How can we use everyday objects and materials in art?
We often think that making art involves using expensive materials and learning specialist techniques, but it doesn't have to be this way! Ordinary, everyday objects and materials can be re-purposed and reused in art, and anyone can invent new techniques for using these non-traditional art materials.
This resource explores how everyday objects and materials can be used to make sculptures. Use it to:
explore and discuss artists who use found objects and materials
investigate the properties of everyday materials and how these can be used in art
experiment with techniques and processes
find inspiration for making artworks from found objects and materials
This Art and Design resource can be used together as a lesson plan or as individual components to integrate into your own scheme of work. It is devised for Key Stage 3 / CfE Level 3 and 4 students but the resource activities could be easily adapted for Key Stage 2 / CfE Level 2 / PS 3. It may also suit Key Stage 4 students / CfE senior phase.
Art and design - Evaluate and analyse creative works - Actively engage in the creative process of art - Know about great artists and understand the historical and cultural development of their art forms - Produce creative work, explore ideas
Art and design - Developing students' own personal and creative responses - Developing creative thinking skills through designing and making
Art and design – I have experimented with a range of media and technologies to create images and objects, using my understanding of their properties (EXA 3-02a) – I can respond to the work of artists and designers by discussing my thoughts and feelings. I can give and accept constructive comment on my own and others' work (EXA 3-07a)
Art and design - Students use their knowledge about the work of other artists to enrich and inform their work through analysis and evaluation - Students use a variety of processes - Students evaluate their work through discussion - Students explore, experiment with and apply the visual, tactile and sensory language of art
Exploring the expressive arts is essential to developing artistic skills and knowledge and it enables learners to become curious and creative individuals.
Progression step 4:
I can explore and experiment with my own and others’ creative ideas, demonstrating increasingly complex technical control, innovation, independent thinking and originality to develop my work with confidence, being able to explain my reasons behind choices made and evaluate their effectiveness on my creative work
I can explore creative work, understanding the personal, social, cultural and historical context, including the conventions of the period in which it was created.
I can investigate and understand how meaning is communicated through the ideas of other artists and performers.
Responding and reflecting, both as artist and audience, is a fundamental part of learning in the expressive arts.
Progression step 4:
I can effectively evaluate my own creative work and that of others showing increasing confidence to recognise and articulate strengths, and to demonstrate resilience and determination to improve.
I can apply knowledge and understanding of context when evaluating my own creative work and creative work by other people and from other places and times.
I can evaluate the effectiveness of a wide range of artistic techniques in producing meaning.
Creating combines skills and knowledge, drawing on the senses, inspiration and imagination.
Progression step 4:
I can use my experimentation and investigation to manipulate creative work with purpose and intent when communicating my ideas.
I can apply specialised technical skills in my creative work.
I can draw upon my experiences and knowledge to inform and develop strategies to overcome creative challenges with imagination and resilience.
Introduction: found objects in art
The term 'found objects' (sometimes referred to by the French term 'objet trouvé') is used in art to describe objects that weren't designed as art materials but that have been used by artists to make artworks. Found objects could be objects from nature (such as shells or stones) or manufactured objects (such as magazines, plastic bottles, clothing – or just about anything!).
Found objects are sometimes used as they are with no modifications or changes by the artist. For example, Marcel Duchamp presented objects such as a snow shovel, a bottle-drying rack – and even a urinal – as sculptures. Artists also attach found objects and materials together to create artworks. These are sometimes called assemblages.
Artists often adapt and manipulate found objects to create artworks – bending, cutting and painting or drawing on them.
Found objects and recycling
Recycling is one of the ways that we can reduce waste and build a more sustainable world. Many of the artists explored in this resource recycle objects and materials that have been discarded such as plastic objects, packaging or scrap metal or wood.
A brief look at found objects in art
Did you know that Pablo Picasso was one of the first artists to use found objects in his work over 100 years ago? He incorporated newspapers and bottle labels into his Cubist paintings and went on to make assemblages from found objects.
Contemporary British artist Ros Burgin uses unlikely materials – including rubber tyres, magazines and cable ties – to make her sculptures. There are no tried-and-tested processes for working with these materials as there are for using traditional materials such as bronze, wood or marble. She is forced to be inventive and experiment with developing new techniques and sees her approach to making sculptures as problem-solving.
'It's not like I’m casting a bronze which follows a process that has been laid down for 1,000 years and if you follow it, it works… I'm inventing new processes and new ways of doing things. So you're sort of in the unknown which I put myself into purposefully and I love being there but then I have to solve my own problems.' – Ros Burgin
Activity: watch and discuss
Watch Ros Burgin talk about her processes and discuss the materials and techniques she uses as a class.
What materials does Ros Burgin use to make her sculptures?
Are these the type of materials that you generally associate with sculpture?
How do you think her use of ordinary everyday materials affects how we look at her sculptures?
Usually, sculptors use techniques appropriate to the material. What is Ros Burgin’s technique?
Do you like her sculptures? Which of the sculptures that she discussed in the video do you find the most interesting and why?
Do you think her sculptures are just something to look at or do you think she is using them to put across a message?
Can you think of any other artists that use ‘found’ everyday objects or materials in their work?
Activity: research artists who use found objects and materials
'I've always been very fond of art where you can see that the materials are really very ordinary.' – David Batchelor
Task students with researching how artists use found objects and materials. A selection of artists is highlighted below with more artworks included in the carousel at the end of this section. Your local museum or art gallery may have artworks made from found objects.
Select one or two artworks to discuss together as a class, then ask students to choose an artwork to analyse individually or in small groups. They should make a sketch of the sculpture in a sketchbook or notebook and annotate their sketch with notes. This could be a homework project.
Encourage students to think about:
What materials has the artist used?
Is the sculpture abstract or does it represent something from the real world?
How has the artist used the materials? (Have they cut them up, bent them, painted on them, added other objects, or used lots of the same thing?)
How have they constructed the sculpture? Have they joined materials together? What have they used to do this?
What do you think the artist is exploring in their sculpture? (Are they suggesting a narrative, putting across a message, or simply experimenting with formal elements such as shape and colour?)
What is your response to the sculpture? Why did you choose it? What does it make you think and feel?
David Batchelor (b.1955)
Scottish artist David Batchelor creates sculptures from junk, such as old plastic bottles and crates. He makes slight additions or alterations to create spectacular sculptures. To make Walldella VI (2007) he added lightbulbs to discarded coloured plastic bottles to create a beautiful light sculpture.
Anka Dabrowska was commissioned to make an artwork to celebrate the Royal London Hospital's transition into its new building in Whitechapel, London. She created a series of eleven sculptures based on the shapes and architecture of The Old Royal London Hospital. These small constructions are made from carefully arranged scraps of packaging, photos and found material inspired by or collected from the local streets. The sculptures reflect the local area and the vibrancy of the street life of Whitechapel.
American artist Louise Nevelson made monumental assemblage sculptures from wooden objects, bits of wooden objects and scraps of wood.Her sculptures look puzzle-like, with the pieces intricately arranged together. She then painted the sculptures to unify the different elements. Look at this sculpture. What objects (or parts of objects) can you spot?
Found objects and materials feature in Ghanaian Scottish artist Hew Locke's sculptures and installations. The Procession (2022), made for Tate Britain's Duveen Galleries is inspired by the tradition of Caribbean carnivals, as well as historical marches and protests. It features 150 hand-made, life-sized figures including horses, men, women and children who hold or carry banners, flags, musical instruments, maps, boxes and many more objects.
Hayley Tompkins uses found objects alongside painting and photography. For Tomkins, painting is a process of thinking and exploring rather than a means to simply produce paintings. She often paints on found objects to explore how painting can transform them and to construct a balance between the pictorial and the physical. She has painted a range of ordinary, everyday objects including chairs, cutlery, tools and clothing, transforming them into something extraordinary.
David White's sculptures are made from discarded photographs, plastic flowers, toys and shells. By placing the objects together to form assemblages, he creates new meanings from the objects, touching on themes of sentimentality, pop culture, and religion. The sense of history and memory that these found objects have, add to the meaning of the work.
Detail of a sculpture by Ros Burgin made from recycled magazines
Activity: experiment with materials and techniques
The purpose of this activity is to encourage students to explore the properties of materials and experiment – and have fun – with inventing techniques.
Ros Burgin describes her approach to sculpture as playing with materials and seeing what she can make them do.
'When I pick up a new material I will always literally play around with it – and that just means doing almost anything you think of to it.' – Ros Burgin
You will need
A selection of found objects and/or everyday materials. (These could be magazines or old books, plastic bags, plastic bottles, bicycle tyres or inner tubes, balls of wool, soft toys … anything that can be manipulated into different shapes.)
Scissors, string, sticky tape and bulldog clips or pegs (tools for attaching materials together or holding them in place)
Task students with selecting one or two materials from those you have gathered to create a new and very different object. They should do this by manipulating the materials: what can they can make the materials do? Encourage students to be inventive and try things out. Make it clear that there are no correct or established processes or techniques. It is up to them to invent new techniques for working with their materials!
Set a time limit for this activity of 30 to 40 minutes.
These prompts might be helpful in encouraging students to experiment:
What are the properties of the material (is it hard, soft, squidgy, bendy, heavy, light, etc.)?
What does the material naturally do?
What can you make it do by pulling and pushing it and folding and bending it?
Can you force the material into something that it doesn't want to do?
Cut it up and re-arrange it, turn it inside out, weave with it…
At the end of the lesson, ask students to share their experience of working with the materials and the processes they developed in order to work with the materials.
What objects or materials did you use and what are the properties of the materials?
Were the objects or materials easy to manipulate into the shape you wanted (or did the materials dictate what happened?)
What techniques worked and didn't work?
What did you do to the objects? Describe your ideas and process.
Did you end up with something more interesting than what you started with?
Activity: create a sculpture from recycled objects and materials
Now that students have discovered the possibilities of transforming everyday materials into something very different, task them with planning and making a sculpture from recycled found objects and materials.
The sculpture could be abstract: Ros Burgin made geometric cylindrical forms from magazines, and artist Ruth Spaak has woven this colourful relief sculpture from strips of recycled plastic.
Or the sculpture could be a representation of something from the real world (such as a figure, a plant or a building).
As students will be recycling objects and materials for the project, they could use their sculptures to put across a message about sustainability, pollution or the environment. Tony Cragg made this sculpture from plastic scraps and objects discarded in the environment ...
How could students use their sculptures to put across a powerful message?
Research artworks on Art UK
Encourage students to research artists to inspire their artwork. They could try searching for 'mixed media', 'assemblage' or 'recycled' on Art UK.