Some collage artist have difficulty in using original materials. Recently, someone posted this conflict they had over whether to use vintage materials, such as piano book pages from 1859 (recently purchased very inexpensively). The writer was considering whether she should make copies of her papers and use those, instead of using the originals. I wanted to share my thoughts about the dilemma of using vintage materials or copies.
Questions you might be considering
First, I’ll list some questions that someone might ask while contemplating the use of old papers in making art:
- Should I be scanning my old papers and only be using copies?
- Am I being wasteful by destroying old books to use a few pages in art?
- Should I try to contact a historical society or some other organization who could keep and archive old papers?
- What kind of responsibility do I have to preserve papers for the next generation?
I’ll start with the last question first. No one has assigned any responsibility to you to preserve papers for the next generation. This is something you can choose to do if you wish, and I would think this would be for important family documents like birth certificates, deeds, military records, etc. If you decide to collage with these kinds of things, including original family photos and portraits, make good copies first. Once you have copies, and you have a collage-art project in mind, you’d have to decide if you want to use the originals or work with the copies. Using originals of these kinds of papers might seem sacrilegious, but there are lots of people in the world that simply don’t put a value to these kinds of papers. I could see myself using original family documents if I had a project that was worthy of them, such as a journal that I would be passing on to my children. But I wouldn’t use them for making mail art, for example.
Should you be scanning all old papers and using copies in your work? No. That’s not necessary. Many artists prefer to use the original piece over a copy. Some artists stipulate that only original papers can be used instead of copies. It’s just a personal preference when making art. With originals, you are more careful and deliberate when working with limited materials. The stakes are higher. You are more mindful of every little piece. Original vintage paper adds a characteristic that goes beyond style. It’s a layer of age that enhances the final product. Reproductions are nice, but they often can’t compete with the real thing in collage art.
Evaluating vintage papers can help you decide
There are times when you may decide not to use originals, however, but I don’t have a rule for this. Each bit of ephemera and vintage paper has to be evaluated on its own:
- What is it?
- Roughly, how old is it?
- How “unique” is it?
- What condition is it in?
- How much do you like it?
Here’s an example. I bought these vintage trade cards for $1.50 a piece. That’s actually more than what I would typically spend for vintage papers that I use in my art, but these were a set, they are beautiful to me, and I could envision using them right away in a collage project (I just haven’t gotten around to it yet). Let me evaluate them:
- What are they: vintage French trade cards
- How old: 1905 to 1915
- How unique: As a set, pretty unique
- What condition: very good, just a few corner creases
- How much do I love them: a lot
Notice that my list of questions does not include how much did I pay for it. Price doesn’t determine the value of the item to me personally. Sellers don’t price vintage papers consistently anyway; sometimes you can find something valuable that is priced cheaply, and other times, something that has little value, such as a blank vintage postcard, is marked too expensively.
If I’ve established that these French trade cards are unique and of value to me because I really like them and are in very good condition, will I use them in my art, or will I use copies? Deciding when I have a specific project in mind is a good idea. I could see myself using the originals as a set and envision a gluebook dedicated just to these cards, with one spread per card. I’ll leave that possibility open. I also like the idea of scanning them and using them in several different kinds of projects such as postcard art or other kinds of mail art.
Tear up a book?!!
So is it ok to destroy an old book to use pages in collage art? Yes, it is, as long as you are using the pages wisely and with purpose. If you buy a used book for the intention of tearing it up to use in art, then begin to tear it up when you are in the process of creating. I don’t buy a used book, tear it up and make sets of pages that I will someday use in art projects; I leave it whole until I want to actually use it. It could turn out that I’ve decided I don’t want to use those pages after all, and end up giving the book away. Once you’ve torn out pages to use, keep these kinds of torn-out-page books together in a separate area so you know where to return when you need more pages in future projects.
Why is it ok to tear up old books to use in art? First off, if you are using your pages responsibly, as described above, you are not being wasteful while creating art. Also, though the pages may be old, if they are in a book that you bought used/second hand, it’s possible that those pages wouldn’t have seen the light of day until you came along. Many old books are thrown straight into the recycle bin or trash. If you are creating something with these old pages, a new set of eyes are going to be seeing it.
Should you try to contact a historical society or some other organization that collects old papers? Since I am a volunteer at my local historical society, I can say that unless you have documents or books that are specifically about or from a particular town or city, a local historical society will not be interested in it. If, for example, you have acquired a box of vintage photos of street cars in downtown Los Angeles, then yes, the LA historical society would likely love to have those and would probably be willing to pay for the shipping to get a hold of them. If you have a vintage school reader from the 1860s, it might seem precious, but unless it has an interesting inscription or it belonged to someone famous, it probably isn’t worth much. Readers were produced in large quantities so even though it’s old, it’s not valuable to anyone but you. But that’s ok, right? If you value it, you will treasure it and use it wisely. Perhaps you won’t use it at all and it will sit in your bookshelf in its untouched condition instead. That’s ok too. Teach someone or find someone else to treasure it.
Does it bring you joy?
I wrote another post about evaluating how much is too much paper ephemera. If you are making copies instead of using originals, chances are you’re amassing quite a lot of papers that will have to be stored somewhere in your home and probably taking up a lot of space. Who is going to look at those old papers? If you make something useful out of those originals, it brings you enjoyment and gives others the opportunity to see, notice or enjoy what you’ve created rather than if those papers were stored away.
Whatever you decide will be fine. No one is looking over your shoulder judging you while you work. You get to decide and you get to justify using an original paper or not.
Great post. Hopefully it answers questions from the folks who worry about what to do with their vintage papers.
I hope so, Julie. I think others still might not agree, and that’s ok. Everyone has to do what’s best for themselves.
Great post! I have the most trouble using original vernacular photography. But, I have started to do that too. Originals defintely are the way to go if the ire is if no real value. Thanks for the post!
Wow! I wasn’t familiar with that term “vernacular photography”, Juliana. I had to go look it up 😉 Yes, definitely originals are the way to go.
Hi I want to know about copy right laws .I do junk journals and buy a lot of used books and use for journalling any guidance would help please
It for my own sanity and to pass on to my daughters .
Thank you so very much for this post! I think I’m finally ready to use some of my most cherished vintage papers! It sets my mind at ease to realize the Universe has not appointed me responsible for the preservation of these materials! It’s a miracle they weren’t destroyed long ago! Thanks again ❣️
You’re very welcome, Judi. I look forward to seeing what you create. 🙂
I make copies of things I’d like to use more than once. If there’s lots of black in it, then I don’t make copies to save on ink. I’ll just use it or save it if it’s an important document.
That all sounds like great advice. I, too, like to use some pieces more than once.
Great post. Thanks for sharing.
Thank you, Jean 🙂
You’ve got me thinking about what my initial intentions were when I started sourcing vintage ephemera. I use some, but I have so much on my shelves. For some reason, I’ve considered them to be unique, possibly valuable historically, or whatever. I know it wasn’t my intention to be responsible for just storing all of it.
Food for thought
I know what you mean, Leanda. I have some books and papers that I will never be able to take apart for art. Some of it is too precious. Luckily, it’s not the bulk of what I have. 🙂
Really helpful article, Margarete. My favorite advice is to keep things in tact until the spirit moves to include a bit or a bob. I flip through books I’ve collected frequently, and each time I make new discoveries!! Seeing through the lens of a specific project really does open up new perspectives!!
Thanks for your comments, Theresa. I’m totally with you on keeping things in tact until you’re ready to start creating. I
m pretty careful about that too 🙂
Great article Margarete. In my part of the world (Georgia, USA), i have a hard time finding really unique vintage ephemera. So when I do, I have a very hard time using it up so I copy.i also copy things I want to use more than once.
You’re right, Pam, and I didn’t mention scarcity. If you don’t often come across vintage papers, then you’ll definitely be more inclined to make a copy of it to use again and again.
I love your take on this. You sound so darn reasonable! 🙂
Phew! Thanks for the feedback 😉
Hey there, I love your approach. I’m so glad I found you on Pinterest. Question…in the photo of this post you show an incredible arches stamp. Any idea where I might find one? I’m into architecture stamps and this would great to add to my stash! Thanks!
Hi Angela, Thanks for stopping by 🙂 Can you tell me more about the arches stamp? I don’t see it. Do you mean rubber stamp or postage stamp? What else is in the picture?
I have a hard time letting go of vintage ledger sheets. The penmanship on most is so beautiful. I have way too much ephemera. I don’t have any problem tearing up books or sheet music. Maybe because I used to do a lot of altered books. I’m trying hard to use it. copies just aren’t the same.
Great tips here –leaving pages intact is excellent advice. I`ve also come to a stage where I “let go” of my stashes and free them to the universe. I feel as artists this is what we are here for—sharing all that beauty with whoever comes into contact with it. Love reading all your followers letters . Best of…….. Regards, Hellen
You are so right, Hellen, and I forgot about letting go of my stashes from time to time, to reset and clear away blocks to creativity. I’m going to mention that in an upcoming blog post. It’s a great bit of advice 🙂
Many years ago, I commissioned an artist whose work I liked to make a collage featuring some photos of my grandparents. I emailed the photos (not vintage originals). I also had some old family documents that were in a photo album I had inherited. I told the artist I wanted to incorporate those in the collage as well. She encouraged me to scan them instead, but they were so dry and crumbly that they were falling apart! So in this case, I did use the original vintage ephemera since it was literally in bits and pieces. I love knowing that these originals from the 1800’s are part of the actual collage!
Thank you for this. The questions you’ve posed to ask ourselves before we decide using originals are very helpful. I’ve recently begun using original papers and it does bring a richness to my projects that copies can’t capture. In addition, the beautiful books that I will never cut up sit on my shelf where I can take them down and enjoy them. Great post!
Exactly! There’s something about using originals that just can’t be reproduced with a copy. I like how it makes me stop and be mindful before I place something.
I have a large collection of various kinds of vintage ephemera and if I were to take the time to scan everything, I would never find the time to make collages out of the originals. Great article! I have decided to take the middle path which is to only scan what resonates with me and what is harder to come by. Thanks Margarete!
I know what you mean by having to use precious time to scan rather than to create. Sometimes it’s hard to figure out what you want to scan! I’m glad you’ve figured out what will work best for you.
you’ve given me a lot to think about. I have a set of older encyclopedias that I got from someone specifically to cut up and make JJ with. Once I had torn up the first one, and I got a good look at the information they contained, I was unsure if I wanted to destroy the rest. I’m still not sure, but feel with the information you’ve given me, I can make a decision eventually that I will be comfortable with. Thanks.
I’m glad, Mimi. For sure it’s complicated. And the nuances are a little different for everyone.
What about copyrights? People seem to love buying Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady and rip it up for art they plan to sell. But her work is very much copyrighted. At what point is it not just a moral issue, it ain’t your art, but a copyright issue? If one can’t paint or draw is it right to use someone else’s work. Or a section from a book that is copyrighted? I mean, I could paint in Edith Holden’s style, if I want something in that style. Paint it myself, make it look aged if I want that for some reason. Her style wasn’t necessarily unique, but her images were hers and are under a copyright. It’s an interesting conundrum. Is it worse to create your own illustration in the style of another painter, or just use a copyrighted image.