Shadow Boxes

Today is April 1, and maybe you’re expecting some sort of “joke” post, but nope. I’ll leave the funny business to all those other websites and blogs you visit. For me, the ideas of honesty and authenticity have become very important to my art. While that doesn’t mean I have to be dead serious about my art — quite the opposite, in fact — it does mean being true to myself. And, in keeping with my “resolution” to celebrate each day in 2022, being honest and authentic means looking at my life and the world around me and finding ways to express all that I see through my art.

Recently I shared a little information about Joseph Cornell. His name was new to me. He was a film-maker and also an assemblage artist, meaning that he gathered bits and pieces of life and put them together in his own unique way. He made shadow boxes. 

I had heard of shadow boxes before, but after seeing Cornell’s work, the concept took on new meaning for me. I became curious. I wanted to learn more. I wanted to make my own shadow box.

In many ways, creating a shadow box is much like making a junk journal. I’m fascinated by the journals I see, yet I’ve never had success with art journaling. Although I’ve created a few pages I like, overall, art journaling leaves me shrugging and wondering where and how I’m missing the point so badly. Even those lovely vintage journals simply leave me shaking my head. They are beautiful. Some are quite intricate. But… what is their purpose?

This is difficult to explain, but in some ways, I can’t quite call a journal a “work of art”. I suppose that’s partly because — to me — a journal is something very private, very personal. While I might create a journal that has meaning for me (I do this all the time with writing), it would not be something I’d go around showing off and sharing with others.

Of course many art journals are beautiful. Yet if we’re not sharing them, then how can they truly be called art? Going another step forward, even if we do call them art, what’s the point in creating that art if it’s not meant to be shared with others?

You can answer these questions any way you want, and maybe you disagree with me on these fundamental points. For me, though, art journaling or junk journaling is not a satisfying art form.

But shadow boxes… ah, these are a whole different breed of memories, trinkets, souvenirs, and precious little things. A shadow box is purposeful. It’s intended to be hung on a wall, shown off to the world, put on display for anyone and everyone to see. A shadow box is meant to enclose moments of life, intended to honor those special times and places that are part of who we are.

As I considered shadow box art, I looked back to my bookcase here in the studio. Sitting there was a tiny “treasure chest” — a rusty old tin box I’ve had since I was probably twelve or thirteen years old. It holds an odd variety of things — an old bookmark with a favorite quote, a wax seal from an old letter, a few now-tattered and yellowed newspaper clippings from the 1960’s, a little bracelet I’ve always cherished. Like items in a junk journal, these precious little memories are hidden from view. That’s fine, really. They only have meaning for me. To anyone else, my little treasure chest would be nothing more than a tin box filled with worthless odds and ends.

Yet a lot of the clutter and bric-a-brac in our lives does have meaning and artistic value, as well. I would love to have a box filled with memories of my grandfather. And, of course, there are special moments in life that we cherish — wedding days, the births of our children, graduations, and other “milestones” in life.

I started reading more about creating shadow boxes, and the idea appealed to me. It’s really simple. In fact, the best “how-to” I found came from Real Simple, a website dedicated to making anything as easy as possible.

Here’s a direct link to the “how-to” instructions: How to Create a Shadow Box

I followed along step by step, more or less. The directions from Real Simple talk about gathering mementos and trinkets as the first step, but the article then goes on to point out that you need a theme first and foremost. Consistency is the key, they say. So, you can’t begin gathering things up for your shadow box until you’ve decided upon a particular theme.

I wrestled around with that problem for a while. I’m an extremely indecisive individual with a fear of commitment — the two tend to go hand in hand, I suppose. I worry about “making the right choice”, wonder if I’ll quickly “get tired” of whatever I’ve chosen — just as I’ve done with my neurographic art — and fret endlessly over questions that are wholly irrelevant.

After running a few dozen possible ideas through my head, I realized that what I most want to “memorialize” in this first shadow box is my art journey itself. The very fact that I now call myself an artist is something worth celebrating, something that deserves to be showcased on a wall of our home or in my studio. Once I settled on that idea, the process became much easier.

Here again, though, maybe things are a bit out-of-order. Maybe the real starting point is in getting a shadow box or frame to use. I made a quick trip to Wal-Mart and picked up a 12″ x 12″ square shadow box frame with backing and glass. Similar shadow boxes are also available at Amazon, of course, and I’m going to guess you could pick one up from any arts or crafts store. This one I purchased has a depth of about an inch, so it is an actual box as opposed to a picture frame. If the mementos you’ll be using for your display are all flat items, you can simply use a regular frame. I wasn’t sure what Items I’d be using, so I opted for the actual box.

Now… what to put in it?

I spent a little time thinking about my art journey. I knew at once that copies of two “works of art” should be included. One would be that sea turtle I drew — the project that convinced me I actually could learn to draw.

Another choice was “Eyes That Have Seen Too Much” — a watercolor I made in 2020. This is probably the most commented-upon painting I’ve ever done.


At this point, I was already noticing colors and seeing a bit of harmony here. Another thing I noticed was that I had an illustration of my drawing and my watercolor, but nothing to represent my oil painting. These three areas are where I am focusing as an artist, so naturally I wanted to include a photo of an oil painting.

I chose “The Grove Where We Played as Children” because this oil painting won a first-place ribbon.

It looks a bit lackluster here — sans matting and framing — but it still means a lot, and even though the color palette is a bit different, I felt it would compliment the other two artworks.

What else could I include? Oh, I had fun with this part of the process! How about an old tube of oil paint? Yep. What about a watercolor brush? Sure thing. And a drawing pencil to represent the beginnings of my journey? Sounded perfect to me. I also decided to include the most recent edition of our HFAA club newsletter, and possibly the “show book” from the most recent art show I entered.

Real Simple suggests using three to five items. Somewhere — not sure where — I also read about using collage paper or scrapbook paper to provide an interesting background. I’ve created a lot of collage paper from my art, but at this point I decided to stay with the solid tan background of the shadow box. I was already pushing the limit by wanting to include six to eight items, and I didn’t want my shadow box to become too cluttered.

The third step is to simply assemble all the chosen items, playing around with them, looking at different design possibilities, layering some to create depth, and making final decisions about what should go where.

I printed out the three illustrations I would be using, gathered both the HFAA newsletter and the show book from the Blue Springs Art League show, then found the other items I wanted to include. As I chose each item, I considered size and color, wanting to create a variety yet still have harmony.

Here, however, is where the problems began. Let me just be clear on one thing. I AM NOT A CRAFTY PERSON. Doing the artwork is one thing — that’s art. Putting it all together in a shadow box is another thing — it’s craft. I don’t do crafts.

First there were problems printing. My printer needed a new ink cartridge. I tried changing the cartridge. It didn’t work. Finally after asking my husband for help — and trying several cartridges — the printer was working again. I managed to print out the illustrations I needed.

I arranged everything — then struggled to get the back off of the shadow box. It’s a very nice box with a nice, fabric-covered backing. I arranged my items — opting to leave out the Blue Springs Art Show listing book only because I’d somehow already managed to misplace it!

Everything else looked good. But, how on earth was I supposed to attached these things — an old paint tube, a watercolor brush, and a drawing pencil — to the backing? I tried using a few pins from my bulletin board, but then couldn’t get the box re-assembled. Besides, I wasn’t completely happy with the arrangement.

Here is the first photo I took:

Yes, it’s blurry, I know. Because it’s not assembled, and because everything is going to fall off, I photographed this on the floor of my studio, holding the camera in one hand and using the other hand to try to block the reflection of one of the lights. It was not easy.

But I did decide I wanted to make changes. I added a “Carpe Diem” quote — it’s from the journal notebooks I used to get from Let’s Make Art — and a little palette decal — from Paletteful Packs. In desperation, I got out some paste and attempted to paste the pencil to the fabric backing, and for the watercolor brush, I simply tried to fit it in underneath the tube of paint and then used two pins to — hopefully — hold it in place. You’ll notice, too, that I found the Blue Springs Art League Show listing, so I added that as well.

Maybe it’s too cluttered now. Here’s the next photograph. Here, it’s still not been reassembled.

A slightly better photo, and maybe a slightly better design lay-out. I wasn’t happy with the palette decal, tried to remove it, but doing so would have meant re-printing the illustration beneath it. In the end, I left it, although it’s moved a bit more right and downward.

For now, the whole shadow box is still un-assembled on the floor of the studio. Whether or not the pins and the paste will hold everything in place remains to be seen. My husband is out in his “car shop” — playing with one of his many vehicles — so I won’t bother him now. But later, I’ll once again ask for his help.

Overall, I do like the idea and for the most part I like the design of my “art-themed” shadow box. I’m already wondering what theme I will use for the next shadow box I put together. Maybe I’ll use a different background. Maybe a different size. Maybe I’ll add scrapbooking paper or collage paper.

As with other things in art, there are so many things that can be gathered together for a shadow box. I will happily hang this on my studio wall — so, please, cross your fingers that it doesn’t all come apart!

NOTE: My wonderful husband did get the shadow box reassembled for me, and — so far — everything has remained in place. This was a very satisfying project to do. I hope to make more shadow boxes in the future. Maybe I’ll make this a new tradition and put together a shadow box at the end of each year. Now, that sounds like fun!



    1. Thank you. This was probably the first “craft” project I’ve ever done that turned out the way it was supposed to — that’s only because of my husband’s help, of course. 🙂 It really is pretty. I was very happy with it.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Probably Modge Podge would work, although I’m not “crafty” enough to know. You might want to ask at a store like Michael’s or Hobby Lobby. I just happened to have some Elmer’s Glue sitting out, and since the pencil was very light-weight, I figured I would give it a try. So far, it’s worked, but Elmer’s Glue probably wouldn’t be a good choice for most items.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. It depends exactly what you’re trying to glue down. For anything that’s heavy or doesn’t have a nice flat surface, I tend to use a heavy acrylic gloss gel medium – it can take quite a while to dry (depending on how thick it is) but it dries clear and nothing has fallen off yet! For something like a pencil, I might try Aleene’s Fast Grab tacky glue…

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I’d never heard of Joseph Cornell before you mentioned him, but we actually got to see one of his astronomy-inspired shadow boxes – – when we went to the Tate Modern “Surrealism Beyond Borders” exhibition the other day.
    Your art journey box is lovely – finding a theme for this sort of thing can be the hardest part of the process.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, that must have been interesting! I agree that finding the right theme is difficult. I made it easier by reminding myself that this wasn’t the only shadow box I would ever make, so I can choose other themes for other times. That helped me focus more on highlighting my art journey. I really like the way the box turned out, and it does say what I wanted it to say — that I’m an artist, that I’m an active member of the art community, and that I enjoy drawing, watercolor, and oil painting!

      Liked by 1 person

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