How to Make Scrap-Paper Mosaics

comments (6) September 8th, 2008     

Pin It

Jeff_Rudell Jeffery Rudell, contributor
Love it! 30 users recommend
A picture of my friend Joannie. Her short, spiked hair and bright clothes are her trademarks and this picture captures them beautifully.
Joannies confetti spectacles translated beautifully into real confetti, but its her beautiful brown eyes I spent the most time trying to capture.
John works at Pottery Barn, so I took apart one of their catalogs to use as my palette for his portrait. His flat-top haircut and angular cheekbones are here turned into straight lines and sharp corners.
A picture of my friend Joannie. Her short, spiked hair and bright clothes are her trademarks and this picture captures them beautifully.

A picture of my friend Joannie. Her short, spiked hair and bright clothes are her trademarks and this picture captures them beautifully.

Photo: Jeff Rudell

It happens to us all at one time or another: Perhaps you're sitting in an armchair, lost in thought, when your eyes happen to come to rest upon the geometric pattern in the carpet. You blink and, voila, you see a face. You're so surprised by this visual anomaly that you blink again to try to bring it into better focus, only to watch it quickly dissolve back into geometric shapes, carpet pile, and shadows. Such hallucinations—really, more like momentary snapshots—seem especially to occur to me when my mind is either utterly relaxed and wandering (as when watching clouds drift by) or when it's mildly occupied with some modestly taxing activity (as when I'm running over my calendar in my head). I've seen everything from the face of Elvis emerging from the flaky surface of a croissant, to the face of Margaret Thatcher in a handful of shaving cream (the latter being a somewhat unnerving thing to see when one is standing naked in a shower, I might add).

All of this got me thinking about what makes a face? Where exactly, in the arrangement of shapes, does a likeness actually reside? A close examination of my carpet suggested that shape and shade were the two factors that were needed to suggest a face, but even those two components allowed for a great deal of vagueness.

This got me wondering if it might be possible to create a similar effect with paper and so, I set to work trying to create portraits of my friends. I used scrap paper from my recycle bin and unsolicited magazines from my mailbox as my raw materials. As you'll see, I shied away from direct transcription (i.e., the size of the eyes is a bit exaggerated and I tried not to use too many flesh tones for faces) and I intentionally chose unusual colors; colors you wouldn't expect to see in someone's face. The results, two of which are shown below, are surprisingly successful at capturing both the physical and emotional likeness of the people they represent. 

While the pictures are clearly portraits, upon closer inspection, their features dissolve and disappear; a forehead becomes a modern color-field triptych, a neck scarf morphs into a bouquet of flames. Making them required taking the long view, putting some distance between my actions and my expectations, and a willingness to try something unfamiliar. If that's not a prescription for nurturing creativity, I don't know what is.

While this isn't strictly a DIY craft project, I would encourage anyone in need of a little adult play time to give it a go. Once you start making these simple snapshots—SCRAPshots, actually!—you'll never want to stop. Best of all, this needn't be just a paper project. I can well imagine a whole gallery of portraits made of buttons, yarn, quilting scraps, colorful thread spools, beads...

Two things to remember:

1. Overall shapes go a long way toward making things recognizable. Don't worry too much about articulating each and every part of the face you're trying to capture, but do try to get things to about the right scale. Placement of features also matters; recognition of faces relies heavily on things being where we expect them to be.

2. The tonal values of your scraps matter more than their actual color. Use tonally light scraps where there should be highlights and tonally dark scraps where there should be shadows. 

With these two guidelines in place, you can depend on the eyes—and minds—of your viewers to do most of the rest of the work for you. With a little patience, you can turn a chaotic collection of scraps into the picture of control and intent.

Darker colors tend to "protrude" from the canvas, while lighter colors tend to recede visually. I took advantage of this by using darker tones to suggest protruding planes of the face, such as the chin shown here in my picture of Joannie.



A detail of the hair of Joannie. A piece of yellow paper suggests the reflected highlights of the part in her hair.


Likewise, yellow stands in as the highlight on her forehead with pink and green doing duty as the lighted and shadowed sides of her face.


An eruption of flames or a loosely tied scarf? Using similar colors in combination here suggests the way light falls on the folds and ripples of a piece of fabric.


A blue ear? While blue is usually thought of as a dark color, this shade is actually quite vivid and bright. A little bit of darkness was needed to suggest the folds and shadows one would expect to see in an ear. (Note: The other ear is black and so I reduced its size to keep it from visually protruding too much.)


Junk mail never looked so good. Here, a Pottery Barn catalog becomes a picture of my friend John. Notice the spindle table leg, with its rhythmic shadows, that suggests crow's-feet.


A photo of a leather armchair doubles as an ear. The lines and rounded highlights in the photo serve to give the ear some suggestion of added detail.


I used pictures of wicker baskets to suggest the rough texture of whiskers. The lips are cut from photos of plush bath towels.


posted in: paper

Comments (6)

Maureclaire writes: You are the first Jeff who spells his name the way my son's is spelled.... with ery instead of rey ! His Dad's was the same... not sure why his Mom spelled it that way... just never see it spelled that way ! You are also an incredible artist ! Wow !!!
Posted: 3:36 pm on March 29th
Maureclaire writes: YOU are a genius !!!
Posted: 1:43 am on March 23rd
Erinzp writes: i tried to do this with famous paintings and it turned out really cool-only suggestion is to use rubber cement so it dries flat. looks great in a really nice frame. especially if it is the giftee's fave painting
Posted: 4:02 pm on January 13th
CraftyDiva writes: This is so awesome! I don't think mine will turn out nearly so cool. But I will try!
Posted: 2:28 pm on September 11th
paperrain writes: You just keep coming up with cool ideas! I'm really eager to try this. Your mosaics are cool.

Posted: 11:04 am on September 10th
poppysquash2 writes: Jeffrey,
These are just to wonderful not to try. With much fabric in my stash, I can envision a couple of characters emerging from the bin! Thanks again for these beautiful compositions and instructions that are clear and concise.

Best, Bonnie Blanchard
BZoe for Poppysquash
Posted: 11:45 am on September 8th
You must be logged in to post comments. Click here to login.