4.12 Paper circus

The purpose of this exercise was to create a poster advertising an event using just paper.

Key words from the brief:

  • The circus is coming to town! Create a poster advertising what’s on, where and when, but only use paper to do it.
  • Use coloured paper, work with collage, cutting and layering, folding or sculpting.
  • Reflect on how the limitation of only being able to use one material has affected how creative you can be.
  • Was this limitation a help or a hindrance?


I used the internet to look at vintage and modern circus posters in order to understand what basic components would be required.

The thing that struck me was that none of these posters featured images of the audience or audience reaction. I thought this would be an area to explore.


My original approach was based on creating a layered image using just paper.

Ideas generation page 01

I wasn’t quite sure what paper technique I’d use but was sure that the end result would be a 3D paper sculpture of some kind that would need to be photographed.

I had no idea how this would work so decided to mockup some paper cutouts of an excited circus audience and circus ringmaster in order to rapidly experiment with photographing a paper model under lights.

Ideas generation page 02

I really liked the results; this approach allowed me to be experimental and expressive with my character illustrations without being too precious. This was exciting.

I carried this further by using Photoshop to do some quick post production on one of the photographs.

Test 006 with text mockup
Mock-up with text layout added for reference

Lessons from test photoshoot:

  • I don’t understand enough about setting the white balance or using manual focal depth settings on my digital camera.
  • The makeshift infinity cove works fine.
  • There’s not enough lighting.
  • The scale of the ringmaster against the audience seems to read okay and the width of the audience cutout is about right.
  • I could experience with a second tier of audience – even if this is a single colour silhouette profile. That may give a better feeling of depth.
  • I think I should persist with this approach even though I’m not convinced it’ll work.
  • It might be nice to try a different colour background.

Things I need to find out:

  • How to create the audience out of paper.
  • How to create the acrobat hanging above the circus ring.
  • How to operate the digital camera in a manual mode.

At this point I had a choice to make. I could either stick rigidly to the brief and work solely in paper or proceed with what I found interesting, that is working with illustrated paper cutouts. I decided to follow the illustrated cut out route on the basis that I was getting value from that approach.


The process I used to create the final artwork:

  • Redraw the audience in three different tiers using pen and ink. I scanned these in bits and then recreated them in Photoshop at A2 size (width).
  • I created line art of the acrobat and ringmaster and coloured these in Photoshop.
  • All of the elements were output in colour and then spray mounted onto thick cartridge paper and cut out. I printed the acrobat and ringmaster figures at three different sizes to give me options in the photo shoot.
  • I turned a spare bedroom into a small photographic studio and used a wide roll of paper that I had used for another project to create an infinity cove.
  • I watched a couple of Youtube videos about studio lighting which were really helpful and reminded me of the basic principles.
  • The photoshoot was a lot of fun. Managing the logistics of lights tripods and props was a bit of jigsaw puzzle but I eventually got everything to fit.

One of the most interesting things about the photoshoot was experimenting with different lighting levels and working out how to get the optimum depth of field.

My camera is a Canon EOS10 which was not very expensive and pretty basic. Up until now I’ve only used it as a rostrum camera to shoot flat artwork and it’s been fine. There are lots of manual settings that I really don’t know how to use and it was a bit frustrating understanding in principle what I wanted but not having enough knowledge of the camera to quickly get results.

I took about 30 different shots varying composition and lighting, and in the end settled on one. The text mockup was helpful because I was able to frame the photograph to allow space for the typography.

I did have to carry out some post production on the final photograph to get the colour balance correct. I also cheated with the blue background. I couldn’t justify the expense of buying a roll of blue backdrop paper so shot the picture using white and added a blue overlay in Photoshop.

I tried to make the typography appropriate for the subject without making it too garish.

The final artwork:

Paper Circus artwork V2


Reflect on how the limitation of only being able to use one material has affected how creative you can be. Was this limitation a help or a hindrance?

This was hugely important and helpful in making me think and create in new and unexpected ways. This exercise reminded me slightly of the experience had during Illustration Sketchbooks doing 2.2 Investigating a process, where the exercise gave me license to just play with new materials.

What went well

  • I think I stumbled on an process that disrupts my usual way of working and somehow allows me to approach things with less preconceptions – a really good thing.
  • The whole process was an experiment that produced something completely new for me – I don’t have anything like this in my portfolio to date.
  • I started to appreciate the creative possibilities of working with models under studio lights using a digital camera.
  • I enjoyed experimenting with lighting levels and different compositions.
  • I particularly like the illustrations of audience reactions which were drawn in a very spontaneous unconsidered way.
  • I’m pleased the eyeline between the ringmaster, the audience and acrobat is believable.

What I’d do differently/better

  • I need to learn how to use more of the features on my digital camera.
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