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The Wonders of Recycled Paper

a collection of different recycled paper
My stash of papers in the making room


When I started trying to recreate my nature collections in paper, I initially used scraps of recycled paper as it was an easy material to find and I could generally get my hands on it for free. I can be a bit stingy and I didn't want to be wasting my nice, new sheets of paper on something that may quickly fall apart. I really just wanted to experiment and didn’t know where the creative process was going to take me (or if it would work) so I used whatever was lying around to get me started.

I loved how being able to see bits of print or photograph added to the sculptures story and made you want to look closer at it and think about what it was you could see. As I tried to create different shapes and structures I started to incorporate this into the sculptures on purpose, being more choosey about the papers that I found. I'd look for particular colours or patterns in magazine photographs or use text that was related to the species I was trying to make. After a while I was making connections between paper and species before I'd even begun to make them. I would spot papers that would make good bug shells in my recycling box or I would look at a plant and think, I’ve got some paper that looks just like that in my drawers.

Two leaf insects made out of paper and wire, one is yellow the other is green.
Two leaf insects made out of an entomology books pages.


One of the things I love most about recycled paper (or paper in general) is that it is so versatile. You can find paper in almost any texture, colour or thickness, making it easy to create big sturdy structures as well as tiny, delicate shapes. This is really useful when trying to recreate things found in nature as they come in all sorts of different shapes, sizes and textures too!

It's also relatively easy to work with. You don't need a lot of expensive or complicated tools to create something. A pair of scissors and a glue stick is enough to start experimenting with and if it doesn't work out you haven't ruined anything, you can just pop it back in the recycling and no one will ever know. Saying that, paper is also quite easy to fix if you do go wrong. Tears or cuts can be fixed with a little bit of glue and extra paper or tissue making the mistake look like it never happened!

As well as being cheap, using reclaimed or recycled paper is also wonderfully sustainable. You get to extend the life of something that would otherwise be getting chucked and it can often add detail and interest to a piece that you wouldn't see if you used a new sheet of paper. Painting over the yellowing of book pages can create different tones in the watercolours that look more natural and organic, like the fading of a leaf. Using the blurred backgrounds of photographs can also provide an interesting colour change in your sculpture that would be tricky to recreate with paint.


Every piece of paper is different, even between the same sources such as magazine pages or book pages. They all have their own construction and may have been treated differently during production which means you really have to spend a lot of time experimenting and working with different papers to understand how they behave. Some papers aren’t suitable for particular jobs and sometimes you just don’t know until it doesn't work and you have to start again. This is why I think putting time aside to just play around is such an important part of the process.

Quantity can be an issue too. I’ve spent weeks searching for and saving sections of blue from magazine pages so that I can make enough Blue Morpho butterflies to fill a frame. It can be hard to tell how much of a particular paper you may need for a job and when you find a suitable paper you don't always have enough of it to complete your project. I quite often have to be very strategic about where I place the template pieces so I have enough to finish a flower or bug in the same paper. There are times when you can be cheeky and cheat though, and use a different paper for the back of a leaf or something you know won't be seen directly once mounted in its display.

You do need to be patient when working with paper. Aside from having to wait until you come across the right colour or texture or enough to complete your sculpture, a lot of the processes involved can be quite time consuming. It takes a while to plan and draw out all the pieces onto your papers and then cutting them all out by hand takes just as long. Gluing is also very time consuming as you can't always glue it all together in one go. Sometimes you need to wait for a piece to dry before you can glue another part on so you don't knock the first piece out of place. Leaving things to dry over night helps to make sure the bond that forms is strong but means that it can take days for you to actually complete your sculpture.

It is always well worth the time and effort though. During almost every project I work on, there is always a point where I look at what I'm making and wonder if it's actually going to work. For most of the process all I can see are the different bits of scrap paper I've cut up and it's not until they all come together at the very end that it transforms into the plant or insect I've been trying to re create.

Paper autumn leaves before they get a coat of paint
Paper autumn leaves before they get a coat of paint


I started out using junk mail, magazines and newspapers that would have been put in my recycling box each week.

As I made more sculptures, friends and relatives started saving me papers they thought I might find interesting or useful. One relative was having a clear out and asked if I wanted any of their old books that they thought were too battered to take to a charity shop. This was when I started using book pages and started to trawl my local charity shops for books that were dog eared but relevant to the sculptures I wanted to make.

It's often worth asking in charity shops if they have a stash of broken books that you could purchase. Sometimes, when books are too tatty or missing pages the shops can't sell them on so they do end up going for recycling. I also look for old books online on websites likes eBay. This is also a good place to check whether the book you're about to cut up is worthless or whether you should be putting it back on the shelf for safe keeping! Quite often you can find old documents and paper ephemera on the internet too. Maps are another useful paper that can bring a bit of variety and relevance to your work.

I think one of my mostly regularly used papers is the brown paper packaging that gets stuffed in the cardboard box with your online order to keep it safe. It gets turned into bug bodies, autumn leaves, tree bark, pine cones, soil, rocks, feathers..... its quite a long and varied list! Tissue paper packaging is also very useful and mostly gets used to paper mache some of the finer things like mushroom caps or thin smooth stalks and stamen.

I have always loved using paper as it is such an amazing and versatile material and works for people of all ages and abilities. I would definitely encourage you to find some scrap paper and start experimenting, whether its a 2D collage or building a 3D sculptures, being creative with paper can be a very mindful activity and the possibilities of things to make are endless.


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