How to Make Upcycled Art With Old Books




About: Hi, I'm Marianne Bland, an artist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. In 2010, I completed a self-imposed challenge to create at least one new piece of art every day for a year. I published several instruct...

Here's a fun project to give a new life to an old book! Great for rainy days, crafting with children, and people who think they don't have an artistic bone in their body. This instructable includes making a photocopy transfer, dripping liquid watercolor and using clear matte medium with paper strips as techniques for artmaking. Enjoy!

You will need:
Acrylic matte medium
Paintbrush, medium or wide
A Canvas (shown here with a 5x7)
A photocopy of a high contrast image in black and white (use a LASER printer/copier, not inkjet- thanks for the update there, psychoduckie)
Oil pastels, liquid watercolors or acrylic paints as desired

Tip: Suggested by Framistan (thanks!)- When choosing an old book to use for a project like this, I recommend selecting a book that is already falling apart and is fairly common. Here I used The Iliad, and there were several copies of it at the thrift store where I grabbed it (a great place to find old books, by the way). If you have a unique, good condition or sentimental book, you can always make copies of the pages and cut those up instead. The only difference is that most copy paper will be more opaque and brighter white than old book pages.

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Step 1: Cut Strips of Paper

Depending on the typefont size and paper size of the book you are using, you will need 2-3 pages of strips per 5"x7" (small) canvas. Rip a few pages out, then cut them into strips. For this painting, I cut between each line of text.

Step 2: Layer Canvas With Medium

Acrylic matte medium is not shiny, and is a lot like working with a smoother, more flowing kind of glue. This is essentially "decoupage". Use a palette knife, small scrap of cardboard or brush to quickly spread a layer of acrylic medium over your canvas. If you are working with a large canvas, just do one part at a time so the medium stays wet.

Step 3: Place Strips of Paper

Lay strips of paper into the matte medium. Push them down with your finger and smooth them out. Wet paper can ripple, but acrylic sets quickly, so just keep an eye on your newly applied strips for a few minutes and smooth them out if necessary.

Step 4: Building Up Layers

Layer as many strips as you want, just think of them as a sandwich. You want to have matte medium under and on top of the paper. Once you've set strips into your first layer of medium, stop before it dries to smooth it out with a brush. If you need to add more medium to make sure all the paper gets covered, do so now. You don't even have to let it dry to add more paper. Just use your topcoat as a new base for more paper.

Tip- your fingertips will get clumpy, dry medium buildup quickly. Either wipe it off on a rag as you go or just rub it off (like we used to do as kids with Elmer's glue) to avoid getting clumps of medium stuck into your painting. You can put some strips of paper between your fingers for quick access.

Step 5: Don't Forget the Edges

If you carry your work over on to the edge of your canvas, you'll have a more finished looking piece that won't require framing when you're finished. Trim strips that extend past the edge or paint with medium all the way around to the back of the canvas.

Step 6: Add an Image With Photocopy Transfer

Once your ground of paper strips is to your liking and dry (seriously, this won't take long even with lots of layers), you can transfer an image on to it to give your piece more interest and depth. You can use one of your own illustrations, free clip art, or any image not protected by royalty or copyright.

In this piece, I used an illustration from a vintage Good Housekeeping Guide. Make a black and white photocopy of your image. Trim it close to the borders of the image, but keep the paper a semi-regular shape so it's easier to peel off later.

Apply a thin layer of matte medium to the face of your photocopy image and the area on your canvas that you'll be applying it, and stick it down.

Tip: Tweak the contrast on your image on the copier or in your photo editing program for a crisp, dark transfer.

Step 7: Finish the Transfer

Once you've applied the photocopy image, burnish or rub it for about 30 seconds. I use the smooth plastic handle of my scissors. Use your fingers or anything that won't snag and tear the paper. This light pressure will help transfer the copy toner into the matte medium on the canvas surface.

Now let the paper dry. It does not have to be completely dry, but if you touch it and it still feels cool or moist, wait. When you think it's ready, slowly peel a corner of the paper away. Peek in to see if the copy toner is staying on the canvas as planned, or coming off with the paper. If it's coming off with the paper, it needs to dry some more. If you used a lot of medium, it will take a little longer to dry.

Once you peel off the paper, you should see the toner behind a thin layer of remaining paper. Rub the remaining paper off with your fingertips. It will come off in little balls. If you have trouble with this, you can lightly dampen it with water and rub with a soft rag (or fingers).

Step 8: Pick Words to Emphasize

As you're assembling this piece, chances are some words you like will pop out. If you wish, you can highlight a particular word or grouping of words that you like with a quick circle of oil pastel (which you can smear/soften by rubbing with fingertips), or add some color to the surrounding area with a layer of acrylic paint.

Use the acrylic matte medium if you want to thin/blend color as seen here with the magenta. Here, I applied a thin layer of matte medium to the center of the painting, then began brushing the magenta on from the bottom of the painting. As I reached the medium, the paint on my brush mixed in with the clear medium and gave a blended appearance.

Step 9: Add Color and Movement

Adding some drops of liquid watercolor is an easy way to give your piece another layer, some movement, and of course, color. Liquid watercolor is more saturated than cake watercolor and comes in glass bottles with droppers, so it's easy to splash it on in drops or lines. Put drops next to each other so they will swirl together (I used orange and burnt sienna; the brown gives depth to the orange and they're in the same color family, which I like).

You can also drop a little bit of water on the edges of the watercolor drops on your canvas, which will thin the color a little and give it a different look. Try dabbing some of the watercolor with a rag or paper towel as it dries as well for more variance in tone.

Once you have it how you like it, let it dry flat to keep it that way. It may take several hours to dry fully. Or, while the drops are wet, quickly stand up your canvas in a direction you'd like them to drip in (their pattern may be affected by the paper strips unless you have a thick layer of medium over them).

Step 10: Enjoy It!

This can be a fun and original gift idea, especially if you have a literature-loving recipient in mind. You can mix papers from different books and create your own free association poetry as you go along. Add any image easily with the photocopy transfer technique. Make artful splotches of color like a pro just by using liquid watercolor. The possibilities are endless!

I created a few paintings in this style recently as part of ArtProject2010, a self-imposed challenge I've undertaken to create a new piece of art every day for a year. It isn't always easy to find inspiration. I've always loved language, so this method is a great way for me to kickstart the flow of creativity. I hope you find it does the same for you. And if you enjoyed this instructable, please stop by my blog: and say hello!

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    158 Discussions


    5 years ago on Introduction

    Awesome post Marianne!

    I've made a couple nifty crafts with old repurposed books myself. It can be a lot of fun, some really unique stuff can be made!

    I have access to a large (I mean LARGE) number of discarded books on account of my neighbor who runs a bookstore. There are more discarded books than I could ever possibly use!

    So if anyone is interested, I thought it'd make some of these discarded books available to the kind folks online, follow this link to check them out... HERE



    5 years ago on Introduction

    Wow! this project is so cool. I am going to try it right away. I love to use old books into new projects. It's like bringing them back to life. I have also found many new and inspiring ideas from this book by Altered Upcycling. Check it out! They also have a website where you can sign up for free stuff.

    I love this idea, and can't wait to start something like this for christmas gifts! Thanks for the great idea!! :)


    Reply 8 years ago on Introduction

    WOW, Maery!! Way cool! You've really imbued a total illustrative/narrative quality to these and used color in an atmospheric way that gives me the immediate impact of these stories springing to life. SUPER COOL!!! Thanks for sharing, these are really just rad.


    7 years ago on Introduction

    Can i use elmores glue to stick down the book pages???


    7 years ago on Introduction

    Can i use elmores glue to stick the book pages down????


    7 years ago on Introduction

    Love this!!!!! Thank you so much! I made this for my boyfriends mother for Christmas-last thing she was expecting and absolutely loved it!! (we trade books back and forth) I'm already working on 2 more-so clever and original!

    mermaids chair.jpg
    1 reply

    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

    Hello hello! Sorry it took me so long to reply to you. What a great piece! Thank you for sharing it with me! I love how much color you used and how you completely transformed the book and made it your own. Way to go!


    7 years ago on Introduction

    I'm planning on doing this to a book for an art project. My art teacher saved a bunch of old books that were going to be thrown away by our local library. She wants us to make "Recycled book art" with them. I'm using this as the basis! I'll post pictures when I'm done :)

    1 reply

    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

    How perfect. I hope it goes great! There's so much to do with old books and I am looking forward to seeing what you create! Good luck!


    8 years ago on Introduction

    A question: What kind of finish would you put on these once they're done? Mine is very textured (done on purpose) and also layered with oil pastel, as you suggested. I've actually done six quite large canvases as a project for our church. Everyone in the church wrote scripture or quotes with black crayon on their own paper strips and glued them down (using Mod Podge, which worked great). Then I added the color with acrylic over the top. Didn't attempt the transfer since I was afraid of a big mistake on a project that wasn't completely mine! :) But the canvases will be hung in the lobby of our church building and, being very inexperienced, I have no idea how to finish them so they're protected, and so they won't rub off on anyone clothes/hands.
    Thank you for this AMAZING tutorial! You were so thorough and the idea is so brilliant! THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU!!! :)

    1 reply

    Reply 8 years ago on Introduction

    Awww thank you for your kind comment. What a wonderful way to transform this idea into collaborative work! I love seeing what people come up with on their own.

    To answer your question, finishing over oil pastel is a bit tricky, however art stores do sell spray varnish that would likely be suitable for large pieces and heavy texture as well as a combination of modgepodge and oil pastel... I think specifically there is one product called "kamar varnish"- but just ask the people who work there which spray finish is okay to go over oil pastel, and they should be able to help. :)