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Former fashion designer Janelle Washington found her creative passion—and designs far more personal—when she turned her attention from fabric to paper cutting. 

By Stefanie Laufersweiler 

When Janelle Washington explains her artwork to people who aren’t familiar with paper cutting as a fine art, she references snowflakes. “I remind them of cutting snowflake shapes out of paper when they were kids,”The artist’s Notes “Then I say, ‘Now think of something in a grander design. That’s all I’m doing.’ I spent maybe the first three years of my career teaching people about paper cutting who knew about it, but didn’t really think of it as a medium that could be considered a fine art.” 

Nuri (cut paper with tissue paper, 20×16) 

A Show-and Tell and Something New 

Washington discovered paper cutting while pursuing a project for a show-and-tell. “At the time I was designing girls’ infant and toddler clothing,”Washington says. Washington says. 

Origami was the first thing that came to Washington’s mind, but when looking up paper folding online, she discovered a plethora of information about paper cutting. She was soon researching paper artists and learning how to create paper-cutting template. Her first cut paper project was an original Valentine for her spouse. “It had a flower border and some whimsical details,”Washington says “Coworkers were excited about it. They had never seen that type of thing before.” 

Washington was immediately able to relate to the tangible aspect of cutting paper. “Working in fashion, people thought I was doing all this sewing,”She says “but I spent maybe 85 percent of my time over 12 years making art at a computer. It felt good to hold something in my hand that I was able to create from a little sheet of paper.” 

Moments Past (acrylic-painted cut paper with gouache, 30×24)

Finding Her Way—and Her Voice 

Washington began looking for organizations that she could join in order to gain as much knowledge as possible about paper-cutting and found the Guild of American Papercutters. “The members taught me what paper to use, how to cut properly, how often to change the blade,”She says “I learned that some artists use large sheep shears to cut paper; others use tiny scissors.”  

Washington studied the history and countless styles of art online. “There are a lot of older women who’ve been doing it for years—it has been passed down in their families,”Washington says “But paper wasn’t always something accessible to a lot of people in all cultures. This was a way to reclaim it and make it my own.” 

Washington began to develop her own style and themes as she perfected her paper-cutting techniques. “I was really drawn to Black history, to Black faces and hair, the culture,”She says “Things that are important in my everyday life are easy for me to focus on.” 

She also finds West African Adinkra patterns and symbols appealing. “They have a lot of different meanings,”She says that she often uses symbolism in her writing. “Many of the symbols in my ‘Stations of the Cross’ series came from a church interior,” she says of the 14-piece series she made for the historic St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, in Richmond, Va. (see Stations of the Cross 2.). “I took pictures and then looked for patterns, which are all around us.” 

Stations of the Cross 2. (cut Tyvek, 48×24) 

Washington’s paper cutting has moved from fashion to fine art. “With clothing, you’re looking at what’s already out there and thinking about how you can do it better, and if it’s going to sell,”She says “Paper cutting lets me be more creative and incorporate what I’m feeling into my art. I never felt like I had that before.” 

Planning and Cutting 

Washington is attracted to simplicity in art, though the results can also be as complex or as simple as she wants. “When I say it’s simplistic, that throws people off because they say my designs are so intricate,”She says “But what I mean is, instead of seeing every detail and shadow, you’re focusing on shapes only, positive and negative, and patterns that you can make and repeat.” 

Washington includes important and meaningful details, like the fingernails of shackled arms or the powerful prose of Black writers. “Details may be subtle but may really help tell the story,”She says. She says. Moments Past, is also as much a calming repetitive act for the artist as it is a depiction of hair. 

Washington uses an Xacto knife with a blade No. Washington uses a No. 11 blade on a self healing cutting mat. She usually uses several blades to finish a single piece. When they lose their sharpness, used blades are thrown away in a bucket. “I’m not using the whole blade a lot, just the tip,” she says. Curves can be tricky, too. “I have to rotate the paper as I’m cutting since the blade can’t bend,”She says. “I’m looking into trying curved knives, but haven’t yet.” 

Washington makes a cutting guide by scanning her original drawing. “I make it into a vector file to print out,” she says, “then I decide if I’m using white or black paper and if I’m going to incorporate color.” She tapes the printed guide to the final paper and cuts through both, taking occasional breaks to rest her hands. 

A silhouette of a person might take a few hours to cut, while more detailed designs might require a week or more. “Sitting for hours is fine with me, just focusing on one thing,” Washington says. “It’s actually very calming.” 

This article originally appeared in the Jan/Feb 2024 issue of Artists Magazine. Subscribe now so you don’t miss any great art instruction, inspiration, and articles like this one.

Corrections and Color 

Washington’s designs are so meticulously planned that she rarely makes major mid-cut adjustments, but she does have to think on her feet as she’s cutting. “If something is sliced 

that I didn’t intend, I make a bridge on the back,” Washington says. “I take another bit of paper and bind them together in a way to reinforce what has been cut.” 

She incorporates gold leaf, threads, and painted backgrounds into some of her work, but doesn’t like backing her designs with an overall color. Tissue-paper infills allow her to add color where she wants it to create a “stained glass” look. Nuri was her first foray into using it for skin tones.  

“At first, it was just black paper and then the colored tissue in the flowers,” Washington says. “I realized I could make the face pop with the tissue paper.” She traces the tissue about 1/4-inch larger than the area she’s filling and uses a small-tipped glue bottle for better control when attaching it to the back. 

Washington displays most of her art in shadow boxes, sandwiching each between pieces of Plexiglas (see Sisters). She’ll then secure it with tacky glue dots or squares, as needed. “If I use a traditional frame,” she says, “the work loses that papercut quality.” 

Sisters (layered cut paper with tissue paper and gold leaf, 11×14)

Standing Out 

Washington now runs her own fine art paper-cutting business. Her designs have appeared in the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture and the September 2020 issue of O magazine, for the #SayHerName campaign featuring Breonna Taylor. 

She has even ventured into book illustration with the 2023 Caldecott-honored Choosing Brave (Roaring Brook Press) by Angela Joy. In the picture book, Washington’s custom cuts help tell the story of Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, and her civil rights activism following the 1955 murder of her son. 

Washington’s paper cuts are featured in Choosing Brave, the 2023 Caldecott honored 
picture book written by Angela Joy. 

Although the illustration process initially was “uncomfortable” because of the challenges of integrating Joy’s text and her art, Washington—the recipient of a 2023 John Steptoe New Talent Award given annually by the Coretta Scott King Book Awards Committee—loved it and wants to illustrate more books. 

Sharing the stories of Black Americans and exploring themes of identity, feminine beauty, struggle, and perseverance are what set Washington’s art apart. “It allows me to stand out in the large paper-cutting community,” the artist says. “I’m glad to include my voice.” 

The Best Paper for Cutting Art

Washington prefers using 160gsm-weight paper for her cut creations. “Most artists who cut paper think that’s really thick, but I like it,”She says Surface texture also matters. “Anything smooth, like cardstock, is good,” she says. She was introduced to Tyvek, a synthetic, tear-resistant paper, by another artist, and found that the paper works well for larger paper cuts. 

When she wants a surface with a bit more texture, Washington makes sure to choose something that doesn’t “catch” the blade too much as she cuts. “I can’t use construction paper or anything that has threads in it,” she notes, “because it will dull the blades.” 

Washington’s streamlined studio setup allows her to focus on large works, such as the piece from her “Stations of the Cross” series. (Art photos by Erick Patten Photography.)

Meet the Artist

Janelle Washington graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University with a BFA in fashion design and worked as a children’s clothing designer before becoming a self-taught paper-cut artist and starting her own studio business, WashingtonCuts LLC. You can also find out more about the Originals, prints, and stationery of her fine art paper cuts and silhouettes, and more about the artist, her commissions, and her collections, can be found at

About the Author

Stefanie Laufersweiler, a Cincinnati-based freelance writer and editor, is a freelancer. 

‘ Credit:
Original content by, “The Beauty in Paper Cuts”.

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