The Art of Paper Cutting

Have you ever tried making art out of cut paper? The art of paper cutting comes from China, where paper was invented in 105 AD — that’s over 2,100 years ago! Since then, it has become a popular art form around the world. There are many ways to do a paper cut. Some artists will use a single piece of paper and cut out shapes to create a design, like paper snowflakes! Other artists use many cut pieces of paper glued together to create an image. It’s like coloring with paper!

Our special exhibition Art of the Stage: Picasso to Hockney highlights artists who partnered with writers, dancers, actors, and singers to create props, costumes, and set designs for performances. One artist featured in the exhibition is Robert Indiana, who used paper cutting to plan the costumes and sets for 1966 and 1976 productions of the American opera The Mother of Us All.

To plan the sets for the opera, Indiana first sketched a design. Then, with the help of his studio assistants, he cut individual shapes out of different pieces of paper and arranged them to follow his original sketch. When the pieces were arranged just right, they were glued down to a background sheet of paper. Each of the individual shapes and colors in these scene designs is a cut piece of paper! 

When the scene designs were complete, they were sent to a workshop, where set builders used Indiana’s paper cuts as a template for creating life-size 3D sets using wood, fabric, paint, and other materials. Once the sets were built, they were wheeled onto a stage and opera singers performed in and around them!

Try making your own paper cut at home! First, decide what your scene will be. Think of your favorite place to go, a place in a storybook, or even an imaginary place. Once you’ve chosen your scene, follow the steps below to create your masterpiece. Use #MFAfromHome to share your creations with us online!


• Sheets of paper in a variety of colors or white paper you can color
• Scissors
• Glue stick, glue dots, or liquid glue
• Optional: Craft knife and cutting mat


1. Use a pencil to sketch your scene on a piece of paper. This piece of paper will be your background, and you will not cut it. The sketch you draw will be the outline you follow as you fill in your artwork with cut pieces of colored paper.

2. Use a pencil to draw the individual shapes from your sketch on another piece of paper. For example, if your scene has a sun, draw a sun on a piece of yellow paper. You might also draw the sun on a piece of white paper and use coloring supplies to make it yellow. 

3. Use scissors to cut out the individual shapes.

4. Optional: With a grown up’s help, you might use a craft knife and cutting mat to create more details in your cut-out shapes. Remember to only use a craft knife with an adult’s permission or help. If you use a craft knife, make sure to place a cutting mat underneath the paper you are using so you do not scratch the table, floor, or other surface you are working on. 

5. Match the individual shapes to your sketched scene. Try cutting and placing all of your shapes on the background before gluing anything down. This way you can rearrange the shapes until you have your ideal scene.

6. Once you’ve decided where each shape will go, glue them down to the background using a glue stick, glue dots, or liquid glue. Liquid glue will make your artwork wet, so don’t use too much and give your artwork plenty of time to dry before moving it.

7. Remember to save any pieces of scrap paper to use for another paper cut scene or other future art activity! 

8. Extra fun: Write a story that takes place in the scene you created. Think of characters that would visit this scene, what they would do there, and what they would say. Share your scene and story with others!


Art of the Stage: Picasso to Hockney is organized by McNay Art Museum (San Antonio, TX).

Robert Indiana (American, 1928-2018), Scene Design for Susan B. Anthony’s Front Porch, Act I, Scenes 3-5, in The Mother of Us All, 1976, Cut paper, Gift of Robert L. B. Tobin © Morgan Art Foundation/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Robert Indiana, Scene design for Susan B. Anthony’s drawing room, Act II, Scenes 1-2, in The Mother of Us All, 1976, Cut paper, Collection of the McNay Art Museum, Gift of Robert L. B. Tobin © Morgan Art Foundation/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York


YOuth activities funded in part by: