Sunday, 20 February 2011

Workshop Notes on Shadow Box Making

This was a workshop for 6th Formers from a local school and they each made a shadow box to take away using clip art,old magazines, the backgrounds in my earlier post, book pages, items like keys, watch parts, feathers, buttons etc


First of all you need a box frame – this is like a deep  picture frame so that you can add  3D elements or you can use a deep box if you are not bothered about glass covering the front of the box. You can find lots of interesting boxes and frames on E-bay and in charity shops. The boxes today were used by Wilkinsons and Next and had a filling of dried flowers – they must have had loads left over and got rid of them, because I bought them very cheaply on E-Bay from someone who was selling lots of them in one listing.

You can repaint the frame if you do not like the finish or cover it with collaged scraps as explained in the section about making your backgrounds.

Have a think about what you want to use in you box.

You may want a memory box full of things that are really important to you like old photographs, pieces of fabric, and objects that tell a story.

You may want to look for a theme – I have used things like time, the fairy story of Rapunzel locked in the tower, thoughts about music and so on – so that the box fits together.

But do remember that once something is glued down it is stuck so do only use something you are prepared to keep in the box. I have some little vintage dolls and they are wrapped in material so only the fabric is glued and the dolls are still perfect if I ever wanted to take them out. Or I have used a box with the dolls standing unglued in little compartments so that they can be taken out.

When you have selected your items think about the background to the box, which should fit in with the items in the box. This  is a great opportunity to use your own style.

Choose your background piece or pieces; you can use torn paper scraps such as colourful pieces from magazines, old books, sheet music, maps or photographs. If you are using precious photographs use copies so you don’t lose the original!

Or you can make a full background on one sheet of paper. There are all sorts of interesting techniques to use – like peeling paper and peeling paint - and I have described some of these at the end of these instructions.

The best glue to use is a mixture of Acrylic Matt Gel Medium (this is sold for thinning acrylic paints but it a great adhesive) and PVA glue, thinned with a bit of water if it is too thick. Mixing it with PVA makes it cheaper and it is just as good.

Mix it together well and paint the surface of your background with your glue, put the image you are using on top of the glue and then paint the glue on top of the image, trying to keep it as smooth as possible. This seals the image really well. After you have glued on all your images add lettering or scraps of text if wanted using the same technique. When your back ground is complete, you can paint a thin wash of  acrylic paint over the top if you want to blend it all together but make sure it is thin enough to see all your choices through it.

Now you can add your three dimensional objects. Move your objects around outside the box to see how they go together best and when you are happy then you can glue them down with the glue you used for the background. This glue will stick most lightweight objects down, but you will need to use silicon glue for anything really heavy.


If you are making a collage,  using small pieces of paper just for the colour or shape you can use any glossy magazine. Ask people to save magazines for you. I especially like magazines like Vogue where you get lots of solid blocks of colour to use as your “paint” colour and  Home and Garden or  Period Homes for interesting shapes. You can cut out eyes and lips and so forth and use those, or you can paint over people so they are completely altered.

Copyright is an issue especially if you are going to display your work. Nothing in your piece must ever be recognizable as anybody else’s work as this is a breach of copyright.

So if you want to use images of people or sections from books they need to be out of copyright or copyright free. Otherwise look on the web for copyright free items. You are safe using anything that was created up to 1900.

Dover Publications publish clip art books and CDs on everything under the sun, and they are all copyright free.  At www.  they offer free samples of their copyright free clip art covering loads of topics. You can sign up for a weekly samples email where you can download images and find out what you like. You can borrow some titles from the local library and photocopy what you like or you can buy their books from Amazon, or from
It’s a bit cheeky but Martin Randall Travel do a great catalogue of very expensive holidays full of copyright free old prints, etchings, drawings and paintings…
Of course anything you draw paint or write yourself is even better! You can use words from books and magazines to spell out interesting text or you can look for quotations on the web, and then print those out in interesting fonts. Your own Calligraphy can look wonderful too.


Using tiny sharp scisssors like nail scissors you can cut out your images and apply them to the background.

But if you want to be able to see the background through your image try image transfer, Use photocopies or laser copies of the images you want to use (ink jet does not work), lay clear tape or contact paper (for covering books) over the images you want to use  and stick it down really well. Cut out the sections you want to use and dunk them in water for a few seconds. The paper will rub away leaving just the outline of the image and again you can stick this with the gel medium/PVA mix.

Use stencils, rubber stamps or cut out words and letters to make interesting text, or use the computer and try out some fonts. Again you can image transfer any words that you have printed on a laser printer or have photocopied.

Claudine Hellmuth shows these and other great techniques in her Collage Discovery Workshop book.

PEELED PAPER – use pages from old (non precious) books, old atlases, guide books, yellow pages etc and stick them over a sheet of paper until it is completely covered using the usual glue, then glue more layers of paper on top. Stick masking tape across the paper in various directions then pull it away when the surface is dry. Bits of the underneath test will show and it gives a really great vintage look.  Add a thin acrylic wash or a thin layer of gesso if required.

PEELING PAINT-  Paint a layer of acrylic paint on a sheet of paper and let it dry. Then using Vaseline, rub streaks and areas over the paper. Paint again with a contrasting colour. You need a creamy paint mix that will flow over the grease. When it is dry rub over the surface with kitchen roll and the top surface will peel away in the areas that were coated giving a lovely “distressed” paint look. Wipe it over with kitchen towel and soapy water to get rid of as much grease as possible.

Paint Acrylic Structure Gel over your paper and make 3D patterns in it then paint over with acrylic to get a great textured effect.

© 2011 Shirley Bell

Joseph Cornell (December 24, 1903 – December 29, 1972) was an American artist famed for his assemblage art and shadow box making; take a look at him on Wikipedia!


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