by Kate McLelland
Throughout history there have been very few people who found great success in their seventies and eighties. An exception was the artist Mary Delany who, at the age of 71, became a favourite at the court of King George III due to her mastery of a particular skill: decoupage.
The word originally comes from the Middle French term “Decouper”, meaning to cut out or cut from. It is said to have originated from an East Siberian funeral tradition in which nomadic tribes cut out shapes in felt to decorate their tombs. During the 12th century the Chinese put their own spin on the idea, using cut out paper to decorate lanterns, windows, boxes and other items. It took another five hundred years before the concept of decoupage reached Europe. In the 17th century Venice was at the forefront of trade with the Far East, and through this busy trading hub objects decorated with paper made their way onto the rest of the continent.
In 18th century England decoupage was an occupation for well-bred ladies, particularly at the royal court, where Mary Delany spent much of her time. However Mary managed to take the art to another level by dissecting flowers and then painstakingly reproducing them on black paper, using layers of coloured tissue paper to create the petals, stamens, calyx and other parts of the plant. Her remarkable, botanically accurate images won great favour with King George III and Queen Charlotte, who rewarded her with a small house in Windsor plus a generous pension of £300 per year. She finally retired at the age of 88 due to failing eyesight, having created more than 1,700 separate artworks. Today Mary’s work is preserved at the British Museum.
These days decoupage is becoming increasingly popular as a means to upcycle old pieces of furniture or household items such as lamps, boxes, pots, trays and picture frames. It can be used to personalise just about any item in the home and the artwork can be as simple or as complex as you want it to be. Just cut out pictures that you like, glue them to the item of your choice and cover the finished piece with thin layers of varnish to seal it.
Craft shops sell a wide range of supplies for decoupage but the good thing about this hobby is that you don’t necessarily need to spend large amounts of money to get started: in fact you probably have most of the things you need lying around at home.
You’ll need basic tools such as scissors (a sharp pair with clean edges), a craft knife, a soft sponge or cloth to wipe away excess adhesive, cotton wool buds for removing small spots of glue and fine sandpaper for sanding layers of varnish (if required).
You can use different types of adhesive but the most effective is specialist decoupage glue – available from hobby shops – which can be used both as a glue and as a varnish. PVA or spray glue are good alternatives, as both dry to a clear finish. Always use a gloss varnish to build up layers as it doesn’t go cloudy, no matter how many coats you apply. If you want a matt finish, undercoat with gloss varnish and then apply a final coat of matt varnish.
There are virtually no limits when it comes to sourcing pictures for decoupage work. You can pick up books in charity shops, raid old magazines for images, use wallpaper, greetings cards, paper napkins or even pieces of fabric. Wrapping paper is an ideal thickness and is available in traditional and modern designs. You can also use specialist decoupage papers or origami paper.
Here are some guidelines to help you get started on a project:
- Prepare your surface: the varnish will magnify any imperfections so it’s important to keep your object as clean and dust-free as possible.
- Select your pictures and arrange them: cut out roughly with scissors first then experiment with different arrangements. It helps to take photos as you go, so you can remember the different layouts you’ve tried. When you are completely happy with the images and arrangement, cut the pictures out carefully with a craft knife.
- Glue the pictures into position: quickly smooth out any wrinkles and remove any excess glue with a barely damp sponge.
- Varnish your artwork: make sure the glue is completely dry before starting work and leave the varnish to dry thoroughly between each coat. You may need to apply anything from 4 to up to 15 coats, depending on how thick the paper is and how smooth and durable you want the finish to be. For a fine, lacquered finish, sand lightly after a few layers of varnish and remove all dust. Keep repeating this process until you are happy with the result.
If you’re still a little nervous about starting your own project, there are plenty of “How to” videos on YouTube that demonstrate the process from beginning to end.
You may not find your fortune in decoupage like Mary Delany, but you’ll certainly have fun trying.