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Take a close look at the mindblowing artwork you might miss on the new ‘Love’ stamp

(Rachel Orr/The Washington Post: iStock; U.S. Postal Service)
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Since the U.S. Postal Service unveiled its first “Love” stamp in 1973, the annual design has featured roses, swans, ribbons and, yes, plenty of hearts. But none quite like this one.

“We consider stamps to be miniature works of art,” says William Gicker, the Postal Service’s manager of stamp development. And indeed, the average Valentine-sender probably has no idea just how much time and effort went into creating the impossibly ornate, three-dimensional handmade artwork featured on the 44th “Love” stamp.

First there was a general idea from one of the Postal Service’s art directors, followed by review by a citizen committee. Then there were months of sketches and revisions to determine the exact specification and the precise placement of every colorful swirl of paper, which required approval by the postmaster general. And then it took seven days for London-based artist Yulia Brodskaya to create the delicate heart design that will adorn the upper right corner of countless letters and cards this year.

Brodskaya created the piece using a technique known as quilling — sometimes referred to as paper filigree — which involves creating intricate three-dimensional designs with narrow strips of paper that are glued in place by their edges.

“The idea for the new stamp was to make something warm and tactile, with positive energy and personality,” she says.

But it also needed to translate to format as flat — and tiny — as a stamp, Gicker notes: “It’s arriving in the mail and people only give it a quick look, so we want to capture their attention, but we also need to keep it pretty simple.”

Quilling is an age-old craft; some sources suggest that the earliest technique dates back to ancient Egypt, according to the U.K-based nonprofit Quilling Guild. But the art form’s roots are most commonly traced to the 15th and 16th centuries, when French and Italian nuns used paper-rolling to mimic metal filigree — ornamental decorations of silver or gold wire — and created art that often adorned religious documents or reliquaries, the containers for holy relics. The earliest quillers used the base of a feather to mold loops and circles in paper — hence the name “quilling.”

Brodskaya prefers to work with more modern but convenient tools — a cocktail straw, toothpicks, a pair of tweezers — to meticulously shape her strips of paper. Among her stunningly vivid pieces are graphic-design inspired, like this:

Or check out this snowflake ornament:

But she also produces elaborate portraiture. This image of an old man surrounded by doves is part of a series of portraits of elderly people, a project Brodskaya has worked on for years:

Broadksya says she knew little of quilling’s long history when she first started creating art with paper strips seven years ago. But she is happy to be a part of the craft’s resurgence, she says — she often hears from fans and fellow quillers in Asia, India and Europe, and the British Quilling Guild has applauded Brodskaya’s role in helping to popularize the art form.

All of her work begins with detailed sketches. “There is not much room for mistakes,” she says. “I need to have a very good idea of what I’m making from the beginning.” Every color gradation, every outline, every loop and curl must be defined long before the paper is cut and glued into place.

The process is every bit as time-consuming and painstaking as it seems — even Brodskaya says she tries not to think about exactly it takes to complete one of her more detailed pieces of art. (“Luckily I don’t know,” she says. “The count would be in weeks.”)

The work can be both meditative and tedious, and she usually distracts herself with music, movies or audiobooks. After a particularly long day in her studio, “sometimes the only thing I dream is paper,” she says. “But ultimately I always want to go back to it after a little break.”

Brodskaya’s “Love” stamp was officially revealed last month, and more than 150 million have been printed. Though the stamp itself is a scaled-down, one-dimensional representation of Brodskaya’s original artwork, she says she’s very happy with how it turned out.

“You can still see that this is a 3D object, that’s what’s important,” she says. “I did take my time with this design, making sure it is as perfect as a handmade piece can be.”