Technique Tuesdays: Recycled Art

An artist’s imagination spins into high gear when working with recycled and repurposed items. In the hands of a mixed-media artist, rusty gears, an old book, or plastic mesh have the potential to become much more than what they were intended for. The exciting ideas below for creating recycled art can be easily incorporated in your next work of art. Don’t miss the great extra resources at the end for even more creative inspiration.

1. Mandy Russell discovered a great way to repurpose plastic switch plates–she turned them into felted book covers. In the Winter 2015 issue of Pages magazine, she explains that the plates’ firmness makes them perfect for wet felting, and the openings can become little windows. To wet felt a plate, Mandy begins by wrapping 3′ lengths of wool top fibers both horizontally and vertically around the plate, until the entire plate is covered. The wet felting process involves adding dish soap and hot water to the wool and gently rubbing it, rinsing it with hot water, and repeating those steps 5-8 times until the wool is well felted and tight around the plate. See the rest of the article to see how the covers and pages are sewn together, creating a uniquely bound—and very cozy—book.

Recycled art book covers

Who knew switch plates could become the base for felted book covers? (Art by Mandy Russell, photo by Sharon White Photography)

2. Artist Rae Missigman found creative inspiration in the unlikeliest of places—the laundry room. She discovered that after going through a wash cycle, dye-trapping sheets are perfect for mixed-media recycled art: “Once I realized they could trap large amounts of dye,” she says, “I began to experiment with using them in my art.” Not only did they show off deep, vibrant color when dyed, but they were also very strong. Once laundered, they are sturdy and fabric-like. Rae uses these dye-trapping sheets in Art Lesson Vol. 5: Recycled and Re-inked: Bold, Colorful Embellishments. She first mists a shallow pan and the sheet with water, then adds several drops of acrylic ink (in analogous colors) to the pan. The sheet is placed in the pan and left to sit a few seconds to absorb the ink, then removed and placed on scrap paper to dry. Sheets can be cut into shapes or strips and sewn like fabric, and added to any mixed-media project.

Dye-trapping sheets recycled into art embellishments

With some ink and stitching, dye-trapping laundry sheets become colorful embellishments. (Art and photo by Rae Missigman)

3. Have you ever thought of recycling your own artwork? Danielle Donaldson got the notion when she realized that she had a huge collection of art that included pieces made at retreats, half-finished projects, and work that was sitting in a storage bin. In her book CreativeGirl: Mixed Media Techniques for an Artful Life, she uses the term “creative repurposing” to describe the process of taking parts of various pieces and combining them to make unique artwork. “Repurposing,” she writes, “gives me the freedom to hold on to just the bits and pieces that speak to me.” For one project, she starts by cutting up her old watercolor pieces, along with patterned paper. She then machine sews the strips together, using a variety of stitches, until she has a piece large enough to cover a birch panel. Danielle cuts the piece to size and adheres it with Mod Podge. The result: brand new artwork to fall in love with.

Recycled art from old artwork from CreativeGirl by Danielle Donaldson

Repurpose your own artwork into new art by piecing and stitching it together. (Art by Danielle Donaldson)

4. Mandy Russell has another fun recycled art idea, and this one starts with vintage envelopes, used or unused. The text, postage stamps, and graphics on the envelopes, she discovered, are all great foundations for doodling. In “Zenvelopes: Inspired by Vintage Envelopes” in the Spring 2016 issue of Zen Doodle Workshop magazine, she recommends looking for jumping off points on the envelopes, such as a border, design, or logo. These become the anchors for doodles, or the beginning of a design. She drew pebbles, or small circles nested together, on the border of an Air Mail envelope, then drew fanciful flowers and plants growing out of them. She shaded the design and continued to add to it. On other envelopes, a business logo and return address became doodle anchors. Designs can be left black and white, or embellished with color.

Zenvelopes by Mandy Russell from Zen Doodle Workshop magazine

Vintage envelopes can become canvases for doodle art. (Art by Mandy Russell, photo by Sharon White Photography)

5. Assemblage is a fantastic way to incorporate recycled pieces. Bits of hardware, broken plates, game and toy parts, and vintage typewriter keys can become whatever you want them to be—it’s all in how you see them. In “Artistic Salvage” in the January/February 2015 issue of Cloth Paper Scissors magazine, Jen Hardwick offers insight into the process she uses to collect, sort, and use odds and ends for her stunning detailed pieces, some resembling birds, people, and robots. “A rust-speckled washer may serve as a bug’s right eye, or a tarnished chrome wrench can become a robot’s left arm,” she writes. “As soon as I choose them and lay them out, my sense of order kicks in and I seek out ways to balance them on the other side of the piece.” Part of the inherent fun and challenge of found material assemblage, she adds, is gathering parts that complement each other, rather than trying to create precise matches. Take another tip from how Jen organizes her vast collection: “Putting like parts with like parts gets me thinking about patterns before the assemblage even begins. It allows me to see what’s available, and how things will fit together: hardware in one pile, game pieces in a second, old tools in a third…Once I’ve started to work on a piece and the creative flow is high, I know exactly where to go for the next shape, texture, or color that I want.”

Assemblage recycled art by Jen Hardwick from Cloth Paper Scissors magazine

This recycled art piece, “Queen of Things Discarded and Forgotten,” is made from hardware, kitchen tools, and game pieces. (Art and photo by Jen Hardwick)

6. For an artist, old or discarded books are a treasure trove of recyclables: pages, covers, and even a worn spine can be used for art. In “Books Unfurled: Altered Book Art” in the Fall 2014 issue of Paper Art magazine, Kathy Baker-Addy shows how an entire book can become a dimensional, sculptural recycled art piece simply by cutting and folding pages. Gather a group of about 50 pages in the front, middle, and back of a book that’s about 1″ thick, and hold them together with binder clips. Slide a cutting mat under about 5 pages and, with a craft knife, cut swirls, stars, leaf shapes, or other continuous designs into the pages; you can incorporate folded pages as well. Make sure to leave the pages attached to the book. When all pages have been cut, allow them to cascade out, arranging the pieces as you want. Kathy suggests practicing first on scrap paper to test your designs. See the rest of the article for how to turn the book into a showpiece.

Sculptural book recycled art by Kathy Baker-Addy from Paper Art magazine

With some strategic cutting, an ordinary book becomes a stunning work of art. (Art by Kathy Baker-Addy, photo by Sharon White Photography)

7. Hardware store finds can be repurposed into reusable printmaking tools. In her book Printmaking Unleashed, Traci Bautista says hardware stores can be gold mines for items like plastic sink and bath mats, and fence materials. To start, spread fiber paste over a plastic page protector and add a few drops of fluid acrylic paint. Place an open-design bathmat, plastic fence material, and pieces of a plastic needlepoint canvas over the paste and press with a brayer. Remove the fence material and canvas, and dab on acrylic paint through the bathmat with a foam brush. Add a touch of white paint. Continue to add paint through the bathmat, and remove it to reveal the final print.

8. Instead of tossing empty aluminum cans into the recycling bin, use them to create mosaic art. That’s what Dawn Hunter did in “A New Kind of Pop Art” in the March/April 2014 issue of Cloth Paper Scissors magazine. Start by drawing a simple design on tissue paper, then transfer the design to a piece of rigid foam insulation board by laying the tissue paper on top and poking shallow holes about ¼”-½” apart through the tissue and into the surface of the board with an awl. Paint the image with acrylic paint, approximating the colors of the cans you’re using. Cut the tops and bottoms off the cans, cut the cylinder apart, and trim any ragged edges. Sort the cans by color and cut them into a variety of shapes. Beginning at the top of the design, place the can pieces one at a time, gently poking through the metal and into the board with with an awl. Put glue on the tip of a wire nail and push it into the board until the head is flush with the metal.

Recycled art aluminum can mosaic by Dawn Hunter from Cloth Paper Scissors magazine

This mosaic was made from cut up aluminum cans. (Art by Dawn Hunter, photo by Hornick/Rivlin Studio)

9. With a little color and some stitching, plain quilt batting can become eye-catching recycled art journal covers. In “Quilt Batting Journal Covers” in the Summer 2014 issue of Pages magazine, Rebekah Meier attaches quilt batting to fusible stabilizer, then machine stitches the piece, creating patterns and texture with the stitches. Hand embroidery can be added as well. Next, she paints the piece with clear gesso and adds vivid color with paint and Inktense Blocks. Pages are then machine sewn to the cover to complete the journal.

Quilt batting book covers by Rebekah Meier, from Pages magazine

With some paint and stitching, plain quilt batting transforms into vivid book covers. (Art by Rebekah Meier, photo by Sharon White Photography)

10. In that same issue of Pages magazine, Carol Sloan turns a gallery-wrapped canvas into an artful home for tiny book in “Making Your Own Niche.” After plaster strips are applied, covering the canvas, cardboard is adhered to the front. Then, joint compound is spread over the back of the canvas, including the inside of the niche. When dry, the joint compound can be sanded smooth. The piece can be arted up at this point with stencils, Thermofax prints, carved marks, or drawings, and then it gets layers of acrylic paint and glazes to build up the surface. Antiquing medium and wax medium complete the look. Fill the niche with a small handmade book or other treasure.

Recycled art niche by Carol Sloan, from Pages magazine

Repurpose a gallery-wrapped canvas into a unique niche for a tiny book. (Art by Carol Sloan, photo by Sharon White Photography)

Learn more about recycled art in these resources from the North Light Shop!

March/April 2014 Cloth Paper Scissors magazine

Learn creative ways to artfully recycle in the March/April 2014 issue of Cloth Paper Scissors magazine.

Summer 2014 Pages magazine

See what can be recycled into book art and art journal pages in the Summer 2014 issue of Pages magazine.

Art Lessons Volume 5: Recycled and Re-inked

Rae Missigman artfully turns die-trapping sheets into beautiful embellishments in Art Lessons Volume 5: Recycled and Re-inked.

Upcycled Fabric Books with Erin Zamrzla

Learn how to make a one-of-a-kind journal from recycled materials in Upcycled Fabric Books with Erin Zamrzla.

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