Papel Picado Lesson
This lesson was developed for students in grades
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)
- string or yarn
- amate paper
- geometric shape
- negative space
- papel picado
- positive space
- Puebla, Mexico
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
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
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,
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
- 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