Lil Paper Cuties shapes fandom into 3-D art

Transforming her favorite fandoms into exquisitely layered, three-dimensional cut paper art pieces is Brittany Herrera’s painstaking passion. Her unique, pop culture-inspired creations are the perfect combination of cute and macabre, thus the name of her Etsy shop — Lil Paper Cuties

After majoring in animation and minoring in graphic design, Brittany went to work for Adult Swim series Robot Chicken as a model builder, fashioning miniature sets for the show and earning an Emmy Award certificate for her contributions. 

Inspired by her favorite artist, Brittney Lee, she decided to try her hand at the unique art of paper craft. A Monsters Inc.-themed gift soon blossomed into a hobby and business, selling her original creations (many of them horror or Halloween-themed), doing commissions, and vending in the Southern California art and horror show scene.

Whether repping Disney, Universal monsters, The Addams Family, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Beetlejuice, It, Edward Scissorhands, Stranger Things, or the Haunted Mansion, no two Lil Paper Cuties pieces are alike.

Since it takes awhile to complete one of these unusual works of art, they can be difficult to come by, but Brittany often makes her popular designs available on prints, pillboxes, buttons, compact mirrors, stickers, and acrylic pins. 

The paper artist recently walked me through the process of putting together one of her adorably elaborate masterpieces. She also told me about her Haunted Mansion-themed room — think purple and Victorian vibes — and  her love of Disneyland, Supernatural, and Funko Pops. 

Once you’ve read the interview, you’re definitely going to want to check out more of her work on Instagram, @lilpapercuties.

You’re an artist who creates unique and adorable 3-D cut paper art pieces, aka @lilpapercuties, many of them horror or Disney-themed. I understand you began making these as gifts. Tell me how you got started with this art form.

Thank you! One of my favorite artists while I was in school was Brittney Lee, who is a Visual Development artist for Disney. She does some amazing paper art. I was fortunate enough to see some of her work in person at a gallery.

I was so inspired and I wanted to see if it was a medium I would be interested in dabbling in myself. One of my very first pieces was probably 4-5 years ago and it was a Monsters Inc. theme I did as practice and it became a gift for a friend’s little boy. And that is what started it.

Brittany Herrera’s first ever paper art piece.

Could you describe what paper art is, for those who aren’t familiar with it?

Paper art or paper craft is using paper or cardstock as the primary material to create a piece of work. It can be flat or something dimensional, like a 360° sculpture, by using different techniques such as folding, bending, cutting and layering.

There are many different types of paper craft, such as paper mache, origami, quilling (the use of strips of paper that are rolled, shaped, and glued together to create intricate and decorative designs), cardmaking, scrapbooking, and paper layering, which is what I do.

Paper art looks like something it might be difficult to just start doing. How did you learn?

It was just a matter of grabbing a pair of scissors or an X-Acto blade and start playing with and manipulating the paper to see what would happen. Every paper artist has their own way of doing it, but it’s finding out which technique works the best for you, what makes you feel the most comfortable, because it can be intricate work but also very therapeutic and satisfying. It really was by trial and error for me. And it still is.

Do you have a background in art?

For a lot of artists, they seem to say, “Ever since I can remember, I always had a crayon in my hand and it never left.” For me, it was very different. My mom was always a very artsy and crafty person and would try to instill it in me. She even enrolled me in classes, but it wasn’t something that interested me at the time. It came to me later in life.

It was in my sophomore year in high school when I needed to take some art classes as part of the curriculum. So I chose to take a 3-D Animation class and from that moment on, I knew it is what I wanted to do.  I ended up going to Woodbury University in Burbank, CA, where I majored in Animation and minored in Graphic Design.

When did you realize your paper art pieces were something people might want to purchase?

Going to art shows and seeing other artists who specialize in paper and seeing people get drawn into looking at it because it’s unique. Seeing a paper piece in person is very different than seeing a picture of it. In person you can see all the details and layers, which can kind of get lost in a photo. But it wasn’t about whether people purchased it or not. I honestly wanted to see if it was something I would be able to do myself and possibly pick up as a hobby.

Plus, a majority of art that you see is digital, or painted with watercolors, gouache, or acrylics, and I thought while this is out there, at the same time, you don’t see a lot of people doing it and it could make me stand out a little.

Your paper pieces are pop culturally inspired. Many of them focus on horror, including classic and ’80s horror and Halloween themes, such as Universal monsters, The Addams Family, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Beetlejuice, It, Edward Scissorhands, Stranger Things, and Disney’s Haunted Mansion. Why do you tend to gravitate toward this genre?

I love horror and animation. Those are my go-to movie genres. Completely opposite ends of the spectrum. But that is what I am interested in. I like to work on pieces where the subject, fandoms, and genres are something that I personally have an interest in. If I am not interested in the subject, I feel I can’t get into the groove and tend to dread working on it. Luckily, there is a fanbase of a bunch of other people who I feel I can bond with over our shared interest.

There’s something really irresistible about the macabre characters combined with the cute style of your art. Is that part of the appeal?

Sure, I would like to think so. I like taking something that is familiar, recognizable, and relatable to people but putting my own different take on it that they maybe haven’t seen before. How many times do you see a cute Michael Myers or a cute but creepy Pennywise?

You also do a lot of Disney-themed pieces. I particularly love the ones based on Disney theme park features and attractions, like Dole Whip, the Dapper Dans, and the Haunted Mansion. What sparked your love of Disney?

Like many, I grew up watching all the classic Disney movies on VHS over and over, singing the songs, getting to go the parks, meeting and getting autographs from the characters, and collecting the toys. (Still do to most of that)

Do you go to the parks a lot?

I used to go all the time when I had the pass (when it was a little cheaper and less crowded). Even if it was a quick trip to just ride a few rides and grab a Dole Whip. The last time I went was maybe 2-3 years ago. I needed a break from it. But I feel like I will eventually get the pass again in the future.

Do you also get a lot of Disney-themed commissions?

Yes! I would say about 7 times out of 10 it is Disney related in some way.

What other kind of commissions do you do?

I take on commissions that I have an interest in. Or try to have an interest in, especially if it’s for someone I know personally. I have done a variety of different themes, from a baby nursery to Sailor Moon and My Little Pony, or even sometimes portraits of the customer as their favorite character. I try to keep an open mind.

I kind of slowed down on taking commissions because I prefer to make whatever I feel like making without restrictions and if it sells, fantastic! But I’ll open up commissions here and there for the challenge to branch off a bit from what I usually do to keep things interesting.

You’re also a big fan of the TV series Supernatural. Why do you love that show?

I have been invested in that show for literally half my life! I was 15 years old when the first season premiered and have been watching it ever since. I love their storytelling. The twists on the classic supernatural beings, the horror, and the chemistry between all the actors. It is definitely the end of an era but what a ride it has been and I can’t wait to see how they wrap it all up.

You once made a paper piece for Jensen Ackles. Tell me about that!

I went to a Supernatural convention in Burbank years ago. I had a photo op with him and I thought it would be cool and different to get a pic of him holding something I made. It was my intention to gift it to him, but the rules are pretty strict. At least I got my picture. I think I still have the piece somewhere!

What are some of your other favorite fandoms?

Harry Potter, Once Upon a Time, Stranger Things, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Riverdale, Funko Pops (Does that count?), just to name a few.

One of Brittany’s pieces in the layering stage.

Can you walk me through the process of creating a paper art piece?

I start roughly drawing to get the idea down in terms of pose, style, background and composition. I then scan it and take it into Adobe Illustrator. I clean it up digitally and choose the colors. Then I separate the digital drawing into pieces, thinking about how I want the pieces to layer and fall on top of each other to create the 3-D effect.

I cut out the pieces out of colored cardstock. I layer the pieces in order (not glued yet) to make sure everything makes sense and is landing where it’s supposed to. Then I will start bending and folding the paper and occasionally using foam spacers to give it some extra depth.

Then I glue it all together. Add some acrylic paint for highlights and shadows as a finishing touch to enhance it even more and place it in a shadow box.

What equipment, materials, and techniques do you use?

My hands and cardstock paper most importantly. X-Acto blades, scissors, Adobe Illustrator, glue, acrylic paint, foam spacers, shadow boxes.

This seems like a painstaking and extremely time-consuming art form. How long does it take on average to create a piece?

This is going to sound really vague. It really depends on the final size, the amount of characters, the amount of detail and difficulty. It varies. But if I were to estimate, I would say anywhere between 8-14 hours off and on throughout a span of 2-4 days. Sometimes longer, sometimes shorter. I don’t normally work on a piece consistently straight through. I will work on it for a while, step away, take a break, and go back to it the following day. It is for this reason that I haven’t really timed it from the beginning sketch all the way to the final product.

I’m guessing you can’t really whip out a ton of stock of your products because of this. What are some of the challenges of this art form?

Very true. I do this as a side project kind of thing in my spare time. I have a full-time job. So there’s that limited free time I have, coupled with the amount of time it takes to make the piece. Making the piece isn’t as hard as carving out the time to sit down and really focus on it.

Another challenging aspect that I brought onto myself is that each of my paper pieces are one of a kind and that obviously makes things a little more difficult in terms of meeting demand, especially if there are several people who are interested in the same piece. I do not replicate any of my pieces. I want whoever purchases one of my paper pieces to have something original.

I always tell people if you see it and you like it, you might not want to hesitate because it may not be here if you were to come back and out of respect to whoever purchases it, I cannot make it the same way again.

Sure, I would be able to whip out way more paper pieces if I replicated the same design over and over again because I wouldn’t be starting from scratch each time and I would have everything figured out already, but where is the fun in that? It wouldn’t be as special to the person or me, for that matter, if I did the same thing over and over again.

When I have an event that I am vending at, I try to take at least 3-5 pieces.  Now, that isn’t enough to fill up a space and I have to compensate for that. On top of working on these original pieces, I will take my digital version and make other items that are more accessible, such as prints, ID cases, pillboxes, buttons, compact mirrors, and most recently, acrylic pins and stickers, so if someone who wanted the original paper piece wasn’t able to get it, they can get something else that has the drawing that was used for the original paper art.

You sell your pieces in your Etsy shop and at conventions and shows, including SoCal events Spooky Expo, Midsummer Scream, and Spook Show. What’s it like to be part of that community of artists?

It is very supportive. Artists are always supporting other artists. They understand the process and the time that you put into your work because they do it too. There are so many artists out there, each with their own style and types of work. That in itself helps me focus and challenge myself to keep creating.

You work as a model builder on the Adult Swim series Robot Chicken. How did you come to be involved with the show?

I am currently not there with them anymore, but I was with them for a good six years. I had interviewed with them for an internship after I graduated from college. I got the internship and, not too long after, I was hired in Production. I eventually found my way to the Art Department, which is the last department I thought I would end up.

I wasn’t a builder! I didn’t know how to use power tools! But I started by helping the Lead Painter with small tasks and it went from there. I learned from the others who took me under their wing and taught me. I got to work on Robot Chicken for about four seasons, in addition to various other shows and a few commercials.

What did your job entail?

I got to build miniature sets that were used for the background elements for scenes in the show. I also made miniature props. Anything that the puppet or character had to touch or interact with. I made a lot of bedrooms, kitchens, offices, bathrooms, and restaurants.

You received an Emmy Award certificate for your contributions to the program. That’s a big deal! How did that feel?

It is an amazing feeling. I am grateful that I had the opportunity to be part of that talented team. Each person in my department had something specific they were good at and together we made the dream team. It was always fun going into work every day to work with my friends. I am proud of what we were able to accomplish and winning that award was just the cherry on top of a fun season to work on.

Before we conclude this interview, I have to ask you about your Haunted Mansion-themed room. Where did the idea for this room come from and what does it look like?

I like gothic and vintage-looking decor and Haunted Mansion is one of my favorite rides at Disneyland so I thought it would be fun to incorporate aspects of it into my room. Purple walls, vintage Victorian-looking furniture, all of which I repainted, a bunch of Haunted Mansion-related art, and Haunted Mansion collectibles that I have gotten from various places.

What are your future plans, goals, or dreams for Lil Paper Cuties?

I think one of my ultimate goals, if I had it my way, would be able to make this my full-time job. To be my own boss and to be able to just put all of my focus into my own work all the time. But in the meantime, to just keep creating things that people enjoy, develop a bigger following, vending at bigger events, meeting other artists and, most importantly, having fun!

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