free or cheap art projects!


This page debuted as a regular blog entry, but it was popular enough (and I thought it important enough) that I wanted to pull it out onto its own page. If you have suggestions for things to add to this page, please let me know! I will credit you and add the ideas to this list for everyone to use and enjoy.

Ever lacked the money even for milk and bread, much less art supplies, but felt that if you didn’t creating something you’d go on a tri-state killing spree? Luckily, with just a little imagination, there are things you can do to keep your artistic muscles exercised until the day when you can afford that bottle of Lumiere paints or the Dremel tool. Ok, so you can’t afford even the $2 chess set at the Goodwill store to turn into your assemblage… you can do something. You must do something.

Consider folk art. These were usually people who had very little or no money and very limited access to tools, yet they created wonderful things, from art quilts to sculptures. You can do the same!

Here’s a list of just some of my ideas:

* Cadavre Equis: a collage where you use various images of your choice to form a humanoid shape, like a snake for a leg, a twig for an arm, a fish-tank head, etc. A tradition started by the surrealist artists of the early-mid 20th century, the cadavre equis is a fun and educational way to use your imagination and collage skills without spending much money. You can use rubberstamps, magazine cut-outs, bits of Nature, whatever you already have–that’s the challenge!
* webpages: always wanted a website to show your own work and link to other work you hope people see and appreciate? Well, now’s the time to sit down with Teach Yourself HTML in a Week and get started! The process isn’t as tedious as you fear, and it’s a great way to be creative in a new medium. Limits sometimes inspire creativity, as much as restrict it, and learning something new is always a great way to make new connections in your usual art.
* Mastate (bark paintings): an art form perfected by the Guaymí people of Costa Rica and Panama, this form is a wonderful excuse to really look at part of Nature; take your time finding the right piece of bark for your drawing, but be sure not to hurt the tree when you pick it–use a fallen piece of bark if you can.
* rubbings: Take some plain paper and crayons or pastels around your house or out into the world looking for interesting textures. Lay the paper over the surface of the item and do some rubbings! You’ll never look at your potholders the same way again. Cemeteries provide marvelous opportunities for lovely rubbings.
* sketch!: Don’t know how to draw? Then sketch–sketches don’t have to be perfect or even completed. Develop your own idealized style. Besides, now’s the time to learn; sure, it may take you ten years to really have the skill you want to have, but where will you be in ten years if you don’t start learning now? That’s right–still ten years older.
* mobiles: These can be made out of just about anything you have laying around, including bottles, bells, glass pieces, etc. As long as you can drill a hanging hole or wrap the hanging object and hang it from some wire or an old wire coat hanger, you’re in business! Whatever is beautiful or interesting to you and maybe sounds nice in the wind is all you need.
* games: Sure, you could make nifty place holders out of polymer clay statues or sea glass, but you don’t have that. Nor do you have wood veneers to make a parquet board. So what? Design your dream game and start drawing the plans. Create a set of question cards out of paper and those gel pens you’ve been hoarding for a special occasion. Add a border with a gold pen if you like. Just have fun!
* altered books: Have some old books you don’t want anymore but that the used bookstore wouldn’t buy from you? Try altering them! All you need for materials are a few paints, maybe some decorative papers, and that’s about it. Use the pages as a springboard for collage or experimenting with your supplies. Draw extensions to any existing illustrations or decorate each page along a chosen theme, such as Cats or Dancing. The only limits are up to you. Remember, many libraries have attached bookstores where they sell old, outdated hardback books for just a few cents.
* altered cards: The same idea as altering a book or creating your own game, but with playing cards. Change the face cards into characters you know or change them completely. Alter them into a kind of tarot deck, or just use them as mini canvasses. Paint them all over with gesso and write up some of your favorite quotes or poems to carry around with you. Whatever!
* origami: One of the world’s most inexpensive crafts. All you need is paper, and it doesn’t even have to be blank. Cut or tear it to size, and you’re ready. Libraries are usually good for a couple origami books to get you started, and the Internet abounds with origami sites providing free patterns. Combine this craft, if you like, with some of the ones above–hmm, an altered book dedicated to birds and filled with origami cranes? A mobile of origami dragons? A matchbox fun box containing an origami representation of your totem animal? A quilt made of paper, each block displaying a different origami animal?
* matchboxes: You can usually buy matchboxes at grocery stores, four to a pack for about 50 cents. Use the boxes to make faery furniture, linguistic flash cards for finally learning Swahili, bricks for your model dream house, whatever! I used my pack of four to make a medieval-looking book holder for a portable prayer book, a pocket shrine, the holder for a deck of mini tarot cards, and I’m currently working on a set of animal flash cards.
* Zen sand gardening: This is actually a wonderful thing to do, even though it may seem to some of you like I’m joking. Design a batch of sand, or even just dirt and rocks, into your own representation of the world or the Universe. What do you plan to use to represent the Earth or yourself? What do you use to surround that “you” with? Does this exercise calm you and open your mind to other artistic possibilities? Did you learn something about symbolizing yourself and your surroundings or their deeper natures?
* Nature printing: A wonderful way to embellish anything from bed linens to journal pages, try printing with leaves, florals, etc. All you have to have is an ink pad or some paints and your botanicals. Leaves with very pronounced veins work the best.
* flower pounding: Another way to use those lovely yields from your nature walks. Layer fresh flowers in desired pattern over paper or fabric, and cover with a piece of plastic. Pound away! The natural dyes in the flowers will soak into your paper or fabric.
* photography: Sure, photography seems like an expensive hobby, and it can be. But it doesn’t have to be. After all, who says you have to use a pricey camera? Or even develop the film? You can always do that later, when you have the free cash for the processing fees… Until then, just grab your $15 cheap-o camera and head to the hills. Pay attention to the shape of a leaf or the color of the sky at different times of the day. What can photography teach you about line and form? Framing, composition, and shading? If you don’t have a camera at all and can’t borrow one, just go for a walk and do these same exercises–what would you photograph if you could and why? What do you see outside or in your own home that would make an interesting still life or portrait element?
* wild art dolls: Dolls or poppets can be made out of just about anything: scraps of fabric, an old t-shirt that no longer fits, pinecones and needles, carved squash, whatever. And of course the decoration of them is just as free; you can use an unravelled sweater as hair or clothing, or you can make Nature faeries using only free stuff from you own yard or apartment complex grounds. Just use your imagination, and maybe this art doll will inspire your future endeavors.
* faery furniture: Gather twigs, mosses, etc. from outdoors. Use twine, glue, or whatever you have to lash the twigs into basic wee furniture shapes, from rocking chairs to beds. Set them outdoors after decorating them as you desire, and watch the fey folk gather in your garden.
* artistamps: All you need here is some paper and one or more of the following: rubberstamps, a computer with a printer and some clip art, or the ability to draw or trace small images. Faux postage can be made on the computer or by hand–use whatever method best suits your imagination and possessions. Let your creativity run riot.
* poetry: Costs nothing. You don’t even have to have paper and a writing implement, as long as you have a good memory. Compose haiku, sonnets, ballads, even in another language if you like, just for the experience and the play with words and images. If you can get to a library, they’ll have dictionaries of techniques and elements that you might want to play with, and even rhyming dictionaries if you’re stuck and using such a form. Truly the people’s art form!
* paper maché: Cheap and fun, paper maché is great for rainy days when you can’t go gather natural materials. Just tear up old newspapers or recycling paper, dip it in white glue, and layer over any form or mold, from bowls to balloons–or just sculpt something using the wettened paper, like a raw doll form or a flying pig. Whatever. You can also use scraps of chicken wire, foil, or other things as an armature, if you want to make something bigger or more complex, like a mini Taj Mahal or a scale model of ancient Thebes.
* Arravis books: Named after my friend Arravis, who suggested this addition, he can make books out of anything. He says, “I’ve made handmade books out of floss, discarded papers, etc. I did one once out of particularly choice sections of strange ads and articles… put it together in a tiny hand-made book format and it can be quite interesting.” So try that! You can use small books for necklaces, gifts, journals, additions to assemblages, decorations for holidays, whatever your heart desires. It’s a creative project that can then also be used as part of another creative project.

Remember, where there’s a will, there’s a way. If you only have access to twigs, you can still make coasters out of them–worry about painting them or re-securing them with decorative thread later. Have friends or relatives near the beach send you pretty vials of white sand or shells and use those in your art, or see if they live in an area with a large immigrant population; specialty markets then yield interesting text on newspapers, cool artwork and folk art from other cultures, etc, and such items are very inexpensive. Splurge $10 for some Dia de los Muertos candles, for example.

Just don’t let your poverty get you down–that’s the most important thing. No, maybe you can’t make that metal sculpture of your dreams… yet. But you can make something. Just keep your artistic feet wet, and off you go!

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