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Homegrown art projects can personalize your decor

This photo collage was inspired by the word ‘Echad’ in the Shema prayer. (Jenni Steinberg Pagano)
This photo collage was inspired by the word ‘Echad’ in the Shema prayer. (Jenni Steinberg Pagano)

First of all, let’s get one thing straight. Buying “Real Art” is a great thing. Supporting artists whose work you love is an important part of creating a home that satisfies your soul. I encourage you to buy other people’s creations. But sometimes that isn’t the best solution. Perhaps you have a statement of your own you want to make. Or you have a large wall to fill and no money to budget for significant art. Sometimes, you just need to get creative and make some art yourself. Do you feel like you don’t have a creative bone in your body? Don’t panic! It is easy to complete your home without having achieved a passing grade in Art 101 or depleting your Swiss bank account.

Part of the creative process is having the items you need ahead of time so you can just do the fun part. You will need:

Surfaces to create on

Instead of expensive canvas try using large pieces of cardboard from warehouse stores, inexpensive hollow doors, plywood, old kitchen cabinet doors, used artists’ canvas from thrift stores (to paint over or simply embellish), poster board, large sheets of pretty paper, old maps or corkboards.

Things to frame with

Thrift stores are treasure troves for picture frames! Old wood frames made of multiple layers of moldings are expensive if bought new, yet practically free secondhand, especially if the picture inside is unattractive to modern tastes. Repainting mismatched or beat-up frames is easy with a can of spray paint, and accent lines are easily touched up with a silver or gold marker. Is there a dingy fabric liner? You can paint that too.

Discount and dollar stores are also a good source of frames, especially if you want multiples in a consistent size. Check out the cork boards for extra-large sizes.

Things to create with

jenni may 9 color mixing graphicYou can buy paint, but look around the house first. You can reuse leftover decorative house paint. A perfect way to match your accent wall color is to actually use your accent wall color! Most interior paint is water based and you can mix colors together, or add in acrylic craft or artists’ paints to change the color. The sample paints at the hardware store are cheap and come in pretty décor colors. Adding a smidge of white, black or the opposite color on the color wheel will mute a too-bright color. Try mixing the color on the final art piece, so you get flecks of different colors for a painterly effect.

Try collage. Beyond a vision board or a mishmash of magazine images, try using simple paint chips or images from books, arranged symmetrically. Anything small, assembled into something large, looks amazing.

Don’t leave out those three dimensional pieces. Hanging a collection of items on the wall can add excitement to your décor. Musical instruments, framed shells, vintage plates or old license plates can be interesting. Textiles, record jackets, or vintage evening bags can add personality to your art collection.

Frame illustrations from books. Botanicals, children’s books, art books, quirky textbook or instruction manuals can look great. Small images with a large mat in a large frame can be stunning.

Some ideas to try

Frame children’s art for mini masterpieces: An ornate gold picture frame from a thrift store can elevate even a small doodle to fine art. Need a rotating display? Put corkboard in the frame and thumbtack the art du jour in the frame. Amass a collection of your children’s or grandkids’ artwork. Crop them down to an abstract or interesting area, keeping the size consistent, such as 6-inch squares. Frame individually, or attach them to a substrate via Mod Podge or scrapbook photo corners.

Another idea for including the kids is to paint the background of a large canvas or an inexpensive surface option (see above) ahead of time. Maybe a Rothko-esqe field of color or a simple chevron pattern? Then let the kids go at it with a limited color palette or just black. You might add their hand and footprints over your work for a fun moment-in-time art piece. The younger the kids, the more abstract the final work will be. Do this kind of project when the kids are small. Once they are college-age, you will cherish it all the more.

Redo thrift store art: Ideas abound online for creative reuse of thrift store art. Some involve masking off areas you like and painting over the areas you don’t. Simple shapes or stripes made out of masking tape make the process easy and art-skill free. Other ideas, like adding elaborate monsters to vintage landscape paintings may require a bit of talent.

Pithy sayings on vinyl adhesive are available practically everywhere now. I saw dollar-store versions as well as higher priced ones at discount and craft shops. Many scrapbooking mavens have cutting machines that can custom cut shapes and phrases out of contact paper. Though I don’t scrapbook, I recently purchased such a toy and I am having a ton of fun with it.

I recently found a lovely seascape printed on canvas. It felt a bit dated and doesn’t reflect my life here in Tucson. But it is by an artist who painted near where I grew up in Southern California. The beach has always been my happy place and I imagine sand under me and the sound of waves when I need to relax. My favorite prayer is the Shema. The word “Echad” is a wonderfully simple mantra, reminding me of my core belief that all of creation is connected. Adding the word “ONE” in silver vinyl to my beach picture turns it into a more contemporary, personal item that will look great in my reading corner and remind me to meditate. I used a little wood stain to refresh the frame and went over the gold accent stripe with a silver sharpie, to coordinate with the silver lettering.

Adding a favorite song lyric makes a vintage print distinctly personal. (Jenni Steinberg Pagano)
Adding a favorite song lyric makes a vintage print distinctly personal. (Jenni Steinberg Pagano)

Again using my new vinyl cutter, I made a stencil of my favorite James Taylor song lyric. It suits a vintage print of a bridge perfectly. This time, I stuck the outline of the words to my picture temporarily. Using the vinyl outline as a stencil for paint, I was able to coordinate the colors of the words so they look like a part of the original picture.

An ombre background and a thought bubble add new zip to an old pastel portrait.  (Jenni Steinberg Pagano)
An ombre background and a thought bubble add new zip to an old pastel portrait. (Jenni Steinberg Pagano)

What to add? Song lyrics, favorite quotes, birthday announcements, wedding dates, ironic catch phrases all work. Want an interactive conversation piece? Add a thought bubble in dry erase or chalkboard vinyl. I found a vintage pastel portrait of a Dennis the Menace-type kid. I painted the boring beige mat an ombre cartoony color and added the thought bubble on top of the glass. Now “Dennis” can remind us to get milk or water the plants or complain about bedtime.

If you keep your eyes and mind open, you will see decorative potential in lots of things around you. Proceed with confidence and feel free to mix, match and embellish what you find and you will discover that you really are creative!

Disclaimer: If reusing vintage art, please be sure that it isn’t a valuable piece before you embellish. Rare masterpieces have been discovered in thrift stores and garage sales. Even if you hate a piece of art, it might be worth checking into its value. Google various versions of what the signature appears to be and see if you come up with an image that looks like yours. Many original paintings found in thrift stores are amateur works that were too precious to the artist to throw out, but not attractive enough to hang or sell. As an amateur artist myself, I give you permission to embellish these items. Mass-produced pieces are rarely worth much, so paint away!

Jenni Steinberg Pagano is an interior designer and presents creative ways to use thrift store finds on behalf of 1st Rate 2nd Hand Thrift Store, monthly on the Tucson Morning Blend. Got a creativity crisis? She can be reached at [email protected]