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How to Create Altered Books

Updated on May 22, 2015
Gayle Dowell profile image

Gayle Dowell is a jewelry and watercolor artist. She currently teaches art to a homeschool co-op highschool class.

Altered Book Page by Gayle Dowell
Altered Book Page by Gayle Dowell

What are Altered Books?

Altering books can be a fun way to express yourself while creating something beautiful. Art is a means of expressing the heart in a visual way, and altering books makes it easy to express yourself. Much can be gained in creating art to express your emotions or opinions. Creating something that expresses what you have to say is a valuable communication tool just as being able to persuade with words as a writer or orator.

An altered book is obviously a book that has been altered or changed in some way. There are many ways to alter a book; I'll show you what I have done. I first found an appropriate book, "All Things Bright and Beautiful" by James Herriot. I picked it for its title, because I plan to put things in the book that I think represent beauty.

The first pages that I created were a tribute to the book itself. I collaged in the poem "All Things Bright and Beautiful" by Cecil Frances Alexander, "All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small, all things wise and wonderful, the lord God made them all". I found this poem in the front of the book, and I thought it would be a nice addition to the first pages I altered.

See my Art Journal Prompts lens for ideas to keep you inspired with your art!

All photos by Gayle Dowell

Altered Book Photo Gallery

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Creating Altered Books
Creating Altered Books

Why Do I Alter Books?

I know there are a few people, like librarians and teachers, who are probably screaming right now, "How could you do such a thing to a book!" I was taught in school to not even dog ear the page of a book, and look at me now: cutting, pasting, painting, drawing on the pages . . . tsk, tsk. I guess I'm just a rebel.

I alter books because their pages inspire me and suggest creative possibilities. I find that if I spend too much time away from anything creative, I lose the inspiration to create. Altering books, for me, is like keeping a sketchbook. It is a place to play around with new ideas and techniques. It keeps me dabbling in things artsy while my next big project is simmering in my brain. It lets me try things out before I commit time, effort and supplies to a larger work.

You may be asking, "Why don't you just use a sketchbook?" I do have plenty of sketchbooks that I use periodically. But staring at a blank page is sometimes a little intimidating for me. Rather than mess up a perfectly white page of a sketchbook, I feel that I can only make a page of a book better, so it reduces the anxiety of failing. Also I use the words in the book to inspire me.

On this page, I used the words that were printed on the page to guide my creativity. I circled words that I liked and that gave me a theme to work with. The words on this page were: lamb, little creature, sheep, fleece, new life, and fresh. Then, I took some color copies of a lamb that I had painted and collaged them with the words that I had painted around. I then included my favorite scripture verse, Isaiah 40:11, "Like a shepherd He will tend His flock, in His arm He will gather the lambs, and carry them in His bosom."

Voila! I've come up with something new inspired by the very pages of a book. Try doing that with a sketchbook.

Altered Book Supplies
Altered Book Supplies

Supplies for Altering Books

There are endless supplies that you can use to alter books. I've shown here just the basics of what you need. Don't let the list I give keep you from coming up with other items. I do some scrapbooking and use many of those items in my altered books.

1. First you need a book to alter. I had this book in the attic and was getting ready to put it in a garage sale before I found another use for it. I've gone to used book shops and bought books that I thought would make good altered books. It is best to get a hard backed book in good condition. Find a book with a catchy title that will compliment whatever you will put in to it. You can also use a picture book and work around the pictures, incorporating them into your work. I make it a rule to not spend more than a few dollars on a book to alter. Also, be aware that you can not sell these books after they are altered as they will contain the work of others. This is for sparking your own creativity.

2. A good glue would be the next item that you need. I'm still experimenting on different glues. I like rubber cement for some paper projects because it doesn't wrinkle paper. But, rubber cement does not work well if you are using paint or wet media on the pages. I do use a glue that is acid free. I've been using a scrapbook glue stick that has worked well. It does wrinkle the paper, but I've found that it is something that I can live with.

I like the applicator on the Scotch Scrapbooker's Glue w/2-way Applicator as it has a wide tip on one end and a narrow tip on the other for different applications.

3. I use Golden acrylic gesso to cover unwanted words or pictures on the book pages, and I use it to prepare the page to accept acrylic paint or other media.

4. I use other supplies such as an X-Acto knife or scissors to cut paper - or the book pages, acrylic paint or other media suitable for paper, ink pads, stamps, collage paper and ephemera, ribbons, buttons - anything flat that can fit between the pages. If I want to mask items to keep on my page, I use removable labels to tape over the parts I want to keep before I gesso or paint over the other items on a page.

5. I also place wax paper between the pages to protect pages I'm not working on from gesso and paint.

6. I use Golden acrylic matte medium as a glue to attach my collage items to the pages. It dries clear. For the top coat over my collage, I use clear gesso.

Altered Book Supplies

Here is a list of altered book supplies that I use from Amazon.

Scotch 019 1.6-Ounce Scrapbookers Glue with Two-Way Applicator
Scotch 019 1.6-Ounce Scrapbookers Glue with Two-Way Applicator

Great acid free glue to glue my book pages together.


Altered Book Tip

Using clear gesso as the finish coat allows you to write on your page. Clear gesso also keeps the pages from sticking together if you've used acrylic paint.

Book about Altered Books

Get inspiration and learn other techniques from this great book on altered art. This is a great resource to inspire new ideas. Use this book as a springboard to personalize your own altered art book!

Gluing pages of Altered Book
Gluing pages of Altered Book

Step One: Preparing Altered Book Pages

After I have my supplies and a book picked out to alter, I find a page in the book with words or pictures that inspire me. I then circle words I want to incorporate in my design, and at the same time, I arrange them in a poetic order. I don't always start at the first page of a book, I tend to move around. Depending on what I add to my pages, I will eventually have to cut some pages out so that the book will lie flat.

I then glue 4-5 pages together on either side of the pages I want to work with so that each side is a sturdy foundation for applying my collage, paint, etc. For this I use Scotch scrapbook glue that I listed previously in Altered Book Supplies. I spread the glue over the entire page, carefully making sure I glue right to the edges. Setting the book aside, I let it dry with a stack of books on top for a few hours. I then open the book to continue drying the pages for another few hours.

Tip: To speed to the process, I sometimes glue several sets of pages at once.

After the pages have dried thoroughly, I cover or mask over the words or pictures I want to keep with removable tape or labels.

When that is finished, I take a brush and paint acrylic gesso over the entire page lightly. I sometimes like to see some of the other printed words peek through the gesso and paint.

Tip: Putting wax paper between the pages will help keep gesso and paint from getting to other pages in the book.

When the gesso is dry, I'm ready to start playing!!

Designing an Altered Book Page
Designing an Altered Book Page

Step Two: Designing the Altered Book

This has to be the best part of altering books - designing and collaging the pages!

In the two pages I prepared in the last post, I saved some words from the book to incorporate in my design. These are the words in the order I saved them. "Dance on home in the sunshine as if a curving river breathing sweet air in the shade of the woods . . .the fragrance answered and paddled to me".

Those words inspired my overall design. I first cut out a house (home) with four windows. Each window has a picture of each member of my family that I took from some photos. I then collaged this house to the page opposite the page that contained the words I saved. I cut the door open on three sides so that I could add something inside the door later. I like to have little openings in my altered books to add little surprises. It reminds me of the books I used to read to my girls. They loved opening the little windows to see what was behind them.

To collage the paper cutouts to the book, I painted acrylic medium (see Altered Book Supplies) to the house and cut outs, laid the cut-outs in position on the page and put another coat of acrylic medium on top of the cutouts so that all the cut-outs are contained in the acrylic medium. I had to be sure not to glue the door down so I could open it later. I added more paper embellishments such as paper leaves (for the woods), and some paper doilies, etc.

When I finished the collage, I painted the collaged pages with acrylic paint thinned with acrylic medium. I then lightly painted over the entire surface of the two page spread I was working on. Painting over the whole page helps to unify everything. I ended up adding more paint after I did the collage work.

When you apply the paint, be sure to wipe off the excess with a towel before it dries as you just want a very light layer of paint. At any point, I can add more collage and paint, and I often go back and forth with collage and paint making sure I let each layer dry thoroughly.

When I think that I am about done with the collage and painting portion, I peel off the removable tape I used to mask the words that I wanted to save. I then apply a coat of clear gesso over everything. Clear gesso allows the use of ink pens for writing on the page and it also keep the pages from sticking together when the book is closed.

I then highlighted the words by boxing them in with a permanent marker and creating a pathway between the words so that my readers can follow the words as I intended.

Finished Altered Book Page
Finished Altered Book Page

Step Three: The Finished Altered Book Project

Here is the finished page of my altered book tutorial. As you can see, I highlighted a few things with a permanent marker in dark brown. I also stamped a "D" in three places (the "D" is our family name initial).

Since I saved the words from the book that inspired me, I like to go back and read them on occasion.

"Dance on home in the sunshine as if a curving river breathing sweet air in the shade of the woods . . .the fragrance answered and paddled to me".

And the "behind that door" surprise, I added a favorite scripture verse, Proverbs 24:3-4. "By wisdom a house is built, and through understanding it is established, through knowledge its rooms are filled with rare and beautiful treasures".

I now have a permanent record of my thoughts as I created this page. I can now use this theme to inspire a painting in the future. I have already come up with several ideas from this exercise that I would like to try in a larger painting. Doing this exercise has gotten the ball rolling and my creativity going . . . hope it has inspired my readers as well.

How-To Video on Altered Books By Terri Sproul

Terri Sproul has a series of videos on altered books that are well worth watching. Below is one of them.

Opinion Please!

Does the idea of altering a book bother you? I grew up with a strict teacher who was also a librarian. To even dog ear the pages of a book was taboo. I've come a long way.

What are your thoughts on this?

Yes, I would alter books. Why not?

Yes, I would alter books. Why not?

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    • Gayle Dowell 2 years ago from Kansas

      I agree with you 100% Artyshroo. Thanks for the lovely comment.

    • Artyshroo 2 years ago

      I have no worries about cutting up or altering a book. I also grew up with a book-focused family and a recent house move proved my love of the papery things of loveliness when the movers had to bring an extra van JUST for my library. The thing is, that there are millions of books being tipped daily into landfills all over the world. This is a digital age, and books are suffering for it. I feel strongly that repurposing or altering them gives them new life, creating a work of art which is far more likely to guarantee longevity that leaving an unwanted tome to fester in a corner. Obviously, rare or valuable books are not the issue here - rather the damaged, out-of-date or mass publications that cry out for some love and attention. Make them part of our ongoing evolution in art, combining literature with a new creativity to encourage new generations to embrace books as a valid part of our current culture. Altering books is a tribute, not a heresy.

    • anonymous 3 years ago

      Fabulously Creative! Thanks for sharing your passion--it fuels my creativity!

    • anonymous 3 years ago

      i am currently working on an altered book and im already planning the next one i am enjoing it very much

    • anonymous 4 years ago

      I used to think like you did...but now, I realise that some books will never be read again. This will keep them alive. I love this! It can be an on going project for me, when I am creatively stuck!

    No, I would never alter a book. That is just wrong!

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      • yana 22 months ago

        I have hundreds of books in my collections and have come to realization that I have occasionally accidentally bought two or three copies of the same ones. So, with extra books that I will probably never need I would gladly do this project.

      • Heidi Vincent 3 years ago from GRENADA

        Your altered book designs are really lovely, KitandCaboodle but I now know that I will have to keep you far... far... far.... away from my books :))

      • Stormbat 4 years ago

        Its an interesting idea, and I can see how it would appeal to some people, but it doesn't really do anything for me so I doubt I would ever do it

      • miaponzo 4 years ago

        I'm pretty sure I wouldn't alter a book :)

      • victoriahaneveer 4 years ago

        I wouldn't do this personally. I prefer the challenge of a blank page.

      Ephemera for Altered Books

      I usually collect my own scraps to use in the collage part of my altered books, textured papers, napkins, scrapbook paper scraps, old ticket stubs, brochures, etc. I have found a blog that has free vintage clip art you can print on your printer. Go to The Graphics Fairy.

      If you are starting from scratch and do not have a supply of paper scrap images then these items below are great sources to get you started. I find having an assortment of a lot of different images helps to inspire ideas for my pages.

      Ephemera Assorted Sizes 15/Pkg-Gypsy
      Ephemera Assorted Sizes 15/Pkg-Gypsy

      If you search Amazon for Ephemera, you will get numerous option to fit your journal or art style.


      Would You Try Altered Books as a New Hobby?

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        • Gayle Dowell profile image

          Gayle Dowell 2 years ago from Kansas

          Thank you linfcor. That is my hope to inspire others to tap into their creative side.

        • linfcor profile image

          Linda F Correa 2 years ago from Spring Hill Florida

          You have given me inspiration to give it a try ! Great hub !

        • chrins profile image

          chrins 3 years ago

          Wow! great ideas!

        • BodyHairRemoval profile image

          BodyHairRemoval 3 years ago

          What a unique and cool idea!

        • federico-biuso profile image

          federico-biuso 3 years ago

          Congrats on LOTD! Yes, I guess I should give it a try... and wait until my gf will read your lens! She will surely find it a great idea for a new hobby!

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