Materials & Techniques

Decorative Paste Papers & Cards

I came across this technique over at Art for Small Hands where there is a detailed tutorial for undertaking this as a classroom activity.  It’s a traditional technique, which, like marbling, was often used in the 18th and 19th centuries for decorating the endpapers of books.  As an activity it’s cheap, easy and a lot of fun, but (be warned) it is potentially very messy!  It’s also something that is suitable for all ages, with even the youngest of children able to get ‘hands on’.

The paste is prepared in advance using rice and wheat flours, water and small drops of glycerine and washing-up liquid.  The mixture is cooked and allowed to cool, and then mixed with tempera paint.  The texture is quite important, as it has to be gloopy and stiff enough to retain the marks you make, yet be easy to use with a brush.  Once made up, the paint will keep for a few days in the fridge.

I mixed up 4 colours into old ice-cream tubs using the quantities given in the tutorial and found that I had more than enough to create lots of papers.  I then used a broad 3″ paint brush to quickly apply the paint to the paper.  The paper used should not be too absorbent or shiny, and I just used cheap printer paper most of the time.  It curls up when it gets wet, but you can iron it flat on the reverse when it’s dry.

To decorate I experimented with the following techniques:

Drawing into the paint with fingers, sticks and an old credit card.  I found that if I used bits of cardboard as tools, they soon went soggy.  You need to wipe excess paint away from your tools as you work.  One technique I found especially successful was to draw on the prepared paper with my fingers, which gives a soft-edged broad line, and then work on top of this with a stick, which gives a narrower, sharper line.  The ‘layered’ effect achieved in this way is almost 3-dimensional in appearance.

Printing – anything from using bubble wrap, cling film applied to the paint and swished around a bit, to hand and finger prints can all be used to add texture.  Simply putting your hands onto the paint on the paper and swirling them about gives effective results.

Textured effects – Using the brush itself to create textured brush marks.  If you are old enough to remember 80’s home decorating techniques, all those rusty dry-brush, sponging and rag-rolling skills can come into play here.

Combing – a tiler’s grouting tool is excellent for creating beautiful clear stripes, zig-zags and swirls.

Using different papers – I tried it out on brown craft paper – it dulls the brightness of the paint a little, but is still quite effective in a more understated kind of way.

Layering – Some of my best results I obtained by painting a background colour onto the paper first (sometimes two colours, roughly layered) using acrylic paint which was allowed to fully dry. The paste paint is not that dense, so it will not completely obscure the layer beneath.  Use a fairly light colour, with a darker colour on top for the best effects.


So having created all these beautifully decorated papers, what can you use them for?

The most obvious use is of course  as wrapping paper.




Alternatively you could use them to back books with, for other craft projects and collages, or even make a set of cards, gift tags, bookmarks or postcards with them.  With Christmas approaching, I made some Christmas cards with Christmas tree, Angel and Snowflake motifs.  I used the layering technique with coloured underpainting beneath, and then I added a bit of extra sparkle to the motifs by brushing a little clear glitter paint onto them.   Finally they were mounted onto blank cards.

The designs were created as follows:

Christmas Tree – created by finger painting (I added some foliage to one, using a pointed stick)

Snowflake – created using a pointed stick.

Angel – created using an old credit card, with details scratched out with a pointed stick.




All in all, this is an activity which can be made as simple or as sophisticated as you like depending upon the age and enthusiasm of the participants.  I now have a whole stack of beautiful paper to use for future projects!