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Origami Challenge #12: No References

How could folding paper be easier if you don’t have any references? Going back to John Smith, the guy who developed Pureland origami, he believed the requirement of precisely executing folds with specific references turned some people off to origami, especially kids and beginners. Many of his models don’t require many specific references (in addition to the simplicity of using only Mountain and Valley folds). That may not be true of all potential folders, but it’s worth considering and exploring.

Folding without references allows the folder to focus on shaping. Akira Yoshizawa’s diagrams often start with a traditional base (Fish Base, Bird Base, Diamond Base, etc.) or sometimes the open square, and then proceed to shaping steps that sometimes have references and sometimes don’t. This allows the folder to use their intuitive, artistic eye for shaping the model, which elevates the pieces from simple structures to dynamic sculptures. His Rabbit is a great example. It’s not a complicated model – it’s basically the traditional Helmet Base Fox model – but the shaping of the ears, face, and body make it pop. Yoshizawa developed the wet-folding process as well, which also contributes to the sculpture-like quality of his models. 

Folding Birds from Bird Bases is a good way to focus on shaping a model without references. With the Bird Base, you can assume two opposite points become the head and tail, and the other two opposite points become either wings or legs (not that there aren’t infinite ways to use Bird Base, but I’m keeping it simple for this exercise). From there, the rest of the process is molding those features to your liking. Whether you go from photographs or your own imagination, you get to intuitively shape the base into the Bird you have in mind. You’re not relying on someone else’s interpretation of a subject. You can play with the length of the legs and feet, the size of the head and beak,  the width of the tail, and so on. If the model has wings, you can add little crimps for feathers (check out Eric Joisel’s famous Swan). You can play with curving the paper, denting the body, and not worry about features being perfectly symmetrical. 

Rolling the process back even further, do you even need a Base? You’ll still want to set up the paper in a general shape to get the features you want, but it doesn’t need to be a recognizable Base. The classic Penguin is a nice source of inspiration for this. Aside from a starting Diagonal Fold to identify the center, the model has no specific references. You make two partial Kite Folds, leaving however much room you like in the center for the belly, fold up the bottom tip so it can stand, and Outside Reverse Fold the head to the size and angle you like. From that basic structure, you can tinker by intuitively adding shape and detail. This is where the Origami Toolbox comes in handy. You can spruce up the model adding Reverse Folds, Crimps, Sinks, Squashes, Swivels, and so on in addition to simple Mountain and Valley Folds. You may even find your own palette of maneuvers – this challenge is about exploring wild, unknown terrain without relying on guideposts. 

This was one of the hardest challenges to come up with my own original design example since I prefer to work with references as a folder and teacher, but it forced me to examine my origami sensibility beyond historically and mathematically proven structures. I gave myself a Diagonal Fold, figuring I’d wind up with some animal with a backbone and symmetry. From there I came up with a basic shape without references. It started as a freeform doodle, but eventually I felt like I could get a Giraffe out of it. I saw the points for a long deck, four legs, and a tail. Then, it was about shaping the model intuitively. I sectioned off the body with Pleat Folds, a big Outside Reverse Fold for the neck, and Reverse Folds, Crimps, Swivels, etc. to define the features. It helped that I’ve folded so many different models by different artists that I had ways to turn a flap into a head with ears, turn a corner into a thin tail, thin the body and legs, etc. Normally, the next steps in finessing the design would be to refold the model and find references for each of the folds. Because I was working without references, I wound up figuring out how to get the general structure and shape the model intuitively each time. So the attempts were inconsistent, but I learned to gauge what I liked based on my own sensibility rather than a predetermined measurement. That’s a huge shift for anyone with creative aspirations.

I’ve already mentioned Akira Yoshizawa, Eric Joisel, and John Smith as artists to look at for examples, but a couple others I recommend are Giang Dinh, who has some great diagrams and photos on his website along with a great article about simplicity, and Jozsef Zsebe, who has a few books out including Zsebe Jozsef and Fold Line. Zsebe doesn’t forgo references entirely (nor do the other artists I mention here), but the sculpture/shaping aspect of his pieces and the way he creates an essential structure to build on without relying on traditional bases is worth examining.

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