Technique Tuesdays: Altered Art

To a mixed-media artist, a book is a sculpture, a hinged tin is a shadow box, and a vintage spoon is a frame. Changing up a found or everyday item to create something unique is what altered art is all about, and the process is exciting and invigorating. Let these tips and techniques inspire you to think about familiar objects in new ways, so you can make your own masterpieces.

1. Anyone who’s done a remodel has undoubtedly come across laminate samples, those small rectangular tiles with a hole at the top. Nancy Ison had a bunch left over from a home project, and decided to repurpose them for a perpetual calendar. In the article “Perpetual Calendar Art” in the November/December 2016 issue of Cloth Paper Scissors magazine, the tiles are turned into altered art tags, each representing a day of the month. For this technique, start by adhering papers and/or fabrics to the tags using PVA, or paint them. When dry, trim away any overhanging pieces with scissors, and cut out the hole. Represent the numbered days in a variety of ways: pieces of tape measure, postage stamps, coins, bingo markers, die cuts, etc. Further embellish the tags with stamps, stencils, ribbon, ephemera, flowers, and more, always thinking about layers and textures. Laminate samples can also be altered and used for mixed-media jewelry, gift and luggage tags, covers for miniature books, and small collages.

Laminate tiles as altered art for a mixed-media perpetual calendar
Laminate tiles were turned into altered art for this mixed-media perpetual calendar. (Art by Nancy Ison, photo by Sharon White Photography)

2. If your favorite mug or cup seems a bit boring, alter it with Mehndi designs. Jill K. Berry did just that in the Summer 2015 issue of Zen Doodle Workshop magazine, using glass paint markers to turn a plain white cup into something special. To start, make sure the cup you’re working with is clean, and cut a piece of paper the height and circumference of the mug to define the image area. Sketch your design on paper, making sure it fits within the space. With a ceramic or glass marker, draw the outlines of the main images first, starting at the top of the cup and working downward. Bonus tip: When drawing on a curved surface, use short strokes and connect them, instead of drawing the entire outline at once. Add doodles within the outlines, and add extra flourishes as desired. Don’t forget the handle! Wipe off mistakes with a paper towel, then adjust with a cotton swab dampened with window cleaner or alcohol. Allow the paint to cure, and bake the cup in the oven according to the manufacturer’s directions.

Altered cup with Mehndi designs
Take a cup from boring to beautiful by altering it and adding Mehndi designs. (Art by Jill K. Berry, photo by Sharon White Photography)

3. A little bling brightens everything up, and that idea certainly applies to altered art. In the book Alternative Art Surfaces, Darlene Olivia McElroy and Sandra Duran Wilson add some bling to—wait for it—a baseball, covering it in gold leaf. In fact, the authors say that in putting gold leaf on an everyday object, “suddenly, you have something extraordinary. It could be a wishbone, an old Barbie doll, your old, dead paintbrushes—you get the idea.” To add the leaf, apply spray glue to an object. Spray lightly to avoid getting saturated areas that won’t get tacky enough to hold the leaf. When the glue is tacky, apply the metal leaf, which typically comes in sheets, and burnish it with a soft, dry paintbrush. Seal the object with a mineral spirits-based spray varnish.

Altered art featuring a gilded baseball
This gold-leafed piece features an altered baseball. (Art by Darlene Olivia McElroy and Sandra Duran Wilson)

4. Despite our dependence on email, snail mail hasn’t completely disappeared. Instead of dumping junk mail in the recycling bin, alter it. Mandy Russell turns return envelopes from bills into pages of a handmade book in the article “Return Envelope Journal” in the Summer 2014 issue of Pages magazine. To alter the envelopes, trim off a slight amount from both short sides of the envelopes, so they open completely. While in their original shape, nest 8 envelopes inside one another to form a signature. Arrange the envelopes so that the top flaps vary sides, with all of the envelopes opening toward you. Hold them together at the top and bottom with paper clips. The crease between the top flap and the rest of the envelope will be the spine, where the holes for the binding will be punched. Compile more signatures, and bind them with a long stitch into the cover of your choice. In the article, Mandy shows how to create a cover from canvas, and how to bind the book.

Handmade book with altered envelopes for pages
Before those junk mail envelopes hit the recycling bin, turn them into the pages of a book. (Art by Mandy Russell, photo by Sharon White Photography)

5. Compressed paper coasters transform into altered art in the hands of mixed-media artist Jodi Ohl. In the article “Ornamental: Embellish with Paper Collage” in the July/August 2014 issue of Cloth Paper Scissors magazine, she uses round coasters, collage papers, stickers, and pens to create colorful and festive ornaments that can be displayed anytime. To create the coasters, gather a mix of collage papers, tear them into pieces, and adhere them to the coasters with gel medium. Start with the heaviest papers first. Press the papers with a brayer to eliminate air bubbles. Trim the edges if necessary and let dry. Sand any rough edges to make sure the papers are flush with the coaster, and rub the edges with a black inkpad. To embellish the ornaments, add inspirational words using letter stickers, and draw doodles with a permanent pen or paint pen. Spray with varnish to seal the collage. The back of the coasters can be painted or collaged. Once both sides are dry, punch a hole in the top of the ornament, add an eyelet, and hang with a piece of ribbon.

Collaged altered art coasters
Plain coasters become collaged altered art with the addition of papers, paint, and stickers. (Art by Jodi Ohl, photo by XXX)

6. Change up a man’s dress shirt and make it ultra-feminine. Ruth Rae shows how to create wearable altered art in the article “Poetic Ruffles” in the May/June 2015 issue of Cloth Paper Scissors magazine. The project starts with a button-down dress shirt that has the collar removed. Machine baste narrow strips of muslin, then pull on one of the threads in each strip to gather. Pin the strips to the shirt and stitch in place, using a normal stitch length. Ruth added ruffles to the front of the shirt on one side, around the collar, and along part of the placket. She also created a pocket and covered it with ruffles. Alter the shirt even further by free-motion stitching words to the front. Think of your machine as a pen, and the thread as ink. If you’re new to free-motion stitch, consult the article for tips, and be sure to practice.

Altered art ruffled blouse
This was once a man’s shirt before it was altered with fabric strips and free-motion stitching. (Art by Ruth Rae, photo by Sharon White Photography)

Ready to create some altered art? Add these resources from the North Light Shop to your library and have inspiration ready whenever you need it!

The Altered Book with Seth Apter video from ArtistsNetworkTV
Learn how to take an existing book and turn it into altered art, with pages that are layered and interactive. The video The Altered Book with Seth Apter shows you how!
Alternative Art Surfaces by Darlene Olivia McElroy and Sandra Duran Wilson
Alternative Art Surfaces by Darlene Olivia McElroy and Sandra Duran Wilson is packed with ideas for mixed-media art using materials that are easily altered.
Altered art projects in Cloth Paper Scissors May/June 2015
Alter an apron, a scarf, a man’s shirt, and more, with instructions in the May/June 2015 issue of Cloth Paper Scissors magazine.
Photo Play video with Seth Apter from ArtistsNetworkTV
Learn how to alter photos by hand for mixed-media art in the video Photo Play with Seth Apter.





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