Studio Saturdays: Storytelling With Art

Storytelling with art is one of the most satisfying aspects of creating. Mixed-media artists reveal their narratives so many different ways–through collage, abstracts, portraits, assemblage, and textile art. I love telling stories through my artwork, and today I’m going to tell you about a great mixed-media storytelling project that you can be part of, starting today.

“The Whatevers” is a collaborative project founded by Nathalie Kalbach, Catherine Scanlon, and Vicki Chrisman. Fascinated by vintage photos of people, each month the three would choose a photo, create a story around it, and feature the photo in their artwork. They shared their artwork online and posted the photo for others to join the project. “The Whatevers” is featured in the May/June 2017 issue of Cloth Paper Scissors magazine (the artwork is on the cover), and all three artists offer amazing techniques from their projects. The vintage photo the three used is posted on our Online Extras page, so you can download it today and play along.

storytelling with art


I downloaded the photo to create this piece, an altered book tunnel book. I couldn’t wait to be a part of this fantastic venture, and I had so much fun thinking about what story I wanted to tell, and how to tell it. I chose a tunnel book format because when I saw this photo, I envisioned the story revealed in three dimensions.

Storytelling with art inspiration photo
This vintage photo is the inspiration for the storytelling with art project “The Whatevers” in the May/June issue of Cloth Paper Scissors magazine.

My story is about four women who had been friends since childhood. Now that they were young women, with various responsibilities and hardships of life thrown at them, they had little time to spend together. When they did manage to meet up they were carefree girls again, comfortable being silly around one another, and grateful for the opportunity to be themselves. With the tunnel book I wanted to create a world that was just theirs—colorful and fun and somewhat surreal.

For this storytelling with art project, I chose a fairly large and thick book (6″ wide x 9 ½” high x 1 ½” deep), which gave me ample room to work in. Keep in mind that when you start to cut the pages for the niche, the front will look much better than the back. I flipped the book and used the back cover as the front; I knew none of the pages would show, and there was some damage on the front cover I wanted to avoid.

Before you begin cutting, be aware that the pages of the book must stay in place and not spread out. Below, you can see how the pages should look as you’re cutting them—all neat and lined up.

Tips for creating a tunnel book niche
Before cutting the pages for the tunnel book niche, make sure they are straight and not fanned out.

This is how they should not look—fanned out. The book needs to retain its original shape to work as a tunnel book, so try to keep the pages upright as you cut them.

Niche cutting tips for creating a tunnel book
The pages should not be fanned out like this when you cut them. This will result in a wonky tunnel book.

I wanted five sections of pages, which would yield five levels in the tunnel. I eyeballed the sections and clipped them together. Your sections don’t have to be even–think about how you want to render your dimensional scene.

Clip groups of pages before gluing them to create a tunnel book
Clip groups of pages together before gluing them.

To make it easier to cut the niche, I glued each section with heavy gel medium, spreading it around the outside edges. You can also use PVA, white glue, heavy white glue, or decoupage medium. I slipped a nonstick craft mat underneath the last page of the section, then spread the gel medium with a sponge brush. I shmushed it in with my fingers, making sure the pages got lots of glue. As I did this, I made sure the stack of pages was upright, and not angled back and spread out.

Gluing page sections for a tunnel book
Gluing the sections together first makes them easier to cut.

I put a nonstick craft mat on top of the first page, closed the cover of the book, and put a heavy weight on top while it dried. I repeated this for all the sections.

When everything was dry, I decided how big I wanted my niche, and drew the dimensions (3 ½” x 7″) on the back endpaper. I recommend using a strong, sharp, utility knife for cutting the pages. I like the Olfa Ratchet Lock Utility Knife, which has snap-off blades, making it easy to change them. I went through three blades cutting these pages. Don’t settle for a dull blade. You’ll thank me later.

I placed a cutting mat under the first section of pages, and placed a metal ruler on the cutting line. Using a fair amount of pressure, I started cutting, keeping my knife against the ruler as I went. Take your time–you won’t be able to cut all the pages in one go. This can be a little sweat-producing, so take a break when you need to. Remember to go slowly, always cut against the metal ruler, and make sure the pages are straight as you cut, and not at an angle.

Cutting a tunnel book niche against a metal ruler
To cut the niche for this storytelling with art project, make sure you cut against a metal ruler.

Pull the pages away as you cut them, and if the corners get stuck, dig the tip of your blade in to release them. Keep going, cutting a few pages at a time, until all the sections are cut. I moved the ruler to the edges of the pages, which gave me a better foundation.

When you’re done, you may notice some straggly bits of paper; I removed those with sandpaper, and used an emery board in the corners.

Finished niche for a tunnel book for a storytelling with art project
Ta-da! The finished niche. Straggly paper bits can be removed with sandpaper.

After swigging a Gatorade to replace the electrolytes I lost while cutting pages, it was time to think about what elements to include for this storytelling with art project, and how to execute the design. Tunnel books offer so many possibilities for rendering artwork in 3-D. The photo of the women would obviously be my focal point, and I wanted the image to stay black and white so it would contrast against the colorful elements.

My first order of business was to create the background. I used Catherine’s techniques of layering gesso and paint on paper, then giving it a little texture by pressing bubble wrap and a rubber stamp into it while wet, and scribing into it with the end of the paintbrush. I wrote, “They were the best of friends in the worst of times.”

Painted background for a tunnel book
A textured, painted background gives this piece a contemporary feel.

When the paper was dry I placed it on the inside back cover, and then set the photo (printed out onto cream cardstock) between the third and fourth sections. I painted a bunch of elements in watercolor on watercolor paper—a sun and flowers—and created a cloud from some sheet music, referencing the ukulele.

Hand-painted watercolor elements for a tunnel book
Hand-painted watercolor elements added bright, saturated color to this storytelling with art project.

Usually I work pretty intuitively, but for this piece I spent a considerable amount of time auditioning these elements, trying various configurations. Since I was working on several planes, I wanted to make sure the composition was cohesive and pleasing to the eye.

Auditioning elements for a storytelling with art tunnel book project
Beginning the auditioning phase, making sure that the elements are cohesive.

When I had everything where I wanted it to be, I took a photo for reference. Then I glued the pieces in place, lifting up each section and adhering the elements with a glue stick—you have a little time until it dries, which is perfect for this project.

Tunnel book elements in place
All the elements are in place, waiting to be glued.

Here you can see the stems attached to the edge of the page.

Gluing elements inside a tunnel book niche
Creating long stems and elements for the hand-painted pieces ensured they could be glued to the edges of the niche.

I cut more strips of the sheet music, gave them a light coat of white acrylic paint to knock down the contrast, painted the edges with a little blue, and glued them to the front endpaper. Vintage map paper, a nod to the girls’ sense of adventure, was glued to the inside front cover.

I glued the last section to the back cover, then swiped some glue stick in between the sections to hold them. One final coat of gel medium along the three outside edges of the pages held everything together.

White crackle paste was spread on the front and back book covers with a palette knife, then glazed with watered-down acrylic paint to emphasize the texture and add some color.  The edges of the book pages were painted white. I adhered a vintage glove to the cover with heavy white glue. The glove is symbolic of the prim and proper personas the women feel pressure to adopt, when they’d rather be their free-spirited selves.

Cover of a tunnel book
The cover features a vintage glove.

Doing this piece got me to really think about how storytelling with art informs the work we create. I hope you take part in this incredible project, and please post your artwork in our member gallery!

Get great storytelling with art tips and techniques from these resources, all available at the North Light Shop:

May/June 2017 Cloth Paper Scissors magazine
The May/June 2017 issue of Cloth Paper Scissors magazine features “The Whatevers,” a fantastic storytelling with art project!
Storytelling Art Studio by Cathy Nichols
Pre-order the new book Storytelling Art Studio by Cathy Nichols and learn how to tell compelling stories with your mixed-media art.
Artful Adventures in Mixed Media by Nathalie Kalbach
Tell stories about what you observe with techniques found in Artful Adventures in Mixed Media by Nathalie Kalbach.
Storytelling with Collage by Roxanne Evans Stout
Storytelling with Collage by Roxanne Evans Stout will help you discover how to layer beautiful collage elements to tell a story.



Blog, Handmade Books, Mixed-Media Techniques


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