Studio Saturdays: Awesome Assemblage

Assemblage art is a fantastic way to tell a story in three dimensions. I love working in my art journal and on canvases, but assemblage gives me an opportunity to go beyond paper and paint and use repurposed and created objects to build a little world in which I can get lost.

I constructed this assemblage from mostly vintage items I’ve collected over the years, and I also incorporated a couple of easy techniques. As the piece evolved I connected with it more and more, and the finished work feels very personal.

Assemblage art
Assemblage art is a wonderful way to tell a story.

While most of my Studio Saturday posts delve into techniques, in this one I’d like to focus more on thinking about an assemblage rather than creating one. Putting together an assemblage is enjoyable—there’s a lot of figuring out how to attach things, and it’s exciting to see a piece come together. And while that’s challenging and creative, I don’t think it’s the most fun part.

The fun is reserved for figuring out how to tell your story. And it’s fine not to have one when you start; as you work on a piece it will appear, and your piece and your story may change. No worries there, just be open to it. I started this assemblage knowing I wanted to feature a particular tintype photograph of a young woman, and to tell her story.

I imagined her having a deep sense of wanderlust and being fascinated with the natural world, but also needing to deal with the realities of obligations, the limited time we have on earth, and how those things informed her choices. So I looked for items in my stash that could represent these ideas.

I chose what thought would work without over-analyzing each thing—I like to work intuitively on assemblages. Among the items I grabbed were a scrap of a vintage tape measure, an old cardboard pencil box, some shells, a small bottle, a pile of ephemera, and some vintage lotto cards.

Assemblage materials
Assembling the pieces before making the assemblage.

For the substrate I chose between two vintage boxes I had tucked away; one was square and divided in half, and the other taller and rectangular. I picked the taller one because I thought it would provide a larger canvas. A vintage map seemed like the obvious and ideal backdrop, so I cut one to fit the inside of the box.

Vintage map background
A vintage map was the perfect backdrop.

Almost anything can serve as a substrate or base for an assemblage, including books, cigar boxes, tins, switchplate covers, silverware, egg cartons, and old paintbrushes. Vintage items aren’t a requirement, but I happen to have a penchant for them and love combing flea markets for treasures, so they often wind up in my work.

Since the box was a bit deep I wanted to bring the photograph closer to the front to make it more prominent. I glued a thread spool to the middle of the map to create an elevated base. I remembered a wild turkey feather I had found on a recent walk, and thought that would be a wonderful symbol of both freedom and nature. I affixed the feather to the back of the tintype, then glued them both on top of the spool. I loved that the photo seemed to float in the frame.

Assemblage materials
Auditioning the pieces.

Shells seemed another great way to represent the natural world, so I auditioned a few that didn’t work—too big and clunky—and settled on pale scallop shells, which I glued to the bottom corners. I found a vintage label that read “Real Hand Made” and glued it between the shells; I thought of her as an artist as well.

I love numbers and text for both their shapes and meaning. The tape measure scrap seemed to anchor the piece when I glued it to the bottom edge, and it and also created a dramatic contrast to the soft naturalness of the feather and curve of the shells.

Assemblage materials
A vintage tape measure anchored the bottom of the piece.

Since time always plays a large role in our lives, I placed a vintage pocket watch piece at the top, anchored to a small nail with glue, and I covered the back with a piece of heavy felt.

Assemblage materials
A watch piece was attached with a nail and felt.

A quick word about adhesives: I like to have an array of glues and attachments on hand when making an assemblage, because I never know what’s going to work. I tend to favor quick-dry adhesives and am no stranger to a glue gun. I believe in using whatever works, as long as it creates a firm bond and isn’t obtrusive. If the attachment is visible, like a clothespin or staple, it should make sense.

I set the piece aside for a couple of days and went back to it with fresh eyes. I loved it, but wanted to add a couple of handmade touches. I carefully dislodged the photo from the spool and added some hand stitching to the paper frame with embroidery thread, then re-attached it. The stitches represent both creativity and the connections we have to the people, places and things we care about.

Assemblage stitching
Hand stitching was added to the photo.

I created two small paper buntings by accordion folding scraps of decorative paper and attaching them to the top corners; these always look festive to me, and speak to looking at life as a celebration.

Assemblage details
Bunting was added at the corners.

The name of this piece was right in front of me the whole time: “Atlas of the World.” An entire world in an old, beat-up box. Creating an assemblage is unlike any other form of mixed-media art, and I hope you find joy in creating your own captivating masterpiece.

Assemblage art
The finished assemblage.

Expand into the third dimension with your own assemblage!

Get started with these resources:


Clay Heart with Wings Assemblage Kristen Robinson’s Assemblage Workshop Kit
Cloth Paper Scissors, September/October 2012
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*Limited quantity*
Available while supply lasts


Assemblage Workshop: Techniques for Using Paperclay and Plaster The Mixed-Media Workshop Season 100: Best of Collage & Assemblage
Best of The Mixed-Media Workshop Season 200: Collage and Assemblage
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Buy Now
Buy Now

Find more mixed-media resources at the
Cloth Paper Scissors Shop!


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