Studio Saturdays: Vintage Art Materials

I’ve never met an antique mall I didn’t like. No matter how dusty and musty it may be, I’ll happily paw through piles of old linens, boxes of buttons, and stacks of books to find vintage art materials. These treasures invariably wind up in my art journal pages, handmade books, cards, tags, collages, assemblages, and even wrapped gifts.

If you have a jones for junk, welcome. Today’s Studio Saturday is dedicated to the hunt for vintage items, and ideas on how to use them. I’ve been incorporating antique ephemera, hardware, jewelry, books, and more in my art since I’ve been making art, and I still can’t get enough. I love items with history that have been part of someone’s life, and I want to show that they have not outlived their usefulness. Things like hand-carved mother-of-pearl buttons, tatted lace, and ledger pages covered with handwriting are evidence of past lives, and should be honored. The challenge of seeing old pieces with new eyes never loses its thrill, and it energizes my creativity like nothing else.

Canal Street Antique Mall

Antique malls, like the Canal Street Antique Mall in Lawrence, Mass., is a playground for mixed-media artists looking for vintage art materials.

When I lived in Southern California there were sizable flea markets going on every weekend—one was even within walking distance of my house. Here in New England the season goes from spring to fall, so if it’s winter and I need my fix of old stuff, I head to the nearest antique mall.

I discovered one not far away in Lawrence, Massachusetts, called the Canal Street Antique Mall. This place is more than 30,000 square feet of happy, located in a massive old mill building that is a sight to behold. Inside, the place is filled with every vintage and antique item you can imagine, and it’s an artist’s dream.

When I come to a place like this I have just one strategy: I’m in it for the long haul. Don’t expect me to race through the stalls and be able to pick out a few things. This isn’t like running into Target for a bottle of Tide. Stuff is everywhere, and you have to have the patience and stamina to poke, survey, scan, dig, and wade through it all. This is not a place for wimps.

Sometimes I’m looking for specific vintage art materials to use in various projects: books to repurpose for journals, photos to use in an assemblage, linens for a textile collage. But I always leave myself open to whatever I may come across. And if it’s something that makes my heart skip a beat, it’s coming home with me.

A few basic tips if prowling through antique malls is new to you: Bring hand wipes, snacks, and wear comfortable shoes; a tape measure comes in handy for measuring; turn things over, look inside, and reach behind—you never know what you might find. Oh, and don’t even think of going with someone who can’t tolerate at least a couple of hours of this.

Since it was my first time at Canal Street, I did a quick survey of the set-up and went to work. I first spotted a small box of brass-colored metal label plates, which I can never resist. Ever. They’re wonderful for book covers and boxes, and these were light enough to bend. At $1 each, I got 5, but I should have picked up more.

Vintage brass label plates

I cannot resist brass label plates like these. (Photo by Mark Elson)

I then spotted this fantastic metal muffin tin with a raised design. These are great for assemblage, but I knew I wanted this for my studio to hold small vintage art materials like buttons, brads, etc.

Muffin tin for vintage art supplies

A muffin tin is perfect for holding vintage art supplies. (Photo by Mark Elson)

This cast iron pan would also be great for storage. I didn’t get it, but I thought about it for a long time. Can’t be greedy.

Wrought iron pan for vintage art materials

This wrought iron pan is also great for holding supplies. (Photo by Mark Elson)

This small wooden box with a sliding lid was too great to resist. Little did I know that it was hiding a sweet illustration inside. I have no idea what I’ll do with it, but I’m hoarding it for the time being.

Vintage wooden box

Assemblage? Mini diorama? Not sure what this will ultimately be. (Photo by Mark Elson)

These two books spoke to me—one is a ledger from 1905. A few pages were written in, but most were blank. All will be used. The smaller book is titled “Deskaide: The Silent Secretary” and is from 1941.

Old books can be mined for vintage art materials

Old books can be mined for all types of vintage art materials. (Photo by Mark Elson)

I love vintage wooden textile print blocks. Some people display them, but I use them to print. Acrylic paint works great—just be careful, some are fragile and can break.

Vintage carved wooden print block

Carved wooden print blocks can be used to stamp on paper and fabric. (Photo by Mark Elson)

Vintage metal and fabric tape measures are also difficult to turn down, and this one was no exception. The lightweight metal can be cut with tin snips, and the graphics are great. Pieces can be used for jewelry, to edge an assemblage, and to decorate books.

Vintage metal tape measure

A metal tape measure can be used for all types of mixed-media art.

So what did I do with all of these vintage art materials? Not everything has found its (re)purpose yet, but here are a few transformations:

I couldn’t wait to print with the wooden block. I tried it out on a piece of copy paper first, using turquoise acrylic paint. When stamping with these blocks, it’s a good idea to have a semi-cushioned surface underneath, which helps the block make contact with the substrate. I used some crafting foam.

Print made from a vintage print block

A practice print was made on copy paper over craft foam.

I then stamped on some watercolor paper I had left over from a previous project. I love the juxtaposition of the vintage stamped image with the abstract ink marks. This became a quick and easy card, layered onto cardstock and tied with a leftover scrap of hand-dyed fabric ribbon.

Card made with vintage art materials and abstract blocks

Combine vintage art materials with abstract marks.

The muffin tin quickly found its place in my studio, holding small things I use often, like vintage buttons, clips, beads, and waxed linen thread.

Vintage muffin tin for holding art supplies

This muffin tin really comes in handy for storing small items I use often.

A page from the 1905 ledger made a nice pocket for one of my art journals. I stamped over it, folded it, and glued it onto a page.

Vintage ledger pocket for an art journal page

I created a pocket from a ledger page for my art journal.

The covers of the 1905 ledger were in pretty bad shape—water stained and warped—so I decided to repurpose them and create a large art journal (this thing measures 8″ wide by 13 ½” high). While separating the pages from the book the spine cracked, so I cut what was left of the spine from the covers (and saved it for another project), created a new spine from fabric, and sewed in two signatures of mixed-media paper.

Pieces of the metal tape measure were cut with tin snips and used to frame a tintype I had in my stash.

Frame made from vintage metal tape measure pieces

Strips of the metal tape measure formed a frame around a tintype.

The corners were very sharp after cutting, so I snipped off the tiny points and rounded them with a metal file. Make sure you file in one direction, rather than going back and forth—that can create burrs. I recommend not skipping this step, as you can really jab yourself with those sharp edges. You don’t want anyone handling the book to have a painful experience.

Filing metal corners

Some vintage art materials need a little tweaking; file the corners of metal pieces to make them smooth.

I punched holes in the ends of the pieces with a metal punch, then attached the pieces with small brads:

Punch holes in lightweight metal with a hand-held metal punch.

Punch holes in lightweight metal with a hand-held metal punch.

Below the frame I sewed three vintage mother-of-pearl buttons to the cover, using waxed linen thread:

Buttons make useful and versatile vintage art materials.

Among vintage art materials, antique buttons are some of the most useful and versatile pieces.

And here’s the new book:

Rebound vintage ledger

The rebound ledger has a new lease on life.

I had a leftover piece of tape measure, and used it to create a choker:

Mixed-media jewelry made from vintage art materials

Vintage tape measure pieces can be used for mixed-media jewelry, too.

If you’re looking for something to do this weekend, hit an antique mall, thrift store, flea market, or, if none of those are available, go online and see what cool vintage art materials are available. Then I challenge you to use at least some of what you find in your artwork. I guarantee you’ll have fun doing it.

Note: Starting next Saturday, Studio Saturdays returns to the Cloth Paper Scissors blog. Please join me there!

If I’ve piqued your interest about working with vintage art materials, you’ll likely find these resources from the North Light Shop even more helpful! Our artists have fantastic ideas and techniques they can’t wait to share with you.

March/April 2017 Cloth Paper Scissors magazine

In the March/April 2017 issue of Cloth Paper Scissors magazine, see how artist Cathe Holden created a stunning shadow box using vintage finds.

Creative Warm-Ups and Techniques video with Crystal Neubauer

Learn how to find and work with vintage art materials in this Creative Warm-Ups and Techniques video with Crystal Neubauer.

Stamped Metal and Mica Pendant video with Jen Cushman

Create a stamped pendant using a vintage tintype in this Stamped Metal and Mica Pendant video with Jen Cushman.

You may also like these articles: