that I'd been doing to get to this point was worth it and that I was ready to embark on a paper journey and see where it took me.

Following my breakthrough, I was lucky enough to collaborate with international brands and companies and work on exciting projects learning and perfecting my technique along the way. Most of my commercial work featured typography and lettering because that's what the advertising industry looks for — how to communicate a message in a new and exciting way. Luckily my paper style happened to achieve just that, fueled by a newly found interest in, and revival of, all kinds of paper craft techniques.

Using edge-glued strips of paper to make letters ultimately made my paper designs look cool, modern, and different. Also, the design industry as a whole played a crucial role in reviving the craft of quilling paper. At this point I need to admit that back then, in 2008, I didn't know that the technique I was using had a name — when my first commercial projects started to appear on the internet, people told me about quilling. I had, unknowingly, invented quilling for myself from scratch! But by not knowing any of the established quilling techniques, I came up with something completely new — it turns out that my method is not exactly the same as traditional quilling: the key difference is that I use heavy paper or card, which I shape and manipulate any way I want to, exactly as if I'm drawing with paper strips.


Traditional quilling uses thin strips of paper that are curled, rolled into coils, pinched, and otherwise manipulated to create basic shapes, which when glued together or onto a background surface make up decorative 3-D designs. The need for basic shapes is explained by the light weight of traditional quilling paper: a strip is too thin and flimsy to stand on its own, unless it is rolled into a shape that will ensure stability and a larger gripping area between the strip edge and a surface. My way is different: by using heavy paper and card, I am able to work with single segments of a paper strip without the need to roll it into a basic shape. Heavy paper allows me to shape a strip into a single line, which holds its shape and is stable on the surface when glued down.

This quality of heavy paper makes possible the conscious and precise work with colors that, to my mind, is pretty much "the main trick" and the most crucial difference between my technique and traditional quilling. When a single strip of paper is rolled into a shape, you get multiple coils of the same color next to each other — it doesn't matter which shape you choose; it will still be just one shape and one color. Recently, however, graduated quilling papers have become available. These allow a certain degree of variation in color tone and intensity when rolled into a basic shape.

By working with heavy paper and adding strips one by one, I can introduce a new color and adjust the color balance with every new strip of paper.

What makes this possible is diffuse reflection: for example, a red paper strip reflects diffuse red light, yellow reflects diffuse yellow light, and so on. Moreover, the introduction of a new color with every added paper strip takes the process one stage further and produces diffuse interreflections. So when different color strips are placed next to each other, the light will bounce off every colored surface, creating new multihued blends — even the slightest variation in color tone and hue will make a visible difference.

I find these color interactions absolutely fascinating — it's like a shared authorship: the artist does his/her initial part in outlining the design, but the real beauty is created by the empty space in between the edge-glued strips, where the colorful play of light and shadows takes place; without it the artwork is flat and lifeless.

To see my point, study the photo above. It's taken with front lighting that removes reflections and exposes the real background color between the paper strips — all the magic is gone!

TIP: Darkness/color intensity inside the letters can also be controlled by varying how densely the papers are placed. The more space between the strips, the more light can get in — thus the overall appearance is lighter.

Learning to notice the subtle differences in reflections produced by different color strips will help you make educated choices when it comes to selecting an overall color palette for future paper artwork. Every small decision does matter.

I discovered and formulated these principles for myself quite a few years after my first "Yulia" artwork and thought it would be nice to revisit where I started and create "Yulia" version 2.0 to show how my style and technique has progressed over the years.

For this new version I wanted to make smooth color transitions, introducing new color with almost every new strip but keeping the variation relatively subtle by selecting most of the colors from a limited red-pink-orange range.

TIP: Based on my observation of reflections, I tend to use many similar colors (for instance, groups of shades that are next to each other on the color wheel), which is a guarantee of harmoniously blended interreflections — whereas contrasting color strips placed next to each other require much more careful attention and consideration.

This new "Yulia" version 2.0 looks quite different from the very first "Yulia." About four years have passed since this second version, and I already know that if I were to make my name for the third time, it would look totally different from the previous two. I will go into more details about my paper art evolution later, but since my paper journey started with letters, I believe now is a good opportunity to touch on some paper craft basics and explore the numerous creative possibilities contained within such a simple form as a letter.

Whenever I want to create a design rich in color and showcase the smoothness of color blends and transitions, I go for a pure white background. This is because reflections are best highlighted against pure white: any coloration of the background surface builds up the reflections produced by the paper strips. The darker or brighter the background surface, the less colorful the reflections from edge-glued paper. For example, on a dark surface all you will see is the presence of shadows, which will stay exactly the same regardless of which color paper strip you use.


This paper design showcases the gradual blending of colors and proves that outlines are not always needed. By roughly following letter shapes with a variety of tiny paper elements, each letter is still distinctive but with a slightly fluffy "out of the box" look for the shape.

TIP: For the background I chose to use mount board, which is a paper-covered board (though the core material can vary) usually around 1.4 mm thick. Mount boards are commonly used in picture framing, and they can vary enormously in hardness and quality.

"Flourish" and "Shift"

These are very similar simple artworks, demonstrating some tips that can be helpful for working with paper lettering. There are two ways of incorporating type into an artwork: letters can either be filled with papers or they can be "inverted," meaning that letterforms will be blank/hollow inside and made visible by densely placed elements surrounding them, throwing the letter into visual relief. Additionally, both designs are good examples of how to achieve smooth color transition using a limited number of colors.

TIP: If you use double-sided paper with the white side facing inward and colored side facing out, this can help the words stand out better

When making a color gradient from dark to light, use the same color strip at least twice in a row. The first strip will have a darker neighbor on one side and the same color on the other, whereas the second strip will have the same color on the first side, but a lighter color on the other — and so on until you finish it up with a couple of pure white strips. This might sound complicated, but by looking closely at the concentric elements it should be apparent how this optical effect works in practice. Many of the paper strips are actually the same color, but because they have different neighbors the combined color reflections will blend differently, thus visually enriching the paper artwork even with a limited color palette.


Illustrating numbers can be even more fun than letters because usually you get a limited number of digits to work with (numbers chosen for paper art projects usually represent age or a date), which provides a good opportunity to go big and bold with the font and incorporate lots of intricate detail.

This number "10" is a busy colorful concoction of flowers, abstract birds, decorative coils, and swirls spreading out in every direction from the digits.

With the exception of the straight geometric outline for the numeral 1, there are just organic flowing lines and forms present. These flowing lines are perfect for edge-glued paper and quilling for several reasons:

* Curled paper strips are more stable and so easier to work with.

* Organically placed strips of paper offer more opportunities for color reflection to enhance the design. Some areas of the paper will end up closer to each other and produce deeper, brighter reflections than those spread farther away from a neighbor. All this produces a soft, natural look for the design.

Pretty much any pencillike item with a smooth texture can be used for shaping and curling strips of heavy paper; the "special tool" that I used for this purpose is a cocktail straw made of firm plastic.

There is no specific reason why I use it, except for the fact that it happened to be the first suitable item that I found when I made my first "Yulia" artwork. I've used straws ever since (they are durable but still snap in half after a few years of constant use — I'm currently on my fifth).

For making spiral coils on the end of paper strips, I use cocktail sticks (wooden toothpicks), exactly for the same reason as the straw — because I found it at home. They don't last very long and snap quite often. There are specially designed quilling tools available to buy — but my point is that it's really not about the tools: this craft can be practiced using the most-basic things found around the home.


Another basic — but essential — requirement is glue. It keeps every single element in place. I use PVA glue for all my projects, but not every PVA is the same. Some can be too shiny when dried; others have a yellowish tint. The best PVA for paper craft should not be too runny, although this can be fixed by leaving the bottle open for a long time. I buy new bottles and store them with the lids open for several months before starting to use them. The ideal is a PVA that dries clear and leaves a matte finish. Another way of making glue easier to work with is to pour a little puddle and wait for 15–30 minutes before starting to use it. This way it becomes stickier and takes less time for a paper strip to attach to the background surface. This is especially helpful when the working surface is not completely horizontal — as in the "&" design project on page 20 — an experiment aimed at introducing more 3-D aspects into the technique.


This early work was created out of firm cardboard with a raised structure and several inclined surfaces positioned next to each other. The intention was to simultaneously showcase different sides of paper strips in a straight overhead view. Working with inclined surfaces is very challenging because it requires lots of paper strip adjustments in order to get the right length, direction within the design, and, most importantly, connecting points — all for the purpose of finding the best way for the lines to go "over the edge" from one inclined plane to another. Having a PVA tacky glue puddle for dipping is a big help because the paper will slide down the inclined surface, so a slightly predried glue will ensure that there is no need to hold a paper element in place for too long until it catches and can be left on its own.


When incorporating lettering into paper art, you must choose the right font. For large ornamental letters — particularly single letters or initials — it is better to find a bold/heavy font that gives plenty of space to incorporate intricate details. However, at the same time, it should have an elegant quality to it. I usually choose a font that combines thickness with contrasting finer lines.

"O" is a good example of such a font. There's lots going on inside the thicker areas of the letter, and with many elements added to the areas surrounding the main letter, it may seem that it is almost too much. However, somehow the composition still works — this is thanks to the fact that all the outside elements are lighter, more spread out, and placed in a way that gives a feeling they move in unison rather than just randomly.

TIP: Sketching is crucial for making any busy design work look effortless.


You might suppose that the more experience you have, the less time you need to spend sketching, but actually it's the opposite! Even after ten years, I dedicate more time to sketching than I did at the very beginning of my career. Experience makes you appreciate how much time you save by planning the work ahead. Of course, the specifics of each new project vary, but for typography-based designs a carefully thought-through sketch is a great help.

The fact that the glue is permanent and paper elements can't be removed without damaging the artwork is another reason to make sure the concept and composition work before going ahead with the creation process.

Sketching is even more important for typographic designs incorporating flowing lines and decorative elements outside the letters. Badly done, the artwork will look messy and unbalanced. Poorly placed lines also affect the legibility of the message. The decorative lines should flow with the letters, enhance them, and add more movement.

There's no need to know how to draw in order to produce basic sketches; sketching is about finding the best concepts and refining the component elements that go into the design. This can be achieved by adding details to an existing image reference (for instance, an image from the internet, a photo that's easy to transfer into a drawing, or a ready-made template).

For paper lettering I always start with my chosen font template, then try to establish the most organic movement for the pencil lines that will become edge-glued strips of paper. By adding and erasing lines, I finally end up with a basic directional scheme that I can build on to by adding minor lines, details, and simply fine-tuning the overall design.

Learning to see which composition looks best is a skill that comes with practice, but it can be developed by frequent sketching and conscious observation of existing typography designs. Pay attention to how exactly letters are connected, where lines begin, and what direction they follow — all of which can differ from letter to letter, and from one font style to another.

"JOY" features two dominant movement directions (highlighted in red) and two supporting (shown in blue) to balance out the overall composition.

The final design can be as simple or as intricate as you want, but by making sure the key directions are obvious you can ensure there's no randomness .


Excerpted from "Painting with Paper"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Yulia Brodskaya.
Excerpted by permission of Schiffer Publishing, Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction, 7,
Paper Lettering, 10,
Inspiration from Nature, 28,
Flowers and Plants, 35,
Hhybrids, 46,
Animals, Insects, and Birds, 60,
Composition, 72,
Portraits, 88,
"Old People" Portraits, 90,
Portrait Experiments, 130,
Case Study — Three Portraits, 148,
Larger Pieces, 160,
Final Words, 176,

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