Introduction: Beautiful Pompeii Style Decoupage Project (art Included)

About: Am a full time artist/artisan and love all things handmade. I teach people how to make personal shrines, and design home decor accessories that will actually become an estore eventually. Mixed media boxes and …
  This beautiful decoupage project has a lot of steps but is easy to do because I put together most of the design steps in the artwork. It is beautiful enough to use in your living room, or wherever you use recycled bags. My style is old world with a whimsical perspective and to achieve it I take samplings from history and alter them. In the Pompeii art, mostly from the Villa of Mysteries, I filled it in to be legible at a small scale and make it family friendly (no nudity). My decoupage is a unique twist from the classic style, because I build areas up dimensionally.

   The box I used was designed especially for this project by Steve Harvey Miniatures. It's beautifully made right here in America. I have seen much smaller boxes hand made for the price of this one. Your hard work on this box will last generations. Last I checked it was $32.50 including shipping. There will be other design themes for this box in the coming year. I have a Halloween theme that is hilarious.

   An important element of this project is a stamp called “arch element” made by Stamp Francisco. If you like architectural style boxes, this stamp will get a LOT of use. They have a super website.. Stamping on card stock will raise it a little above the background which is my own variation on decoupage.This stamp is $8.99 mounted, or $5.39 unmounted. It's a workhorse for any kind of box project. Miniature buildings are popular right now, too.

   Here is where I sing the praises of Dover Books. Without them much of the older visual ephemera of our world would be lost. They are a public service, and I still mourn the day they closed their New York City store. I have depended on them for instruction, magnificent images, and re-issuing out of print books all through my art career.

Step 1: What You Need:

  • Wood bag dispenser box from Steve Harvey Miniatures, (my art work is precisely sized to fit these boxes). If you make your own, you will have to figure out how to size the art to fit.  This box will last to hand down.

  • White primer and sandpaper to smooth the surfaces (I use Kilz).

  • Artwork; I use copyright free clip art for the most part, and when I use art from institutions like the Pompeii archeological site, I actually do quite a bit of altering and tweaking so that it fits the project. There are seven templates of art. Make more than one copy, preferably a color laserjet print, which is ready to use. TIPS: It really pays in saved labor to print your art on good quality paper. Cheap, thin paper tears very easily when damp. If you get the artwork printed at a copy place, ask for good paper and get more copies than you need in case of mistakes cutting.

  • The arch element (#22-010) stamp from Stamp Francisco,

  • A black permanent ink stamp pad (I used Brilliance Graphite Black),

  • Small sharp scissors,

  • Tweezers,

  • Pencil,

  • Bone folder, not absolutely necessary but handy, for creasing paper

  • 12” T square ruler,

  • A spray bottle of water that can make a fine mist (I use Judi Kins extra Fine Mist Spritzer), or a slightly damp sponge

  • Matt finish Mod Podge. White glue has too much water in it to be effective on color copies which repel water.

  • A good acrylic #10 square or filbert brush (any nylon brush that is about an inch wide will do) plus smaller detail brushes, a small round and small squared brush for painting shadows, and a thin squared brush about  two inches wide, for painting on the sealer/varnish. Do not use any natural hair or bristle brushes with acrylic mediums. They are too thick and will absorb too much water to be useful.

  • A cup or jar of water for the wet brushes, which you should keep wet while in use.

  • A Black Sharpie,

  • Paint-- I used white, red, black, and  gray

  • Acrylic glazing medium, satin finish; you can get just the little 2 oz bottle Windsor Newton makes (this is for adding shadows).

  • Paper towels, and a shallow tray (I used a metal baking pan),

  • Two soft rags

  • A faux crackle finish kit, if you want the box to look old. I personally love the crackle finish, because my style of decoupage is more dimensional than the traditional methods. When you make the elments thick enough it almost looks carved. I prefer any two part kit for fine crackle or porcelain crackle.

  • White card stock for printing arches and columns

  • Spray matte varnish or Clear Coat  to seal all your hard work.

  • Use my artwork, and if you don't want to spray seal your inkjet prints take the prints to Kinko's to copy them on a color copier. Otherwise spray inkjet print-outs on both sides with the spray mentioned above

  • White card stock to stamp your arches, and to print the arches and columns on—it really looks nice when they stand out a little.

  • Hanging hardware (I prefer two small D ring hangers that screw on)

  • Felt or cork pieces to protect your wall (I used plain white craft felt)

  • Tacky glue for the felt or cork

  • Optional: black embossing powder and heat gun.
  • blue masking tape, to help with the dry fit of the cut-outs.

Step 2: The Art for Decoupage

  Here is the art you will need. Make more than one copy to work with, and if you only have an ink jet printer you must seal both sides to protect the image from the glue. Every printer has it's limits but these should print out the right size. The garden images for either side need to be 7 inches, for instance. The arch elements should be 2 and 3/4th inches high at the column. The tiled roof is a lot bigger in case you make a mistake cutting around the hinge at the top of the lid. Remember to angle your scissors when cutting, to produce a thinner edge, and blacken the cut edge so that it disappears. The file sizes are the smallest I could make them without losing detail. Because I make dimensional details mostly in the black and white art, make extra to make those arches and columns look deeper. You can layer them while they are wet with the Mod Podge.
  I printed in Corel Paint Shop Pro, at 100%, offset from the upper left corner for the black and white art. The color templates, numbers 4-7 all printed better at 100%, centered on the page. It's quirky and I hope to figure out why. Measure each piece, and fit it dry onto the box to make sure it is the right size. If your printer makes it just a teeny bit bigger you can trim a sliver off the top or bottom, you should still get good results. Don't print to fit the page, because it will change the size too much.  Making art to print an exact size was the hardest part of making this tutorial! Am hoping to change over to PNG to see if I get better results. Any comments about that would be so welcome. I have an MFA in painting, and wish I also had at least a BFA in digital art.

Step 3: Sealing the Box With Paint

  This is the box (I am showing one primed, and one natural), which should be sealed with primer. I use Kilz acrylic white sealer. Two coats, with sanding in between. You want a nice smooth surface. Remember to sand and paint the inside of the lid, and the bottom (don't forget the inside of the circular opening where you will be pulling out the bags). Make sure it is smooth. If there are any dings in the wood for any reason, fill them with anything like wood putty, or molding paste before you paint. This box was pristine and smooth when I got it. I only had to fill in a few chipped places around the hinge which every saw leaves behind. If you wonder why dings need filling, when you are covering the area with paper, every dent will show through the paper. Anything that disrupts the smoothness of the paper illusion will defeat it's purpose. Frankly, with these boxes, they are so well made, you aren't likely to have to fill anything.

Step 4: Measuring and Marking the Box

This is a two story Pompeii house. You want to mark each side of the box first, for the line where the top and bottom floors meet. Measure carefully because these are the two “floors” of your Pompeii house and they must meet at the corners. The top “floor”is smallest, and the bottom street-level part the largest. This gives a very nice illusion of perspective. You want a line at 7 inches, measuring from the bottom. On the sides, you want to continue the “roof” line from the front as well, On my box, which comes from Steve Harvey Miniatures, that line is exactly 4 and 1/8th inches above the line you made to mark the bottom of the second story. This box is sturdy & well-proportioned for the illusion of architecture.

Step 5: Paint the Lid

The top lid you can paint plain red, (paint both top and bottom). I love the bright reds that remind me of cinnabar which was the pigment in many famous Pompeii red backgrounds. The rest of the box will be covered with paper. You will probably need two or three coats of red for a nice flat color. I changed my mind half way through and decided to print out a clay tile roof for the top of the lid (I scanned an actual plastic one for miniatures). You can use it or just leave the roof painted. I think it completes the illusion of architecture to see those red tiles on the top of the lid.

Step 6: Your Cut Out Artwork

Cut out those parts you will glue down, and don't feel shy about using a ruler on the longer sides if your hand isn't very steady. Cut the side wall pieces long enough to cover the corner of the box. Do the same with the top carved molding piece. Hold the scissors at a steep angle so that the edge you cut is thinner than the thickness of the paper. The paper is this angle ____ , but the scissors are this angle (/) or steeper. You can make an impression on where to cut by lining up the edge at the back, and creasing the paper on the corner itself. You really want those corners to meet. I use a bone folder. Dry fit the moldings, and cut down the side pieces now.

Step 7: Prepare the Art for Decoupage

  Prepare a damp pad of paper towels (not dripping wet) for the artwork to be glued down. Make sure your spritzer is full of water. Make sure you have good lighting where you work, so that you can see any small air bubbles that need to be pushed out. Fixing a trapped air bubble is a decoupage artist's nightmare, so watch out for them. You can push them gently out toward the edge with your brush, while lubricating the surface with a generous bit of Mod Podge to protect it.

  Make another copy of the top molding for the top part of the floor: you are only going to use the straight top lines and the dentil molding. Keep adding cut-outs to the tray as you go.

Do not pull at all on the damp paper as you lay it down. I have been doing this for a long time, but still tore one piece. Smooth it into place with the brush, moving from the middle outward. You will find that it moves easily under the brush if you have laid down enough of the Mod Podge.
  Always keep your brush in a jar of water; dried Mod Podge is impossible to get out of a good brush. Do not use natural bristle brushes with water mediums in projects like this: the bristles absorb water and can become too soft. Bristle ends can scratch the toner right off the paper.

Step 8: The Top Molding in Place

  It is much easier to work on the box lying down flat. That means you can only glue down two sides at a time, so that one side (left or right) must wait until the other two have dried. In my assembly, it was a cinch to do the whole empty side at once, after the rest were all completely dry. If you are impatient, part of your hard work will adhere to the tabletop! The top molding is first. Lay down a generous layer of Mod Podge, gently position the damp molding into it, and take a brush loaded with more medium and start gently brushing from the center to the outside. You will see the paper moves easily under your brush. Lay on a nice layer of medium over the top of the paper, and a quick swipe with a damp paper towel to wipe up the extra Mod Podge before it dries ( it gets lumpy if you don't wipe it down). Make sure your corners match and that you don't have any bubbles.

Step 9: The Red Wall in Place

Next is the red wall, the darkest part being the top. You can go ahead and glue down the leaf molding on top of the wall's bottom edge. Above this add the extra molding you cut off the top molding picture (just the straight lines and dentils). Give the whole section a neat layer of the glue. TIPS: Work quickly and be very careful to line up the corners perfectly while the Mod Podge is still quite wet. Lay down glue only for the piece you are gluing. Wipe off glue outside the area with a damp towel because dried bits of glue will produce lumps. Clean dried glue off your fingertips before picking up the next piece to lay down. Dried stuff can stick hard to the paper, and tear it trying to pull your fingers away.

Step 10: Laying Down the Large Pieces

  Now you want to lay down the large bottom pieces. It's easier to do the front first, and then the side. The larger pieces of paper are much more likely to trap air, so watch carefully as you brush. Work from the center out toward the edges. If your fingers are very sensitive, you can push a bubble out to the edge, but your fingers need to be wet with the Mod Podge.  One of the reasons I keep writing  to just dampen the paper, is because really wet paper can easily tear, and can also swell enough with water to not  fit right. TIP:  If you find a bubble after the paper has dried, your only option is to cut around it's edge with a NEW blade, and glue it down again. Putting a crackle finish on will disguise any fixes like this, but do not use an old blade or you could ruin the whole area, as old blades will start tearing the paper instead of cutting it. When that happens, wet it down and scrape it off.  It's a good lesson about patience.

Step 11: Glue Down the Arch Guides

  Next you are going to glue down the arch guides along two sides, just along the bottom edge of the top molding, on top of the red wall. Tape the arches together once you have dry-fitted them for two sides. This photo is of the finished arches, but you will be using the big pieces of the guide arches, plus one small part of an arch to fit them to the back support neatly. It is important to try and not have cut edges showing at the corners. You will notice here that I have a tiny sliver of box showing at the near corner, which will be touched up with paint. This happened because I forgot to check the dry fit before I glued it down. You can't even see the mistake in the finished piece. Decoupage can be forgiving if you finish it well.

Step 12: Filling in the Other Side of the Box

  When step 10 is finished, and everything is totally dry, it's time to glue down all these elements on the empty side. You are retracing steps 5 through 10. Remember that the rest of the box must be completely dry. I made one years ago that I didn't check for dryness, and had to cut it off my worktable, and scrape a lot of hard work off the box to start again! Find some fun thing to do while you are waiting for your glue to dry!

Step 13: Stamping and Cutting Out the Arch Element

  It looks beautiful already, but now it's time to make it really special. Stamp the arch element on card stock for extra thickness. On my first box, I used a bunch of index cards that I saved from the trash. In the artwork, you will see that I have printed out each side with most of the arches put together. The printed arches are your map or guide, because you need the fresh stamped image on card stock to have the full effect. Optional: If you want to emboss the lines, now is when you do it. For embossing, quickly and gently sprinkle powder on the wet ink, tap the card stock a few times on the side, and then tap all the loose powder onto a piece of paper. After your paper is covered with images, use the heat gun until you see the powder melt. TIPS:   Ink each stamping fresh for a crisp, clear image, and stamp a few times on scrap paper until the rubber is fully inked. It does not ink fully when first used dry. Handle your paper with clean hands or the embossing powder will stick even to your fingerprints.

Step 14: Why You Need to Blacken the Cut Edges

  The picture shows an unmarked arch element on the left, and a black-edged arch on the right. See the difference a blacked edge makes. Run each arch's edge against the side of a Sharpie marker, gliding along without stopping. It makes the cut edge invisible. Running along the side of the marker prevents you from accidentally marking the front.

Step 15: Gluing Down the Arches for Dimensional Decoupage

  Glue down each fresh, dry arch over it's twin in the guides. The advantage of doing this on card stock will be apparent when you have glued them all down. I go the whole distance: I print the other architectural parts (the big arches, and the columns ), and glue them over the artwork for that extra realism. Depending on how particular you are, you can do one or two layers. It really looks almost sculptural when you add those extra layers. Normally this would be blasphemy in classic decoupage, but I love the illusion of depth in the surface. I can't carve, but I love to build with paper.

Step 16: Filling the Arches With Characters

  Cut out all the characters holding your scissors at an angle to create a very thin edge. There is one running figure that goes in front of the door as a reminder of how Pompeii met it's end (it is a little bigger than these characters for the arches). Each arch and figure needs to be gently run against the side of a black Sharpie to make sure no white thickness of the paper shows. This is where people usually skip a step, but you will notice the edges of all the cut outs more if you don't do this. I gently run the cut edge along the sharpie and pull it away if you need to reposition the paper--NEVER stop or you will have a black stain on the edge. Practice this on scraps from around your paper cut outs.You will be able to do this like a pro after just a little practice.

Step 17:

  Now it's time to fit the characters into the arches. Make sure everything is dry. You are going to lay the cut out characters in the arches, and trim off what won't fit. I do this by creasing the part that won't fit with a bone folder or a pencil that isn't too sharp. It's extra easy with the layers. Do one side at a time, and it doesn't really matter where you put them. I like to put them where they are looking at each other , or at something. Line them up in threes (with the exception of the wee cupid. You really want the characters to fit inside, with no part sticking out. I always paint shading with a glaze of black & red, or just black.

Step 18: Covering the Back Support

  Gluing art to the back support area. You will glue down the stone background first. You will notice that there are two whitish spots on the left. That was an accident dropping my brush which stuck fast to the glue and pulled up the surface when I picked it up. To fix it, see next step. Mark where the hinges end, so that you can cut out a 1/8th slot to fit the paper around the hinges. You can glue down the mask and the carved frieze as soon as you have checked the masonry layer for bubbles. Tilt the surface against the light to look for the bubbles--it is so much easier to fix them when everything is still wet.

Step 19: Glue Down the Tiled Roof Art

  This is the perfect time to also glue down the tile on the top lid: I made it too big so you have some wiggle room in case you cut out the slot for the hinge wrong. Just lay the top of the faux tile against the hinge and mark where each hinge end touches the paper. You are cutting out a 1/8th inch slot. There are some small carvings I have included if you want to add them now. I put one on either side of the big arches on each side, and on either side of the big mask shield. You can put them down plain, but on some projects like this I have glued them onto little wood disks so that they are raised. Notice that the two spots are gone where I dropped my brush (see troubleshooting below). If you don't want the aging effect of crackle, stop here and just give your box several coats of varnish. I love the crackled finish for this project because I love the illusion of great age.
Wet your larger brush with more Mod Podge, and gently brush outward from the center to push the paper into the glue and the air bubbles out. These larger pieces can get air bubbles easily, and sometimes you can't see them until it starts to dry. Troubleshooting tip: The white spots disappeared by filling them in with paint. I dabbed darker marks to match the printed area with just the tip of my little square brush. Gray, with a teeny bit of white to match.

Step 20: The First Step of a Crackle Finish

  Now that you have covered your box with all that beautiful decoupage, it's time to add the crackle finish. I prefer a delicate porcelain crackle for this project, so that you can see the images well. There are many kinds of porcelain style crackle finishes out there. The clear finishes are what this project requires, and they are always two parts. Mine had a Part 1 that was so runny that I could only do one side at the time (some are like gels). It was slightly milky, making it hard to see , so I sat near a window for better light, letting each side dry to a tacky finish. Lay down this first layer in "x" strokes to encourage randome crackling. Brush it thinnest over the faces. It looks nicer when you can see the faces better. Take care not to miss anything, or you will have to go back and do it over any spots that were missed. When I did the “roof”, I had to lean the box against the wall  until it was fairly horizontal so it wouldn't drip or run.
I have the best results doing the crackle on a dry day--with low humidity.

Step 21: How the Crackle Should Appear Before Staining

  Once the bottom coat has dried enough (it will feel slightly tacky all over), you want to lay down the top coat in very smooth, light strokes. It means that you load the varnish/wash brush and stroke lightly and straight, without fussing or trying to spread it out. Crackle works best when that top coat is an even layer of thickness, undisturbed. The thinner that top coat is, the thinner your cracks. Your lighting really matters here because if you miss a place, you won't see that until you have applied paint into the cracks. Because this layer is so important, do only one side at a time. It should dry while the piece is lying flat, so gravity won't affect the layer. TIP:  Do not use a foam brush. Even good ones create lots of bubbles, each one of which will disturb the forming cracks. The photograph shows the clear crackled finish on part of the back support. You are going to force paint into the cracks, so you can see them, and wipe most or all of the paint back off the surface.

Step 22: How the Crackle Appears After Staining

  Once you see the piece has dried, and that there is a fine layer of cracks over the surface, you are going to take the black paint (choose a brown or gray if you don't want a high contrast), and with a fine rag rub the paint into the cracks in a circular motion. I keep a clean damp rag to rub the paint off the surface as I go. Let it pile up a little along raised edges which enhances the sculptural quality of the layered paper. Don't let your clean up rag get too wet, or it will draw out the paint from the cracks. If you take too much off, re-apply the paint. When you like the way it looks, there is only one last task.

Step 23: Seal, Screw on Hardware, and Felt

  Seal that hard work with a good matte spray varnish. Glossy is too shiny, but a decent matte  varnish will protect that layer of paper embedded in Mod Podge. I actually give my boxes a minimum of five coats, because they get a lot of use! In traditional decoupage, it would be a minimum of 25 coats to embed all the paper designs (every piece is embedded in the varnish layer), but I prefer my dimensional style. Mount the hardware on the back, and glue on felt or cork at the bottom corners to protect the wall it hangs on. I have had some customers not hang it at all, but keep their box on a counter.  I just use tacky glue for the felt and used three layers of felt squares. You will have many years of use, and the box will always look beautiful. Give it a gently cleaning monthly and a couple of new coats of sealer every several years.  I use these boxes in the kitchen, bathroom and studio. They make memorable, unique gifts and are such a good way to recycle plastic bags.