Getting Started in Assemblage Art

Getting started in Assemblage Art...

assemblage found object art

Each week I write a new article for members of our three wonderful art groups on Facebook, The Artists Exchange, The Artists Directory, and The Artist Hangout. This week we take a look at the everyday objects we throw away and instead, turn them into works of art.

Junk Art...

Junk art was a term first coined by British art critic and curator Lawrence Alloway (1926-1990), in 1961 to describe artworks made from scrap metal, parts from old machinery, rags, materials, wood, and pretty much any other object combined and made into something of a work of art. 

Junk art though has a much longer history and today, whilst junk or what most people class as junk, can be, and is used to create art. I’m not a total fan of the term to describe this wonderful art form because for me it implies that the art is less than it is and a search on Google for junk art is more likely to show results for a board game, but there are many other ways we can describe the art form.

Found art was popular at the start of the 20th Century and indicates that the artist found components manufactured by man and assembled them into art. Pablo Picasso continuously created cubist constructions from 1912 and then went on to consistently create new assemblage works throughout his career.

Then in 1918, dada artist Kurt Schwitters utilised scrap materials to create collages and assemblages, calling his technique ‘merz’ and assemblage also became the basis for many surrealist objects. 

In the 1950s and 60s the technique became even more widely used and both Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg took an anti-aesthetic approach to creating expressionist reliefs and sculptures which earned the name of neo-dada. 

Yet before even Picasso and others from the early 20th Century, humankind has been putting holes in rocks or making things out of other things. From creating shrines to jewellery, and everything in between the art form has forever been around but its recognition as an art form is still relatively young and glimpses of the practice can be seen today in many installation art pieces. 

If you are interested in finding out more about some of the greatest works of art produced using found objects then I would recommend reading The Royal Academy article on Joseph Cornell who really was a pioneer of assemblage art. You can read the article right here.  

A Long History...

Reusing objects in art has a long and varied history so it is certainly not a recent movement, but it is becoming an art form that we see more than ever today with many artists creating three dimensional sculptures and collages and often creating assemblage art as a side to other art forms, often using traditional art and assemblage in combination and both art forms complimenting each other. 

Assemblage is a wonderful way to produce art out of the everyday and if you like to build or put things together then it can be a fantastic artistic style to work in. If you can take everyday items that would otherwise be thrown away it becomes more environmentally friendly than many other art forms too, and it literally doesn’t have to cost the earth. 

So this week we take a look at taking some first steps onto this fascinating and creative path and we discover some of the best places to look online for help and resources if you fancy giving assemblage a go.

My garage at home is somewhere that one day I would either love to park the car in or convert it into a big studio. There is no chance of doing either at the moment as it is filled to the brim with useful stuff that I will probably never use ever again, and lots and lots of spares. Most people will have a drawer in their home where they keep spare cables, here that drawer is a double parking garage. If you are looking for material this may just be the Holy Grail of found objects and I need to make some space. 

Before we start it is worth pointing out that assemblage is a visual art form that also has to come with some health warnings. Not only is it highly addictive but I have known more than a few artists who will forever carry the battle scars of misusing power tools and knives or over-sniffing the glue. What else could have inspired some of the strangest and most beautiful creations?

It’s also not the easiest of art forms to get to grips with and the most difficult thing to do from my experience is working out exactly how the creation will stay together and in one piece. When I created some assemblage work more than a decade ago it would often fall apart from using the wrong types of glue or the wrong types of support for the project. One thing I did pick up though was that to be a good assemblage artist you also have to be somewhat of an engineer too, or a scientist or even better, a bit of both.

Assemblage art Jamaica waterfall

My own forays into assemblage have been around recreating some of my landscapes using found objects. Some of you might remember the time I recreated a version of Dunns River Falls in Jamaica from stone found locally, and wire, lots and lots of wire. The finished piece is still with me today which you can see in this photo above and below. Perhaps not true assemblage, but everything used was found with the exception of the liquid water medium and the best part of this was that my daughter had a massive input into the project too. 

Assemblage is something that I really do want to get into again at some point, in part because I really do need to make some space in my garage and reclaim it at least as a workshop for framing again. 

dunns River falls Jamaica assemblage art

Why assemblage art? Well apart from its beauty there is just something that really is very special about creating something from found objects whatever they are. EBay is full of assemblage artworks for sale as are online services such as Etsy, but there are also a growing number of people who are starting to find the beauty in collecting this very unique style of art. 

As both a traditional and digital artist, whenever I have had a go at creating assemblage it has really focussed my mind of solving creative problems which have definitely benefited the more traditional art forms I create too. It can also deepen your interest in installation art and in sculpture which are closely related but not quite the same as assemblage. 

For me it is also about the work I have done in the past with environmental issues for which I won an award for back in 2002. The award was presented to me at Buckingham Palace by HRH Princess Anne, and the day itself was one of the three best days in my life. The first two were the day I married my wife and the day my daughter was born. So it seems logical that at some point I would delve back into this art form.

Where to start…

Starting to create assemblage art can be a daunting task. The possibilities of what you can create are endless and that in itself can be as problematic as it is refreshing. Knowing the theme of your work and planning it out is important and knowing what kind of theme your assemblage will take will at least give you a better idea about the materials you might want to use. 

My plan when I do get around to clearing out some space is to have a go at using metal work for a few ideas I have but if you are just starting out then working with more forgiving mediums and items is probably the best place to start. 

I am certainly no expert in creating assemblage but one thing I do know is that it isn’t as easy as it looks. Starting off with tamer materials until you begin to gain more confidence is going to give you a better understanding of what you can create.

For inspiration the internet is filled with ideas, but you really should take a look at Pinterest too. There are many boards chock full of useful links and ideas which should give you some ideas to create your own projects and creating something such as memory boxes can easily be achieved in a short space of time, just to get you started.

For my own projects I have created an essential list of tools and equipment that I have found useful so if you have any of these hanging around then you really are good to go.

  1. Dremel Multi-tool or similar. Dremel’s are just so versatile and are useful for lots of jobs around the home. There are cheaper alternatives which can be found online through Amazon and in many of the big DIY box stores, but the Dremel really is a joy to use. My Dremel is about 20-years old now and it’s still going strong!
  2. X-ACTO knife or similar and you will want to make sure that you use a good quality cutting mat or board.
  3. Craft wire is useful because it can be used to tie down some of your components.
  4. Junior hacksaw and file. Make sure that any rough edges are removed especially when working in steel or wood.
  5. Acrylic paint as acrylics hold up well to water and they dry very quickly.
  6. Gesso – honestly if there was a way to use gesso in my digital creations I would. It’s a fantastic invention and prepping material for working on.
  7. Scissors – ideally a pair of non-stick scissors that cut well!
  8. Gloss acrylic medium – which is clear is ideal for adhering materials and paper but make sure that you select a good brand. I usually brush this on as a primer coat to whatever element I am using to avoid crinkles appearing.
  9. Epoxy – because it sticks to almost anything, and I tend to use an epoxy weld glue for metals which at one time came in two tubes which needed mixing to activate the adhesive. Nowadays you can buy a dual syringe which mixes both of the required substances as you push down. Just make sure you wear gloves when doing this. Epoxy does tend to darken with age so bear this in mind from the off.
  10. A range of tapes, fasteners, and small screws.
  11. Tweezers – these are invaluable for small elements
  12. Wire snips 

I also keep a few rolls of Velcro tape to hand so that some elements can be removed if needed too. It’s also worth considering that any glues or fastenings and indeed materials you use also don’t contain toxins and aren’t in anyway a hazard. 

Knowing what glues and adhesives to use is either a case of trying things out or reading the instruction labels of the products. Adhesives are expensive (well the good ones are anyway) so making sure that you are buying the right adhesives for your product makes much more financial sense. If you but the quality adhesives they will also go further which ultimately saves money and time.

Today there are a range of malleable putties available as adhesives and these can be used to squeeze into some of the gaps and painted over, but one of the very best ranges of glue I have ever used comes from Gorilla. Gorilla glue is best described as liquid gold and comes in a range of varieties to stick pretty much anything to anything and their Gorilla tape whilst it can’t fix stupid, can tie it up!

Chain links, old jewellery chains, key ring chains, all of these can often be found sitting around so again, what appears to have no value can enjoy new life within a piece of artwork. I keep all sorts of useful components in organiser boxes and whenever I find something really interesting when out and about it usually ends up in one of these.

Finding Materials and Elements…

When I started getting into assemblage I found lots of materials just hanging around at home. Some readers might remember my post from a few years ago where I created a living garden in a glass lightbulb, all made with elements collected either from around the home or from the local area.

For my lightbulbs I collected dried wood and moss, and the opening of the bulb was plugged with another piece of dried tree branch but a wine cork could have been used. The bulb was then mounted on a stone as you can see in this photo.

living garden in a lightbulb assemblage art

Dried wood is better to use in projects than fresh wood because you don’t want the moisture that fresh wood will have within it, and again this is something that you can collect on walks through the local park. But there are other places too where you might find that looking down on the ground will be something that you will find you do frequently. Spotting the odd rusty looking piece of metal or aged coins with a certain patina will add a touch of old to your new projects.

Many of the artists I have come across over the years who create assemblage art have tended to either work with huge projects or with really small pieces but finding a six inch door or a miniature lampshade can be a bit of a task. For those kinds of elements you might want to consider looking at local hobby shops and dolls house accessory stores where you will find everything from working miniature lighting sets to solid wood doors. Buying elements does start to detract a little from the concept of found art or assemblage but occasionally if a piece needs something that you can’t find anywhere else then you might have to take the plunge. 

One of the best websites for miniature components in the USA is Dollhouse Heaven which you can find here. In the UK, a company called Minimum World which you can find here  and they seem to have a similar collection of fascinating elements. Online stores such as eBay, Etsy, and Amazon also have a great range of miniature products available too. 

Reuse and charity shops often have interesting elements available and they are certainly worth popping into not only to take a look, but to also support the relevant charity when you make a purchase. 

It’s surprising just how many great frames I have found in some of these stores and some great artwork too. Time to deviate slightly on that subject and just as an aside, there are now groups of collectors who regularly haunt charity shops on the lookout for bad art. 

There’s a Facebook group entitled ‘Bad Art in Charity Shops’ which you can find here, and I have to say that some of the work I have seen published when the group gained some press coverage recently wasn’t always that bad. Or it might have been so bad it was good, but it’s a thing, I love it! It really proves that art is subjective.

In the USA the MOBA or Museum of Bad Art (art too bad to be ignored) is also a thing. Honestly I thought when looking through their site which you can find here, that it was going to become a mission  or at least an aspiration for me to get featured in the collection, but then I took a look and I got a huge boost of confidence in my own artistic ability. The critique by the way is at best, brutal. Anyway back to assemblage…

You can add an old look to anything with the right materials. For rust effects which I have been creating for many years when working on theatrical props I’ve always found that Mod Podge, some cinnamon, black and brown paint and modelling foam can create the desired effect. You can leave out the foam and just create a simple effect using paints together with the cinnamon.

You can also use specially prepared paints that create many different effects. Peeling paint, metallic, liquid metal, glass beads, are all available from good art and craft stores, Modelling enamels are useful to have at hand too, and one of the best masking fluids I have used in my canvas artworks was originally created for the modellers market. Totally acid free and surprisingly a little cheaper than some of the masking fluids I have used before. 

The model enamels are usually available in quite exact colour matches so that they can create realistic effects on model kits, so it is definitely worth taking a look at what is available. 

Other art forms that are not really assemblage but could be…

There are some blurry lines between what we call true assemblage art and some other art forms. Sculptures are often close to assemblage when they use mixed media, installation art is usually on a much larger scale, but there are also dioramas which can be made from found elements. Collages can almost be classed as assemblage (depending on the 3D elements included) and even mixed media in the traditional sense can take on a sense of, or become true assemblage too.

In its truest sense assemblage is really its own form and whilst other forms of art borrow and interchange some of the techniques, so does assemblage. It spans an expansive and vast gamut and for that reason alone it can be a tonic for artists who really want to explore other mediums.

Where are the markets?

Steam punk, pop art sculpture, and hundreds of genres, themes and subjects in between all lend themselves to assemblage. It was only relatively recently in the past twelve-months or so that I started to look back into the art form after a friend on Facebook created some really inspiring posts on the subject. You should definitely give Sylvia’s page a like and you can do so right here. Her work is exceptional without a doubt. 

Is there a market for this style of work? You bet there is. Etsy is one such site that is chock-full to the brim of unique products and during a few recent visits to craft fairs the form has started to become very well represented with a number of artists selling some really amazing creations, and frequently I have seen artists usually associated to other art forms creating some very unique pieces sometimes combining their traditional work with found object art. 

Is it viable? Some of the very well-known and renowned assemblage artists are commanding prices in the hundreds of thousands of dollars for their work, with works from some of the pioneers of this art movement fetching somewhere in the high-millions. Take a look at the Rauschenberg Foundation here, and then check previous auction prices and you will see what I mean. Equally as a collector or more specifically someone looking to start collecting art, it can also be a very affordable way to start a very interesting collection.

For artists it really can be a style of art that you can lose yourself completely in and you are only ever bound by the limits of your imagination so why not give it a go! It’s fun, it can really expand your mind when it comes to solving complex art problems, and there isn’t a right or wrong way of doing it, you can just allow your imagination to take over completely!

If you create assemblage art what are your must have tools and tips? Leave a comment below and let us all know!

About Mark…

I am an artist and blogger who has a serious addiction to art, independent artists and good coffee. You can purchase my work right here:   

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  1. A great Read and useful too ! Thank you Mark😊

  2. It never really occurred to me that I've actually have created work in this category before. I think the very old wood from my grandfather's barn would fit here. I cut out St. Nicholas images with my sturdy band saw as well as my scroll saw, paint them & sell them. I still have a few of those around & an entire box of old barn wood in my garage. Then there's my large collection of paper products which I guess you would call ephemera. Various vintage stamps and papers of all sorts. The artwork I've created with that is rather impressive if I don't say so myself.

    I have a family member that is an installation artist that has created massive projects out of shredded paper for display. This is a fascinating subject to elaborate on at some point when the time permits. Excellent post once again!

    1. Thanks Colleen, it is a fascinating style and one that I really want to get back into soon, although a new bottle of flow medium is turning up today so I need to do a Christmas pour!

      You should do something with all of your paper and wood, I can only envision it as being superb, just like your artwork!

      If I had the space installation art would definitely be something I would love to have a go at too! Have a blessed week!


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