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What Is Origami Art?

By Meg Higa
Updated May 23, 2024
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Origami art is the traditional Japanese craft of folding a sheet of paper into objects and figures. Ori translates as “folded,” and kami means “paper.” Though there is some debate about origami’s origins, the first documented reference to a figurine made of folded paper is a Japanese poem from the late 17th century. From the early 1900s, steps were taken to establish origami as an art form. A visual diagramming system was developed, innovative techniques were invented, and artists in Japan and elsewhere created fantastic new sculptures from simply folded paper.

Any paper, of any size, can be used for making origami. They are typically prepackaged and sold in 6- or 7-inch (15.5- or 17.8-cm) squares. As a rule, each sheet is colored or decoratively patterned on one side and solid white on the other. Sometimes, this contrast is critical to a folded figure’s design. Other popular materials for paper folding include paper money, newspaper and thin paper backed with colored tin foil.

Of the thousands of recorded sculptural art forms made by folding paper, as much as 95% of them start as a perfect square. In part, this is because it is the easiest shape to geometrically prepare. The square’s even diagonal and bisecting folds are fundamental to origami art, which often depicts the bilateral and radial symmetries of nature. Among the popular creations are flora and flowers, masks and people figures, and animals such as fish and insects. Some are constructed from odd starting shapes such as a diamond or right triangle.

There are only a few basic folds. The valley fold is concave; the peak fold is convex; the stairstep fold alternates the two. The most important of the basic folds are the pocket and hood folds, which are tucked under or over themselves respectively, with the latter hood fold flipped to show the paper’s white side. Although the practice is shunned by purists of origami art, the paper is sometimes cut to form difficult shapes such as an animal’s ears. In different combination and sequence, a few basic folds can create thousands of unique designs.

The iconic figure of origami paper art is the bird, and the undisputed masterpiece is the flying crane. Learning its construction is a rite of passage for most Japanese children. The crane, and many other birds, share an intermediate stage from the same basic series of folds called the Bird Base. There are several other standard shapes from which a wide variety of figures are made, including the Frog Base. These base forms can, in part, be classified according to the number of pointed parts they possess.

While not difficult to learn, origami art does require a bit of technical skill; some of the basic folds can be initially awkward and difficult to master. The larger the paper, the easier it is to fold. It helps to have some comprehension of basic geometry. It also helps to have good spatial perception — the ability to virtually manipulate and visualize a three-dimensional object. Practical items, such as boxes, boats, hats and inflatable balls can also be crafted.

The advent of computer processing has had an influence on origami art. Study of the mathematical and geometric properties of folded forms has led to increasingly complex paper sculptures. Compound origami — the interlocking of two or more folded shapes, such as the front half of a running deer with a back half — has yielded very intricate and large scale constructions. Technical, or Blueprint, origami engages a computer to reverse-engineer a three dimensional vector drawing into a hypothetical map of folds and creases needed to transform a flat sheet of paper into the object.

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Discussion Comments
By Mor — On May 24, 2014

@Fa5t3r - There are some incredible examples of complex origami online as well, if you want to be more challenged. I would use real origami paper for those, though, since it is designed to work as well as possible for the art form.

Although, there are people who seem to take using unusual paper as a challenge. It's relatively popular for people to give origami cash arrangements as presents for example.

By Fa5t3r — On May 23, 2014

@Iluviaporos - You can get very cheap, gorgeous origami paper from Japanese novelty shops. I get it in order to use it for notes and things, since it is usually very pretty and comes in a wide range of patterns and colors.

But you don't need to use special paper. When I was a broke college student I used to make cranes from silver and gold candy wrappers and they looked very cute. It was a little bit fiddly using something so small, but not impossible. I would give them to people as gifts and once filled a big jar of them for a birthday present. I know some people also make strings of origami stars or birds and hang them up around the house, which seems like a cute idea as well.

By lluviaporos — On May 23, 2014

I remember getting a book on origami when I was a kid and I was so thrilled with all the little hats and creatures I made with it. I guess it was fairly basic stuff compared to what I see sometimes online, but it really was fun and I'd love to get into it again.

It would be nice to be able to make some decorations for the house or something like that. Although I don't know how expensive origami supplies tend to be.

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