I began making collaged board books as a way of using up small scraps of paper rather than throwing them away. In the past I’ve put together handmade books using cardstock, binding the pages with embroidery thread, but using a readymade board book makes the process a little quicker (although it’s still a long process to prepare the book before I even think about adding the collage elements).
I think making altered books appeals to me so much because books are my other big passion in life, both as a reader and a writer. I turned to making art because I was no longer getting any joy from creative writing, but books are in my DNA, so combining books with art was something of a no brainer.
In case anyone is interested in giving these a go, I’m going to explain how I prepare the board books. As with everything art-related there’s never one right way to do it, and experimentation is part of the process.
First, get hold of a board book. I buy mine in local charity shops where they cost between 30p and 50p. There’s a seemingly never-ending supply, I suppose because parents get rid of them as soon as their child is ready to move on to more challenging books. They’re beautifully sturdy, which makes them an ideal substrate, and small enough not to be too intimidating.
I begin by covering each side with a thin layer of white gesso. Some people like to sand down the books first. If you do this, I recommend using a sanding block rather than traditional sandpaper, as it’s more durable and easier to work with. (NB I did sand down the first book, but it didn’t make a scrap of difference to the end result so I no longer bother!)
I don’t use expensive gesso, as it’s just an undercoat to prime the pages for the main event. I’m currently using a tub of gesso from The Works, £5 for a 500ml tub, although my favourite gesso to work with is the Pebeo one which comes in a squeezy tube.
The next stage is to cover each page with a thin layer of acrylic paint. I use a gel plate or a humble make up sponge to apply the paint. I paint one side (front/ back) or double spread at a time and only move on to the next when it’s dry. To protect the pages from sticking I place a piece of baking parchment between each page.
Next, I add another layer of acrylic paint. (It’s a time-consuming process waiting for each page to dry, so I try to work on two or three books at slightly different stages simultaneously.)
Once all the pages have been gessoed once and painted twice, it’s time for the fun bit of choosing the collage elements. As I plan each layout, I use ordinary clothes pegs to hold the papers in place to get a reasonable idea of how the end result will look. I then take a few quick photographs to use for reference when I begin gluing.
I then glue the papers in place using matte Mod Podge. I will adjust elements as I glue down, and the end result is rarely identical to the pegged-out version.
The next stage is to trim down where necessary. I use a craft knife and a cutting mat for this stage.
Once all the pages in the book have been covered in a first layer of collage, I start from the beginning again to see where I need to add extra elements.
You can see that I have covered most of the original collage elements on the left hand side. It’s not unusual for me to cover several layers of collage as I stumble towards the composition I want. I made fewer changes to the facing page, mainly adding some vertical interest.
Finally, I added a small piece from a sewing pattern and some mark-making using an ink pad and Neocolor II crayon, and an old postage stamp.
When the collage elements are all as I like them, I seal the pages with Mod Podge or spray varnish. (I use the varnish if I’ve used pencil or crayon that might smudge.)
When the pages are completely dry, I gently rub over them with a candle – I use an ordinary household candle for this. This step is to ensure that the pages won’t stick together when the book is displayed, which can be an issue in a humid environment.
The other thing I like about these altered books is that, unlike works on paper or canvas, they don’t need to be framed. They can be displayed just as they are, on any available surface and, something that’s important to me, they can be picked up and touched. I’m one of those people who always wants to touch sculptures in museums and galleries. I don’t, of course, unless invited to, but I do think there is something especially appealing about tactile artworks to enable a personal connection between the viewer and the work.
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