This Art in Depth resource offers students, teachers—and parents and caregivers—ideas for how to use everyday items to make art! It features artists who have created amazing works of art with limited access to materials—or who found creative ways to use repurposed materials and found objects. There are also suggested activities that will help art-makers experiment with a variety of methods and materials.
As we explore this resource with groups of teachers this semester, we'll be adding ideas, so keep checking back!
Before you begin to experiment with finding your own materials and experimenting with methods of making your own works of art, discuss your plans with your teacher and your parents or caregivers. The University of Virginia’s Healthy Balance blog gives an overview of items to look out for:
The Virginia Department of Education’s Visual Arts Standards of Learning also devotes an entire section of its introduction to safety:
http://www.doe.virginia.gov/testing/sol/standards_docs/fine_arts/index.shtml (pages vii-viii)
In this Still Life, French artist Pierre Bonnard shows us the materials and equipment he used to make works of art. Can you see the water jar, atomizer (a device that sprays liquids), drawing album, and other instruments in the drawing?
Today, both art supplies and household items provide users with a list of ingredients, but this was not always the case for artists. Until relatively modern times, art supplies were made from raw materials in artist studios—and some, such as paints containing lead or cadmium, could be harmful.
By the time Bonnard created this still life with tempera, water color and pastel, art supplies were beginning to be made commercially. Spend some time looking at this image. Do you notice the different textures Bonnard has created using mixed media?
Let’s begin our investigation of materials by exploring the technique of collage. Not only is it a versatile medium that offers a great range of possible materials, many of the items can be found rather than purchased.
Collage is defined as the technique (or the resulting work of art) in which pieces of paper, photographs, fabric, and other interesting items are arranged and attached to paper, canvas, or other support material.
Of course, artists have been combining materials on surfaces for thousands of years. The Chinese, for example, began combining painting and calligraphy soon after they invented paper. In European art-making traditions, however, the technique was not used by “mainstream” artists until the early 1900s.
The change that made collage an acceptable medium for leading artists began with the work of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. Both artists experimented with new techniques and forms of expression throughout their careers, including attaching various materials to their paintings and drawings. They even coined the word “collage,“ which comes from the French verb “coller” which means “to glue.”
This still life by Picasso shows us a stylized goblet, newspaper, and table painted on an oval piece of canvas—and the applied paint even includes sand! Picasso attached the oval to a rectangular rough-woven canvas, producing a collage-like effect.
In The Dove, Picasso creates a very simple collage by attaching a dove cut from paper to a background of dark blue paper. The image of the dove appears in a number of paintings by Picasso. He named his daughter, who was born in 1949, Paloma—the Spanish word for dove.
You can explore more collages by Picasso, Braque, and other artists at this website, offered by Weiner Elementary School in Arkansas: https://www.weinerelementary.org/picasso-and-collage.html
Juan Gris was a Spanish painter who worked mostly in France. He was friends with both Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso. His work includes many collages that challenge us to see ordinary objects in new ways.
In this work, he uses paper, charcoal, and gouache (opaque tempera paint), to depict stylized glasses and a carafe. He has also incorporated two scraps from actual tobacco packets.
Can you see how he has layered the individual pieces within the the work so that they spiral out from the center.
What else do you notice about this work?
How has he created a sense of depth?
Notice how he has used slashes in the paper? How do they change the feel of this work?
Once a collage leaves the wall and becomes three dimensional, it is usually classified as a sculpture, but this creation by Red Grooms shows us what can be created with cut-paper.
Red Grooms is an American artist who has been associated with many modern art movements, including Pop Art. He brings a wry sense of humor to many of his creations, which he makes from a wide variety of materials, including wire, fabric, acrylic, and ceramics. This work is unusual for Grooms because it lacks his usual bright colors and American setting, but he has certainly given us a sense of how he thought about the French Artist Henri Matisse, who was known for his paper-cut collages.
How many types of paper have you used to make art?
Different types of paper have different characteristics.
Artist tip: Keep notes about your experience with different papers.
Try making reliefs or sculptures by cutting, twisting, and tearing paper.
Romare Bearden was an African American artist, author, and songwriter, who explored many different art trends and media over his long career. He began concentrating on the collage medium around 1963 in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement. He wanted to create images that would capture the lived experience of the African American communities he knew, from Harlem to North Carolina and the Caribbean.
He explained the inspiration for this collage in 1966:
“In the 1920s, during the time of the great migration of Negroes from the South to the big cities, my grandmother ran a boarding house in Pittsburgh. Her house fronted Penn Avenue; to the rear was an alley called Spring Way. After supper the boarders would sit in front of the house and talk, or play checkers, or plunk out ‘down home’ music on their guitars.”
How has Bearden used clippings of noses, eyes, fingers, shirtfronts, and other recognizable items?
If you were going to create a collage that reflects your community, what kinds of images would you collect?
The National Gallery of Art offers the online resource The Art of Romare Bearden: A Resource for Teachers: https://www.nga.gov/content/dam/ngaweb/Education/learning-resources/teaching-packets/pdfs/bearden-tchpk.pdf
Many contemporary audiences have used collage elements to invite viewers to think about equity and justice. In this mixed media work by Native American artist Jaune Quick-to-See-Smith, for example, newspaper clippings provide background and context for this representation of a traditional Native American garment.
“The words “Your God” appear across the dress’s midsection against a backdrop of blood-red paint, accompanied by cryptic wartime references such as the drum and the newspaper headlines “War of Worlds” and “Battle in Washington.”
“The skirt section is emblazoned with “My God” set against green paint, implying regeneration, fertility, and the connection of indigenous peoples to their own forms of worship. Here, headlines read, “Get in the Spirit” and “Women Try to Boost Numbers” suggesting hope and grassroots efforts to build consensus.”
How would you compare and contrast these two sections of the work?
Why do you think Smith has split the work into two separate canvases?
Visit the VMFA online story American Land, American People to learn more about this work and how several Native American groups viewed their connection with the earth
This work made in 2010 uses an actual golf bag as the “canvas” to invite conversations about inclusion and equity. Charles McGill loved the game of golf, but as an African American artist, he was also aware that, in the United States, the sport was restricted to prosperous white men for many years. As he commented, “I find the golf bag to be a very political object due to its historical associations with class and racial injustice.”
In Minstrel Bouquet, McGill uses golf as a metaphor for thinking about race, gender and class.
Do you recognize the images that decorate the surface of the bag?
McGill has chosen internet images of the stereotypes presented by minstrel shows to decorate the golf bag, which is associated with wealth, affluence, and power. Minstrel shows developed as an American theatrical form, popularized in the early 19th to early 20th century. The National Museum of African American History and Culture describes minstrel shows that “characterized blacks as lazy, ignorant, superstitious, hypersexual, and prone to thievery and cowardice.” In fact, the character of Jim Crow first appeared as a minstrel show character created by Thomas Dartmouth Rice in 1830.
Learn more about minstrel shows in the article Blackface: The Birth of An American Stereotype here: https://nmaahc.si.edu/blog-post/blackface-birth-american-stereotype.
How has McGill used the tension between his love of golf and the legacy of golfing organizations to create a work of art that captures our attention?
Can you think of objects that you could decorate in a similar fashion?
Click through the images and information in the slider below to discover ways to make your own glue!
Experiment with newspaper, magazine clippings, paper scraps, old drawings, and doodles, etc.!
One of the great features of collage is that the creations can be very simple or very complex!
Can you make a collage that reflects your lived experience in the last year?
What kinds of things would you include?
You might begin by quickly writing down words and sketching images that spring to mind.
Almost everyone has old clothing and worn-out fabrics on hand—and many of us also have access to needles and thread. Many artists have created amazing works of art just using these materials! Many older relatives also remember making practical objects from fabric, textiles, and other materials. In these times when many of us are spending more time at home, take the opportunity to carry on family traditions.
This work of art is a quilt made by Rita Mae Pettway who lived in Gees Bend, a small African American community in Alabama. Gees Bend was home to several generations of quiltmakers. To make their quilts, they used small pieces of material saved from worn-out clothing or corduroy scraps left over from pillow covers that many of the quiltmakers produced for Sears, Roebuck in the 1970s.
What makes these quilts unique? These women did not follow conventional patterns! Most quiltmakers carefully follow standard patterns and continue the same pattern throughout the main section of the quilt. The Gees Bend quilt-makers experimented with unusual designs, surprising colors, and interrupted patterns.
You can learn more about Rita Mae Pettway and see more of her quilts here: https://www.soulsgrowndeep.org/artist/rita-mae-pettway
Molly Murphy Adams made this work for a VMFA exhibition called Hear My Voice (2018-2019). She chose to explore the geography of Virginia, layered in time, using applique, embroidery, and beading.
She has superimposed political boundaries on representations of the actual geography of Virginia, including the major rivers. The central image is surrounded by native plants of Virginia. The smaller blocks that surround the main image feature symbols from the various groups of Virginia Indians who live along these rivers. She’s even beaded working QR codes beside those symbols that offer further information about these groups.
Could you create a work using needlework and applique that reflects the community in which you live?
“My concern is to build things that express our relationship to this country—to other countries—to this world—to other worlds . . . to glimpse some of the fear, hope, ugliness, beauty, and mystery that exist in us all.” —Lee Bontecou
Between 1959 and 1967, Bontecou made works like this one, using canvas wired to a welded-steel framework. Do you think this is a 3-D collage, a sculpture, or something else entirely? What memories or feelings do the dark openings in the canvas bring up?
What do these materials suggest to you?
What materials could you use to create an expressive work of art?
Does this drawing seem to move? How do you think Bontecou has produced that effect. What kinds of things do you think inspire her work?
“You can solve an awful lot of problems with the drawing,” says Bontecou “rather than do the sculpture and find out it’s not going to work.”
Here’s an example of a free-standing structure that includes both clothing and carpet fragments. The artist Thornton Dial began this sculpture on 9-11-2001 after hearing the news about the attacks on the Twin Towers.
Born in Alabama in 1928, Dial made art throughout his life, using the materials he found around him. He is particularly known for his large-scale assemblages made from found objects, paint, wire, and other discarded items. His work is filled with visual symbols that raise questions about war, racism, poverty, and spirituality. The titles he gives his works, including those listed below, provide insight into the emotions and ideas he expresses through his art.
You can see these works and many more here: https://www.soulsgrowndeep.org/artist/thornton-dial
He explained, “My art is the evidence of my freedom. When I start any piece of art I can pick up anything I want to pick up. . . . I already got my idea for it. I start with whatever fits with my idea, things I will find anywhere. I gather up things from around. I see the piece in my mind before I start, but after you start making it you see more that need to go in it. It’s just like inventing something. . . . The pattern for a piece of art is in your mind.”
Quote from interviews with Thornton Dial by William Arnett in 1995 and 1996.
VMFA’s collection includes 34 works acquired though the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, including 12 works by Thornton Dial. The Souls Grown Deep Foundation is “dedicated to documenting, preserving, and promoting the contributions of artists from the African American South, and the cultural traditions in which they are rooted.”
The artists whose work was collected by this foundation had no access to art schools, galleries, or museums—and could not afford expensive art supplies—but the human creative impulse is strong. The works explored here attest to their creativity and ability to communicate through art.
Learn more about the Souls Grown Deep artists here: https://www.soulsgrowndeep.org/
Jimmy Lee Sudduth was another artist whose work was collected by the Souls Grown Deep Foundation. His story is another us that demonstrates that materials can be found everywhere.
Sudduth’s mother was a “root woman,” or local healer, who used natural remedies. In an interview, he remembered that he began making art while playing with mud. He painted a picture with his fingers on wood, but was upset when it washed away in the rain. He discovered how to add a binder to his pigments when he was nine years old. (A binder is a substance that holds the particles of paint pigment on a surface.)
He explained: “I was up there with a man making syrup and he dropped the syrup in the mud. I picked it up and felt that mud, and put it on the wall and it wouldn’t come off. The sugar is what held it there. I mixed the syrup and the mud and put it on a piece of wood. That’ where I got started. I wanted to make things after that.
He taught himself how to make his own paint using different colors of “dirt.” He said, “I got twenty-three colors of dirt in my own yard. Walnut hulls and coffee grounds do good, too. Purple and red in the berries. . . . Mash them with a stick. . . . Grass, weeds, turnip greens, pine needles can make green.”
No paintbrush? No worries! Sudduth tells us, “My hands is my brushes.”
Quotations from “Cutting to the Slice” by William Arnett, drawn from conversations with Mr. Sudduth: https://www.soulsgrowndeep.org/artist/jimmy-lee-sudduth
Make Paint with Common Household Ingredients.
There are many on-line recipes and ideas online for making your own paint, but the best way to discover what works for you is to experiment!
Click through the slider below to explore paint-making processes.
The American artist James Prosek made this small handmade cardboard slip box.
The materials in this work include a digital silkscreen on paper with ground walnut shells creating the texture on the strike pad.
You can see a linoleum cut image lining the bottom of the box, which also holds a match, made of wood, wood epoxy, enamel paint, and a burned image. The little book also fits into the box.
He created the illustrations for the little book, which tell a visual story inspired by two essays:
Click through the images below to explore James Prosek's little book.
“Sometimes the light would fall on a chair or a windowpane and I would stop in midstride and stare.”
—Brian H. Peterson
Brian Peterson found inspiration just by noticing the light and shadows in his own home! Interior Light #5 captures light coming through venetian blinds falling on a translucent curtain. Does the result look like a flag to you?
Peterson used a point and shoot camera, but you have lots of options!
Smart phones allow us to make extensive experiments with photography and videography!
What kinds of images could you create using photography?
How would lighting change a work of art you have made?
examine the images below to discover how a work inspired by the glass artist Dale Chihuly changes as the light changes!
To make the colored forms for this creation, glue was combined with acrylic paint and poured onto sheets of acetate. The pours were removed while still pliable and shaped into flower-like shapes.
Think about the work created by all the artists we’ve explored in this resource.
How many new ideas do you have for making art?
A journal or idea notebook of your ideas and discoveries can be a super catalyst for practicing artistic behavior.
Keeping notes on discoveries and possibilities can inspire you to take your artwork to new levels, and use your creativity in new and compelling ways!
A loose-leaf binder is a great choice for your idea notebook because you can slip drawings and other items into clear sleeves to keep them clean and well organized.
You can also reorganize the pages—or pull out the ones you’re working with.
Don’t have a notebook?
Make your own using “found” or repurposed material.
Finding solutions will boost your creativity!
The tie holding these pages together in the picture below is made from strips of plastic grocery bags, tied together and braided.
The pages are all made from the inner surfaces of commercial product boxes, including Ritz crackers and Irish oatmeal.
Click through the images below for ideas for making your idea notebook!
Have you come up with new ideas for making art?
The possibilities are endless!