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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!).

Fountain

Fountain (replica 1964) 1917

Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968)

Tate

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.

Entrance to a Grotto

Entrance to a Grotto

Andrew Coates (b.1939)

Royal Birmingham Society of Artists

Artists often adapt and manipulate found objects to create artworks – bending, cutting and painting or drawing on them.

Hound of Geevor

Hound of Geevor

David Kemp (b.1945)

Glasgow Life Museums

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.

Many contemporary artists including Sarah Lucas, Damien Hirst and Cathy Wilkes use found objects and materials in their work.

Discover some of the ways artists have used found objects – from Picasso to contemporary artists – in this Art UK Curation:

Pauline Bunny

Pauline Bunny 1997

Sarah Lucas (b.1962)

Tate

Artist in focus: Ros Burgin

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.

Detail of a sculpture by Ros Burgin made from recycled magazines

Detail of a sculpture by Ros Burgin made from recycled magazines

'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: 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.

See more sculptures by David Batchelor and watch a video about his techniques

Find out more about David Batchelor's ideas and processes

Walldella VI

Walldella VI 2007

David Batchelor (b.1955)

Government Art Collection

Anka Dabrowska (b.1979)

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.

See more sculptures by Ana Dabrowska

Visit the artist's website

Vans Kiosk

Vans Kiosk (Royal London Sculpture 10/11) 2012

Anka Dabrowska (b.1979)

Vital Arts, Barts Health NHS Trust

Louise Nevelson (1899–1988)

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?

Find out more about Louise Nevelson

Nightscape

Nightscape 1957–1964

Louise Nevelson (1899–1988)

National Galleries of Scotland

Hew Locke (b.1959)

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.

Find out more about The Procession

Hew Locke's 'The Procession' at Tate Britain

Hew Locke's 'The Procession' at Tate Britain

Hayley Tomkins (b.1971)

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. 

Find out more about Hayley Tomkins

Watch an interview with the artist

Spoon II

Spoon II 2012

Hayley Tompkins (b.1971)

Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre

David White (active 2011)

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.

See more sculptures by David White

Mother's Love

Mother's Love 2011

David White (active 2011)

Hackney Museum

More sculptures made from found objects and materials

Activity instructions

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)

Method

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…

Artist Ros Burgin investigating materials

Artist Ros Burgin investigating materials

Review

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.

Recycled Plastic Tile II

Recycled Plastic Tile II

Ruth Spaak

Leicestershire County Council Artworks Collection

Or the sculpture could be a representation of something from the real world (such as a figure, a plant or a building).

Vans Kiosk

Vans Kiosk (Royal London Sculpture 10/11) 2012

Anka Dabrowska (b.1979)

Vital Arts, Barts Health NHS Trust

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?

New Stones – Newton's Tones

New Stones – Newton's Tones 1978

Tony Cragg (b.1949)

Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre

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.

Search for artworks


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