Custom Cut Ketubot and More - Papercuts By Oren

Oren Loloi, an artist based in Tel Aviv, Israel, works almost exclusively as a paper cutter. Papercuts by Oren primarily features ketubot, anniversary keepsakes, and Judaica designs.

Cut paper ketubah

Oren also creates remarkable paper cut personal likenesses and layered architectural images.

Architectural paper cutting

I asked him if he would tell us about his art journey. Fair warning... this is a lengthy post, but I found Oren's responses interesting and hope you will too.

Are you a formally trained artist and has art always been your career path?

I got started with making art a LONG time ago. As a child I expressed myself through drawing, and in high school I was in a gifted artist program subsidized by the city. I then went on to study art in college and continued my studies in the atelier arts at the Art Students League of New York, where I had the pleasure of studying with some of the best teachers in the world. I even went as far as completing most of a Masters degree in Illustration at FIT in New York City, but never finished my thesis (I lost interest in the academic portion of the MA program and abandoned it). Then I became a graphic designer, where my work was 100% commercial. When you live in New York, and then Tel Aviv (after my move to Israel), you have to make money to pay the rent and that's that. I gradually drifted away from making artwork for its own sake and it bothered me a lot. 

Cut paper ketubah

Tell us how you began doing paper cuttings.

There was a moment in time when I started getting very concerned with the pigments in paint. Since I'm an apartment dweller, I didn't have access to a painting studio and I didn't want to have too much exposure to toxic pigments and definitely didn't want to pour them out into the environment, lacking a proper setup, so I began experimenting with cleaner mediums and eventually eliminated everything but the paper itself. I was working full time in an office environment, and would make portraits out of paper to give away to my coworkers as gifts. Everyone told me I should be selling them, but I really didn't think at the time that the papercut portraits were that special. Meanwhile I was learning a lot about the techniques and process of papercutting just by doing it.

Around the time I met Lauren, the woman I would later marry, the company I was working for was having financial problems and eventually collapsed. I was out of work. And I was actually pretty happy. I was not in any hurry to get another job immediately, and decided to coast on my savings for a while and make serious artwork again. Needless to say, this was a huge gamble. This was in 2011, and it's when I started making the large scale papercuts of the buildings in my neighborhood. 

Architectural paper cutting

It is slow and difficult work, with each piece taking up to three or so months to complete. I was getting to know the gallery owners in Tel Aviv at the time, and there was significant interest in my work at two galleries. One was the Bernard Gallery and the other was with David Gerstein, a famous Israeli artist who also owns his own gallery. He and I went through the financials of making fine art pieces versus more commercial pieces, and it didn't seem like the fine arts route was the way to go if I was going to support myself financially just on artwork alone.

The way I settled on making ketubot was when Lauren and I were planning our wedding, and we needed a ketubah for ourselves. Our rabbi showed us his standard ketubah, but it didn't appeal to Lauren. Her idea was that since I'm an artist, I should design one for us. When she said I could sell papercut ketubot, the idea didn't seem so farfetched as it did when people were telling me to sell the portraits I was making. It made a lot of sense because it allowed me to work in the papercutting medium that I had grown to love already. Not only did it allow me to fully express myself as an artist, but it worked in a commercial sense too because there is an actual need for ketubot -- especially well designed and modern looking ketubot. Today, this is how I make my living. I have abandoned full time office work, so you could say the gamble paid off.

Cut paper ketubah

Tell us about your design process.

As far as the process goes, it's pretty straightforward. I have many years of art and design experience behind me, so from a design standpoint I feel very confident. I start out by making thumbnails of ideas, dozens upon dozens of thumbnails, just exploring different themes. I do this unrelated to any individual piece. I have a sketchbook I dedicate to these thumbnail designs, where I do my idea exploration. This way, when I sit down to actually design a piece, I don't have to start from scratch. I already have a fleshed out idea in my head that stems from all the preliminary work I put into my thumbnail sketches. I try to do these as often as possible, and always refer back to old ideas because they might speak to me differently after some time has passed.

Judaica paper cutting

The second step is when I sit down to draw a larger sketch of the original thumbnail. I use a black pen for this step because if I were to use a pencil I'd find myself erasing and redrawing ad nauseum, which doesn't just slow you down, it actually hinders you. So I draw it and it looks pretty rough, but that's okay, because things are bound to change anyway. The thing about papercuts is that you have to cut into the paper itself and when you're done and you pick it up, you can't have pieces fall out from the middle. This takes some thinking -- it's a bit like a puzzle that you have to work out and the sketches almost never work out in this way. They have to be redesigned anyway.

Once I have the full sketch done I scan it into the computer and use a vector program to go over the entire design. This allows me to make significant changes to design aspects. I can have parallel running vines intertwine, for example, and I find that I can always find improvements to the original sketch in this way. It also allows me to work out the engineering of it all so that it doesn't fall apart in the end. Once I have it the way I want it, I can always refer back to the template, which is what allows me to offer designs on my site that I can reproduce accurately.

Cut paper anniversary portrait

Do you do architectural paper cuts similarly?

With my architectural designs, I have an entirely different approach. I start out with photographs I take of my surroundings. Of course, the photos look like your usual photos -- cars, people, power lines cutting across your frame, and various other things that generally make your composition fall flat. My job is to take the photo and turn it into the idealized version of the place. I remove surrounding buildings, unnecessary trees, cars, and people. I move things around so that they fit harmoniously from a design standpoint. And then I enlarge the whole thing to the size I want, and use it as a guide. In my head, I separate out the values into a simplified, chiaroscuro pattern, and with every single cut, I have to make a decision that will have ramifications a month down the road. Cut this out or make it a positive shape? Will this be a top layer or a middle layer? Do I need to cut out this detail or will it be obscured by a layer I put above it? Keep this tree? How about this window? Keep it? Simplify it? Remove it altogether? Merge with another window? These are all decisions I have to make as I go. And it becomes a form of intuition as you do it. You start to understand that if you make a specific cut, your piece will fall apart later, so you find another way to hint at the shape.

Cut paper hamsa

Your paper cut portraits appear to be such accurate likenesses. How do you achieve them?

The portrait work actually doesn't have a ton of magic to it. It stems from all the years of drawing and painting. I know how to make a portrait. Drawing a likeness is a process of distilling information. It has little to do with the lines of the face. Some people do portraits by following the obvious lines, such as the mouth and the eyes and nostrils. But that doesn't make a likeness, it makes a caricature. To get a proper likeness, you really have to treat the paper the same way you would if you were using a pencil or a paintbrush. You block out the areas of light and dark as you would with pencils or paint or any other classical means. The only difference is that instead of filling the areas in with pigment or graphite, you cut it out and let another layer of paper provide the shade you need.

Cut paper portrait

What are your essential tools?

Very good lighting -- this is extremely important because once it's sundown, I hardly ever have enough light from lamps -- and good close-up eyesight (I'm nearsighted and I still use magnifying lenses). My main tools are my giant A1 size cutting mat, a steel ruler, a hard pencil (7H), a Sharpie pen, a simple NT Cutter blade, and sometimes a surgical scalpel. I go through tons of blades and I buy them in bulk. If I don't snap off the tip, I'll wear down the cutting edge. After a while the blade doesn't cut through and it's time to replace. There is a balance I try to keep, because a brand new blade is too sharp and somehow causes some friction with the paper which makes it hard to cut, while a worn out blade just rips and tears. The best is a blade that's in the middle of its life. I have a little ceramic bowl where I keep my used up blades. It's nice to see it get filled up before I have to empty it out.

Thank you for your time, Oren. I'm sure many paper cutters who are reading along will have enjoyed learning about you and your work.

Cut paper portrait

In the end, I want to say that the reason I'm able to do this today is in great part thanks to my wonderful wife, who not only gave me the idea and the push to go through with starting my business, but most important, she believed in me.

Papercuts By Oren is also on Etsy and where he has licensed specific designs that are laser cut by the site, Tumblr, Facebook, and Twitter.

Ann Martin
Ann Martin

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  1. I enjoyed reading Oren's comments about how he works, and how he has found a way to combine what he loves with making a living. His portraits are fantastic.

  2. That is absolutely fascinating. I'm amazed at how he does portraits. Wow.

  3. Amazing amazing artist and really so nice to read about the way he works.


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