Paper Cuttings, Monoprints and Collagraphy: Exciting A Level Portraiture

Last Updated on April 2, 2023

This innovative A* portraiture project was completed by Lucy Feng while studying WJEC A2 Fine Art at Hereford Sixth Form College, Herefordshire, United Kingdom. Lucy gained 93% for A Level Art, following 91% at AS Level. She was recently awarded second prize in the national Young Photographer of the Year competition run by Hereford College of the Arts and is a finalist in Digital Photo magazine’s Perfect Portraits photography contest.

One of Lucy’s sketchbook pages is included in our new book: Outstanding High School Sketchbooks. This book has high-resolution images so that fine details and annotation are clear, making it an excellent resource for students and schools. Learn more!

Lucy’s project is a source of inspiration for a number of reasons. Not only is her A Level submission filled with beautiful, gestural, observational drawings, but she uses media creatively and continually pushes the boundaries, using modern technology in a way that is exciting and rare among Painting / Fine Art students. Her precise, intricate paper-cuts are enough to make most Art students (and teachers) want to run the store and buy a laser cutter or CNC paper cutter to play with!

We were lucky enough to interview Lucy about her project. Her responses are below.

observational portraiture drawings
These large scale (A2) charcoal self-portraits were completed quickly, working from life (20 minutes each). A depiction of light and shadow falling upon complex three-dimensional form; edges and boundaries defined with rich, gestural mark-making.
pastel portrait completed for A Level Art
Demonstrating excellent observational drawing skill from the outset, this charcoal and pastel drawing sensitively depict human form.
figure drawing using lines
Competently depicting the whole human body, this A Level sketchbook page contains beautiful gestural figure drawings, drawn from life using ballpoint pen in Instanbul, Turkey.

Please talk to us about the ideas behind your ‘distorted portraiture’ theme and why you chose this topic.

Lucy: The main aim for my project was to convey raw emotion and sensation in a similar way to the artist, Francis Bacon, whom I decided to write my personal study on. This is what led to my decision to focus on portraiture, as the face is the most recognisable symbol of emotion and is where most of the five senses are concentrated. My decision to distort the conventional human face was made to intensify these emotions and invoke a stronger reaction in the viewer, who would naturally be more disturbed by the discordance created by morphing such a familiar image as the human face. The fact that portraiture is such a common topic actually contributed to my desire to work in this field, as I wanted to bring my own unique slant to it. The theme also seemed attractive to me, due to my love of photographing people, so I knew that I could easily take enough photographs to work from.

portraiture line drawings
Students often make the mistake of assuming that ‘research’ in an Art and Design project means sourcing information from the internet or books. In this context research implies visual investigation also: trials and experimentation with the practical aspects of art-making, medium and technique. Lucy completes a beautiful array of visual investigations in the early phases of her project, from continuous line drawings (see the example shown above right) to fragmented, cubist-inspired pencil works (above left).

To make the photographs more personal to me, and therefore invoke a stronger sense of emotion and expression, I also worked from many self-portraits throughout the project. On the other hand, I also included work that was based on photographs of strangers in the street that I had taken, so that I could interpret their emotions my own way with a sense of detachment. I also felt that different emotions were expressed by these strangers than in photos of myself or people close to me, as they were pushed out of their comfort zones by being asked for a photograph by a stranger.

ink wash drawing
At every moment, Lucy is creative and inventive with media. The portrait on the left was created in 15 minutes, using a strip of card dipped in ink. The larger A2 work on the right was rendered using pen and ink wash.
Francis Bacon artist study
This A Level sketchbook page shows an artist study – formal analysis of the work of Francis Bacon alongside Lucy’s own experimentation. Adobe Photoshop has been used to distort original photographs, before creating a monoprint of the image and overlaying other images printed onto acetate. Supporting artist works can be seen alongside, including those by Picasso, Käthe Kollwitz and Dustin Farnsworth.

Your project is an excellent example of how modern technology and creative use of media can be used to develop and extend a traditional Painting / Fine Art project. Please provide some detail about the techniques, tools and processes you used.

Lucy: I believe that fusing modern techniques with more traditional media can add an edgy twist to the outcome and I frequently try to combine unexpected materials and processes in my work, such as photography and laser cutting. I was lucky enough to have access to a laser cutter in my own home, as my dad is a greeting card designer and uses a laser cutter to create the cards, but most of my results can be achieved using a craft knife (although a bit more patience may be necessary)! To create my laser cut panels, I started by blocking out the basic shapes to be cut out directly onto printed originals of my photographs, before rescanning the images and using the design softwear, Coreldraw, to trace these shapes and create cutting pathways for the laser cutter to follow. I then transferred these lines onto the laser cutter’s design programme and programmed the lines to be cut. When cutting out your design, it is important to consider the strength and beam thickness required for the material that you are planning to cut (the engraved panels were achieved on a much lower strength setting that just burnt away a thin layer of the card board I was cutting into). After cutting out different patterns on a variety of similar images, I then layered the images on top of one another to reveal selected portions of each photograph in the pile, creating depth and distorting the image. To achieve another layered up effect, I also tried photocopying some of my images onto acetate and layering them over each other and some cut up pieces of the original images and prints of the originals with ink drizzled over areas (see below).

A Level Art sketchbook development - portraiture
One of many rich sketchbook pages in Lucy’s A Level Art project, this example shows experimentation with collage and paint, drawing inspiration from photographs by Nigel Parry and Connie Imboden. It is worth noting that the visual process a student has undergone should be obvious (as it is here) without the need for excessive annotation.

I also experimented with two different types of printing – monoprinting and collagraph printing – to achieve two very different effects. To create collagraph prints, I drew my design onto a thick piece of cardboard, before using a craft knife to peel a few layers of the board away in the areas I wished to appear darkest (as more ink is absorbed into the rougher surface) and I applied PVA glue to any highlights to make the board less absorbent in these areas, leaving midtones untouched. After the glue dried, I then used a rag to apply printing ink all over the surface of the board before wiping the ink away from the less absorbent areas. I then placed the board face down onto some thick cartridge paper and rolled it through my Art Department’s printing press. The board can then be re-inked in several different colours and re-printed between each new colour, over the first image, to create a more complex result. The plate can also be rotated between each new press to vary the results even further. Although collagraph printing has the advantage of a reusable printing block and perhaps a more textured look, monoprinting enables far quicker results, as you simply apply the ink directly onto a metal plate, applying more ink to shadows and less to highlights, before printing. The drawback is that the metal plate must then be washed before reapplying the ink to create a second print.

abstract mixed media portrait
For students who are used to working in a single medium alone, Lucy’s art project is a breath of fresh air. The A3 work on the left is a striking, mixed media piece combining collagraphy, laser-cutting, collage and acrylic paint. The work on the right is a collage of original photographs, monoprints, collagraph prints and acrylic paint.

As well as being a visually stunning and fun medium to use in your project, printing is also a quick way to provide a large body of work to give variety to your project. It is particularly satisfying to churn out a batch of vibrant, beautiful collagraph prints within minutes – after the much longer stage of creating the printing block in the first place, of course!

Tyvek artwork - printing onto Tyvek paper
Continuing to push boundaries and use mediums in exciting and inventive ways, this A Level Art sketchbook page shows images printed upon Tyvek (a durable synthetic material that resembles paper but is made from high-density plastic polyethylene fibres). The Tyvek sheet has then been heated to distort the surface. This led to further experimentation, with images creased and photocopied to simulate the melted Tyvek effect.

Which artists did you study as part of your project? How have these influenced and shaped your work?

Lucy: My initial inspiration for my project was the striking distortions of the human form by artist Francis Bacon. However, it wasn’t his actual painting style or method of distortion that inspired me, it was the way that he reduced bodies and faces into raw emotion. His painting entitled ‘Pope innocent X’, for example, seems to have become an embodiment of violence and aggression.

I also loved how Bacon managed to capture the essence of his models despite using so few brush strokes and distorting them so extremely. I tried to replicate this idea through my various prints, by distorting elements of the face in my original photograph whilst maintaining a few essential features, before stripping this distorted version to as few shapes as possible.

On a school art trip to Venice, I was lucky enough to see an original painting by Bacon, entitled ‘Study for Chimpanzee’, in the Peggy Guggenheim museum. Although the painting was not directly linked to my particular theme, it was a great privilege to get an impression of the space that the painting actually fills, as it can be difficult to visualise the size of a painting based on a set of dimensions written down. I could also get a closer look at the type of brush marks Bacon used and see how thickly he applied his paint.

The splattered and smeared paint in the photographs of Jenny saville by Nigel Parry and the photographs of Connie Imboden inspired me to use a similar technique in some of my collage work to increase the effect of distortion. I also loved the colour combination of the red and blue, as the colours clashed and made the overall effect more discordant.

After attending “The First Cut” paper art exhibition in Manchester I took inspiration from the work of the various paper artists included, such as Noriko Ambe to create my laser cut panels. I love the sculptural quality of Ambe’s work, despite the flatness of the initial material (paper) and wanted to create a similar impression of depth in my own paper art.

A Level Art sketchbook development
This comprehensive sketchbook page documents a highly original visual journey, with photographic images fractured, cut and reassembled. Drawing inspiration from The First Cut paper art exhibition in Manchester, Lucy’s laser cutting experimentation is influenced by the paper cuts of Noriko Ambe and Lucas Simoes, as well as paintings by Mark Posey.
paper laser cut
An enlarged detail from the sketchbook page, this work above shows the level of precision and detail achieved in each work: the laser cut pieces of paper meticulously reassembled and joined together; breaking out of the frame.
paper art laser cut
This sketchbook page is one of the most exciting sequences of development I have seen in a high school Art project. The small paper cut artworks will provide inspiration for those studying a wide range of creative art disciplines, including Photography, Graphic Design and Painting and Related Media.
laser cut portrait
An enlarged detail from the A Level sketchbook page above, illustrating the beautiful complexity and depth of layers in each laser cut portrait.
human canvas
One of the great triumphs of this A Level Art project is the fluid exploration of ideas; the confident dance between mediums. Here, with muted colour applied to her own hands, face and shoulders, Lucy becomes the human canvas.

What advice do you have for other high school Art students who wish to gain excellent grades?

Lucy: This may be the most common piece of advice, but I don’t think it can be stressed enough how important it actually is to be really passionate about your project. And don’t just settle for an idea because it seems easy, as some of the most difficult ideas to carry out can be the most exciting and fulfilling, but on the other hand remember not to bite off more than you can chew! A big idea executed poorly is never as good as a more managable concept with excellent execution.

Also, remember that the entire process really is as important as the final outcome. In previous years, as many Art students seem to do, despite the teacher’s advice, I would always think of my final outcome first and base my project around that. However, since a few short courses at Central St Martins, I finally realised the importance of the flow of a project and how much more naturally inspiration for unusual ideas can come when thinking in a chain of ideas initiated by a spark of inspiration, rather than trying to think backwards. Why limit yourself right from the beginning, when you can instead engage in an endless creative flow that could take you anywhere?

A Level Art final piece (portraiture)
This image shows an enlarged detail from Lucy’s final piece: the first panel in a triptych. Made from pastels and oil paint on cut layered board, the work has a sculptural quality, each section cut and raised to create depth; an aesthetic that has developed from the earlier paper cut investigations.

Lucy’s art project is one of many outstanding high school Art projects we have featured on the Student Art Guide. We actively seek out and celebrate outstanding student Art projects from around the globe. If you enjoyed viewing this project, please share it using the social media buttons below!


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