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Tips to Working with Vintage Materials

Vintage materials add unique touches to mixed-media art, telling a story and providing texture, dimension, color, and patina. Whether it’s bumpy rust on an antique hinge, a hand-written ledger entry, or a threadbare piece of an old quilt, these items have a story that artists love to share.

A few expert tips and techniques can go a long way in working with these treasured bits. We’ve gathered several ideas from our artists just for you, along with helpful resources. Pull some vintage items from your stash and start creating!

1. Old photos offer plenty of possibilities for art journal pages, collage, and more, but sometimes it’s tough to give up the original. Kristen Robinson and Ruth Rae used a transfer technique and incorporated it into an assemblage titled “Cherish” for their book Explore Mixed Media Collage. Start with a photocopy of a vintage photo (a laser print will also work) and apply gel medium over the surface. Place the copy image-side down onto fabric; in this case, a vintage white baby dress. Once the gel medium is dry, wet the back of the paper and roll the paper off gently with your fingers. Allow to dry.

2. Vintage jewelry is hard to resist, but it can be pricey. Good news for mixed-media artists—you don’t need perfectly intact pieces to create stunning, one-of-a-kind jewelry. In the article “Simple Vintage Assemblage Jewelry” in the November/December 2014 issue of Cloth Paper Scissors magazine, Andrea Verrill showed how to recycle parts of vintage jewelry with resin-filled bezels to make a cohesive piece. She says it can be overwhelming to sift through boxes of trinkets to decide what to use to make a jewelry piece, and offers some advice: First, keep in mind the color and theme of your piece, and reusability of the item. Second, consider components such as broken watch parts, charms from old earrings, and damaged crimp beads. Seen with new eyes, they can all be incorporated successfully. Don’t be afraid to combine disparate pieces. Verrill frequently joins chunky chains with refined ones, and rhinestone drops with matte charms.

3. The next time you’re at a thrift store or flea market looking for vintage materials, pick up a few old books and turn them into unique mixed-media wall art. Jenn Mason showed how in the article “Paper Hearts” in theFall 2014 issue of Paper Art magazine. Choose a sturdy book cover, one that’s not  brittle, and draw a heart shape on the cover in pencil. Create 2 small heart-shaped templates in different sizes from chipboard or cardstock, and cut 20-30 hearts in each size. Stack the templates, fold them in half lengthwise, and poke two holes along the fold for sewing. Use the templates to create sewing holes in the cover, within the heart shape. Bonus tip: Place a folded towel underneath the book cover to protect your surface while poking the holes. Thread a needle with embroidery floss, tie a knot in the end, and sew the hearts to the book cover. Take the needle from the back side of the cover, and sew the hearts in place. The hearts can be bunched up, laid flat, or nestled against each other. Continue adding hearts, creating more sewing holes if needed.

4. When Roxanne Evans Stout pulls together vintage materials for her collages, she often chooses bits and pieces that have meaning to her, something to think about when creating your own collage. “Morning Poem,” featured in her book Storytelling With Collage, has a scrap fabric background, to which she’s attached bailing wire bent into a circle, a vintage keyhole, and remnants of a garden ornament. “These objects are all different but all connected and beautiful in their simplicity,” she says. “This collage is made of small pieces of my life that all hold a memory or a special meaning.” Vintage pieces, even if they’re found, can express a cherished memory or set a mood.

5. Dina Wakely incorporates vintage photos on her art journal pages, but she gives them a decidedly contemporary look. In Art Lesson Volume 10: Wielding Complementary Colors, she created a layered collage art journal spread using stencils and acrylic paint. For collage elements, use vintage images printed on plain paper; laser-printed images work best, since the toner won’t bleed. Tear the edges of the image and adhere it to the page with gel medium. Paint around the image with white paint, making sure the paint connects to the sides, top, and bottom of the page. While the paint is still wet, paint an analogous color around the image without covering all of the white; this helps ground the image into the background. Add another analogous color. Paint the image, using complementary colors to make it pop on the page. Add shadows and details with water-soluble crayons. Outline the image with a water-soluble pencil, like a Stabilo All pencil.

6. Working with some vintage materials can be tricky; old papers and fabrics may be especially fragile. Cas Holmes has a technique for combining such pieces so they’re sturdy enough to use as book pages, and she explained it in her article “Stitching a Story” in the March/April 2016 issue of Cloth Paper Scissors magazine. Lay out a rough composition of the papers and fabrics you want to use. Layer the pieces, making sure that they overlap each other by at least ¼”, with no gaps. Bonus tip: Take a photo of the layout to reference the design as you go. Cover your work surface with plastic sheeting, brush each collage element with a dilute mixture of cellulose paste, and layer it back on the plastic sheet. When dry, peel off the backing plastic and iron the collage between Teflon sheets or pressing cloths. Add details and borders with machine stitching, creating patterns and designs with free-motion stitching. If you like, add some hand stitching as well. Sew a zigzag stitch along all four edges of the piece.