When most artists want to create something fine and delicate, they reach for single-hair paintbrushes or extremely fine pencils. When Calvin Nicholls wants to create a realistic style of sculpture, he grabs a sheet of paper. The former designer combined his love of nature and his desire to create paper sculptures into an ongoing project. Since 1989, his series of nature-based paper sculptures have been seen in galleries around his home province of Ontario, throughout Canada, and around the world.
Paper sculpture is a popular and frequent form of art. You can find it almost anywhere, from your grandma’s scrapbooks to your local art gallery, but the level of detail and craftsmanship in Nicholl’s pieces are rare. His sculptures are almost exclusively 3D models of animals, carefully mounted onto mat-board frames. Each sculpture brims with lifelike realism and, because of the 3D effect, look ready to leap off of their frames. The level of detail can be staggering, especially considering the material, and Nicholls recreates dog whiskers and hummingbird feathers in stunning specificity.
Nicholls’ process is actually shared on his website as well, where he walks through the simple steps of creating his realistic and beautiful paper sculptures. He starts out by drawing the picture using a pencil, a sort of conceptualization from which he can work throughout the process. From there, he traces from the pencil sketch and transfers the actual paper used in the sculpture. Cuts are made with scalpels and sharp knives to get the perfect angle and cleanest cut. He then uses a toothpick to attach the tiniest amount of glue to the paper pieces and attaches them, starting from the bottom and working his way up. While much of his pieces are white like the paper, Nicholls occasionally uses coloured paper for an accent effect.
The beauty of Nicholls’ work is clearly in the craftsmanship and time dedicated to each piece, but also how the work straddles navigates ideas of realism. Photorealistic detail usually extends past the point of colour, meaning works that try to look as “realistic” as possible often use colour to achieve this. For Nicholls, his highly-detailed pieces are often monochromatic, void of colour, creating a deeper appreciation for the piece in and of itself instead of its adherence to accurate depiction.
Capturing the beauty and majesty of Canada’s natural environments has been a dominant mode of artistic expression in Canada since even before the Europeans arrived. Artists like the Group of Seven made a name for themselves based on natural landscapes and paintings, as did Emily Carr. To see this subject extended to another medium, that of paper sculpture, is a fascinating development. Hopefully, Calvin Nicholls work will continue to be seen and created for Canadians and people around the world.