The Victorian handicraft of quilling is being used to great effect in the modern day. Papercraft illustrator Yulia Brodskaya explains the skills involved to Garrick Webster
Craft is the word of the moment in graphic design and illustration. Words like 'cut' and 'paste', which are so embedded in our creative software, have taken back their real-world meanings, and many of today's designers are rediscovering and developing their handicraft skills. Creatives around the world are finding that these skills, whether they involve oil on canvas, or paper, scissors and glue, are much sought after by clients. And, often, they're proving a lot more enjoyable to employ than vector selection tools and clipping paths.
Few better exemplify the authenticity of a handmade approach to image-making than Yulia Brodskaya, a Russian émigré who has been developing her career in the UK for the last five years. "Digital images are not as fascinating to me as handmade ones," she declares. "Of course, there are digital artworks that I really like and appreciate, but they never make me think, 'I wish I could do that myself.' Handmade artworks or objects do."
There are a number of different approaches to papercrafting in currency at the moment. Origami and paper construction, for instance, feature a lot of folding and result in three-dimensional objects, scenes and characters all made from the reformed pulp of the world's finest pines. Meanwhile, pattern-cutting and collage involve a lot more scissor work. Brodskaya employs a technique called quilling, in which strips of coloured paper are cut, then wrapped round a quill (or a stick or straw) resulting in curls. These are then glued onto a backing card and built up into images and text. The technique was used heavily in the 19th century by ladies of leisure who quilled their time away between tea and gin. In the 21st century, Brodskaya's post-Baroque coloured curls are winning her major clients including Nokia, The Guardian, and New Scientist.
Creating paper-based images and text for clients has its challenges. Firstly, once the paper has been glued down, there is no Apple-Z to undo, so Brodskaya warns her clients about this upfront. "I'm fine with the finality issue," she says. "I trust myself, and the whole working process is quite slow so I get enough time to think and consider the options before I glue a single paper strip. I always try to explain all the nuances to clients from the beginning, to avoid any misunderstanding in the end."
One of her first commissions was to create seven type-based images for The Guardian newspaper's G2 section. She had just three-and-a-half days to complete a series of mainly Christmas-related textual pieces. Because the quilling technique is so time-consuming, she barely slept. "The brief was quite straightforward - I was given the words to illustrate. I also tried to incorporate some shapes and details into the words to make them visually interesting, for instance, a plate and fork into the words 'the dinner'. The most difficult thing was to meet the deadline," she recalls.
All this hard work paid off, however, and won her a lot of recognition. It remains one of the most fulfilling projects she's done - since the imagery received great feedback from readers and the online community - and for The Guardian it produced one of its most memorable illustration series in recent years.
Aside from her obsession with paper, you may have gathered that Brodskaya is fascinated with illustrative type too. Whereas other leading papercrafters such as Jen Stark, Gail Armstrong and Rob Ryan tend to come up with image-based creations, Brodskaya sets out her stall with a strong typographic focus. "I suppose this tendency comes from my graphic design background. Typography is my second love, after paper, and I'm really happy that I've found a way of combining the two. Having said that, I don't want to exclude non-typo-based designs, I'd like to work on different projects," she says.
Another project she pinpoints as one of her favourites so far is her work for international group of communications and advertising companies, Havas. Here she could indulge the more image-focused areas of her creativity, as in most cases she was creating graphics to introduce themes in the company's 2008 annual report. This was an annual report with a difference, however, as it was printed on posters - Brodskaya's images on one side, and the group's information on the other. Using quilling, she rendered an image of a human brain, a woman with flowing hair, and a decorative work to represent creativity.
"The client really liked the work, and they even decided to print a limited edition of each poster, on superb quality paper, this time without any additional information on the back or front. The art director came over to London from Paris with the printed posters so I could sign each one - they were numbered up to 40. The whole process was filmed," explains Brodskaya.
Most jobs she undertakes involve the creation of an image, which is then photographed and reproduced in some form - either in print or on screen. With her recent work for Firmenich SA, it was slightly different. Firmenich manufactures chemical fragrances and flavours for cosmetics and food companies. The company was interested in commissioning an artwork for purchase and display, and it also appeared on its 2009 Christmas card.
In preparation, Firmenich showed Brodskaya the whole process of perfume creation, and gave her a tour of the premises in Paris for inspiration. She then had carte blanche to create her artwork. It will be the first in a series of commissions, as the company plans to involve a different artist each year in future. The image Brodskaya created was based on the general concept of scent, but as the company had explained that flowers are the main ingredient of many of their fragrances, she decided to focus on these as the main element. "I didn't want to create an abstract composition as flowers seem to be a natural motif for this technique, as well as being a good fit for the brief, so I made them focal points. To my mind, however, this artwork differs from my other work in that I used more broken lines, and the design is less structured than my other projects," she reveals.
One of the main drawbacks to her work, she finds, is that although it's created in three dimensions, most people only encounter it printed in a flat format. One of her favourite personal projects, for instance, is entitled London, and incorporates both quilling and illustrated elements. She's a little disappointed the full 3D effect and details don't come through as well in the final photo.
"The project demonstrates that paper elements can be combined with hand-drawn illustrations, and there are endless possibilities in doing that," she begins. "This artwork is my imaginary London. I just wanted to have some fun illustrating the key London attractions and iconic things such as animals or people, like the Big Ben guy. It's much more interesting to look at the physical thing, as here the hand-drawn elements dominate the image; the photo doesn't show the eminent parts well, and this is one of the disadvantages of using a combination of the two techniques."
As she points out, photography is critical to the effectiveness of an image when papercrafting is involved, and she often works with professional photographers to get this right. For anyone who wants to get into making imagery out of paper, an understanding of photographic skills is a definite plus. "Lighting the work can make or break the success of the image. It needn't necessarily be complex, but the light needs careful control in direction, intensity and the level of softness," she explains.
And she also points out that without great photography the work wouldn't be seen in mainstream media: "Representation of paper artworks with photography allows papercraft to get a lot more exposure and be used in a new context, in various forms of graphic communication."
Another factor that deeply affects her work is the availability of coloured paper. Although an avid paper collector, Brodskaya is never quite satisfied with what's around and is always on the lookout for a greater range of colours. Unlike working digitally, or even with paints, the colour palette in each piece depends on the range of colours supplied by paper manufacturers. The limited choice - as well as quantities - paper is sold in, are hurdles she constantly battles.
"Everywhere I go - even if I'm abroad on holiday - I visit shops selling paper, but still can't find all the colours I need. So I have to work with what I've got. I would really appreciate any advice on where to find good quality paper in dozens of colours, without the need to buy packs of 100 sheets of each colour. For my needs, five sheets are enough," she says.
Aside from paper, her main tools are scissors, cutting knifes, tweezers, straws, cocktail sticks and glue - all of which she buys from craft supply stores. Of course, although the work is done by hand, the computer is never far away. In the early stages, she uses her Mac to edit her roughs and drawings, and to email them to clients. "I begin with sketches. This is a very important stage because once I glue a piece of paper I can't remove it - the glue is an intentionally strong adhesive. Thus there is no room for error, and I need to have a very clear idea about what I'm doing from the beginning.
"There's always room for experimenting with the actual paper while I'm working, however, because sometimes it's difficult to see what will look good before starting the physical paper work." She continues: "I always tell the clients from the beginning that the amendments must be done at the sketching stage. I can always add some elements, but can't remove or change what has already been done. But of course there are cases when they still want me to get rid of some paper strips. If this happens, the background has to be retouched digitally after the photo shoot."
Sometimes the retouching is done by the client after Brodskaya has supplied them with the images, other times she does it herself. It serves as an uncomfortable fail-safe in a world where clients are used to changing entire layouts and colour schemes at the drop of the hat, thanks to the previously mentioned Apple-Z option.
Between client jobs, Brodskaya likes to take on personal work; aside from getting inspiration from blogs and websites by other designers and illustrators, she cites Gustav Klimt as one of her main influences. As we go to press, she has some projects in mind that will soon be revealed, but doesn't want to say too much. She's also just finished an array of commercial projects.
Her ambition for the future is to carry on with her work, but she admits she's not quite sure of the direction it's going. "I just hope to take it further - where to, exactly, I haven't decided yet. I'm still thinking and experimenting, so please ask me again in a couple of years," she smiles.