Studio Saturday: Nature Art

I’m hanging onto these last weeks of summer with every ounce of strength, as fall is almost here. Hikes, walks, beach trips—these are all fodder and inspiration for my artwork, so I’m making the most of every minute spent outside. Recently I decided to see how many ways I could incorporate nature art into one mixed-media project, and I’m pretty pleased with the outcome. Amazing how much you can do with a few leaves and twigs when you combine them with great techniques!

I thought a book would be a good vehicle for a bunch of different nature art mini-projects, but I didn’t want to spend a lot of time on the binding, so I went with an accordion. I made the covers out of polymer clay, which allowed me to embed some leaves—I love that fossilized look you can get with clay. For the interior, I created prints, a collage, and did some sketching for a 360-degree nature art view.

For the covers, I started with two 2-ounce blocks each of Tan and White Sculpey clay (two blocks were used for each cover). I combined the colors and conditioned the clay at the same time; you’ll see below that eventually the marbling gives way to a solid color as you continue to condition it by squishing it and squeezing it your hands (you can also use a clay rolling machine). The clay was rolled with an acrylic roller and cut to size, two pieces about 4 ¾” x 3 ½”, and about ¼” thick. I didn’t worry too much about trying to make it perfect, since I was going for a somewhat rustic look.

Conditioning polymer clay
Polymer clay needs to be conditioned before baking; here I created a custom color by combining two neutral shades.

A small leaf sprig was pushed into the clay—I simply positioned it and used the roller to make sure the leaves and stem made good contact. I used the back side of the leaf, since that has more relief than the front. A few marks were made with an awl to add a little more texture, and the clay was baked in a dedicated oven according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

Embedded leaves into polymer clay for nature art
Leaves were embedded into the clay to add texture.

When the clay was cool I painted it with heavy-body acrylic paint, mixing burnt umber with a little bit of black. Make sure to use a stiff-bristled brush so you can get the paint into all the recesses.

Painting polymer clay
Painting the clay after baking makes it look like a fossil.

After the entire cover was painted I let it sit for a minute, then wiped off the excess paint with a paper towel. This is when all the great details in the leaves and the marks are revealed. If the result is too light, repeat the painting and wiping, and if it’s too dark, wipe off some of the paint with a damp paper towel or rag. Don’t forget to paint the sides and the edges of the inside cover, at least ½” in. Let the paint dry completely.

Wiping paint from textured polymer clay
The paint stays in the crevices, revealing the leaf patterns.

To add a little more visual texture I sanded the covers lightly with a sanding block, then added a few spots of green paint with my finger, rubbing them in so they’d look more cohesive and integrated.

Nature art polymer clay covers
Phase one of my nature art project is done–the final covers.

For the inside pages I cut 2 long pieces of heavyweight art paper 4 ½” high, then folded them at 3 ¼” intervals to create 5 panels. The two pieces were glued together to create a 10-panel accordion with valley folds for the first and last folds.

To attach the pages to the cover I slipped a piece of scrap paper between the first and second panels and brushed PVA glue on with a glue brush. After removing the scrap paper I pressed the panel to the inside front cover and smoothed it with a bone folder. The back panel was attached to the inside back cover the same way, with one addition: Before gluing the accordion, I adhered a scrap of linen fabric across the inside back cover for a closure, using PVA. I slipped scrap paper between the covers and first and last panels to absorb any moisture from the glue, and the book was put under a weight to dry.

Gluing accordion pages to polymer clay covers
The accordion pages were glued to the front and back inside covers.

Here’s the book all tied up and ready to use!

Polymer clay nature art accordion book
The book is ready to be filled with more nature art!

I’m a firm believer that a functional book should be filled and not just left on a shelf to look pretty. Since I dedicated this book to nature and summer, I used several techniques for small pieces of nature art on each page. I love printing with leaves and did a couple of techniques; here I brayered a thin layer of acrylic paint onto a small round Gelli Arts Printing Plate. I then pressed the back of a leaf onto the plate, removed it, and pressed the plate onto mixed-media paper. I love how so much of the leaf’s details are revealed.

Gelli plate printing with leaves
Leaves are perfect for Gelli plate printing.

For this piece I created a rustic paintbrush by gathering some pine needles, gluing them to a twig, and wrapping them with twine to secure. Use the brush with acrylic paint and you get a fun sketchy background design. I printed a leaf directly on top by brushing the back with paint, then pressing it onto the paper.

Nature art made with a pine needle paintbrush
Create nature art with nature art by making a pine needle paintbrush.

Bonus tip: If you can’t use leaves the same day you pick them, place them between damp paper towel sheets and store them in a zipper-lock plastic bag in the refrigerator. The leaves should stay fresh for several days.

I included a watercolor sketch in the mix, too, using drawing and watercolor tips I picked up from Danielle Donaldson’s video, Creative Girl Workshop: Watercolor Illustrations. She has so many great techniques, don’t miss this one!

Watercolor leaf sketch for nature art book
Simple watercolor techniques can be used to capture leaves, flowers, and more.

A quick collage was made from a pressed leaf, some paper scraps, and part of a poem taken from a vintage book. A quick tip for preserving leaves that I learned from Roxanne Evans Stout, author of Storytelling with Collage: coating pressed leaves with gel medium helps protect them.

Nature art collage
Collage and nature art go hand-in-hand; items such as twigs, leaves, and feathers can be used.

I look forward to adding more to this book, and having it as a wonderful remembrance of the summer.

How do you create nature art? Leave a comment below, and be sure to check out more fantastic projects and techniques from our artists, who also use nature as their muse. Enjoy the rest of the summer!

Art Lesson Volume 6: Nature's Stamps by Rae Missigman
Learn how to incorporate items such as twigs and feather in your mixed-media art in Art Lesson Volume 6: Nature’s Stamps by Rae Missigman.
Acrylic Painting Studio: Natural Compositions with Staci Swider
Learn how to create nature-inspired paintings in the video Acrylic Painting Studio: Natural Compositions with Staci Swider.
Storytelling with Collage by Roxanne Evans Stout
See how Roxanne Evans Stout incorporates nature into her collages in Storytelling with Collage.
Artist's Sketchbook by Cathy Johnson
Create nature art on the spot using easy techniques from Artist’s Sketchbook by Cathy Johnson.

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Blog, Collage, Mixed-Media Techniques

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