Masked Portrait Paper Cuttings

THROUGHOUT LOCKDOWN the mask struck me as a potent symbol of those extraordinary times. I’ve always been fascinated by masks; Venetian masked balls are amongst my favourite kind of event to work at. Yet the masks we all had to wear during lockdown felt very different.

Charles holding an unmounted paper cutting up to the camera
Holding Masked Portrait no 2

When wearing any mask we feel to some extent “hidden”. Hiding the face is a powerful act which works on many levels to alter the way we communicate and interact with one another. In these pieces I wanted to use paper cutting to highlight the humanity of the person behind the mask.

Lockdown Paper Cutting Exhibtions

Paper cutting of a woman wearing a mask
Masked Portrait no 8

Lockdown certainly gave me some time to experiment with paper cutting techniques!

If you follow me on Instagram you may have seen some of these already. I begin them with a fairly loose and expressionistic pencil drawing and then cut them with scissors exactly to the line I’ve drawn.

I’ll be exhibiting a set of twelve paper cuttings, each mounted on glass to preserve their three-dimensionality. Each is available in an edition of five (which is as many as I can cut without going slightly insane.) Collectors can choose between glass mounting (as exhibited) or mounted on card.

One of these pieces, Masked Portrait #14, was shortlisted for the Royal Academy Summer Show 2021, in London.

Anonymous Masked Portraits

Complex paper cutting held between them and middle finger
Anonymous Masked Portrait no 14
Shortlisted for the RA Summer Show 2021

For obvious reasons, the mask has become a potent symbol of our times. Many hate them, yet I find myself strangely fascinated by them.

For a portrait artist the mask represents a particular challenge: how does one capture a likeness when a large portion of the face is hidden? As a silhouettist I’m very familiar with this challenge. Eyes, ears and cheekbones (all so important important for a portrait artist) are effectively hidden from me. They disappear inside the profile. Creating a portrait of somebody wearing a mask is a similar problem in a different guise.

More than that, however, the mask makes a very particular statement about communication. To mask somebody seems akin to muzzling them, to somehow forcing them to be silent. The main reason so many people feel uneasy about wearing masks is not simply because they make the air smell stale, but because they hide those many facial expressions on which non-verbal communication relies. They both hide our feelings and hide the feelings of others from us.

In creating this new series of paper cuttings I’m trying to explore my own feelings about masks and communication whilst at the same time playing with line and form. There’s a real sense in which masks – by hiding our faces – make us invisible to those around us. I’ve explored this theme of invisibility in my work before, for instance in my hollow-cut life drawing series.

Cutting paper: my working method

Blue paper cutting of masked man
Masked Portrait no 20, with shadows behind

Each piece is based on a free, gestural drawing which I then cut as accurately as I can with my scissors. As these pieces have been created during lockdown, most are cut of people I’ve met over Instagram.

Whilst drawing I allow myself to express my conflicted views on the whole of subject of mask wearing. I then scan the drawing and print (so as not to loose the original) and print it onto the paper I intend to cut.

Cutting with scissors is a much calmer, careful and more meditative process. Rather than cutting the lines of the drawing I am cutting away the spaces between each line. My aim is to reproduce unquestioningly all the little unplanned marks which inevitably arise when drawing fast. I enjoy the strange, abstract shapes which fall out of the holes.

You can see all current set of Masked Portraits in the Gallery. I’d love to hear what you think of them below.

Man with wing-collar shirt
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Suzy Howes
2 years ago

Fascinating portraits of mask wearers. Good luck with number 14 at the RA!

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