Wildlife Paper Sculpture Techniques

The cuts and texture are often tiny and very delicate but due to the numerous glue joints for every piece, the overall strength is substantial. Tests of the bond between glue and paper reveal that when deliberately forced, the paper tears while the glue seam remains intact.

Archival papers that I prefer are either 100% cotton or if they contain lignin fibre, alkaline buffering agents are added during the manufacturing process to prevent fading or yellowing. In some cases when the labelling is not conclusive, I treat it with a deacidification spray to neutralize any acids.

Thick paper is used to form the base shape upon which all of the detail pieces are glued. Thinner sheets are used for the structure with the thinnest ones used for fine feathers and hair.

What kind of glue do you use?

Adhesives must remain flexible and not affect the colour of the paper. My favourites include archival neutral pH polyvinyl acetate (PVA) and methyl cellulose powder products.

What tools do you use?

I am always experimenting with new tools but burnishers, and metal texturing tools are equally as important as the knives. A variety of handle shapes and sizes keeps my hand from cramping. Blades vary in shape as well depending on the handles and task. The tips fade quickly and require sharpening or replacement frequently as I work.

In my graphic design classes in college we studied paper as a medium which I found intriguing. Several years later in 1983 while designing a menu for a client I discovered a paper sculpture artist in Toronto and approached him about collaborating. His work and the art form really appealed to me and I immediately began my experiments with various papers that I had become familiar with through the graphics trade.

I still recall working on my first bird sculpture and marveled at how my interest in drawing, model making, sculpting and photography blended so beautifully with my life long interest in wildlife and the natural world. Creating pieces for corporate clients or private collectors involves research, consultation as well as the art process so I find it to be very satisfying. Every piece is a discovery of sorts too. I’m always learning with each
new sculpture.

My work is done in low relief so the overall depth is rarely more than one or two inches. This allows for traditional museum quality mats and shadow box framing. Current glazing products offer UV filtering, anti-reflection and an appearance that is all but invisible.

The art work is securely anchored into the mats and the sculpture itself is very strong. In some instances Optium museum acrylic is used to prevent the risk of breakage and glass is taped but both are packed in a very specialized containers.

The first step is to add a layer of paper around the framed piece before adding multiple layers of foam or bubble-wrap equivalent. A puncture-proof panel is placed next to the glass side of the artwork and then inserted into a clear bag. After sealing the bag, the package is slipped into a wooden or corrugated box with 2-3” of upholsterer’s foam at all sides. Customers often are as complimentary of the packing as they are of the artwork. I wouldn’t be comfortable approaching it any other way.

My first sculptures were produced for the print media so a photograph was required. Large format film was used to capture the detail and to assure that sharpness would be at it’s ultimate. In 1992 I purchased my own large format equipment and have enjoyed the process thoroughly often spending a day playing with strobe set-ups and the camera. My process is not complete until I see the detail and form come to life in
strategically placed light. It’s a fascinating process to watch light play over the surface of the artwork. It serves as a reward while pointing out areas that require touch up or final tweaks. The resulting photos whether digital or on film provide an archive and the opportunity to create art prints of the images.

Do you sell prints?

Yes in fact the illusion of my work in print is what established my career. International advertising agencies commission pieces for corporate campaigns largely due to the unexpected effect in annual reports, brochures, magazine advertising and similar applications. Limited edition prints are an extension of this and serve to make my artwork more accessible to a very diverse audience internationally who love and collect art.

What is your process?

Clients and I start with a discussion about concepts and subject matter, materials and size as well as budgets and timing. Rough sketches are sent to the client to review and prompt further discussion before starting on the actual final drawings. Research often includes consultation with biologists, world-renowned photographers and trips into the field to witness the subject first hand. Final drawings identify the changes in plane and define the individual surface layering and detail. A tracing paper “map” allows me to keep that final drawing close at hand while cutting the components and positioning them on the body form. Each piece is embossed, scored and formed to present the desired texture.

How long do they take to finish?

Detailed fur is slow and feathers can be equally challenging so predicting accurately how long a piece will take is very difficult. The largest sculptures I’ve done require several hundreds of hours while the more modest pieces keep me busy for two or more weeks. Familiarity with the subject is a big factor as well. My love of birds often propels me through pieces much faster than when sculpting subjects with emphasis on musculature and structure.

Where is your studio?

I’ve almost always worked at home. My first studio was in the bedroom of my apartment in Toronto and then for several years it was in the basement of a home when my wife and I were first married. As our children came on the scene we purchased a home that had a large attic and I’ve enjoyed that space for over 25 years. Light drifts in through a six foot long, half moon shaped window along my extended art table and I’m reminded of my three artist children whose early drawings line the cathedral ceilings.

It is an exciting process to commission a piece of art and sometimes I’m up to date and ready to start a new piece a month or so in advance. A Studio List is in place to keep it all sorted out and a modest deposit secures a spot to get things started.

I have done classes but time rarely allows for it. Special circumstances like an artist residency or demonstration at a juried art show allows time to present my method. There are plans to develop a section in my website and social media platforms in the future.

I keep myself very busy keeping up with client requests and set aside time each year for three or four juried shows in the United States and Canada. I expect a time will come at some point where I create pieces for galleries but for now my list is long so I remain focused on commissioned work.

My About page has this information which is updated as show dates are confirmed.

The framed pieces are hung similarly to any framed piece although I encourage clients to consider devoted lighting. High levels of ultra violet light exposure and direct sunlight should be considered as with any fine furniture or art before selecting a display position. Newer LED lighting offers many safe options in terms of beam width and dimming to make the artwork pop at any time of day.

That’s difficult. The easiest answer is that I haven’t done it yet. I enjoy the effect of layered feathers and the fullness of form in a snowy landscape but the challenge of analyzing musculature and capturing a precise gesture keeps me forging ahead as that favourite piece gets closer.

Do you have more than one piece on the go at the same time?

Yes and no. Once a piece is started in the sculpting phase I stick with it. The flow of fur or feathers is important to maintain however I may work at sketches for new projects during breaks from cutting.

My paper sculpture art work has been featured in the following:

Print Media:
Disney Yearbook 2017 – (USA)
WorthWhile 2017 (USA)
Opulence International 2016 (USA) [Click here to see the article]
PrivatAir 2016 – (four issues inflight magazine)
Priority 2016 – (inflight magazine Singapore Airlines)
Bliss 2011 (USA)
Hello Canada 2011 (Canada)
Sommerset Studio 2006 (USA)
Century home 1997 (Canada)
Art Impressions 1991 (Canada)
Canadian Living 1987 (Canada)
Studio 1989 (Canada)

Website and Blogs:

Have an idea in mind? Collaborating is one of the great joys in my art career. Contact me today and let’s explore the possibilities.


Thank you for your interest in my paper sculpture artwork.

A few notes to keep in mind about delivery:

  • All deliveries are processed by CanadaPost
  • A tracking number when applicable will be sent to you as soon as your package enters the CanadaPost system
  • Contact calvin@calvinnicholls.com if you require special delivery requirements.
  • Allow 2-3 weeks for flat print orders to most locations in Canada and the USA
  • Allow 3-4 weeks for framed orders to most locations in Canada and the USA
  • Framed print deliveries in Canada and continental USA only
  • Retail sculpture deliveries for all locations to be quoted separately via email
  • Customs fees, duties and taxes may apply
  • Mat colour/hue may vary slightly from photographs to actual delivered product – frame style and colour may change without notice
  • All packages have extra padding and stiffeners to assist with safe delivery
  • If your package arrives damaged take photos immediately to record impacts or punctures and contact me at calvin@calvinnicholls.com