Extraordinary Realism in Paper Quilling by Nikki Besser

Those of you in Facebook quilling groups might have noticed a flurry of photos recently posted by the sister of today's featured quilling artist, Nikki Besser, whose fine work has been exhibited in Minnesota galleries since 2021. Because I was so impressed by Nikki's quilling style, not to mention that each post generated many positive exclamations and questions within Facebook, I reached out to interview her so that an even wider audience will be introduced to her art.


paper quilled portrait of seated elderly man playing violin surrounded by three fluttering doves

Nikki, tell us about your personal art history, so to speak.


My artistic journey is an informal one, as I have no professional training or education in the arts (especially not in paper quilling). Aside from what I received as part of my high school education, I am primarily a self-taught artist. I learn through experimentation and good old-fashioned trial and error. I consider myself an emerging artist, not yet professional, but beyond hobbyist... I do hope to build more of a career in time. 


paper quilled portrait of five men seated on bench outside

Where did you first see quilling and how did you learn to master it?


Prior to stumbling upon paper quilling, I was practicing in oil paints and soft pastels. My experience in these mediums is the foundation for how I go about quilling. I often say I quill the way I paint... detail for detail, line for line, color for color, stroke for stroke. 


paper quilled portrait of baby chicken standing near pastel painted cracked eggshell

It wasn’t until 2018 that I discovered quilling via Pinterest and just had to try it. I ordered a small package of paper strips (that’s it) and fashioned my first quilling tool by splitting the tip of a toothpick.

After completing my first project, an 8" x 8" gray elephant, I was hooked on the craft. I knew then that I needed more supplies to see what else was possible... maybe now I could get an actual quilling tool! I purchased more paper and a rolling tool, and have been making quilled creations steadily since then, continuously scaling in size to allow for the expansion of detail and more room for possibility and storytelling. Many of my more recent pieces are approximately 25" x 30".


paper quilled portrait of male jewelrysmith at worktable surrounded by animals


You must spend a great deal of time quilling as both your realistic and sometimes fantastical works are quite complex.


Anyone who is familiar with paper quilling knows it’s a craft of patience. Perhaps the most popular question I am asked about my work is “how much time does a piece take to complete?” I’ve never been able to answer this question with great accuracy, but the short answer is many, many hours. It is tedious, time consuming, and meticulous in coming together, but as the saying goes - time flies when you’re having fun. So to me they are all hours spent in joy, having great fun. 


paper quilled portrait of young male artist seated in front of canvas on which he is painting a ship; dog on floor beside him is looking at easel

I live in far northern Minnesota, USA, a very remote area where internet reception is poor and the winters are long and dark so this is when I do the majority of my quilling. Time seemingly ceases as the weeks and months merge into a blur of mere memory and new artworks. I generally slow down through the summer to tend to other things such as my farm and garden hobbies.

paper quilled portrait of young woman who is smoking and seated next to tiger and liquor bottle

What are your favorite supplies?


I am very particular in the supplies I use and the list is quite simple. I only ever use 5mm foam core board as my canvas; I prefer this above all else. It doesn't warp and is easy to cut. Because I use a great many push pins in the process of creation, the foam board is least resistant to their use. It is the only type of backing I use, no paper, wood, or anything else. 


paper quilled portrait of elderly woman with walking stick walking alongside lioness with two doves fluttering overhead


I also only ever use 5mm paper strips as I find this width to be the perfect size and strength for me. (For all of you quilling artists using 3mm strips or smaller, I applaud you; I have not the patience for such.)

paper quilled portrait of elderly seated man wearing graduation robe holding playing cards with animals looking on and owl overhead holding graduation mortarboard


I prefer Aleene’s Quick Dry Tacky Glue for its speed in drying, and while I’m patient, I still appreciate saving time where I can. I also have push pins, hobby knife and blades, an electric quilling tool, a few good markers, and scissors on hand. I don’t use the many accessories that are available except for a crimper occasionally. The imagination is the greatest tool of all. 


paper quilling art of seated elderly man with angel wings surrounded by fluttering doves


Tell us about the inspiration for your subject matter, as well as your process. So many of your portraits appear to have a story behind them and make me curious to know more about the characters.


My process in creation is first dreaming up the concept (which are simply visions and characters of my mind's eye), after which I grid my foam board to keep the elements in proportion. I sketch the piece and credit my previous artistic experience in painting and drawing for this method. I then color block with marker so white doesn’t show through beneath the paper. 

I ALWAYS begin a quilled portrait with the face because if I cannot capture the expression/emotion I wish to convey, then the piece is simply not worth continuing.  


paper quilled portrait of black short haired dog's face

Where can we see your quilling this summer?


If you are in my neck of the woods, it is currently on exhibition at the Great River Arts Center in Little Falls, Minnesota until June 20th, 2023. It will then be moved to the Hopkins Center for the Arts in Hopkins, Minnesota until the end of July. I encourage you to experience seeing quilling in person because a camera simply cannot pick up the details and dimension that the naked eye can.


paper quilled portrait of elderly man holding walking stick and lamb surrounded by flying birds and another lamb while wolf with tail between legs looks at them


Thank you for the opportunity to share my work and journey with all of you. I appreciate the love and support more than words. Happy quilling! 


smiling young woman holding kitten

You'll find Nikki Besser on Instagram, @niftynikkiart. She also has an Etsy shop.

As an Etsy affiliate, I earn a small commission 

from qualifying purchases at no additional cost to you. 

Thank you, should you choose to use the links.


Ann Martin
Ann Martin

This is a short biography of the post author and you can replace it with your own biography.


  1. WOW. So impressive. Thank you for this fascinating interview.

  2. I'm so glad you enjoyed it, Cindy... thanks for commenting.

  3. What incredible talent! I sure hope this woman gets the recognition she deserves one day because that is some of the best quilling I've ever seen. And in only 5 years!?? I can't imagine the time involved in those, so much detail!!


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