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Hands On: Cut Paper Illusion

Lesson 18 from: Color for Designers: Exploration, Theory, & Application

Richard Mehl

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Lesson Info

18. Hands On: Cut Paper Illusion

Watch as Richard’s students work in real-time applying color theory concepts, their pieces evolving with feedback. Richard gives invaluable tips for sourcing ideas, best practices, working with cliches, and moving beyond predictable compositions.

Lesson Info

Hands On: Cut Paper Illusion

So we've had our students just working now here for a few minutes. What are what are their thinking? How are they approaching this, Harry honor? Looks like you've actually got quite a a long way in. You've got a big design going there to talk us through your inspiration, as Richard comes and looks Well, I have a sketch of it. I don't know if you could see it very well. You're definitely picking up on the school. I'm picking up on the skull idea, but also the like, Laurel Reef that a lot of people will give Toe Lake people who have done like heroic acts. So it's sort of like the dead hero who's crying blood. Because here she is upset about Yeah, No. Sometimes one of one of things that that, um, that ran tried to do is to say, How do you take a cliche like a skull and make it fresh? You know, cliches or not, something necessarily avoid. We tend to be compelled sometimes to avoid cliches. But think about how why cliches are cliches is because people like them. People engage with them and ...

they respond to them, and they're very memorable. and there's this expression and advertising one plus one equals three. You may have heard that at some point, uh, and that's kind of what this is about. How do you take something that's really well known, Put it together with something else, is really well known in a fresh way, and make something else that's entirely new. So that's kind of your I think gold today is How do you take something that is a bit of a cliche, a skull and bring some freshness to it. Make it fresh. Christine, what are you working on? I'm working on. It's not quite finished yet, but I was playing with the paper cutouts this idea of, um, like these two blue planes were representing the world. And how? Well, how Mahrous Just like this thing that gets in between and even of these two, whether they're between countries, between people, between ideas and how it's just totally cuts into it. And I'm tryingto play with the color I wanted toe, maybe play with some subtraction or yeah, look, quite now there's something else is happening here, and it's It's hard to see it on the video monitor, but we can definitely see it in person. There's an effect along the edge of that shape on this side, where the very edge of the color, the very edge of the red, has this illusionary vibration to it. So can you see that like here, if you stand over here, maybe stand right above it, you see how there's a little bit of a white halo on this edge? Yeah, that's an illusion that's not really there, obviously, because how could it be there? You didn't put it there, which is two colors. That's something that happens when you have two colors, usually to contrast in colors. Contrast, in terms of temperature, blue and red often creates this way. Call it vibration. It has to do with an edge illusion where our eyes really don't know what to do. The two colors have a very similar kind of, ah, light value, and they're competing with each other, and our eyes don't know how to assimilate that information so it ends up vibrating. And that's a very effective kind of of technique to use. And in this case, where you're trying to create something that has this kind of energy, vibration, color, vibration, ends up being something really important. It's a nice effect. Yeah, that's why I was great. I gravitated towards, like, something really bright, and it goes against the steam clues. So it also looks like you're picking up a little bit on the dipstick idea. Yes. Yeah, yeah. So that's about a transmission or a transition from one part to another. Yeah, sort of. How? These 21 to get together. But there's this thing that's cutting in between. Yeah. And what do you got going here? Um, still some work to be done here, but, um, but I was also playing off of the element of the skull because I wanted to have a human element to it. Um, I also wanted to focus on death and all, you know, the real negative aspect of it and not put a positive element in there because, um, I do think wars absolutely horrifying. So, um, trying to figure out how to convey that and I have some ideas I'm not done with yet, but, um, and then the idea of repetition without getting into doing. At first, I was thinking about doing a lot of skulls, but just going back to keeping it simple. Um, the reason I wanted repetition is just, uh I came back from traveling recently, and you go to all these places in the world and you're really kind of reminded of how long war has always been, unfortunately, part of all cultures history and sometimes it feels like it's never gonna end. So that's kind of wanted. This repetition into infinity probably look like thinking of bombs. Um, I wasn't I was thinking skulls, which I may or may not cut eyes out of. But that is an interesting kind of interesting to see if you could make something that was simultaneously expressive of a skull in a bomb or a school in a hand grenade or something like that. At the same time, I'm also kind of fascinated just by looking at how many of use went straight to the cut paper. You kind of did a few sketches, maybe, but you really kind of dove right into it very quickly. I'm interested because Serena you've picked actually quite bright colors, whereas everybody has gone for the more dark, dark hues, which I suppose is Maurin keeping what we think of with war in the darkness of it. What was your inspiration? Which is sort of bright and hopeful, but it's looking more like a fish. I've forgotten what Dev looks like visually What? It what? It ended up look like a shield, which is another sort of, you know, war imagery kind of take on birds, doves and shields and contrast between the two. So I was gonna kind of go in that direction. I would say that, you know, if when I find myself in that situation, I immediately do a Google image search and I come up with images that I use a za resource you very quickly you can come up with a an image of a dove and start to use. That just is inspiration, especially for something like cut paper where you're just dealing with a silhouette shape of some kind. You take a look at this. And what do you have going here? S o? I'm tryingto I didn't want to go directly to the idea of war. And so I wanted to talk around a little bit by emphasizing how we're kind of all in it together. There's little planet, um, one photograph that's inspired me that I don't know if you're familiar with the pale blue dot The picture of that it took from space of Earth. It's very and so I was thinking of doing an image of of the galaxy of the Milky Way in the background and then our tiny little planet and then expressing lots of different people on the planet to shove it. Well, if that's what we have been or is probably not a very good idea. OK? Are you happy with the black background? I do. I do think it works. I do need Teoh pepper it up a little bit with some with some lights of the stars, but yeah, but I want about the black background. What? What with the space Now what's gonna happen is you, as you continue to add these little bright elements, is there going to be there? Gonna take over the composition so you have to be a little bit careful. But I think you need to be exploratory and experiment with that. One of things you could do to make the earth stand a little bit more is Teoh. Make those colors a little bit more vibrant. Perhaps choose the blue and a green that have a little bit more lightness to them. And then it's gonna stand out more because I think you want that to be the focal point. Yeah. Okay, Yeah. I didn't know how bright to get it, cause I didn't even want the contrast to be so strong that it it became during, But I could probably try. I would say, start their start with some brightness and then start to add in these other elements and see what happens. Right now it's It's really, really dark. And I like the darkness of the purples over here because they're really assimilated into the ground of the black. Uh, but like, this is very important. And to some degree, this more important than that, right? Yeah. So that's probably not Yeah. There you go. Okay. Now, the other thing you could consider doing is and you know, we think of black as being That's the vastness of space, and it's got a little bit of a predictable thing, but you can also experiment with a very, very dark blue, which might be kind of interesting to and maybe even bringing in some other colors into the ground to try to add some interest to that space is so it's not so much as a black background anymore. We've already dealt with a black back on him, a couple of other compositions. It's an opportunity to go beyond black. I'm going to put you on the spot here, so I'm coming. Wow. Give this like, uh, a shattered, cracked type of loot. Um, representing the war on drugs, the black there, the negative space, the grounds basis. So powerful. That's the explosive part of that. When I look at that, I'm really focusing on that black space that you're creating with all those white and blue shapes. The triangles. That's incredible. Beautiful. Can you spin it? So we'd see invariably on the screen soon as you have its head at the top so that the tail is actually looking also like a crown on the shield. It's kind of the whole army. Um, and I was gonna actually you incorporate the word one. Uh, um, number one or w What isn't a unifying and okay, we're all one sort of cliche asleep, but And what about the white ground? Are you happy with that? Uh, I don't know, I kind of like this effect down here. How the yellow that surrounds that green shape gives it a little bit of a glow. It's kind of interesting concept to if you have a color against white and you want to set it off without that severity of the real hard green against the way you add a color that's in between the green and the white in this case, yellow and softens the edge, and it gives it a little bit of a glow. I like that effect. I like your lettering. Thats is also very nice down here. Are you planning to change the background? I don't know. Just like the red. Yeah, I like to read to I think this is really beautiful Will spread in black. And this is a heart. Yeah. You know, uh, can't remember that was so long ago Doing a heart, you know, when you fold piece paper and 1/ and it has thes projectiles coming and going like it is this one or that? Yeah. So you're reusing parts of your other competition, Tristan, using the blood what I've got. And if you feel like this, size is too small bill. Big go bigger, and you can use the red, perhaps as a background. I love the idea of just cutting letters out, though, and not being so concerned with the position of the letters and keeping them very kind of rectilinear. In some ways, uh, this w is really beautiful. Look at that one. So nice. Very simple forms down here. The relationship between that. Oh, and that it's always nice toe get blank play with all this paper in your hands and, like, you know, get messy, because with illustrator, it's like, OK, it's very It has its pros and cons, but I'm always a more hands on paper person, my friend. You're currently finishing your m f a r, you know? Yeah, me about a little bit. Of what? Your study. Um, we're doing a lot of typography. Um, a lot of layouts. Mostly, um, print way we work a lot of with print. So, um, getting to play with this. It's also mostly on the computer, so I haven't done a lot of this in a while, so it's very expending you use this whole Yeah, I'm at the office. He chose quite a big piece of background there to use, you know, just say it was unintentionally was laying this out to see if I liked it on the dark background and keeping things a little more monochromatic. And then, um, as I looked at it, I like the idea of so much negative space that I might keep this full size paper. One of things I tell my students all the time has not let the paper manufacturers dictate your size. And, uh, I refused to let any of my students work 8.5 by 11. For that reason, it's such a default. You know, you open up in designer or illustrator, and the first you see is an 8.5 by 11 rectangle on. It's just so predictable. And so the first thing you want to do as a designer, in my opinion, is to move away from that utilitarian, universal rectangle, get into something else, change the size, changed the proportion. Even if you just adopt a slightly different proportion that sits within the 8/2 by 11. It changes how we view the work so quickly. It's pretty cool now. Richard, you saw in some of the student work that you were showing us early, Where they re using some very, very big design. Very large. Do you enjoy working that particular medium as well? Do you tend to work more in a confined space? I tend to work in a 10. It more of a confined space. New York City. Everyone works in small spaces. Um, but have you created art is off of very large. Oh, yes. Yeah, yeah, Yeah, definitely. Um, I've worked on designs for trade shows, uh, where you're working on a space the size of this room sometimes, Um, I've worked on large murals I worked with, uh, have you ever been in a New York City subway? But they have these little banners and posters that kind of run above the seats on their very, very horizontal. Very long. So maybe 12 inches tall by 60 or 70 inches wide. So that kind of a four match is really kind of interesting to work with. Most work with a lot of projections. Um, but, you know, in the professional world, now it's We may start with a sketch that's made out of cut paper, and I will definitely do that I'll definitely get out the color age. Definitely get out my colored pencils and make sketches. I like to start a project with a little bit of drawing if I can, and it's especially fun Teoh to draw on a sketchbook if you're not at your studio if you happen to be in a museum, one of my favorite things to do is just go to a museum and start to draw what you see and kind of get inspired. But what you're doing, and not so much to necessarily just end up with a drawing, but as a way of engaging with the museum. If you guys ever want to try something just fine, go to a museum with a sketchbook and start to draw. People come up to you instantly, and they want to see what you're doing, and it's also ah, kind of a way of engaging a zay said, engaging with the museum experience on a very different level, because now you're part of the experience. You've identified yourself as someone who is interested in art. You're looking at the work in a profound way that is perhaps different from a casual observer. Maybe you're just recording colors or shapes. It's a very fun experience if you've never done it, I highly recommend it, and you don't have to be there with some kind of serious intent doing a master study, and that's great. If you want to do that, go to the museum and draw in a masterful way if you can do it. But also just going there to make sketches, take notes, make very simple color studies. Most museums don't want you to make take any wet medium. It's like paint, but certainly markers colored pencils, color paper. To some degree, you could do a little experimentation with that super fun. I love that kind of thing. I love drawing at the beach, one of my favorite things, and you can't really do that. A tablet or an IPad. It's just can reflect. Ince's just too much. And so having a sketchbook happened. Some pencils with you is it's a great way to kind of enjoy things and pass the time I've made some. Some of my my most fun experiences are sketching logos at the beach, making drawings with color pencils of typography. So it's something that is coming out of my head. Uh, I'm trying to draw letters based on my memories of letters. Now, I've been on the planet long enough to have some pretty good memories of letters. If you haven't spent a lifetime studying type, it might be a little bit difficult. You know, my students need to sit in front of a computer in order to be able to visualize type for me. I can drill a room and capital, you know, kind of with my eyes closed almost almost because I know those letters so well. So I love to draw. I love to initiate a project through the process of drawing or doing cut paper. Okay, So I tried to make the planet Earth a little bit more bright toe contrast that with the rest of the composition, and I also originally I was thinking about put bright stars and things like that. But I decided to just come straight that on the plate of the flag, so it didn't muddle it as much. And then I toned down the colors that were in the the galaxy so that those were a little bit less bright. So there's only really one major contrast going on. I love the the way you stuck all these flags into the earth kind of is a symbol of ah is now a political thing as opposed to this natural thing. And they're very geometric as opposed to the earth being very organic. That's another passion of mine, actually, flags? Yeah, they're beautiful pieces of art. I really did a great symbols. Great symbols. They have such striking color and imagery. That's beautiful. Mind represents the wanderers in its card, don't you? So that's a needle in the middle. Yeah, huh. War on drugs yet, huh? It's a glass so shattered you designed this horizontally. Yeah, that's where you're thinking about this. Yes. You could work really, too, if I If you kind of tilt your head so that the needle is pointing down. It actually has a lot of energy that way. No. Like this? Yep. I'm always doing that with compositions. Is you look at them from different points of view and you get different ideas. Very energetic has a lot of energy. And I love how you have the warm colors in the middle, in the cool clothes on the outside. We're one. Yes. So, ironically, my academic background is, I think, conflict than preventive diplomacy. And so that's kind of where my take on war and conflict comes from. So that's and you've employed a little bit of making one color look like to down on the word one. And also with the yellow. The yellow against the white has a very different kind of appearance versus the yellow against the green. The pink against the red looks so different versus the pink against the white. That's a great use of that idea of just seeing color in different contexts and color being affected by its neighbors. I like how that arrow here points to the word are I mean, it's that nice. What if you were never very driven by the message? The words, Yeah, it looks like a great political banner. So what color ideas? Um, I see contrast of light and dark. I just loved illness. And why did you choose to make the are darker than the other letters? I didn't have any more of that gray. I just what was here? Yeah, or is that thing that's a little red, but Okay. Okay, Okay. I'm gonna line it all up So let's talk about the skull first. That's why down in the corner, why, Yeah, I added. I was thinking of just keeping it with the one. The one tear and no nose and know why. But then her heart inspired me to make. The nose is a heart as a heart upside down black heart, but it's hard to see on the screen. I think I could definitely see it. Um, what's not coming across clearly on the screen is the green. Yeah, Laurel leaves, which is much more contrast in your original piece. But that's kind of an essential thing. And there again, the green against the black is a very different effects on a green against the white. Yeah, you know, and, uh, this attraction aspect, er the idea of subtractions coming into place. So the white is taking its brightness away from the green, making those little green shapes looked darker. The black, you kind of see it can a little actually, you can read the green against the black much easier than you can against the white. Of course, the yellow really stands out. And I love the way you've rendered the teeth. Yeah, I wanted it to sort of look like it was, like, shocked or appalled or or something. Great. Stop. Um, so let's see, uh, going back to I was talking about before and sort of focusing on the horrors of war. Um, see of, ah, a group of skulls at the bottom which year old? You know, I try to stay with a really dark, depressing palette to represent death. Um, and then I actually really like that guy on the left with the white eyes. That was just sort of looking at different ways to do the eyes. And that paper has the white background. So I like it cause I don't think you'd other really wise See that skull in the white helps draw your attention to it. And it creates sort of Ah, there's like a very there's a lot of emotion coming out of that face. I like how you've rendered those skulls. So you have one that's barely distinguishable against the black except for the white eyes. And then the next one with those red X is is that the same? Red is the letters? No, it's not there different, different papers, and then the next one which is sort of in between gray and then finally so four different ways of rendering the same idea. And I also really like the letters you know, who would think of cutting letters or tearing letters in that way? Yes, I wanted to tear them and then put them on an angle like that just to create sort of an angst and uneasiness to the to the composition. So I really like the way the skulls are distributed at the bottom. And I kind of feel like maybe if the typography was doing a similar thing at the top, where there is some overlap might be more effective and more unified the thorns. So my last one, Um, yeah, I was I'm working off like my really idea of having these two things, like the world or two ideas or two people that, you know, this is all the same. Hewitt's blue. They're not the same, but they're not that different either. And some playing with the okay, This is more of a peaceful combination, and then war comes in and you know, it just gets in the way. And it's just as he said, like the colors were very vibrant against each other. And I was like, Oh, yeah, So I picked another color that I felt was just this vibrant as the the original red. And I put that in if I had made an interesting combination. Also a really great demonstration, how colors look different on different grounds, even two different blues a light blue in a dark blue. Those reds and yellows react so differently. The yellow against the darker blue is very, very contrast e against the lighter blue. It has a very different look. Same thing with the red. Okay, nice work, you guys. Something to consider? You know, this is a form of sketching, just like drawing right. And if you were making a poster, an antiwar poster, you might do five or 10 or 20 of these things. Actually, one of things that my students find out is that after they've done 30 variations of something, they pretty much have exhausted all their ideas. And that's when they really get to be the good stuff. And they might go back to the very first ideas. But by doing many, many, many variations even quickly like this, they can generate so many ideas, maybe incorporating multiple ideas into a final peace. I would encourage you to do that. You know, the next time you're in a situation where you're designing, maybe take out some cut paper and just start to riff on things.

Class Materials

bonus material with purchase

Playing With Color - Color Design Glossary
Playing With Color - Color Wheels
Playing With Color - Leaf Collage
Playing With Color - Patterns
Color Grid Template
Tangram Template
Playing With Color - Wallpaper - 1280x800
Playing With Color - Wallpaper - 1200x900
Playing With Color - Wallpaper iPad
Playing With Color - Wallpaper iPhone

Ratings and Reviews


The course was great. Richard was a very good teacher, appreciating the students’ work and helping them expand and improve on it. I learned from that alone. I feel more confident in choosing colors, and hope to bring a greater sense of fun to my design work. Thanks again.


How wonderful to have such an experienced, thoughtful teacher, who takes educating others so seriously. The depth and breadth of his teaching skill is matched by his knowledge of the subject. I studied art in school, own some of the color books he recommends, and learned far more than I thought possible. And he does it all in such a kind, affirming, supportive way. What a calm guide. How lucky are we to have access to a class with him!

Joe Loffredo

I was concerned that I wouldn't like watching everyone work, but I found that it was the best part! It allowed you to see Richard's lessons being put into action by the various students, each of which is talented in their own right. And Richard is great. Knowledgeable, intelligent, and supportive, he's got the attributes a great teacher should have. I'm a painter, not a designer, but the class really helped me a lot. When I go back to the canvas, it will be with a much deeper understanding of color, and how colors interact with each other.

Student Work