Assemblage and concrete may not be two images you’d typically put together, but I’d love to change that for you. As a symbol in your assemblage work, concrete can express several ideas: Going from powder to liquid to a solid and strong form, concrete can represent intense transformation. Other concepts could include building a strong foundation or solidifying a dream or desire.
Concrete on a Small Scale
If you’re like I was, when you think about concrete, you imagine large projects such as park sculptures and, of course, architecture of all types. It wasn’t until I discovered a special grade of concrete made for jewelry artists, that I realized it could be worked with in small batches. Eureka! Not only could it be used for assemblage work, I didn’t need a large contractor’s bucket or any special tools! A disposable drinking cup, a bit of water and a stir stick (I used a palette knife), as well as something in which to cast the mixture were all that was required.
Mixing Concrete for Assemblage
I used two types of concrete for my assemblage project—Solid Expressions Artist’s Concrete by Robert Dancik and All-Crete High Performance Cement by Quickrete. The first is a much more refined product, free of debris. Also, Robert’s concrete sets up very quickly, which is great when you’re sitting around, waiting for it to cure so you can move on with your project! I’ve been using the artist’s grade for jewelry and smaller pieces and the Quickrete version for larger projects or when refinement isn’t as necessary. When working with fine particles such as cement powder and dry pigments, wearing a dust mask is advised.
In addition to water and concrete mix, you’ll want something to pour the concrete into. One easy way to try out this process for assemblage is to create several concrete tiles from soap or chocolate molds. The concrete releases easily from these molds and the small size is very manageable. If using something other than silicone or plastic molds, Robert recommends prepping your form first by rubbing a bit of wax paper around the interior for easier release of the cured concrete.
By creating a series of tiles, an assemblage is easily built in manageable chunks. While the concrete is wet, you can embed found objects into it and you can arrange the cured tiles any way you like.
Add pigment (optional)
Gather your dry concrete, a mixing cup, something to stir with and a small container of water. A pipette makes it easy to control the amount of water you add. You’ll want to have ready whatever form you’re going to pour your mixed concrete into, to create your assemblage. I used a mold made for chocolate and soap making. Lastly, if you wish to embed an object or two into the cement, have that ready to go as well.
I recommend mixing a very small amount to begin your assemblage—somewhere around two tablespoons of powder—enough to create only one or two tiles. Concrete can be tinted using dry pigments. The pigments available for Solid Expressions Artist’s Concrete are highly effective and a little goes a long way. I wanted my concrete to have a bit of a grey tone, so I added just a smidgen of black to the dry concrete. By working in small batches, I could vary the amount of color per batch, to create depth and interest in the finished assemblages.
Begin adding small amounts of water, mixing well after each addition. The desired result resembles Greek yogurt—thin enough to pour out of the cup, but not watery.
Pour the mixed concrete into your mold or form. Here I made two at a time pouring in enough concrete to create tiles approximately 1/4″ (6mm) thick. And I wasn’t concerned with having them exactly the same depth; I just eyeballed it.
Place found objects into the wet cement. If your depth is shallow, you won’t need to worry about the elements sinking to the bottom. Here, I added some glass glitter as well as rocks and wire bits. The glitter floated on the surface. The concrete will begin to set within 5 minutes, so don’t be too fussy.
Within an hour, the concrete will be set enough to pop the tiles out of the mold. Where the wet cement met the mold, there will be a sharp edge. I like to soften this by sanding it down with water and wet sandpaper. (Look at that cool rust that resulted from the steel wire I used!)
Continue mixing, pouring and embedding batches of tiles until you have the number desired for your assemblage.
Your cured tiles can now be adhered to your chosen surface—such as a stained piece of wood—using additional concrete as a grout. You can create a form for the grout using masking tape. Roll the tape into a “cord” and press it firmly onto your surface. Here, I measured my tiles as I wanted them arranged on the board, and created a square space slightly larger than the group of tiles.
Mix up a small amount of concrete, tinting as you see fit—I created a moss-green tone—but make this mixture a bit thicker. If it’s too thin, it may seep under your tape form. Spread the concrete using a palette knife or stir stick.
While the concrete is wet, press your tiles into it.
Set the piece aside to cure. Peel off the tape. I chose to soften the grout a bit using a bit of water and wet sandpaper.
Finish your assemblage as you see fit. I decided to add a bit of white and grey dry brushing to my board to connect it more to my tiles. I will add hanging hardware on the back, as no additional frame is needed.
Detail of “Four Seasons.”
Here’s another concrete assemblage example. When I embedded my objects here, I placed them at the bottom of the mold and poured concrete on top of them. I didn’t pour enough to cover them, rather I let them peek out of one end. I also played with doing this to create tiles of varying shape and size.
Detail of “Four Elements.”
If you were apprehensive before about using concrete, I hope by now you’re convinced it could take your assemblage work into completely new directions. Concrete tiles are only the beginning. When you explore creating your own forms, there’s no limit to the art you can make.
Assemblage work may not typically require additional framing, but for those times when collage and assemblage overlap, it’s a good idea to have paper elements protected. For those times, here’s a brief video on framing your work.