Stephanie Wunderlich is no ordinary illustrator—she doesn’t have pencils, watercolors, crayons, or felt-tip pens strewn across her workspace, and she hasn’t touched an eraser in years. Instead, on Wunderlich’s desk you’ll find one small, pointed pair of scissors, a cutting board, and heaps of colored paper collected from all around the world. These scraps get cut up like confetti and combined to form bold, charming, character-led images; it’s a singular technique that lends each composition a great sense of tactility. When you see her editorial work on the flat surface of a magazine page, it feels as if you can reach out and rearrange the fragments like delicate puzzle pieces, or that they might get up and start moving by themselves in a breeze.
When I first get hold of Wunderlich, she’s just started an editorial illustration for Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung, a piece for the seasonal cover of their quarterly wine supplement she’s been illustrating for years. The papercut illustration technique is vibrant and graphic, and Wunderlich was initially drawn to it because it allows her “to see things in an abstract way.” She sends me a photograph of what her desk looks like at this moment, scattered with blue and orange forms that are just beginning to look like a familiar snow scene. The composition has been largely abstracted—you can see how she’s reduced the world into simple shapes—and Wunderlich will fill in the details for the rest of the day, which is how long it takes her to create one of her collages.
Her cut-out technique reminds me of artists at fairs that make traditional silhouette portraits from black card; as they snip away at the paper without making any prior markings, it always seems like magic. For Wunderlich, the actual reality of creating a piece is very different. She starts by drawing her primary forms on tracing paper and then cuts these out to create templates. The final colors are then laid out on her background and occasionally fixed to the paper with removable strips of tape. “The process of moving around and trying out only really happens when the smaller details aren’t yet added, otherwise it would get too complicated,” says Wunderlich.
“It’s a bit like the digital working process, strange as it sounds. I have an ‘undo button’ and I can always change things, move them intuitively, try out different colors. The process is not ‘saved’ as long as it’s not glued.” When she worked with traditional techniques like painting, Wunderlich was always nervous about ruining the entire work with the next stroke of her brush.
Although there are many steps to making a paper-cut illustration, the pictures are wonderful because they feel so spontaneous and expressive, like the inspired shapes Edward Scissorhands cuts into his neighbors’ hedges. Wunderlich has piles of paper around her studio, which she keeps in cupboards and piled up in stacks, ready for whatever composition might need a flash of rough green paper or a fragment of a polka-dot print.
“My absolute favorite paper is still Letraset Pantone paper,” Wunderlich tells me. “I still have dozens of sheets of it in my cupboards, although the production was terminated 15 years ago.” When her art supply dealer told her that they were going out of production, she bought every last color from him, even the “muddy” ones that no one wanted. When she’s on holiday or browsing through old junk shops, Wunderlich is also always on the look out for new paper. “I constantly search flea markets, and I even cut out parts of print areas in brochures and magazines if I like the color.”
By the evening, Wunderlich’s work is done, and her wintery wine illustration has been brought to life with scattered bits of white paper snowdrops, white paper ice-skate markings, black paper tree branches, and a paper fur hat. “It feels like I’m moving props around a stage when I make a piece, arranging them until the composition is just right. I want it to express tension and harmony at the same time.” And with all props in place, Wunderlich glues the final scraps of paper down and sends me a picture of the final image.