Have you ever had an inclination to cut a super-complex design out of a single piece of paper? No? Well, not to worry, because Poppy Chancellor of Poppy’s Papercuts is here to do it for us! Illustrator-turned-artist Poppy has developed a signature style of sassy, fun and intricate designs. She has created work for Adidas, Cath Kidston, Stylist magazine, and the Queen, among other people! She’s also authored a book, if you feel inspired to try your hand at the craft after you read this interview. We visited her Brixton studio to learn more about her modern take on the ancient art of papercutting.
Papercutting – how did you get here?
I studied Illustration at Kingston University, and then I went to the Royal Drawing School. I’ve been making papercut artworks for the past 6 years. While we chat, let me cut something out for the camera. Which scalpel shall I use…
How many scalpels do you have?
Sixty?! Are they all the same or different for different purposes?
They’re all different – I get gifted scalpels quite a lot for workshops. There’s a weird one that I like the most, it’s actually a surgical scalpel but I use a different blade. The blade for skin surgeries have a curved-edge scalpel to cut through flesh easily, whereas mine’s pointed.
Oh, stop! I have the shivers. Sixty scalpels though – how often do you have to change blades?
Every three hours. You need to keep it sharp for precision work.
I can see you have a monstrous pile of cutting mats as well. Are those all dead or are they new and ready to use?
Some are dead, and I don’t know what to do with them because I don’t think they’re recyclable. They’re really heavy and thick. I got sent most of those too, Hobby Craft provided us with all the cutting mats and scalpels for my event at Stylist Live.
How did you move from illustration to paper cutting?
I was in the final year of my Illustration degree and I got a bad final mark. I had one chance to redeem myself through an additional mark for the final exhibition, and I knew I had to take a totally different approach. I’d been doing a lot of ink drawing and charcoal, so I decided to do something 3-dimensional instead. I made a city out of shoeboxes with black cut-out silhouettes of people in the windows. You could turn the lights in the ‘rooms’ on and off. I wanted to use a traditional craft, but with a contemporary subject matter. The art of papercutting is ancient!
Papercutting has a very long history, doesn’t it?
It’s old school! You can see that old Polish and Chinese papercuts were done with scissors, in Mexico they used a chisel…
A chisel? For paper?
Yeah, tissue paper! They’d get a block of hundreds of layers of tissue paper and chisel the design out of the block. Then they string it all up in these beautiful tissue paper flags. It’s amazing.
At what point did you realise that your art could become a career?
It kicked off quite quickly after my degree – I’d started making wedding presents for people, small commissions. They’re perfect for wedding gifts because you can create a bespoke design around the couple and their interests, the date they met and so on. Also, the Paper Anniversary is the 1-year wedding anniversary, and most marriages make it to a year…
Everyone makes the paper anniversary!
A couple that I made a wedding invite for has a company called A Little Bird, which is essentially a guide to all the cool things that you haven’t heard about. An insider’s guide to London. She featured me on her Valentine’s Day gift guide newsletter, and I got 80 commissions the day the email went out! I was sh**ting myself because it was only three weeks until Valentine’s Day. I had to draw them all out and bring in help to cut everything. At the moment I have the time to do my own projects, so I can do a series of song lyrics, or girls doing yoga.
It’s nice to have the freedom to experiment, share my work based on my own ideas. You don’t need to compromise who you are because people are, luckily, interested in your work.
That’s something that social media has been great for – allowing independent artists and brands to be discovered.
There will always be things that I love that others don’t, or stuff that I’m not that bothered about but everyone else loves! For me, social media is good for feedback on work. I don’t have a personal Instagram though, the selfies would get out of hand.
The originals take around a day, and that will include sketching, working out the design and then cutting. I’ll keep the original for myself unless someone really wants it, but when I’m producing and selling more than one I’ll have them laser cut. It can be cut in any colour and any material, which is great! For example I have one that is cut in mountboard and doesn’t need framing.
That’s fantastic! All of your originals seem to be quite fragile, is it a lightweight cardstock that you use?
It’s a heavy paper, between 160-180gsm. It needs to be heavy enough to not suddenly tear and be able to be handled and transported., but thin enough that cutting it doesn’t hurt my shoulder. I want to be able to cut through it in one stroke. Your posture takes a real beating – I’m bent over all day! I have to lie flat on a bolster for half an hour every day so I don’t become hunched.
What would you say has been your favourite commission or piece of work so far?
Well, I did do one for the Queen.
I think that kind of trumps everything.
That’s sick, isn’t it? I got an email from a woman who was having the Queen visiting her house on her Diamond Jubilee tour of the U.K. She wanted to give the Queen a gift, so it had the name of the house, the date that it was built, salmon because it had a salmon lake next to the house, and a profile of the Queen with her Diamond Jubilee dates [you can see it here].
I think that’s got to be a career highlight – you’ve made something for the Queen, you can retire now. Do you think about where it might be sitting in one of her castles?
Yeah, which cupboard it’s hidden in! I did make one for Prince Charles as well, as the Royal Drawing School placed students in residencies in the artists’ studios at Dumfries House, his house. I did a giant papercut of the house and coat of arms to say thank you, and he wrote me a letter.
Do you still have it?
Yes! It’s in my Memories Box. He’s underlined a couple of random words and signed it. Oooh! Here are some cards I did for Oliver Bonas that are available at the moment. This is my sister and I – that’s what you do on your birthday, isn’t it? Get dressed up, do your makeup in the bathroom together, and take a selfie!
What other collaborations have you worked on?
I’ve also designed some cards for Papier, and a jewellery collection called ‘Girls Got Ideas’ with Tatty Devine. I have the entire collection here, I love these earrings! It’s great for my portfolio to have my designs made in different formats. I do get people asking me, ‘What is a papercut? If I had one, how would I frame it? How would it look?’ When I do projects that allow the papercut to turn into a different fabrication or product, it moves it away from being ‘just’ a piece of paper.
Is there any format that you’d really like to try?
Gates. I want to do metalwork – giant, cut-out metal gates.
That would work so well for an art gallery or stately home with a modern renovation.
A friend of mine, who I use for laser cutting, just got a water jet that can cut into metal. She’s using one of my tiger designs to cut out of metal.
That sounds pretty dangerous! How about something where we can get our hands dirty – got any workshops coming up?
Yes – I have a monthly workshop at Drink Shop Do in King’s Cross. It’s really fun, a really good vibe. It’s usually a 2-hour workshop on the last Saturday of every month, around 20 people, and everyone gets tea and cake with their ticket! We started about a year and a half ago and both of the first two workshops sold out, so we decided to run it regularly.
Sign us up! And how about your book – can we see a copy?
Of course! I have one here. It’s got practice sheets, how to cut letters… I'm working on concepts for book number two, so stay tuned!