Technique Tuesdays: Working with Vintage Materials

Vintage materials add unique touches to mixed-media art, telling a story and providing texture, dimension, color, and patina. Whether it’s bumpy rust on an antique hinge, a hand-written ledger entry, or a threadbare piece of an old quilt, these items have a story that artists love to share.

A few expert tips and techniques can go a long way in working with these treasured bits. We’ve gathered several ideas from our artists just for you, along with helpful resources. Pull some vintage items from your stash and start creating!

1. Old photos offer plenty of possibilities for art journal pages, collage, and more, but sometimes it’s tough to give up the original. Kristen Robinson and Ruth Rae used a transfer technique and incorporated it into an assemblage titled “Cherish” for their book Explore Mixed Media Collage. Start with a photocopy of a vintage photo (a laser print will also work) and apply gel medium over the surface. Place the copy image-side down onto fabric; in this case, a vintage white baby dress. Once the gel medium is dry, wet the back of the paper and roll the paper off gently with your fingers. Allow to dry.

Assemblage using vintage materials from Explore Mixed Media Collage

Vintage materials in this piece include an antique baby dress and photo, which was transferred using gel medium. (Art by Kristen Robinson and Ruth Rae, photo by Christine Polomsky)

2. Vintage jewelry is hard to resist, but it can be pricey. Good news for mixed-media artists—you don’t need perfectly intact pieces to create stunning, one-of-a-kind jewelry. In the article “Simple Vintage Assemblage Jewelry” in the November/December 2014 issue of Cloth Paper Scissors magazine, Andrea Verrill showed how to recycle parts of vintage jewelry with resin-filled bezels to make a cohesive piece. She says it can be overwhelming to sift through boxes of trinkets to decide what to use to make a jewelry piece, and offers some advice: First, keep in mind the color and theme of your piece, and reusability of the item. Second, consider components such as broken watch parts, charms from old earrings, and damaged crimp beads. Seen with new eyes, they can all be incorporated successfully. Don’t be afraid to combine disparate pieces. Verrill frequently joins chunky chains with refined ones, and rhinestone drops with matte charms.

Recycled vintage mixed-media jewelry from Cloth Paper Scissors magazine

Various parts of vintage jewelry pieces can be recycled and reimagined into stunning new pieces. (Art by Andrea Verrill, photo by Sharon White Photography)

3. The next time you’re at a thrift store or flea market looking for vintage materials, pick up a few old books and turn them into unique mixed-media wall art. Jenn Mason showed how in the article “Paper Hearts” in the Fall 2014 issue of Paper Art magazine. Choose a sturdy book cover, one that’s not  brittle, and draw a heart shape on the cover in pencil. Create 2 small heart-shaped templates in different sizes from chipboard or cardstock, and cut 20-30 hearts in each size. Stack the templates, fold them in half lengthwise, and poke two holes along the fold for sewing. Use the templates to create sewing holes in the cover, within the heart shape. Bonus tip: Place a folded towel underneath the book cover to protect your surface while poking the holes. Thread a needle with embroidery floss, tie a knot in the end, and sew the hearts to the book cover. Take the needle from the back side of the cover, and sew the hearts in place. The hearts can be bunched up, laid flat, or nestled against each other. Continue adding hearts, creating more sewing holes if needed.

Collage created from a vintage book cover and pages, featured in Paper Art magazine

An old book cover and its pages were used to create this dimensional heart. (Art by Jenn Mason, photo by Sharon White Photography)

4. When Roxanne Evans Stout pulls together vintage materials for her collages, she often chooses bits and pieces that have meaning to her, something to think about when creating your own collage. “Morning Poem,” featured in her book Storytelling With Collage, has a scrap fabric background, to which she’s attached bailing wire bent into a circle, a vintage keyhole, and remnants of a garden ornament. “These objects are all different but all connected and beautiful in their simplicity,” she says. “This collage is made of small pieces of my life that all hold a memory or a special meaning.” Vintage pieces, even if they’re found, can express a cherished memory or set a mood.

Vintage materials can imbue a piece with meaning; art from Storytelling with Collage

Incorporating vintage materials that are special to you can imbue a piece with meaning. (Art and photo by Roxanne Evans Stout)

5. Dina Wakely incorporates vintage photos on her art journal pages, but she gives them a decidedly contemporary look. In Art Lesson Volume 10: Wielding Complementary Colors, she created a layered collage art journal spread using stencils and acrylic paint. For collage elements, use vintage images printed on plain paper; laser-printed images work best, since the toner won’t bleed. Tear the edges of the image and adhere it to the page with gel medium. Paint around the image with white paint, making sure the paint connects to the sides, top, and bottom of the page. While the paint is still wet, paint an analogous color around the image without covering all of the white; this helps ground the image into the background. Add another analogous color. Paint the image, using complementary colors to make it pop on the page. Add shadows and details with water-soluble crayons. Outline the image with a water-soluble pencil, like a Stabilo All pencil.

A vintage image gets a contemporary spin from Dina Wakley, from Art Lessons Volume 10

Vintage images get a contemporary spin with paint, mark making, and stencils. (Art and photo by Dina Wakley)

6. Working with some vintage materials can be tricky; old papers and fabrics may be especially fragile. Cas Holmes has a technique for combining such pieces so they’re sturdy enough to use as book pages, and she explained it in her article “Stitching a Story” in the March/April 2016 issue of Cloth Paper Scissors magazine. Lay out a rough composition of the papers and fabrics you want to use. Layer the pieces, making sure that they overlap each other by at least ¼”, with no gaps. Bonus tip: Take a photo of the layout to reference the design as you go. Cover your work surface with plastic sheeting, brush each collage element with a dilute mixture of cellulose paste, and layer it back on the plastic sheet. When dry, peel off the backing plastic and iron the collage between Teflon sheets or pressing cloths. Add details and borders with machine stitching, creating patterns and designs with free-motion stitching. If you like, add some hand stitching as well. Sew a zigzag stitch along all four edges of the piece.

Vintage materials made into an accordion book, featured in Cloth Paper Scissors magazine

Fragile vintage materials like old papers and fabrics can be shored up with glue and stitching. (Art by Cas Holmes, photo by Sharon White Photography)

7. Hand-written vintage recipes are gems from the past, especially if they’re handed down from family members. Jenn Mason used technology to incorporate these treasures into a handmade fabric book in the article “Digital Recipe Book” in the 2010/2011 issue of Cloth Paper Scissors Gifts magazine. To print recipes onto fabric, cut muslin fabric into 7 ½” x 9″ pieces. Using a foam brush, apply digital ground onto the muslin in one direction, allow it to dry, and paint another coat in the opposite direction. When dry, tape the muslin to a sheet of copy paper, which acts as a carrier sheet. Scan and print the recipe onto the muslin. The printed recipes can then be incorporated as pages in a fabric recipe book.

Turn family recipes into book pages for a new recipe book, as featured in Cloth Paper Scissors Gifts

Preserve family recipes by printing them on fabric, and making them into a book. (Art by Jenn Mason, photo by Larry Stein)

8. You already know that antique books are rich resources for vintage materials, with almost every part of a book recyclable for all types of artwork. In her book The Art of Expressive Collage, Crystal Neubauer devotes a section to explaining how to deconstruct and recycle books. Among her great tips: After separating the cover from the text block (pages), run a razor blade along the edges of the cloth that covers the book boards; this makes it easier to pull the cloth from the book. As you take apart the book, consider saving unusual elements, such as library cards, labels, and handwritten notes. Sometimes books hold hidden treasures, so flip through the pages for anything that previous owners left behind, such as pressed flowers and leaves, notes, and drawings. As Crystal says, “One book can yield a bountiful collage harvest.”

Vintage books can stow tons of treasures, as seen in The Art of Expressive Collage

When repurposing a vintage book for artwork, look through the pages for treasures like drawings and pressed flowers. (Photo by Christine Polomsky)

9. Heather Murray is another artist who loves to use vintage photos in her artwork, especially sepia-tinted family photos. In “A Mixed-Media Memory Painting,” in the September/October 2016 issue of Cloth Paper Scissors magazine, she showed how to copy and manipulate photos, then incorporate them expertly into a mood-filled painting on canvas. To start, select a high-contrast black and white photo of a person or people as the focal image. Look for interesting expressions and attitudes that you can build a story on. Select background photos of trees, houses, etc.; these don’t have to be in proportion. Scan and crop the photos if necessary, add contrast if needed, and print them in black and white on matte photo paper. Scale the size of the photos for their position on the canvas. Cut the figures out. Paint a dark background on the canvas with acrylic paint, leaving some areas white for an underpainting effect. Add more color as needed to help tell the story and complete the background, adding a horizon line if necessary. When dry, audition the figures and other images on the canvas, and adhere them with a generous amount of gel medium. Add gel medium to paint to thin it, and paint the figures and other images, layering the paint gradually. Let dry.

Vintage photos as focal images in a mixed-media painting, featured in Cloth Paper Scissors magazine

Old photos can serve as focal points in mood-filled mixed-media paintings on canvas. (Art by Heather Murray, photo by Sharon White Photography)

10. If you can’t find an actual old piece for your art, there are ways to recreate it. Fossils, for example, can be difficult to find and expensive, so mixed-media jewelry artist Staci Smith made replicas from polymer clay to use in stunning necklaces. In “Boldly Subtle” in the January/February 2015 issue of Cloth Paper Scissors magazine, she recommends starting with a 2 oz. block of white polymer clay and conditioning it until it’s soft and pliable. Roll the clay into a ball, and form a pendant shape, flatting the ball with your hand or a clay roller until it’s about ¼”-½” thick. Stamp a design into the clay (she used a fern stamp) and brush a sanding pad across the clay to create a stone-like texture. Make a hole at the top of the pendant, and make divots on one side of the pendant. Bake according to the manufacturer’s instructions, and when cool, brush a layer of acrylic paint across the surface. Immediately wipe it off, leaving some paint in the recessed areas. When dry, rub off some of the paint with a sanding pad on the edges and high spots to create a worn look.

Faux fossil pendant featured in Cloth Paper Scissors magazine

Real or faux? This “fossil” pendant was made from polymer clay. (Art by Staci Smith, photo by Sharon White Photography)

Before beginning your next project that incorporates vintage materials, check out these resources that will get you started and keep you inspired!

Working with Color video with Crystal Neubauer

Lean how to work with various vintage materials and add pops of color to your collage art in the video Working with Color with Crystal Neubauer.

Metal Sketchbook Pendant video with Jen Crossley

Create a one-of-a-kind sketchbook pendant using vintage objects in the video Metal Sketchbook Pendant with Jen Crossley.

Delight in the Art of Collage by Lisa M. Pace

Learn helpful techniques for working with vintage materials in a number of projects in Delight in the Art of Collage by Lisa M. Pace.

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