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A guide to creative upcycling

A guide to creative upcycling

In line with our mission as a B-corp and to celebrate International Plastic Free July, we spoke with our artist community about how they do their bit for the environment through art.

Whether they repaint over old canvases, reuse magazines and newspapers for collages, create their own textures and mediums from recycled or upcycled materials, use discarded items to avoid unnecessary waste, or make educated choices on choosing ethical and environmentally friendly suppliers, there are many ways to positively impact the environment. And whilst we hope the world can eventually go fully plastic-free, small everyday steps are a good place to start!

Creating art from discarded items

“One man’s trash is another man’s treasure” has never rang so true when it comes to upcycling. Below are a few examples of artists who turn 'rubbish' into artistic treasures.

Alfred Ng creates beautifully intricate cut-out illustrations on branded paper shopping bags. We love how delicate these look and the use of the original brand that gives them a luxury feel.

Tony Roberts' sculptures are made entirely of recycled glass, which he receives from local people when demolishing buildings, greenhouses, etc. He is currently working with glass salvaged from an ancient greenhouse in the centre of Shrewsbury! The oldest load of glass he has ever used was from an early Victorian cotton mill near Manchester, which is the glass used for his 'monoliths' artworks on Artfinder.. Tony says that recasting recycled old glass is demanding, because there are all sorts of unexpected and interesting issues that arise when using ancient glass from an unknown origin - but we can all agree that the resulting sculptures certainly have some added character as a result.

Vadims Pjatrikovs shows us that even photographers can upcycle as part of their work, as most of the items he uses in his stunning photography has been found in charity shops or on the streets. The resulting pictures show that the subject is not always important, it is how you creatively express its identity through your photography technique, lighting and composition.

Everything can be reused

Almost everything can be used or reused to create art.

Asha Shenoy explains that she often repaints on the back of old unsuccessful paintings to avoid buying new canvases. This is actually quite common for many of our artists, as it helps save on cost and can generate new creative ideas from old ones. But it is not only in your art that you can reuse materials, but also in your day-to-day practice. Asha explains that she uses clean recycled cartons, cardboard sheets and discarded bubble wrap for her packaging, resulting in her not having to buy new packaging.

Lil Nutter also uses old cereal boxes and tea bag boxes for mixing and spending paint. She also finds that face cream pots are really useful for mixing and keeping acrylic paint fresh!

To help tackle waste, Rebecca Coleman says that art supplies can easily be reused too. Oils on the palette are saved in between painting sessions to use in other paintings (you could for example put a wet cloth on your palette or split the remaining paint in small airtight containers). In fact, all of her abstracts utilise excess paint. As brushes get used, they begin to lose their shape and structure. Maybe that brush is not good for detail work anymore, but could be perfect to create a specific texture or motif?

Thinners can be constantly recycled too. Once used, if left in a jar, the solid material will sink, leaving clean fluid, which once decanted can be recycled again and again. Rebecca adds that one day she ran out of paper, so went to the bin to reuse an old piece - even though it was covered in paint, it was dry so still perfect to reuse. Ever since, she hangs used paper on a line in her studio to reuse. By simply doing this, her consumption of paper towels has shrunk by 90%.

Get everyone involved

Our artists also get their local shops, friends and families involved.

Emma Sian Pritchard's mother, being a keen recycler herself, always supplies her with washed old yoghurt pots to mix paint or as water pots. She also uses her local carpet shop to supply her with free tubes that carpets normally come rolled in, which make great tubes for shipping artworks.

David Lloyd created his collection, ‘Seven deadly sins against the earth’ entirely from recycled mourning board offcuts from his local framer, which he got for free.

Amita Dand also explains that the donation of discarded materials can go both ways, as she supplies her mother with discarded old paintings on canvases, which her mother then stitches together to make shopping bags. What a fantastic way to not only reuse a painting you may have otherwise discarded, but also to get some free advertising when out grocery shopping!

Similarly, Teresa Tanner is supplied with boxes, packing materials and cards from neighbours, friends and family. Her son also provides her with board recycled from his kitchen refits, together with foam corners which come with appliances for packaging. These foam corners cannot be recycled, but can be useful for securing the corners of your artworks when shipping, instead of being thrown away immediately.

Check around you for anyone doing work in their house, ask local shops if they often discard materials or packing that you may find useful, and do not automatically throw packaging away. There is no shortage of materials out there that cost nothing at all, and a lot of people will be more than happy to have you take them off their hands, especially if it is to serve a creative purpose.

True ‘plastic-free’ requires a change in mentality

Recycling and upcycling certainly helps reduce waste, but it is only one side of the sustainability coin.

A year ago, we spoke with Valerie Thomson and other artists on ways to achieve sustainability through packaging. We thoroughly recommend you read the interview, as it describes great examples of how artists can proactively ensure they generate the minimum amount of waste and plastic use in their packaging.

Valerie explains that to truly achieve a plastic free celebration, artists must ask themselves hard questions: What plastics are we adding in our creations and materials? How are we funding plastics production by supporting businesses that use them when there are alternatives? Do we use glues or mediums? Do they come in plastic, metal or glass containers? How are we wrapping our work? Are we buying substrates wrapped in plastic film? As she points out, the closer we look the more we educate ourselves.

“The area I have found where eliminating plastics is most doable is in packaging. Our own work and that of the products we buy. Where a business uses mushroom based packs, or biodegradable plastics, they have my support. The increase in wood based materials instead of plastic can and must be offset by planting more trees and we can easily pay a tree tax by supporting tree planting initiatives like Ecologi. The plastics issue is huge and requires education, and will not get better unless we all make way better choices and manufacturers get the message that's what we will support and are willing to pay for.”

What next?

As you can see, there are many ways for artists to positively impact the environment, from small upcycling initiatives to tackle waste, to more educated choices on where to purchase supplies from and what really goes into the production of our materials.

We would like to give a big thank you to all the artists who have made positive changes toward sustainability. With every action you take, big or small, you are helping to make this world a better place, for you and for the generations to come. But change doesn’t happen without action, so when you are unsure of where to start, go rummaging in your bin in search of a creative treasure, speak to other artists who are versed in ethical suppliers and environmentally friendly materials, and get the people around you involved as well.

Image credit: Iván Hoyos Freyre


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