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Papel Picado Lesson

This lesson was developed for students in grades 3-12.
The complexity of the lesson can be increased to accommodate different age levels.

National Visual Arts Standards Addressed

  • Understanding the visual arts in relation to history and culture
  • Understanding and applying media, techniques, and processes
  • Use knowledge of structures and functions
  • Reflecting upon and assessing the characteristics and merits of their work and the work of others.

Objectives for Students:

  • Understand the role of papel picados in the Days of the Dead celebration
  • Recognize and identify papel picados
  • Describe and analyze the visual qualities of papel picados
  • Use positive and negative space to create a cut paper composition
  • Use symmetry, repetition, and pattern in a cut paper composition


  • colored sheets of tissue paper 11" x 14" size (one per student)
  • scissors
  • string or yarn
  • glue


  • amate paper
  • fierritos
  • geometric shape
  • negative space
  • Otomi
  • papel picado
  • patron
  • pattern
  • positive space
  • Puebla, Mexico
  • repetition
  • symmetry

Introduction and Discussion
Display sample papel picados. Introduce the following information about papel picados to your students. Compare and contrast paper cutting techniques found in other cultures if time and resources permit.

Papel Picado Background Information
Colorful paper banners, called papel picado (Spanish for "perforated paper") can be found hanging about the streets during any Mexican fiesta or celebration. Usually made of tissue paper but sometimes of more durable plastic, the cut banners are hung together like a string of flags. For the Days of the Dead, the designs feature skeletons, skulls, crosses, and tombstones. Some artists create intricate designs that take many hours to make. Because of their fragility and the time spent creating them, cut-paper banners are themselves symbols of the transitory quality of life.

The tradition of papel picado can be traced to pre-Columbian times when papermaking thrived throughout Mesoamerica. The bark of the amate tree, a type of fig tree, was used to make a rich colored brown or beige paper. Cut-paper figures used in ceremonies were created to represent any number of human and animal spirits. Today, a group of indigenous people, the Otomi from the village of San Pabilto, continue to make cut-paper figures from their handmade amate paper.

The festive papel picado banners created throughout Mexico today are usually made with tissue paper or plastic. Banners are cut with a hammer and sharp chisels called fierritos. As many as 50 layers of colored tissue paper can be cut at one time. To guide the cutting, a patron or pattern with a drawn design is placed on top of a stack of tissue paper. Some of the best papel picado is made in the small village of San Salvado Huixcolotla in Puebla, Mexico, where artists work to create paper and plastic decorations for the Days of the Dead, Mexican Independence Day (September 16th), and Christmas.

The tradition of making cut paper designs is practiced in many cultures throughout the world. Some of the more famous techniques are the German scherenschnitte, Polish wycinanki, Chinese hua yang, Japanese kirigami, and French silhouettes.

Introduce or review the concepts of positive and negative space, repetition, and pattern if needed. Check for your students understanding of the concepts. Demonstrate for your students how to cut a paper design with repetitive designs from one piece of tissue paper. Choose a colored tissue and place it on the table horizontally. Fold it accordion style from the bottom up making about 3-4 folds. Leave one inch at the top of the tissue paper to attach a string. Using a scissors, cut a series of repeating shapes from the folded edges of the tissue. Unfold the tissue paper to reveal the pattern. Flatten the tissue paper on the table. If possible, iron to remove the folds. To prepare for hanging, lay the end of a long piece of yarn or string horizontally across the top of the paper where you had previously reserved one inch of paper. Fold the edge of the paper over the string to create a 1/2 inch flap. Glue the edge of the flap down with the string under the fold. Very little glue is needed to achieve a strong hold. Glue sticks can be used to avoid using too much glue. Discuss what would happen if you had cut too near to the edge of the tissue.

IMPORTANT: If you want each student to contribute a cut paper design to create a banner, cut your string long enough to hold all of their tissue cutouts. Plan to allow one inch between sheets of paper as you add them to the string. Leave several inches at both ends to hang the completed banner in the hallway or across the ceiling of your classroom. Hang the banner high enough to keep curious hands from damaging the finished work.

Check for your students understanding of the concepts. Distribute the materials and allow the remaining class period for making cutouts.

To plan the assessment of your students' learning, review the objectives of the lesson. Draw the content for the assessment from the objectives as they reflect the information, process, and skills presented in the lesson. Any number of strategies can be used to involve your students in assessment, including group discussions, verbal or written presentations, and games.

Based on the objectives of the cut-paper design lesson, the following content areas could be addressed in the assessment process:

  • Demonstration of understanding of the role of the papel picados in the Days of the Dead celebration
  • Recognition and identification of papel picados
  • Description and analysis of the visual qualities of papel picados
  • Description of the tools, materials, and techniques used to make the papel picados
  • Identification of positive and negative space
  • Use of symmetry

Copyright 1998, CRIZMAC Art & Cultural Education Materials, Inc.
Excerpted from Days of the Dead: A Curriculum Resource, available from CRIZMAC.