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The Magic of Altered Print Books

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As I’ve mentioned before, among other things my fiancee and I do art therapy work with the autistic. Often our projects bridge the gap between fine art and graphic design. Sometimes we do simple custom printing work that I also write about in the PIE Blog (for instance, cutting designs into styrofoam plates used in meat packaging and then inking and printing them). Other times we will discuss elements of commercial design when we’re creating collages that incorporate graphic type as well as images.

Within this context, over the past three weeks my fiancee and I have been working with our students via Zoom on projects referred to as “altered books.” These are based on traditional print books. That is, they always call attention to themselves as print books in some way, no matter how they have been changed or distressed.

Altered books may involve painting, drawing, sculpture, printing, collage. Some look like Victorian photo books. Others are more like scrapbooks, which are the current rage if you check out local craft stores. (These projects often have their own aisles in the art stores.)

Examples/How to Begin

My fiancee has created a lot of altered books. In fact, she made one print book into a clock. She cut a rectangular window through the cover of a case-bound book (and deep into the initial text pages), dumped a number of miniature perfume bottles into this hole along with lots of glue to hold everything together, then added a Jim Croce quote (“If I could save time in a bottle…”) using label-maker tape, then painted everything loosely in transparent red and black acrylic washes, then added a clock motor and hanging clock pendulum, and finally added side blocks of painted wood to lift the clock outward from the wall and allow the pendulum to move.

This is one example of an altered print book. Another sample my fiancee showed the class began with her gluing together multiple pages of the case-bound book. This made the collected pages strong (like canvas painting stock) and also limited the number of remaining page spreads. This left my fiancee with the cover and maybe ten page spreads before the back cover of the print book. Let’s consider these double-page spreads to be similar to a sequence of painted canvases, which (like pages in in a print book) would lend themselves to a rhythm. The images my fiancee would include as she crafted the book would relate to one another. There would be a progression.

Other Examples

For the three-session project we just completed on altered books, I found and shared with the autistic students numerous photos of options they might consider. For the sake of grouping them for discussion (both in class and here in the PIE Blog), let’s distinguish a handful of approaches:

1. Flat Art
2. Collage
3. Relief Sculpture
4. Full Sculpture in the Round

Flat Art

I would include in this category double-page print book spreads that started with text pages (or even with images and text) onto which the artist applied crayon, watercolor or acrylic washes, and perhaps their own handwriting as well. In most of the examples, the original layer of printed images and text was still visible, albeit changed in some way (with additional hand-drawn line work or color). It was still clear, though, that this was a book.


In this category the artists had added images and text cut out of other publications (such as magazines) and pasted onto the print book page spreads. Again, the underlying book text and photos (at least to an extent) were visible, albeit altered. The main difference between this category and the prior one was the inclusion of content from other sources.

And as in the former category, the artist had often included additional text, usually but not always hand lettered. I found the handwritten text to be both intimate and a nod to the nature of writing. This made the print book look like a journal, and the style of the handwriting often suggested the temperament of the artist. I was also, again, reminded that a book is an ongoing story that begins on the front cover (at least with a suggestion of tone through the imagery, type style, and colors) and then proceeds through the book, page spread by page spread.

Relief Sculpture

For relief sculpture, the artists often cut round or square holes into the stack of book pages (usually including the cover) to provide a “shadow-box” effect. There was still a flat background (i.e., it was a relief sculpture), but items could stick out of the flat, double-page spreads (half a paper cup glued to one page, for instance, giving the illusion that the other half of the cup was behind the flat page). Still another sample included a haunted house inset into one of the “holes” cut into the book and covered with fake cobwebs and a plastic spider.

Sometimes a circle cut out of one page would not be filled except with the text from the following even or odd page. That is, there was a window through the current page and into the following page spread, (hence my comment that a book is a progression of ideas over time). You could look through the “hole” into the next page spread.

Full Sculpture in the Round

Sculpture in the round implies the ability of the viewer to walk around the sculpture. It has no flat background from which it protrudes (i.e., as does a relief sculpture). The samples my fiancee and I showed the class members included an open book on which there were two birds and a birds’ nest. The nest had clearly been made from print book pages fed into a paper shredder, while the birds themselves were paper sculptures crafted from book pages into three-dimensional birds.

Another sample comprised an open case-bound book suspended from the ceiling. Pages had been removed, but the remaining pages were curved back into the central gutter of the print book, forming a series of loops built out upon one another like a cascade of teardrop-shaped curls.

Still another sample included multiple pages glued together (for strength and stability) and open and spread outward and upward, with the ends of the paper turning into hand-cut butterflies, flying up and away.

And the artist who had created the final sample had (presumably) used a jigsaw to cut the books into two facing mountains with a paper foot bridge to link the two halves. This she, or he, had mounted on a wood presentation pedestal.

So How Does This Relate to Printing?

I think there are numerous answers to this question, but the first one that comes to mind is that an altered book is homage to the concept of the print book, which is a progression of a story through time (even a history book or some other nonfiction book tells a story of some kind). An altered book always reminds you that it started as a print book someone might have read cover to cover.

Altered books also remind us of the emotional effects of typeface choice and choice of images because, again, the original matter of an altered book seems to always shine through, meaning you can see how the original author had chosen graphic elements (and perhaps why these were chosen) before the altered book creator responded to or built upon the original.

Finally, the sculptural books, like the two facing mountain ranges carved out of a stack of books, make a statement about the nature of reading. Books contain marks on a page. That’s what type is. The words only hold the meanings we as individuals within various cultures impart to them. A story occurs in the reader’s mind. It is the active interaction between the author’s words and pictures and the reader’s consciousness. And all of this became available to the general public with the invention of the printing press.

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