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Origami Challenge #3: Start with a Traditional Base

I like to describe the process of folding an origami model like building a house. First you construct the frame of the house, giving it a skeletal structure, and then you decorate the house, adding the detail, color, specific features, etc. In origami, you typically start by organizing the paper into its basic structure, so that it has the general shape of the model as well as the number of points it needs for different features. Points are usually tips or corners that can be used for limbs or other protruding features. If you’re folding an anatomically accurate insect with lots of legs, you’ll need to organize the paper so it has enough points for each of those legs in addition to any mandibles, antennae, tail, wings, etc. Once you’ve created the base of the structure, you can shape it into its final form.

Just as there are infinite possibilities in origami, there are infinite possibilities for bases. Many designers create custom bases for their models (John Montroll’s Dog Base jumps to mind). Having infinite possibilities may be creatively exciting, but it can also be creatively daunting and lead to choice paralysis. There are a group classic bases that many traditional models are made from and that designers still find ways to create new shapes from. (I include these in the Design Toolbox)

I’m guessing the historical genesis of these classic origami bases has been lost to the annals of time (the history of origami before the mid-1900’s isn’t well-documented), but their modern names, according to David Lister’s “Fold Hierarchy and Origin of Origami Symbols”, were coined by Samuel Randlett out of an ongoing correspondence with Robert Harbin, and first appeared in his books The Art of Origami (1961) and The Best of Origami (1963). These include Preliminary Fold (also called Square Base), Waterbomb Base, Blintz Base, Fish Base, Bird Base and Frog Base (He also includes Diamond Base, which is less popular today). Other common shapes have been labeled over the years as well, including Kite Base, Pig Base, (Double) Boat Base, and Windmill Base (Windmill Base and Boat Base are the same structure with the flaps oriented differently, so I usually teach them as one thing). I consider these the “Major Arcana of Bases.”

There are also more obscure bases such as Shawl Base, Helmet Base (I love Helmet Base – I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of it), Cabinet Base, Diamond Base, Dinosaur Base, Parakeet/Little Bird Base, House/Organ Base, Flower Base, Stretched Bird Base, and so on. Most of these (I like to call them the “Minor Arcana of Bases”) are either one or two steps away from the open sheet (Shawl, Helmet, Cabinet) or extensions of the “Major Arcana” – Parakeet and Diamond from Kite Base, Stretched Bird Base from Bird Base, and Flower Base happens on the way from Preliminary Base to Frog Base. These bases appear in the traditional repertoire of origami and don’t, to my knowledge, have a known designer. 

You can learn a lot about origami by examining these classic bases. Compare the crease patterns of Kite Base, Fish Base, Bird Base, and Frog Base, and you’ll find they’re made up of the same molecules in different sizes. Blintz Base is square shaped, which lets you work with it as if it were an open sheet of paper but with more points (more on that in the next challenge), Waterbomb Base is the inverse of Preliminary Base, and Preliminary Base is so named because it can become Bird Base, Flower Base, Frog Base, and so on. 

Starting with one of these Traditional Bases eliminates half of your design process. You already have the base, so you only have to worry about shaping. One way to approach this challenge is to start with your chosen Base, start doodling without a specific subject in mind, and see what starts to emerge. You may see possibilities in the Base itself, or get ideas as you doodle. The determination to make a new model out of a chosen base can drive you toward solutions. I have a Marlin that came from an open exploration with Bird Base, and a Bat from an open exploration with Waterbomb Base. 

Another way to approach this challenge is to have a notion of how you want to use the idiosyncrasies of the base. I like to have students pick a specific kind of Bird and create it from a Bird Base. A Bird Base has five main points – the four corners, and the center of the paper becomes a point in the collapsed structure. The four corners can easily become four defining features of the Bird. In the traditional Crane (see above), those four corners become the head, the tail, and two wings. In the traditional Crow (see above), they become the head, the tail, and two feet. Once you’ve selected a Bird to make, your first design choice can be whether those two flaps will become wings or feet. If you choose an Ostrich, you probably want them to be feet. If you choose an Owl, you might prefer they become wings. That’s not to say you can’t get both wings and feet in a Bird Base Bird model, but making that initial decision gives you a path to move forward. 

Of course, not every Bird Base model will be a Bird. Katsuhisa Yamada has a series of books where every model is folded from Bird Base (and Stretched Bird Base… so, still Bird Base), including marine life, pets, wild animals, and so on. When I was designing Rabbits for Lunar New Year 2023, I used two of the Bird Base corner points as ears (See above).

I highly recommend finding books and diagrams that include lots of models derived from these classic bases so you build up an arsenal of ways to manipulate points and flaps into whatever features you want. For example, the smaller flaps in Fish Base can become the fins of the Traditional Fish, but there are also Fish Base Mice and Rabbits that use those flaps as ears. One model that expanded my mind as a designer is the Pelican from John Montroll’s Birds in Origami. He folds the Fish Base in half forming a kite shape, and uses the two long flaps to make its upper and lower beak. Akira Yoshizawa, Kunihiko Kasahara, and Samuel Randlett’s books also demonstrate how versatile these bases can be, and Robert J. Lang’s Origami Design Secrets includes a whole chapter on working with Traditional Bases. 

Working with the Traditional Bases is like learning to play Bach and Mozart on the piano. It’s a great way to practice origami fundamentals, build an arsenal of shaping techniques, and you can evolve your own origami designing perspective in the same way the art form as a whole evolved over the past century.

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