Fall 1996 Vol. 7, No. 3


Papel Picado

In Mexico, papel picado (perforated paper), refers to the traditional art of decorative cut paper banners. Papel picado are usually cut with sharp fierritos (small chisels) from as many as fifty layers of colored tissue paper at a time. Designs may incorporate lattice-work, images of human and animal figures, flowers, and lettering.

Many papel picado are made especially for the Mexican festival of the Days of the Dead and include skeletal figures engaged in the everyday activities of the living. Other popular designs include the Virgin of Guadalupe and Christmas nativity scenes. Individual papel picado banners are strung together to create festive, colorful decorations for celebrations.

To make papel picado, a paper patron (pattern) is first drawn as a guide. The pattern is laid on top of fifty layers of tissue paper that are placed on top of a lead sheet. The pattern is cut out using a hammer and different sizes of chisels. Though tissue paper is still preferred by the villagers, artisans also use metallic papers and plastic for other markets.

Papel Picado in the Village of San Salvador Huixcolotla, Puebla, Mexico

San Salvador Huixcolotla, Puebla, is the village most noted in Mexico for the art of paper- cutting both for local festivals and marketing in Mexico City and abroad. Paper cutting is a family tradition and spirits of rivalry between two families of artisans (the Vivancos and the Rojas) in the area maintain competition and pride in the folk craft.

Maurilio Rojas, an artisan from the village, described his work in 1989:

"Local commissions form a large part of my work, just as they did in earlier days. For village festivals, here and elsewhere, I show patron saints, the blessed Virgin, and heroes from history for las fiestas patrias (September 16, Independence Day). On the Day of San Salvador (the patron saint of the village), there is always a profusion of paper banners outside our church."

"I also make banners for local families. I do christenings - babies with feeding bottles and doves - first communions, fifteenth birthdays and weddings. Houses look festive during celebrations, their yards festooned with paper banners."

Cut Paper Traditions Around the World

Paper cutting has been a folk art around the world ever since paper was invented in 105 A.D. by Ts'ai Lun, an official in the court of Ho Ti, emperor of Cathay, China. The humble nature of its origins and the anonymity of its practice has caused paper cutting to be ignored as an art form, though artists, artisans, and collectors are becomingly increasingly aware of this valuable folk heritage. Worldwide traditions include German scherenschnitte, Polish wycinanki, Chinese hua yang, Japanese kirigami or mon-kiri, French silhouettes (named after Etienne de Silhouette, Controleur-General of France in 1757), and Matisse's painted paper cutouts.

Making Simple Papel Picado

Fold a rectangular piece of paper in half. In pencil, sketch one half of a design on one of the folded halves. Rulers may be used to divide the paper into grids or sections. Objects or designs must touch and connect to other areas of the paper as they form the positive shapes on the paper. Negative areas to be cut away may be shaded in pencil to aid in cutting.

Use scissors or a craft knife to carefully cut away negative areas of the design (cut over cardboard if using craft knives). Open slowly, flatten, and glue to a background paper. To create more complex designs, fold the paper more than once. Try using different kinds of paper: butcher paper, fadeless colored paper, origami paper, and colored tissue paper.


Carmichael, Elizabeth, and Chloe Sayer. The Skeleton at the Feast: The Day of the Dead in Mexico. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1992.

Jablonski, Ramona. The Paper Cut-Out Design Book. Owing Mills, Maryland: Stemmer House Publishers, 1976.

CUT-IT-OUTŪ Online A Papel Picado web site.


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