Technique Tuesdays: 10 Tips for Assemblage

Mixed-media artists are notorious collectors: papers, paints and mediums, tools, castoffs, and lots of “bits.” These artists know how to turn those bits into assemblage art—dimensional, cohesive pieces that often incorporate found objects, both man-made and natural, and tell a story. To create something that’s truly greater than the sum of its parts it’s helpful to have a few expert tips for assemblage from accomplished artists. Read on to discover some great techniques that will have you diving into your stash searching for treasures for your next artwork.

Assemblage by Jen Hardwick

Assemblage art turns disparate pieces into a cohesive artwork that tells a story. (Art by Jen Hardwick, photo by Sharon White Photography)

  1. Beginning an assemblage can be daunting, especially if you’re surrounded by lots of disparate pieces that don’t seem to work together. Lynn Krawczyk shares some helpful tips on how she approaches creating an assemblage in the article “Deconstructed Assemblage” in the September/October 2011 issue of Cloth Paper Scissors. She says, “Choose a large focal element that defines the theme of the piece, select 2–3 smaller elements that relate to your theme, and then fill the spaces in with complementary details.” If you want to include an element and it doesn’t quite fit, Lynn says she often colors and alters pieces to fit her theme while waiting for paint or glue to dry on another piece. So . . . it may be wise to take another look at the some of those pieces you’ve already decided won’t work.
Assemblage by Lynn Krawczyk

Stuck for where to start an assemblage? Begin with a strong focal piece. (Art by Lynn Krawczyk, Photo by Larry Stein).

2. When Jen Hardwick collects new materials for her assemblage stash, the first thing she does is sort them: hardware, game pieces, buttons, toys, etc. Jen says keeping things organized is key to her art-making process. (Cloth Paper Scissors, January/February 2015) She stresses the importance of organizing her materials, saying, “Once I start to work on a piece, and the creative flow is high, I know exactly where to go for the next piece.” Sorting helps Jen see what’s available and how the different materials fit together, all very important to attaining the balance that drew her to assemblage in the first place.

Assemblage art items by Jen Hardwick

Organizing your items helps the creative process. (Photo by Jen Hardwick)

  1. Artists are brilliant at finding the extraordinary in common things. Seth Apter looked at a paper die cut and saw a dimensional object perfect for assemblage. In the May/June 2016 issue of Cloth Paper Scissors, Seth stacked and glued 12 die-cuts of the same shape and added bold color to the stack with paint, turning a plain 2-D piece of cardstock into a 3-D focal piece. Try this with your next assemblage project—you can even cut pieces by hand for a funkier look.
Art by Seth Apter

Stacking thin die cuts turns them into a dimensional object, perfect for assemblage. (Art by Seth Apter, photo by Sharon White Photography)

4. Assemblage takes many forms. For Annie Waldrop, it involves wire and lots of ingenuity. Annie used wire to fashion a collection of doll dresses for the November/December 2013 issue of Cloth Paper Scissors. One of her design tips for assemblage: Surround yourself “with all kinds of ephemera, repurposed materials, found objects, etc., and proceed from there.” This means, instead of doing a lot of preplanning, Annie works organically, searching through the items she’s collected and making them fit her theme (here, the dress form). For this collection, she incorporated vintage photos, book pages, bones, sticks, corks, and more.

5. Rebecca Ruegger found inspiration for her first assemblage in a stick her dog brought home. That stick became a leg for an imaginary woodland creature, and many more inspiring, fanciful creatures followed. Rebecca’s article “Stick Figures” in the September/October 2015 issue of Cloth Paper Scissors brings new meaning to that term. Though her figures may look difficult, assembling them from wooden sticks merely takes a little time, patience, and a good eye—when out walking, look for branches and twigs that resemble articulated limbs, or a torso. Rebecca emphasizes the importance of using felled tree limbs, rather than living branches. “Green wood will shrink over time as the moisture evaporates,” she says, possibly creating cracks in your creation.

Art by Rebecca Ruegger

To anyone else it’s a stick, to an assemblage artist it’s a graceful arm. (Art by Rebecca Ruegger, photo by Sharon White Photography)

6. Industrial castoffs and hardware often take center stage in assemblage art. Many pieces are used as is, in all their rusty elegance or vintage charm, but these finds can be further enhanced in a variety of ways. In her article “The Gypsy Wagon” in the September/October 2012 issue of Cloth Paper Scissors, Linda Cain shared her simple technique for embossing metal, adding color and shine to her recycled metal pieces. First, push the metal piece into embossing ink, and drop it into embossing powder. Remove it from the powder with tweezers and, on a heat-safe surface, heat the embellishment with a heat gun, removing the heat as soon as the powder melts. Emboss a whole metal piece or just do sections of it, for a wonderful dash of color and patina.

Art by XXX, photo by XXXx

Transform metal pieces into colorful, textured objects with embossing powder. (Art by Linda Cain, photo by Larry  Stein)

7. Creating an assemblage, says Pam Carriker in her book Art at the Speed of Life, “is like writing a story using found objects to invite the viewer in and unearth their meaning.” Given that mixed-media artists tend to have a treasure trove of found objects, Pam suggests finding a selection of objects that fit your theme, laying them out on your worktable, and spending some time positioning them on the canvas until you achieve the look you’re going for. Rather than preplanning, it’s more like auditioning. You’ll know when the pieces work well together (and when they don’t) to tell your story.

8. To find a sturdy, low-cost base for your next assemblage, look no further than your lumberyard. “Scrap pine lumber is an excellent assemblage substrate,” says Mandy Russell in the September/October 2012 issue of Cloth Paper Scissors. “It’s abundant, inexpensive, and soft, perfect for drilling and nailing,” and it can offer lots of room to show off art techniques. Mandy fashioned playful light bulb trophies out of wood blocks and light bulbs, and pine proved to be the perfect choice, holding up to paint, stamping and stenciling, collage, distressing, and more, and resulting in a fun, rustic-looking piece.

Assemblage by Mandy Russell

Simple wooden blocks make great sturdy bases for assemblage artwork. (Art by Mandy Russell, photo by Larry Stein)

9. While using papers, tags, keys, and spoons to create a shadow box, attaching these items was not a one-size-fits-all proposition for Jen Crossley. In her article “Captured in Time” in the May/June 2014 issue of Cloth Paper Scissors, Jen showed how she made it work, and has great attachment ideas and tips. Everyday white glue works for lightweight objects, like buttons, beads, and fabric. Heavy-duty glue is best for heavier items, like keys and tiles.

Also, use an awl to make a hole on either side of the object you want to attach. With fine wire, make a U-shape over the item, slip the wire ends through the holes, and twist the wires on the back of the substrate to secure.

Assemblage by Jen Crossley

Among the best tips for assemblage: Knowing how to attach items well can make or break a piece. (Art by Jen Crossley, photo by Hornick/Rivlin Studio)

10. Inspiration for an assemblage can come from a variety of sources: words or phrases, music, a specific object, or even just a passing thought. Once the seed is planted, plenty of planning ensues, not the least of which is what to create the assemblage on or in. Sometimes you have the perfect substrate; other times you may have to create a base before you go any further. Kristen Robinson creates boxes for some of her pieces, starting with cardboard that’s cut to the size and shape she wants. She then covers it with layers of plaster wrap, which is often used in mask making and sculpture. Plaster wrap bonds easily to the cardboard, creating a sturdy substrate that can be embellished and colored as desired. With this technique, you can easily make any size and shape substrate you need, as Kristen shows in her Assemblage Workshop DVD.

Assemblage by Kristen Robinson

Plaster strips over cardboard allow you to customize your substrate (Art by Kristen Robinson, photo courtesy Artists Network TV).

Ready to unearth your collection of stuff and create an assemblage? Here are some terrific resources we’ve chosen to help get you started:

Art at the Speed of Life by Pam Carriker

Get more tips for assemblage and mixed-media art in Art at the Speed of Life by Pam Carriker

Assemblage Workshop with Kristen Robinson

In Kristen Robinson’s Assemblage Workshop, learn how to create an assemblage from scratch.

Dusty Diablos by Michael dement

Learn how to turn everyday objects into layered assemblages in Dusty Diablos by Michael deMeng.

You may also like these articles: