Zack Mclaughlin is the craftsman behind Paper & Wood. After starting as a children's book illustrator, his career took a self-taught turn to creating beautiful bird sculptures from the materials that make his company's name. With his Papier Atelier workshop coming up in September, where he’ll be teaching guests how to build their own 2D birds, we winged it over to his London studio to discover his story.
Zack adding the finishing touches to one of his birds
Your path into making paper and wood birds was quite unusual, (not that there’s a usual path into making birds from paper and wood!) could you tell us about that?
Ha, it is quite an unusual thing to do and I never would have thought I'd be doing this for a living! I started out studying illustration at university and from there I spent a few years as a freelance children's book illustrator but I always had my own children's book in my head. In my story a little boy is held captive at home by a monster and goes about fashioning his own escape by using his creativity. He makes a paper bird lantern from old pages of books and willow sticks and flies away on it across many lands to overcome the fears the monster has instilled in him.
After many attempts I couldn't seem to draw this paper bird lantern in a way that looked right, so I went about making one as a prop to draw from. The lantern took me around three months to make as I'd never done anything like this before but I loved the process and even more so the end result. I had a physical extension of what I had in my mind. Usually I would paint something on the page that had a 3D look to it but I could never hold it or look at the reverse side of it. Now I could, I was hooked!
When did you realise that you wanted to, and could, do this as a full-time career?
As a freelance illustrator I was struggling due to my very traditional and time-consuming illustrative style – nobody wanted to pay for it. So I was trying to think about how I could sell these sculptures and help my income. I designed items that could be displayed within the home, creating lights and bell jar displays that felt more like a form of ethical taxidermy than just sculpture. I started listing them online and amazingly they started to sell! I think I was lucky that there wasn't much else out there in a similar style. From there, I have been been commissioned to make some amazing birds as well as shop window displays and large scale installations. I just hope they keep coming and get bigger and better!
"It is oddly therapeutic and I find myself in a very mindful state."
How long does it usually take to make one of your birds? What does the process involve?
They vary from 40 right up to 180 hours to make. Each and every bird is firstly thoroughly researched. I love this process as I get to pore through tonnes of images to find all the angles I need to make the best representation I can. I even source feather atlases so I know each and every feather is the correct size and shape.
Once researched I draw out the blueprints I need, then I carve the body and head out of wood. If the bird is in flight I make wire armatures drilled into the wood to which I attach all the primary and secondary flight feathers. Next up, I drill holes for the eyes and legs. The eyes are acrylic balls and the legs are made from wire and putty.
Then I move onto the feathers. Every single feather, from the large tail and flight feathers down to the smallest feathers around the eyes, is hand cut with scissors and glued individually. Some birds have more than 1,000 hand cut feathers within them so this process is the longest part but it is oddly therapeutic and I find myself in a very mindful state.
I really love the final stage as it’s to give the bird its bright and beautiful colours and bring it to life with acrylic paints. I use a tiny paint brush and try my very best to recreate nature but I am resigned to the fact you can never beat it, nature always does it better. But I do always say that nature deserves attention to detail.
Blue crowned trogon
What fascinates you about birds?
All of nature fascinates me. Birds are an extension of this. I guess from an early age the desire to fly away is only truly represented by birds. They have a majestic, flawless quality to the way they fly and because we as humans can't do anything close, that fascination grows to awe and admiration for what nature can do. Besides them being able to fly, once you look in detail at these amazing creatures you get to see how incredibly beautiful they are; every feather is stunning and the variety is simply breathtaking.
Owl belljar light
Where would be your dream place to see your birds installed?
As an extreme animal lover I would simply LOVE to see my birds installed in somewhere like the Natural History Museum. Every time I go there I am blown away by the collections and to see my work included with those would just make my life complete. But I am happy seeing my birds installed anywhere. Every space I get to fill is a bonus to me – I'd fill every space if I could!
What can we expect from your Papier Atelier workshop?
In my workshop with you guys I’ll be teaching how to cut paper into feathers and layer them up to make a 2D relief bird. You will get to know how easy it is and the only quality you really need is patience. I love to share what I do and for others to learn how I do it. I get a real satisfaction in seeing someone leave my workshops proudly holding what they’ve created with my teachings. Paper is a fabulous material and everyone should learn to use it and fall in love with it as I have.
Want to learn how to sculpt your own bird at our upcoming workshop with Zack? Head to our Atelier events page to sign up. If you fancy paper birds of a different kind, take a look at our desk-bound varieties below.