Creative Minds Art History Project – Vincent Van Gogh

Hello all! This is my first post I’ll be doing on my Creative Minds class projects I am leading with my program this semester. Each week we will be learning about a well known artist from the past or present, and completing a project based on their process and style. I work primarily with adults with disabilities or mental health issues, and though we will not only study artists with disabilities, mental health issues, addiction, or chronic illness, these individuals will be a special focus.

Today I’ll be walking you through an enjoyable and easy project inspired by the art of Vincent Van Gogh. Being the Coordinator as well as an instructor for an inclusive recreational arts program, there is always a wide range of abilities and experience levels in each class. I am excited to make art history accessible and fun for all ages and abilities. Vincent Van Gogh has always been one of my favorite historical artists, so of course he had to be the artist I chose for week 1. I know that he’s a lot of people’s favorite, but I have always felt a special kinship with him as we also happen to share the same birthday!

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His use of light, color, and movement through swirling, visible brushstrokes has become iconic and easily recognizable even to those with no knowledge of art. Also common knowledge are Van Gogh’s struggles with mental health throughout his life. He was blessed with a supportive and loving family member, his brother Theo, who financially supported him so that he could continue painting despite being unable to hold a job or make an income for himself. It seems his brother saw firsthand the transformative power of art, giving Van Gogh at least a few more days, months, years, or sometimes just moments of peace and joy than he would have experienced otherwise.

Oil paints are pricey, require copious amounts of time to complete a piece, need adequate ventilation that may not be available in all classrooms, and can be frustrating for beginning artists. So, we ditched the oil paints for oil pastels!

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The first step in our project was to make a simple outline in pencil first. Students were encouraged to be inspired by the provided images of Van Gogh’s most famous works, but not necessarily to copy. They could make a scene, a still life, a person or animal, or anything else that came to mind. They could then use the pastels to trace over their pencil outline, and add more lines in between to mimic Van Gogh’s iconic style. Students could fill their paper with as many swirls, stripes, or dashes as they wanted as long as they still left white space behind, because next the magic happens!

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After their pastel outline was completed, students could fill in their different areas with watercolor washes, and watch the oil pastel repel the water. Though not a requirement, this technique is especially amazing to watch when washing darker watercolors over bright or light pastel. One of the students even commented that it was “like magic”. This process is simple enough to be enjoyed by students of all abilities with minimal frustration, but also fun for more advanced students. Pro tip: make sure you have enough water in your paints! If your watercolors are brushed on too dry, they won’t repel as strongly. Also, be sure to use paint brushes with soft bristles. Stiff, scratchy brushes are harder on the oil pastel and will not give as neat of a result.

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There is a common narrative that Van Gogh suffered so much because while he was alive his art never became famous and people wouldn’t buy his paintings. I don’t know about that … I am a Doctor Who fan, and for those of you unfamiliar with the show it’s about time travel. Who would have thought, but this whimsical sci-fi TV show ended up moving me emotionally more than any work of cinema I’ve ever seen, and I watch a lot of movies! In my favorite episode, our adventurers go back in time to pay a visit to Vincent Van Gogh. They end up whisking him away to the future, where he can see all his paintings on display in a museum, and hear his fame being lauded. It is hoped that after seeing this, Van Gogh’s spirit will be renewed, and once he is returned to his own time he will not end his life as he did in history. They hope that when they visit that same museum again after their adventure, there will be walls of new Van Gogh paintings, having altered the past by showing Van Gogh his future. That does not end up being the case.

We put so much emphasis in our culture on fame, money, talent, and popularity that it is hard to accept that these things are not a magical panacea to fix all of our problems, and that sometimes these things are not enough to make us happy.

We need to keep reaching out to each other. As this episode concludes,

“The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things. The good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice versa, the bad things don’t always spoil the good things and make them unimportant.”

Make it your goal to add to the pile of good things for the people you encounter each day.

A student that had been reluctant about this project at first because they don’t draw or paint ended up having a blast, saying they felt like they were getting to play and be a kid again. A lot of times, that is exactly what art is about! As Van Gogh himself said,  If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced. I hope some of you will decide to play and try this project yourself at home! Be sure to check back in the following weeks for more fun project inspiration.

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Book Pages and Metallic Paint = Instant Classy.

Every so often I get bored and dissatisfied with the state of my walls and need a change. I’d had some Alice In Wonderland etching coloring book pages framed above my couch since I’d moved into the apartment. I’d filled them in with markers, giving Alice hot pink hair, and my boyfriend was even starting to comment, “So… are you ever going to take those down?” Apparently the appeal of pink haired punker Alice was lost on him, and he also couldn’t fathom why I would hang up coloring book pages when I have so much of my own art at my disposal. I do decorate my home with some of my own work obviously, but you have to understand, I get real tired of staring at my own art. I’m staring at it the whole time I’m working on it, and when it comes to my walls, I want to give my eyes something new to get excited over. The coloring pages had overstayed their welcome a bit, and the magic marker was getting ridiculously sun-faded. But, I didn’t want to spend the time making 3 new fine art pieces just to hang above my couch when I knew I had exhibits coming up to get ready for.

I don’t know if anyone uses those 12×12 paper flip calendars anymore … They are a bit of a relic nowadays, but I always insist on getting one from those giant kiosks in the middle of the mall set up around Christmas simply for the cool pictures. Art Deco is one of my absolute favorite design periods, so for the past 2 years I’ve gotten the Erte calendar. This fashion artist is responsible for the loveliness below – so yes, he completely rocks.

You can buy 12×12 scrapbook frames at any craft store and hang calendar page art as is (the cheapest prints you will ever find), but I decided to take it a step further to create the trio below.

trioThese pieces only took an afternoon to create. First off, a background made of book pages makes anything look instantly classy. If you are like me and love books, tearing one to pieces could take a lot of soul-searching. Therefore, I picked up the most dull, dry, uninspiring book I could possibly find from the red dot $1 bin at Barnes and Noble so that I wouldn’t feel I was doing any disservice. The opposite, I felt I was improving upon the provided material by turning it into art. I first tore out about 6 pages per picture, then adhered 3 pages layered on top and 3 on bottom to the cardboard backer that always comes with frames. I found brushing tacky glue onto the back with a combination of a cheap throwaway paintbrush and one’s finger worked best. I then flattened the bookpage-covered-cardboards under a pile of magazines to dry. While the glue was drying on those, I found 3 calendar pictures I liked and cut out the main subject from each page. You could do this with any calendar theme, cutting out a large central image be it a flower, an animal, a boat, your favorite entertainer, whatever makes you happy to look at. I then brushed tacky glue onto the back of each of my calendar cutouts. I pressed them on, smoothing them out with my fingers, making sure there were no bubbles, and then put the pieces back under the magazines to dry flat. Next, out comes the metallic paint! Metallic acrylic paints are just magic and make every single thing look way better. You don’t have to be an artist at all to accent your new decoupage calendar pictures with paint. The “distressed” look goes awesome with the torn out book pages, and for this technique the messier the better. Grab a large flat brush, and make sure you keep it dry – don’t dip it in water until you are finished. Dip some paint on your brush and simply swipe across your piece. The paint will naturally catch where the pages layer and overlap lending a cool texture. If you don’t feel intuitive with the paint, an easy out is to simply paint along the edge of the image you glued down to emphasize it, and also brush along the corners or all the edges of the actual rectangular piece to “frame” your collage. You’ll be surprised at how amazing these turn out. You’ll have people asking where you bought them, when all it was was less than $5 of supplies and a couple of hours.

Doing more rearranging later due to visiting the Midland Antique Festival and buying yet more wall art, I decided to make a wall collage above my dining table which is something I’ve always wanted to do. My framed original portrait drawing, collaborative mixed media canvas piece I’d made with my boyfriend, and my crazy little 60s-big-eyed-circus-child all had a vintage, weathered look to them with lots of beige and ivory amongst the pops of color. I needed some super small pieces to tuck in between the gaps in the arrangement, but 5×7-8×10 frames are usually meant for table tops and just don’t look right on the wall, and the frames’ heavy, dark edges were taking away from my more focal pieces. I needed something on a small canvas, but once again, was pressed for time. Though I wanted my collage to look good, I did not want to make 2 miniature acrylic paintings with all the other projects I had going. I had a value pack of 8×10 canvases I’d gotten at Michaels that calculated out to $1 per frame at the end, and decided, what the heck? When in doubt, cover them in book pages. Once I had the entire front and sides of the canvases covered in tacky-glued pages, I went to Staples and got 2 of my original works printed small on standard printer paper, tore the edges to make them uneven, and glued them to the relative center of my canvas. If you don’t make art yourself, you could still do the same thing with magazine pictures, digital photos you’ve taken, or works by famous artists copied from art history books. Antique or vintage-inspired images look best with the book page background. Of course, I had to metallic up the edges with some gold paint, and once again I had put in an hour or two of work for a really cool end product.

I fell off a chair and dented the entire right half of myself trying to hang this up, so it better look kickass!

I fell off a chair and dented the entire right half of my body trying to hang this up, so it better look damn good!

I hope some of you will try this out. Even not-so-great looking decor can be super expensive, and these projects are FUN even for non-artists (promise!) and will add a ton of personality to your abode. Collaging is even suggested as a relaxation technique when under extreme stress, so this project could be just what your day off needs. I’ll be taking a break from art and heading off to Ludington tomorrow for a mid-week weekend of hiking, swimming, and generally being outdoors from morning till the wee hours of the night. Hopefully I come back refreshed and inspired ^_^.

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Creating Mixed Media Work Inspired By Photography

I love mixed media work that layers and collages varying elements into one piece, but still creates a cohesive universe, a dreamworld with the same depth and breadth as the natural world around us. I’ve found the best way to create mixed media work that maintains perspective and three-dimensionality is to base your piece off of photos you’ve taken. I usually build a concept first, then find photos that support the design I’ve constructed in my head. Those that don’t know where to start can begin with a photo that has meaning to them, one they find inspiring, or one that just plain looks pretty and build from there. I’m going to take you through my process for creating mixed media pieces inspired by photography, but each person may approach their own process a little differently once they get started.

The Dance, Awarded Best 2D; prismacolor pencil, ink, watercolor, fabric, book pages, embroidery thread

The Dance, Awarded Best 2D “Piece By Piece” at Creative 360 Gallery; prismacolor pencil, ink, watercolor, fabric, book pages, embroidery thread

Quite literally, frolicking in the woods. I knew these poses wood come in handy for something one day ...

Quite literally, frolicking in the woods. I knew these poses would come in handy for something one day …

An outtake from playtime :)

An outtake from playtime 🙂

Once you have your concept and your photo(s), the first thing you want to do is break your image down into components, and decide what material will be used for which component. A sketchbook comes in real handy for jotting down notes during this part of the *adventure*.

For “The Dance”, I first thought of what needed texture, and what didn’t. The ground covered in fallen leaves was certainly full of visual texture, as was the bark on the trees. The figures and the path could be left flat – you don’t want to overdo the texture or a piece can get confusing. Framed by the raised texture, this would also help the figures stand out as the focus. Only a handful of the trees in the woods were actually birch, but I knew I wanted a lot of light colors so the girl’s gowns would be in stark contrast to the background, similar to in the black and white photograph. Therefore, I decided to make all the trees in my mixed media birch bark. FYI, book pages are fantastic as birch bark. The color is already spot on, and the all over text compliments the black circles and rings that tattoo its surface. I twisted the paper into thin tendrils for the roots and branches to bring the trees off the page. As for the ground, I used torn muslin fabric. The white color allowed me to use the fabric similar to plain paper once applied, and layer watercolor paint over it until it reached the desired color. Torn fabric is great for ground cover because it frays, creating a believable texture all on its own. I knew I wanted the dresses to be done in ink because ink appears lighter in weight and airier, and would communicate the translucent flow of the skirt. Colored pencil works well for tiny, precise detail and I also am far better at drawing the human body than painting it, which is why I used pencil for the head and hands. Ink was used for the path as well, because once again I wanted a “light” feel to the path to help it stand out and so I could better capture the strong light source hitting it from the sun. The ink also transitions well into watercolor. Transitions are still important even in more “assemblage” type projects. When creating mixed media scenes, though you are in essence collaging, you don’t want to completely have that seamed together, cut and paste look.

The choices I made for “The Dance” were based on two things; first, what look do I want to achieve but also second, what is practical based on my strengths and weaknesses with the various materials? This second deciding factor will be different for each artist. I have learned from teaching that many, many other artists do not enjoy drawing people as much as I do, and quite a few even flat out despise it. If this is you, for a piece with people in it you may choose to have the figures printed and cut them out, pasting them into the scene rather than drawing them. A way to work photography into the piece so it doesn’t look separate from the rest of the environment would be to perhaps print them in black and white or sepia and then “colorize” the photos by lightly shading over the eyes, hair, cheeks, etc. with a colored pencil. You can also add three dimensional elements over the photo such as some fabric leaves blowing across the body, a small paper flower on the person’s jacket or in their hair, or gluing actual fabric over their clothing. This “anchors” the photo of the person/people within the environment to become part of the entire piece rather than a separate cutout element.

"Actually, It Is This World That's Too Small", Mixed Media

“Actually, It Is This World That’s Too Small”, Mixed Media

My 10 year reunion is coming up next year, and the clothes I used to wear are officially beginning to look silly. Short sleeved turtleneck sweaters for the win! And always striped tights, because The Dresden Dolls (would still rock those!)

My 10 year reunion is coming up next year, and the clothes I used to wear in high school are officially beginning to look silly. Cap sleeved turtleneck sweaters and pre-worn jean skirts for the win! And always striped tights, because Amy Brown fairies and The Dresden Dolls (I would still rock those!)

“Actually, It Is This World That’s Too Small” is a mixed media piece I based on a photo a friend took in high school while we were hanging out, playing around with cameras in my basement. I never felt that I shared much in common with “typical” teenage girls, but a desire to constantly take photos of each other was one stereotypical trait my friends and I all did share – just sometimes my photos involved face painting or cardboard masks rather than manicures and false eyelashes. I found it interesting how the angle of the photograph made it look like the door behind me was miniature, like the door the white rabbit escapes through in Alice In Wonderland. You can see how the photo serves as a guide and an inspiration, but by no means dictates what your final piece has to look like. Creative alterations are always an option, and encouraged.

Old family photo with Grandpa (I can't believe I'm posting this, but for the sake of art ... I will publicly expose baby photos - at least the non-embarassing ones).

Old family photo with Grandpa (I can’t believe I’m posting this, but for the sake of art … I will publicly expose baby photos to the online universe – at least the non-embarassing ones).

What’s really awesome is that beyond conceptual art, you can apply this same technique to family photos, and make a truly meaningful piece of work that is entirely personal. I’m going to talk you through how I would approach this photograph above if I were going to turn it into a mixed media piece. This will give you another example that will hopefully help you solidify how to proceed on a project of your own. I would probably draw the people since I adore portraits and figures, but once again if figures are not your thing, you could print yours from an enlarged photo and collage them in – it’s totally allowed :). There is really no reason to just color in a solid red shirt, so I would probably trace a pattern to get the right shape, and then cut the sweater out of fabric and paste it over my grandpa like I did with the purple dress in the staircase piece shown previously. Remember, always look for places to add interest with different materials. Due to the light, reflective nature of the window glass, I would use a mix of ink and watercolor for that part. The bricks are definitely the most textural element in this particular photo, so for those I would mix a gritty element like sand into acrylic paint, and create a rough, uneven texture in dark red on the wall. Once dry, I would then paint the grey cement lines over with a thin brush. For the sake of my sanity and also to make it more interesting and less institutional looking, I would probably change the brick to an uneven pattern of varying size and shape as opposed to the uniformity that was there in real life. How else can we add interest? In the photo, there are no flower boxes on the windowsill, but why can’t there be? You can cut flowers out of paper or white fabric and color them with ink or watercolor, or you can glue on small ribbon rosettes available in the floral or wedding aisle of most craft stores.

I hope this post has given you some ideas, and I’d like to end with a simple (though not set in stone) guide as to when certain materials are most beneficial when creating your own mixed media wonderland.

Watercolor: overall background coverage, light or translucent forms, florals, glass, water

Ink: flowers and plants, light or translucent forms, fabric, glass, water, figures/faces/skin/hair

Colored Pencil: small details, figures/faces/skin/hair, birds or furry animals, stone or bark

Fabric: clothing, flowers and plants, ground cover (soil, grass, leaves, etc), interior wallpaper

Book Pages: trees and bark, interior wallpaper, flowers

Sand Mixed With Paint: brick, stone, dirt

Other Accoutrements: embroidery thread sewn through the paper as anything composed of thin lines: tree branches, eyelashes, veins, flower stems …; small ribbon flowers, tiny prints on photo paper as interior wall art, strung seed beads or glued on flatback rhinestones as jewelry, use your imagination and don’t be afraid to try something new!

Feel free to comment or message if you need any advice on a project you’re working on or a new one you are beginning. I’m happy to help!

Creating Beautiful Decoupaged Beads and Pendants

Necklace and bracelet made with decoupaged origami paper beads - These would look amazing in a monochromatic color scheme, too, but I made this set specifically for myself and I love colors so...

Necklace and bracelet made with decoupaged origami paper beads – These would look amazing in a monochromatic color scheme, too, but I made this set specifically for myself, and I love colors so… 🙂

This is a simple undertaking with beautiful results. I’ve done this wearable art project with my Artshop students and they loved it (For those new to the blog, I work with an art program for adults with special needs, and my students are the coolest).

A student's decoupaged pendant necklace (accented by fabric beads she rolled herself, too!) We share a love of all things rainbow.

A student’s decoupaged pendant necklace (accented by fabric beads she rolled herself, too!) We share a love of all things rainbow.

Any jewelry created with these handmade beads and pendants has an artsy, unique look that draws constant oohs, ahhs, and inquiries. What’s also great is you can completely customize the style based solely upon the paper you choose. You can use magazine pages (see faces on my cameo necklace) but for most beads I prefer using lightweight origami paper. This thinner paper bends and forms to the shape of the bead much easier, and once the sealer dries the wrinkles lay much flatter. Besides the paper, you will also need wooden beads (These can be bought in almost any craft section or hobby store in a bulk mixed container), mod podge for paper or any other decoupage sealer in any sheen, a large-ish cheap paint brush, wooden discs in the desired size (found amongst the other unfinished wood pieces like plaques, boxes, letters, etc. in most craft or hobby stores), and a small crafting drill (or any drill that offers smaller bit sizes) to drill a hole in your pendant. If you don’t own a drill or just don’t want to bother, you can buy pendant backs to glue on at the end. I don’t live in an area with a large array of art and jewelry supply stores, so I ordered mine online – they’re cheap.

An overview of materials needed

An overview of materials needed

The process is the same for both the pendants and beads. Once you choose your paper or combination of different papers (mixing and matching can look cool for the pendants, but the beads are so small I recommend sticking to one design only.), tear them into pieces between 1 and 3 cm in size. You can paint the sealer on the back of the paper at this point, or just dip the paper in the goo and then smooth it onto the surface of the bead/pendant with your fingers to make sure all wrinkles are flattened down, and there are no air bubbles. The more soaked the paper is, the more malleable it will become, allowing you to form it flat to the surface. Your fingers WILL get messy. It’s ok, just roll with it. A bowl of water nearby to rinse off every so often will stop them from getting too sticky as you work. With both the beads and pendants, don’t worry about the hole. Once the entire surface is covered with paper you can use a toothpick to poke the hole back through before it dries. Set the beads and pendants on wax paper to dry so they won’t stick. Once they are dry, coat them 1-2 more times with mod podge using the paint brush. Once again, mod podge or any thick sealer is really hard on brushes so I recommend a cheap brush. Voila! Making these beads can be surprisingly therapeutic after a long day. Turn on the television or your favorite music and get cracking!

Look! She even has a hair bow. What could be better?

Look! She even has a hair bow. What could be better?

Part 2 : Since I enjoy sharing other creators I am in love with, I wanted to show another option of what to do with those blank, unimposing little wooden discs. This artist I discovered on etsy turns these wooden circles into a unique cast of adorable characters with a little acrylic paint, gloss sealer, and mad detailing skills. Her shop even has some recognizable femmes like Katniss and Cinderella, but I like her original characters best myself.

I hope some of you try this out when you have a day off. Who knows, you may even come up with some of your own unique tricks for turning these wooden blank canvases into awesome wearable art!