ATC Tutorial 1 – Memories – Digital ATC

This is page one of a free tutorial showing you how to make a digital ATC similar to “Memories,” the artist trading card shown below.


How the card started: I wanted to make a different card… something not quite so “ghost-y” as some of my other ATCs from mid-2005.

I was also thinking about some art by Disney artist & Imagineer, Eric Robison. His art reminds me of Dave McKean’s, but some of Robison’s Haunted Mansion art that was at inspired me as well.

So, I went to and looked at his newest photos. His Palace of Fine Arts photograph intrigued me immediately. At that point, I started writing this page, stream-of-consciousness, so that you can see the process.

photo of san francisco's palace of fine arts First, I reduced the image size and increased its resolution so that it’s five inches wide at 150 dpi. In all likelihood, this will be a horizontal card, not a vertical one.
Next, I altered the color using Hue/Saturation in Adobe Photoshop. I liked the building in blue and the trees in purple, but the sky wasn’t right… yet. same photo with altered color
new layer and pink + orange added to ATC I added a layer to the image, and used the airbrush tool to spray pink and orange onto that layer, randomly. Then, I used the eraser tool to tidy up the areas where I’d oversprayed too much of the palace. Since the layer was going to be made partially transparent, I didn’t have to be too precise with any of this.
I made that layer a 60% transparency, and adjusted the colors as I worked with Hue/Saturation, but I wasn’t thrilled with it. So, I sprayed some yellow onto that same layer and used Gaussian blur on that layer, and kept tweaking the balance of transparency and saturation until I like it. sunset-y layers added

However, that little spot of sky that you can see through the palace looked odd.

So, I…

  • created a new transparent layer for it
  • sprayed yellow onto it, and
  • adjusted the hue to make it a little cooler in color, so it wouldn’t leap forward quite so much.

At this point, I still didn’t have a theme for the ATC, but I liked how it was going. My next step was to adjust the water to reflect the sky.

Next page: ATC Tutorial 2 – Memories – Adding more layers

Gold Leaf – ATC Tutorial

My instructions for making this card are for Adobe Photoshop, but you can use almost any graphics program and create the same effects.

It’s not easy to explain this sort of process. It’s vastly easier for me to show you, in person.

If you print out this page and follow it step-by-step, you’ll probably figure out how to create some very cool effects with your computer.

ATC - Gold Leaf
(click on the card for a full-size printable copy)

The figure of the woman is from my Shameless Hussies image CD. (If you already own it, she’s the “clothed-dancer” image in the Performers folder on that CD.)

To isolate her figure for the card, I digitally pasted the image onto my ATC background.

In Adobe Photoshop, I then used Select–>Color Range, and put the dropper over the background color. With that selected, I deleted everything that was that approximate color. I repeated this until the figure was isolated enough.

Then, I used the Eraser Tool in Photoshop–with the soft edges, at 100 pixels–to remove remaining bits that didn’t suit the design.

I added a transparent layer underneath the figure, and use the Airbrush tool (soft edges again) to create a yellow “halo” effect in back of the figure’s head. I really wanted her to glow.

When I add a figure to an ATC, I often have a story in my mind. In this case, I wanted her to be slipping into a fabulous fantasy world from reality, so I wanted a reference to the “tick-tock” everyday world.

But, I didn’t want anything too glaringly modern. So, I used a slim slice of a dated almanac page from my image CD, the 1819 Farmer’s Almanac. I pasted that onto its own layer, and made that layer about a 30% transparency.

Finally, I used the Eraser tool to remove a little of the greenery of the daisies, and reveal the golden straw from an otherwise-hidden layer. The straw restores a sense of proportion to the scene, and it’s also a reference to the gold (another visual pun) in the Rumplestiltskin story.


You can make any layer transparent in the Layers menu. Here’s a picture of what it looks like when you create the layer. The red arrow points to the Opacity setting; adjust that to get the level that you want.

New Layer screen showing opacity

Or, you can adjust the transparency level on the right side of your screen, in the Layers tab. The red arrow indicates where you will adjust the transparency.

Layers tab in Adobe Photoshop
If you play with the layers, tweaking them a little here, a little there, you’ll soon get the effect that you want.

That’s really all there is to creating a graphic like this.

For the story behind the card–why I chose the elements that I did–see my page, Gold Leaf – a free, printable ATC.

Superman Shrine – Pringles Lid

You can make a small shrine using a Pringle’s potato chip lid. Here are some general instructions to create the base for the shrine.

My Superman shrine is illustrated at left.

It was created using very small artwork–some of it original–and a Pringle’s potato chip lid. You know, one of those clear plastic snap-on lids that allows you to reseal the container.

First, I washed it with dishwashing liquid to remove all grease from it. Then, I cut a notch in each side, so it could fold.

But, even if I scored it along the fold line, the lid wouldn’t stay folded at a right angle.

side of shrine

Plastic–such as this potato chip lid–has a “memory,” which means that it likes to return to the same shape it was made into at the factory. In this case, the Pringle’s lid wants to snap back into a flat position. It’s necessary to fasten it at a right angle, for the shrine to look right.

My solution was to use my Fiskars 1/16″ punch. I put a total of four holes in the rim of the Pringle’s lid: Two on the upright part of the shrine (one hole on each side) and two on the flat part of the shrine (also in the rim, one hole on each side, right & left).

Then I used embroidery floss and an embroidery needle. I knotted the thread as if I was sewing, and pushed the needle and thread through the hole on the bottom/flat side of the shrine. (The hole is actually in the rim, but it’s on the half of the lid/shrine that’s rests on the table.)

I sewed this from the inside so the knot is hidden under the rim of the lid.

Then I put the needle and thread through the corresponding hole on the top/upright side of the shrine. It’s less important whether or not you go from the inside out, or vice versa.

Either way, I went through the hole twice, knotted the thread, and left a good tail on it when I cut it.

Then I put a dab of glue (Perfect Paper Adhesive, but white glue will work fine) on the tail of the thread, and tucked it inside the rim of the lid/shrine.

I repeated this process on the other side of the shrine.

I know… this may be impossible to understand without a bazillion diagrams.

If none of this makes sense to you, experiment. You’ll probably come up with an even better design!

Art and Science of Pocket Shrines

superman shrine by aisling d'art First you start with an idea.

Well, maybe.

It’s where most people begin. You know, “Oh, I MUST make a shrine to chocolate!” Or Elvis, or Russell Crowe, or Barbie, the Banana Splits, or the Planet Melmac.

But where you should start–and of course, we never do what we should–is with the container.

The container should be small, of course. I mean, where will it go?

Select the container

A dashboard shrine may fit nicely in a small candle sconce, or a matchbox.

Something for your pocket might go better in a matchbook, a film canister, or slide out of a gutted dental floss dispenser.

The point is, the container determines everything. Unless you want to collect images and then scan them (or color photocopy them) down to size, start with the container.

The Three Cs:

Containers should meet the “three Cs” requirements: Cheap, Clean, and Compact. Charming is optional, kitschy is a plus.

So anyway, find your container. I highly recommend glancing in your trash right now, to see what you’ve thrown out recently.

One of my favorite shrines is shown above, the Superman shrine built in a Pringles potato chip lid.

But anyway, let’s assume you have a few containers gathered.

Next, choose a theme

Your theme can be absolutely anything. Select a person, place, idea, event or holiday. I’ve already listed a few, but don’t stop there! Movie idols, personal obsessions, fetishes, and weird/quirky stuff is what we’re looking for.

Serious topics? Why not? Draw on your spirituality, or history, or your dreams.

But find a theme anyway. Maybe it starts with a toy you bought at random from the 25-cent dispensers at the door of the grocery store. Or the fortune card you received at the penny arcade.

Maybe it’s about spike heels, condoms, bubble bath, the Trix rabbit, or Elmo… or a scary combination of some of these!

The thing is, you need a fairly clear vision/theme. You can adjust it as you find trinkets and images for your shrine, so don’t get totally locked into one idea.

Gather shrine elements

It’s time to collect bits and pieces to go into your shrine. You already know the size you’ll need…something which will fit inside your container.

There are several elements to consider when constructing a shrine. Color… either lots of color, or a single theme, such as Elvis and the color blue, as in My Blue Heaven, Blue Suede Shoes, and, “…a blue Christmas without you.”

Also, think in terms of dimension. Flat shrines are fine. No problem.

But, you can raise some elements above others, with foam tape or little blocks or something.

Think about texture, too. You can improve interest in the shrine by using fabric to cover it, or to line it. Satin is an obvious choice. Tacky red satin with mini-fringe or pom-poms for trim…excellent! (Dollhouse supply shops offer some wonderful trims.)

Images are best if they’re the right size. With a scanner or photocopy machine, you can reduce any image to the right size.

The library may have some fabulous books for inspiration.

(But, keep in mind that there are copyright issues, especially if you plan to sell your shrines using copyrighted images.)

So, once you have your bits & pieces, you’ve reached the assembling phase.

Complete your shrine

The first issue is glue: Even “permanent” glue sticks dry in high heat and/or low humidity. The pieces fall off. Yep, done that.

Another poor choice is rubber cement. It can yellow and/or turn paper translucent as the years progress. One brand claims to be archival, sort of. Read the label, and decide for yourself.

I favor hot glue, and Rollataq, or whatever you like for collage/assemblage work. (Rollataq is a glueing system which involves a special rolling dispenser filled with the Rollataq glue. Yes, it’s still messy, but it keeps glued paper smooth.)

Be prepared to change your mind about what goes where. Spontaneous art is the best art!

All done? Congratulations! It’s time to display your work. Dashboards are good. So are office desks, copy machine tables, and so on. Put a pinback on it, and wear it.

Oh sure, you can tuck your shrine in your pocket or purse, but you must promise to take it out regularly, and enjoy it.

Pocket shrines are made to display, show off, and flaunt.

Pocket shrines are FUN! Enjoy!

Layering Paint and Polyurethane for Rich Depth

After draping your art shrine or assemblage with plaster and gauze, you can achieve astonishing results by layering paint and polyurethane.

These photos show just a few of my experiments with this technique.

It’s best to read this entire page before shopping for paint, polyurethane, and related supplies. You may get some great, unique ideas as you read…

Start with a surface that you’ve prepared by adding texture with plaster and gauze.The surface should be painted with at least one coat of gesso so that it doesn’t absorb so much paint.

You’ll also need a paintbrush of some kind (foam is okay) and paint.

I’m using mostly Brera acrylic paints, an Italian line from Maimeri (pronounced “my-MERR-y”), in my art.

You’ll also need polyurethane with a glossy finish.

1. If you need to paint a dark background, do that first, avoiding the raised areas that will be covered with gold. You can mask the areas that will remain unpainted, by covering them with easily-removed masking tape, if you like. I rarely use this, and prefer to apply the background paint carefully.Generally, I mix two or three colors on the brush as I paint, to give the surface a greater sense of depth. If I want the shrine to be very dark and mysterious looking, as in the three illustrations above, I’ll paint the raised areas as well as the background.

In this demo, I’m using Brera Violet #443, Brera Phthalo Blue #378, and Winsor & Newton Finity in Permanent Rose. I’m leaving the raised areas white, so the gold will be especially light, too.

2. When the background is fully dry, paint gold onto the raised areas. It’s okay to be a little sloppy. You can use one regular layer or a couple of thin layers of paint, depending upon what works best for you. In humid climates, two thin layers are usually best, allowing them to dry fully between coats.In this demonstration, I’m painting with Brera #142, Luster Gold acrylic paint. You can use any brand of interference-type gold for this, or even gold ink or a gold leaf type of paint.

When wet, the paint will look whitish and opaque. The white vanishes as it dries, leaving the surface translucent gold. If you painted the raised areas with a dark color first, you will definitely need two coats of the gold paint over it, to get a “real” gold look.

3. When the gold has dried, apply a very moist layer of paint in the color of your choice. Generally, you’ll use the same colors as your background. Press the paint into the holes in the gauze and the depressed areas in the texturing.If you’re covering a large area, paint some of it and wipe off the paint (see step 4), then paint another area of the surface, and wipe the paint off, and so on. In the photo, the lower left corner has been painted, the upper right has been painted & wiped, the and rest is still gold, waiting for paint.

If you were sloppy with your gold, also paint over the areas that were highlighted. Let the paint dry for just a minute or two. (I used Cobalt Blue for this layer.)

4. Using a paper towel or soft rag, gently wipe some of the fresh paint off, leaving some of it behind, especially in the depressed areas. Then, let the paint dry fully.In this photo, you can see how the paint remains in the tiny holes of the gauze, and in the depressed areas of the shrine.
5. Paint with a high-gloss polyurethane. Acrylic polyurethane is not as shiny, but it dries faster and without toxic fumes. Regular polyurethane must be used with good ventilation, takes at least four hours to dry, requires turpentine or paint thinner for cleanup, and can yellow slightly with time.I use the paint-on kind of polyurethane, with a foam brush. However, you can use spray polyurethane in a well-ventilated area. Several light layers are better than one thicker layer.

Important: Let each side dry flat before turning the shrine to polyurethane another side of it.

6. When the polyurethane has dried, repeat steps 3 and 4, using another color of paint in the same and/or different areas on the surface.(Don’t cover the whole thing again. I like to paint areas no larger than one inch squares, and sometimes just 1/2 inch streaks.)

Add up to four layers of paint (use polyurethane after adding two colors, for maximum depth). If you add more than four layers of additional colors, it can look gaudy or muddy. (But, if you make a mistake, you can generally scrub down to the last polyurethane layer, and try again.)

If you want a “golder” look–and I usually do–highlight just the peaks of the texturing with gold. Press small pieces of gold or other leafing into the almost-dry paint, if you like.

Add one or two coats of polyurethane after the final layer of paint. Additional layers can add to the ‘dichroic glass’ illusion.

Optional: When you paint the raised areas with gold, you might try painting the entire surface of the piece with a thin coat of Luster Gold or an interference gold. This paint is generally translucent.

In the photo on the left, the light is shining directly on the box. To the right, I’ve tilted the box slightly so that light penetrates the gold paint, and you can see the color beneath it.

Remember that, although these effects look like metal, they’re still based on plaster and gauze. So, the surface can be brittle if dropped or chipped.

The more you coat it with polyurethane, the better your protection.

However, it’s best to treat these objects as fragile.

They’re lovely to look at!

Embellishments for Mystery & Dazzle

Plaster and gauze are ideal materials for embellishing your art shrines and assemblages.

To learn the basics of using plaster and gauze, see:

When using plaster-embedded gauze, you can create fabulous textural effects with common household and art objects.

Among my favorites are soft drink bottlecaps. Place one with the open side up, and drape the wet gauze over it. Press it around the shape, inside the cap, and leave enough gauze around the bottlecap to hold it in place on the shrine.

After it dries and you’ve painted the shrine, a  flat-bottomed glass beads/stones fits perfectly, one in each bottlecap. (My current package of those beads is labelled, “Glass Decorative Gems.”  They’re inexpensive and available at arts & crafts stores as well as budget import shops.)

Here’s how it looks when finished:

bead in a bottlecap embellished shrine

However, you can use other supports for the gauze.

One of my favorites is a Pringle’s potato chip can lid. This creates a circular area with a lip that is perfect for putting the focus on an inset image such as a religious icon, or small embellishments such as a rusty lock, etc.

I used a Pringle’s lid for this shrine:

Pringle's lid as part of assemblage on art shrine

You can also drape the gauze over wooden shapes such as stars, moons, a Celtic cross, numbers, letters, and so on.  Check arts & crafts stores for inexpensive wooden cut-outs that will add interest to your shrine.

You might want an eerie effect, draping it over a doll’s face, similar to the “mummies” that were popular in art a few years ago.

There are an endless number of textured and dimensional objects to try under gauze. Check your toolbox, trash, or even your drawer of kitchen tools for ideas.

Remember two things:

  • This gauze sticks to anything, including Altoid tins.
  • And, be sure to drape enough of it around the applied object, so that it is held in place when the gauze dries.

Applying Plaster Gauze to Your Art Shrine

Plaster and gauze — the same materials used in medical settings for traditional plaster casts — can add excitement and dimension to your art shrines and assemblages.

This is page two of instructions that started at Shrines – Add Texture with Plaster and Gauze

5. Dip gauze all the way into the water, and remove it quickly. The longer it sits in the water, the more plaster washes off the gauze, and the less rigid the final results.Also, it’s not necessary to squeeze water out of the gauze. In fact, if you squeeze the water out, you may also lose some of the plaster.
6. Drape the wet gauze directly onto the surface that you’re embellishing. Once you have it in place, you can flatten it if you want less texture; otherwise, just leave it where it is.In this photo, the cigar box had been gesso’d before embellishing. You can gesso afterwards, if you prefer. It doesn’t make much difference in most cases.This gauze will stick to untreated Altoid tins, without gesso and without removing the paint first. If it starts to lift up after the gauze dries, the paint and sealer usually act as glue to reattach the gauze.
7. To vary the texture of the gauze, you can smooth parts of it with your fingers, gently spreading the plaster so that it fills some of the holes in the gauze.

I like to smooth no more than 50% of the gauze in my art.

The holes will catch the paint later, so that your finished piece will look even more ancient and mysterious.

8. When you have the look that you want, leave it alone and repeat with another piece of gauze, adding more layers or areas of texture to your surface.The gauze sticks to itself best when wet, so it’s good to get all of the embellishment on the item in one sitting.
9. You can speed the drying time by heating the gauze–after it’s in place–with your embossing gun. However, be sure not to scorch it.

In some cases, the painted surface of the object may bubble or melt under the extreme heat of the embossing gun. Use it cautiously, if you use it at all.

Heating is not necessary, and even if with extensive use of the embossing gun, you should still wait at least an hour or two before painting the gauze.

In general, it’s good to let the gauze dry overnight rather than rush it with heat.

It’s not necessary to cover the entire surface with gauze. In fact, I recommend leaving part of it untreated.
Let each surface dry to the touch before moving the box to embellish another side. Wet gauze can slide off the box if it is tilted too soon.

click to see larger

A mix of smooth and rough areas on the gauze will result in a more interesting and varied painted surface when the embellishment is complete.

(Click picture to see a larger area on a finished shrine.)

For best results, cover the gauze with at least one coat of gesso before painting it.

Be sure that the gauze is fully dry before applying the gesso, or the gesso can seal the moisture inside the fabric.

Shrines – Add Texture with Plaster and Gauze

Plaster and gauze can add exciting dimensions to your art shrines. In fact, the effects can look completely unlike a “plaster cast.”

The following instructions are page one of two.

A package of plaster-embedded gauze. This is what doctors used for casts on broken limbs, in the past. Vets still use it sometimes. You can buy it as an art supply (shown left), or from a medical supply house, or through your veterinarian.

At left, you’ll see it as an art supply, “PlasterForm,” from Amaco. I buy mine at Texas Art Supply. A package is about $4.50 and will last for many projects.

You’ll also need the surface that you plan to embellish, a cup or bowl of water, and household scissors. You may also want to include optional surface embellishments. (Also see “Embellishments for mystery and dazzle.”)

1. Open the package and unroll some of the gauze.

Work over newspaper or a surface that is easy to clean up. The gauze is dusty, and your worktable will be covered with a fine plaster powder.

2. Cut the gauze with household scissors. The plaster will tend to dull your scissors.

I usually cut through fine sandpaper to sharpen the blades after working with this gauze.

3. I get the best results when I trim the gauze into irregular shapes. My largest pieces are usually about two inches on the widest edge. My smallest pieces are about 3/4 inch on the narrowest edge. Start with at least six pieces when you are trying this technique.

It helps to cut all of your pieces before getting your hands wet.

4. With your shrine (or surface that you plan to embellish) nearby, dunk one piece of the gauze into a cup or bowl of water. The temperature does not matter, and you only need enough water to cover the gauze completely.

Using Rubbings in Your Art

There are many ways to use rubbings.  Play!  Let your ingenuity run wild!

click to see larger

Rubbings can illustrate your journal — do rubbings of everything as you travel. Try rubbing:

  • Brass plaques and historical markers
  • texturing on benches
  • braille plaques in many public buildings
  • chair backs
  • cobblestones
  • coins and tokens
  • doorknobs and related hardware–remember to rub your hotel room key if it’s not a card
  • floor or sidewalk art – particularly brass art/plaques embedded in some airport walls and floors
  • interesting wall texturing–created to reduce noise–in subways and other public settings
  • numbers on houses/buildings
  • part of a drain cover (manhole cover)
  • raised designs on walls
  • seat number tags, if you go to the theatre, ballet or opera
  • and, textured wallpaper, ceilings, and door & window trim.

Many food packages have an embossed quality, especially tins.

With very thin paper and soft pastels, you can do a rubbing of the texture that remains in the sand after the tide goes out. Using different colors, you can overlap the wavy lines by moving the paper.

(The paper will be fragile when it’s wet, so handle very carefully. If the sand is moist, you can put plastic wrap or a cheap plastic poncho between the sand and your paper.)

You can use them for text. Get a Dymo (raised letters imprinted on tape) label tool (less than $10 at Wal-Mart, in the stationery section) and print words on the tape. Use them for rubbings. (Save them–mounted on dominoes or other small, flat surfaces–to use again later, or to share in a class.)

If a rubbing would be backwards–for example, if you do a rubbing of a rubber stamp–you can rub with a very dark color on tracing vellum, and then display it “upside down” (looking through the vellum) with a white or very light background as contrast for the rubbing.

Small rubbings, particularly of three-dimensional art, can be ideal for use in shrines.

You can scan your rubbings and manipulate them, adding more images with your computer graphics program. On the right in the example above, I placed Edgar Allen Poe’s face over a gravestone ornament rubbing.

Or, you could put a rubbing of an historical marker in the center of a collage with photos from that site.

The ways that you use rubbings are limited only by your ingenuity. Try rubbings today, and see what great ideas you discover!

Gravestone Rubbings – How-To

Halloween, ghosts, and haunted cemeteries. They seem to go together.

Gravestone and monument rubbings were once very popular. In fact, in past centuries, they were a common field trip activity for schoolchildren.

Today, many grave markers have been damaged by overzealous rubbing. They’ve also suffered from natural decay from harsh weather and years of acid rain.

Here are my best tips for successful gravestone rubbings.

gravestone casting
Typical casting from a Colonial American gravestone. It’s an alternative to putting pressure on the actual grave marker.

Before attempting rubbings on actual headstones or monuments, be sure to check the laws in your area.

  • In the U.S., particularly in New England, it may be against the law to make rubbings on gravestones.  That’s because so many gravestones are fragile, and the pressure of rubbing can damage them.
  • In the U.K., centres have been set up specifically for making rubbings, using replicas of the original monuments and plaques.

(In my classes, students capture these eerie and Gothic images by working with castings and polymer clay replicas of the original stones. But that’s another topic for another day.)

If it’s legal to create gravestone rubbings, or if you’re working with replicas, here are some basic steps for success:

Choose your rubbing subject and supplies according to the result that you’d like.

  • Pastels tend to be more murky, and smudge easily so they will need spray fixative before moving the rubbing.
  • Conte crayon and pencil are more crisp and less likely to smudge, but they can abrade the original image, if you’re working with fragile headstones or architectural details.
Supplies: You will need paper – thin is better than thick. Many people prefer newsprint, but some use heavier paper. You will also need something to rub with. Some wax crayons are made for this purpose, but you can also use pencil, crayon, pastels, oil pastels, or conte crayon. If you use pencil, you’ll also want a kneaded rubber eraser. And, a few friends have recommended those big fat kiddie crayons that Crayola and others make. Or, you could use one of those “make your own crayons” kits to design something better suited to your hand. If you are working on a large rubbing, you may want non-marking, easy-to-remove masking tape to keep the paper from moving. If you are working outdoors, water and paper towels, may clean the surface of a soiled headstone. (Do NOT use soap of any kind, and do NOT scrub.) If your art may smudge, use a spray fixative to protect it, but do that spraying away from the gravestones.
1. First, cover the image with paper. If it’s a large piece, you may want to use special, low-stick masking tape to prevent your paper from moving.
2. If you’re using a pencil of any kind, hold it almost horizontal against the paper as you rub. If you’re using a conte crayon or pastel, rest it flat against the paper. Pressing gently, rub over the image until an outline starts to appear.
3.As lines and features become clear, continue rubbing with an emphasis on the areas where lines are already visible.Continue rubbing, covering the entire image. Apply the most color to the areas in which you expect lines or features.
4. When all of the image is visible on your paper, you’ve finished. Usually, the image will not be clear or crisp. If you’re using pencil, you can clean up your rubbing with a kneaded rubber eraser.