Cool School Tools and Materials

Unlike other school subjects in which there is only one right answer to a problem, art allows you to be creative and use your imagination to come up with your own solutions. There are no "rules" when it comes to making art, so you can create with any material or object. In this activity, we'll learn how to substitute solid waste for conventional art materials and tools. Reusing and recycling items in this way will help save natural resources, landfill space, and money.

You will need:

Materials will vary depending on use.

How to:

The following are some suggestions as to how you can reuse and recycle solid waste as art materials and tools.


Primer: Use leftover, white latex house paint instead of gesso to prime objects before painting with acrylics.

Art paper: Draw or paint on light-colored wallpaper samples or gift wrap scraps. Try drawing or painting on paper cut from a brown grocery bag, or use the stock exchange page or classified section of your newspaper.

Graphite paper: Artists often use graphite paper to transfer a rough drawing to their final work surface. To make a substitute, hold your work right side out against a window pane, and trace the back of the drawing with a soft pencil. To transfer, tape or clip it right side up on top of your good paper, and trace over your lines.


Protective covering: Reuse an old phone book to keep areas clean when pasting small items. After using, just tear off the page to expose a new sheet of paper.

Paint applicators: Paint doesn't have to be applied with brushes. Consider reusing drinking straws, eyedroppers, and sponges. Reuse old toothbrushes in combination with a craft stick for spatter painting. Just fill the brush with paint, and spatter the paper by pulling the stick across the bristles toward yourself.

Water/paint containers: Reuse margarine tubs and other plastic containers to hold water, paint, and papier mache paste. Use them to store small items for art and crafts projects.

Palettes: Reuse plastic lids from margarine tubs and other plastic containers to hold paint. Leftover, dried acrylic paint will peel easily from plastic lids. Recycle the paint swatches into other artwork, such as collage.

Triangle: This tool, which is usually made of a rigid plastic or metal, is used as an aid to draw right angles. You can make your own by cutting a scrap of mat board in the shape of a triangle. Have an adult use a paper cutter for greatest accuracy.

Patterns/templates: Take envelopes, boxes, and bags apart, and use them as patterns. If you wish to make sturdier templates or patterns, trace them off onto cardboard.

Compass: Use a piece of string which measures the same length as the radius of the circle you wish to draw. Tie a pencil to one end of the string, and tack or hold the other end in the center of the circle.

Drawing boards: After you've removed all the sheets of paper from a wallpaper sample book, cut the covers from the book's spine, and use them as drawing boards.

Artist's light or tracing table: Use a scrap of clear, acrylic plastic as a tracing table. Place the material on your lap, and set a lamp on the floor. Aim the light up, so that it shows through the plastic sheet and your work.

Spray booth: Use a paper grocery sack as a spray booth. Open the sack, and cut away either the front or back of the bag. Lay the sack with the remaining side down on a surface, and place the item to be sprayed inside. To extend the life of your spray booth, cover the "floor" of the bag with newspapers each time you spray a new item.


Another way to save natural resources and landfill space is to take proper care of the tools and materials you use to make art. Simple maintenance will extend their lives and save money, too.

Poster paints: To keep poster paints from drying up, remove the lids and add a little water once a month. A few drops of glycerin can be added to paint if it becomes chalky.

Pencils: Drawing and colored pencils are very expensive compared to the ones you use everyday at school. Rather than throwing away short pencils, it's possible to use them longer if you use a tool called a pencil extender or lengthener. The stub of the pencil fits into the metal casing, making it useful once again. Buy lengtheners at art or office supply stores, or order them through art catalogs.

Brushes: Washing brushes in soapy water now and then will make them last longer. Always store brushes with the bristles up, so that they keep their shape. To avoid damage, never let paint or ink dry in a brush. If you have a damaged brush, it may be possible to reshape it, however. Dip the brush into water-soluble glue, and then use your fingers to reshape the hairs. Continue working with the brush until it's almost dry. Set it aside to dry completely, and after a few days, wash it. If the brush is not salvageable, you can still use the handle as a stylus in other art or craft projects.

General Tips

Viewfinders: When working on location, artists often look through viewfinders to help them decide what to include in a composition. Reuse a slide holder to help you determine how much of a scene or still life to draw in your work.

Paint: Just when you think you're out of acrylic paint, it may be possible to "squeeze" a little more from a plastic bottle or tube. Have an adult use a utility knife to cut open a bottle, or use tin snips or sharp scissors to open a tube of paint.

Glue bottles: Rather than buying new bottles of glue, refilling individual containers with glue bought in quarts or gallons is more economical. In addition, it helps save the landfill space that lots of smaller bottles would occupy. Just refill containers as needed.

Frames: If you make art in a standard size such as 5"x7", 8"x10", 11"x14", and 16"x20", you can buy ready-made frames at garage sales and secondhand stores run by organizations such as Goodwill and the Salvation Army.

Easels: Foam board is a polystyrene material used in framing pictures and making architectural models. Scraps can be cut with a utility knife, and used to make small easels for displaying work. Since the foam material is covered on both sides with paper, it can be easily painted and glued. Always have an adult do the cutting for you.

Tips and Tricks:

Making art is lots of fun, but sometimes it can be messy. If you happen to stain your clothes or spill some other art material, it may be possible to save the stained garment or object by treating it. Rather than discarding the damaged item, check with the experts at Crayola first.

Visit America Recycles Day to learn more information about recycling and how you can participate on November 15th in a day set aside to encourage Americans to recycle. Adults and kids can register to win some great prizes.

The Elijah Oliver Place, ink drawing on brown bag by Marilyn J. Brackney.

© 1997 Marilyn J. Brackney (updated 2018)

Volume 9 No. 1

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