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  • Writer's pictureJessica Nacovsky

118: How To Make A Papercraft Illustration

Updated: Jan 4

Papercraft illustration of Petra, from Stem & Stone
Papercraft illustration of Petra, from Stem & Stone

Howdy! I recently made a papercraft illustration of the protagonist, Petra, from my novel, Stem & Stone. The process took longer than I anticipated. It's not my first time making an illustration from cut paper, but it was certainly my most ambitious attempt yet. I'm a big fan of tactile-seeming illustrations, where the medium is obvious. I found the process intuitive, but that's likely due to my experience with collaging and whatnot. So, in case anyone else was interested in this medium, I thought it might be helpful to list the steps here.

  1. Create Composition: I began this project by making a digital mockup for the design. I used the free Photoshop alternative, to essentially collage the visual components that make up the final composition. You can draw by hand or paint the mockup if that comes more naturally to you.

  2. Make Copies of Composition: I printed multiple copies of the final composition at Office Depot because my HP printer is a bane. You want at least 3 copies to be safe.

  3. Simplify The Composition: I traced the composition, simplifying each hue into a light, medium, and dark value. The hue is the color. You can simplify further if you choose, breaking the image down into just hues, or the values into light and dark, leaving out the medium value entirely. This step took me multiple attempts and I was tracing right on the composition copy at first, before copying the simplified composition outline onto a separate sheet of clean paper. Multiple copies of the composition are useful for when one makes mistakes tracing. Tracing paper can work but the process goes more quickly if you have a lightbox/tracing table.

  4. Get Organized: I tried to label each area outline, on the composition outline page, to indicate the value-hue that belonged there. I listed all of the value-hues so I could check off each page as a I cut them out in a later step.

  5. Trace Each Color Area Onto Another Page: As stated, I broke down each hue into three values onto the composition tracing page. I flipped the composition tracing page over so that it was backwards over the light box. Then I traced each value-hue area (think of light red as a value-hue area, medium red as a value-hue area, and dark red as its own value-hue area, for example) onto a separate page. In the past, I've used construction paper for paper craft illustrations, which works well when there is a very simple palette. If you're using construction paper make sure you're tracing onto the correct color page for the area you're filling. It's important drawing lines are on the back, which was why the composition page had to be backwards for tracing each value-hue area.

    1. I simplified this step, for my own sanity, by paying attention to which values took up the most surface area per color and made those the background. I did not remove areas of other values from within that area of hue, placing smaller value areas overtop in a later step. Otherwise, there would have been more gaps between colors.

    2. More for stylistic reasons than for my wellbeing, I merged all of the dark values, condensing them to black. Meaning, whether the shadow cut across hair, shirt or landscape, I merged those dark-value areas into one big area to cut out of a single sheet of paper. This way, cut pieces of of the same value-hue wouldn't've touched, which might have looked amateurish in the final product.

    3. In my next paper craft project, I aligned each tracing page / soon-to-be-color-sheet with the sheet being traced from. In making certain each color-hue space was being arranged in the same space on both pages, I arranged to more easily place those pieces in a later step.

  6. Color Each Value-Hue Area In: If you used construction paper, you can skip this step. After tracing each value-hue area backwards onto its own new page, I then removed the composition tracing page from the lightbox. I flipped the value-hue page over, and set to painting the non-outlined side the color that area was in the initial composition. I used watercolor and I made sure the paints were very saturated, pigment-wise, but not overly saturated with water which would have warped the paper. Once dry, I placed each painted/outlined value/hue page beneath a flat weight to flatten any warping. Note: Do not use oil based paints for this step unless you have infinite patience, due to long drying times, and do not use tattoo ink. I have a ton of ancient tattoo ink, and when filling small areas of a watercolor, they work fine, but for large areas, you'll find that they smudge even after drying and will stain anything they come into contact with.

  7. Cut Each Value-Hue Area Out: Using an x-acto blade, which is better for precision cutting than scissors, I carefully cut out every value-hue area, abiding by the tracings on the back of each page. Referring to my list of value-hues, I checked off each color as I cut it out. Note: In my next paper craft project, as the color-sheet was aligned with the edge of the outlined paper, so that the pieces were arranged in the places they were set to be placed and glued when cut out, I taped them back into the holes on the sheet they'd been cut from, using painters tape. With 2+ pieces of tape, I attached them only slightly to the back of each color-hue piece, as a single long band of tape beneath would have made pushing the pieces from the paper later, difficult.

  8. Put It Together: This is the hardest part. I began by placing the composition tracing on the light box. Using it as guidelines, I placed the background areas on the paper, taping them down with painter's tape as I went. If you're unfamiliar, painter's tape is a gentle tape that you should be able to peel without tearing the page. The more layers of paper, and the less the guidelines are visible, even over a lightbox. I abided by the guidelines wherever possible but with the final layers, I was eyeballing their placement. When done, I set a weight over the entire project, to flatten it before gluing. I waited a couple of hours before progressing to the next step. Note: In my next papercraft project, because the value-hue cut outs were taped in the the same places on their original page, I placed small bits of folded painter's tap beneath them and gently pushed them down onto the final composition. I was careful to place background colors first, and removed any pieces of tape that stuck out after placing each color-hue layer.

  9. Glue Everything Down: Once the composition was complete, I took a thin paint brush and set about gluing all of the layers down, being very careful not to spread glue beyond the edge of any pieces. Once the glue was dry, I popped the illustration in a frame, without putting the glass front in the frame. I placed that frame on the wall and photographed it in neutral (not too bright or cool) lighting. The glass front would have caught the glare and made photographing difficult. Once the piece was properly photographed, I removed it from the frame, put the glass front back in, and then put the project back in its frame before hanging it on the wall.

If you'd like a better visual for these steps, I posted a timelapse video to TikTok. It was nearly ten minutes long at 120x the actual speed, and I sped it up further to better fit the platform. So while not super informative, it gives you a slightly better idea of what I've described here.

Here is a second papercraft process TikTok video wherein I spend a week making the illustration for the cover of Light Step, my fabulist novel which will be released on January 16, 2024.

Light Step papercraft illustration of a hand rising from waves and clutching a pomegranate
Light Step papercraft illustration by Jessica Ferrara

Now this is just one style of papercraft. I'm not an expert on the medium. This is what worked for me. Thanks for stopping by! I drop a new blog post every Monday! Toodles!

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