Tuesday, October 26, 2010


CARDBOARD is by far one of my favorite materials to incorporate into art lessons! It's always abundantly available and there are TONS of ways you can use it to make art! It can be used in place of more expensive paper products such as card-stalk or matte board. It can have a smooth or rough tooth, making it compatible with a variety of materials. It's sturdy yet easy to manipulate. So versatile!

Cardboard is a paper product, which means it comes from trees. To find out more about how cardboard is made, click here. Cardboard is used to package and protect all sorts of items, from food to furniture to building materials to mail to... you name it! Millions of tons of cardboard boxes are used each year! Fortunately, cardboard can be recycled, and is biodegradable. However, it requires less time, money and energy to reuse than to recycle cardboard, and where better a place to do that than in the art room?!

At Home:
- Boxes for food items such as cereal, pasta, sodas, crackers, cookies, frozen dinners, fruit snacks, popsicles, tea, baking packages, etc. Make sure that any item containing food is free of all residues, crumbs, etc. in order to avoid problems with allergies and bugs!
- Boxes for household items such as light bulbs, toothpaste, band-aides, beauty products, etc.
- Used moving or shipping boxes
- Shoe boxes, hatboxes, etc.
(I'll do a separate post about cardboard rolls!)

At Work:
- Boxes for office supplies such as paper clips, scotch tape, pencils, ink cartridges, etc.
- Boxes for reams of paper (these make GREAT storage boxes, and the lids are excellent supply trays)

In the Community:
- Grocery stores - lots of boxes for transporting food!
- Coffee shops - those little cardboard sleeves that keep your drinks warm are just begging to be reused after the drink has been guzzled down!
- There are infinite possibilities!!! So many things get thrown away, so look around!

For thin cardboard (such as cereal boxes):
- Remove any inner bags, food particles, etc.
- Undo the top and bottom flaps so that the box can be flattened along it's side seams. (Do not crush or force box to flatten it - warping or creasing the flat surfaces of the box makes it way less useful as an art material.)
For packing/shipping boxes:
- Have an adult remove any staples or other sharp binding materials that may have been used to hold the box together.
- Remove anything left inside the box such as packing papers or peanuts.
- Remove any leftover tape, papers that were attached to the surface of the box, etc.
- Undo the binding so that the box can be flattened (do not crush or force box to flatten it - warping the flat surfaces of the box makes it way less useful as an art material)

Depends on a couple factors: how much of the material are you collecting? what type(s) of cardboard are you collecting? what do you plan to do with it? There are lots of methods that can work; here's what we found effective:
For thin cardboard:
- Create a storage system that allows you to sort unused, flattened boxes by color. You will need a clear storage bin, box, shelf, or file drawer for the following colors: red, orange, yellow/gold, green, blue, purple, black/grey/silver, and rainbow.
- For storing thin cardboard boxes that have been cut up into smaller shapes use either one large, clear storage bin or many small, clear storage bins; the large bin can hold assorted colors, or the small bins can be used to hold separate colors.
Considerations: Students looking for boxes with specific colors and designs will find it helpful to be able to flip through flattened boxes as if they searching through a file drawer. Stacking boxes on top of one another, though convenient, often leads to big messes when students are in a rush. Also, it's good to have one box for leftover scraps of all colors so that students do not put small pieces back into the main boxes (which also leads to a big mess!)

For thick cardboard -
- The best options are either a wide shelf for stacking boxes or a vertical shelving system for standing boxes upright.
- Boxes should be flattened in order to take up the least amount of space.
- Keep in mind fire safety regulations in your building. Remember that cardboard is flammable and can be a fire hazard if not properly stored!
- Considerations: When stacking flattened boxes on top of one another, stack biggest on the bottom to smallest on top - otherwise the stack could topple. The same works well for vertical stacking, so that all boxes are easy to find. Also, flattened boxes that are stored vertically can sometimes bend, warp, or become worn at the edges.

Acrylic paint - adheres nicely to cardboard; be careful not to water-down paint, a thick layer is needed to cover print or color already on the box
Spray Paint
Exacto and Utility Knives - blade will need to be replaced somewhat frequently for smooth cuts
Duct Tape & Packing Tape
Hot Glue - for attaching heavy items
Elmer's Glue - for attaching lightweight items like paper, buttons, soda tabs (some heavier items like bottle caps work for this too - you just have go put on a thick layer of glue and let it dry for a long time!)
Permanent Markers
Heavy-Duty Paper Cutter (as long as it specifies capability for cutting cardboard) - works well to quickly cut thin cardboard
Kids Scissors - for thin cardboard only

Washable Markers - will not stick to the surface of glossy cardboard; colors do not show up well on colored surface.
Watercolor Paint - will not stick to glossy surface; colors do not show up well on colored surface; water causes cardboard to warp or disintegrate.
Kids Scissors - do not work well on thick cardboard (like that of a moving box); using these to cut thick cardboard can cause the scissors to become dull and loose.
Glue sticks - generally, glue sticks do not work well with heavier, thicker materials like cardboard.
Masking Tape and Scotch tape - both either do not have strong enough adhesive to hold onto cardboard

Here are just some of the ideas and processes we implemented in the art room last year:

Classroom Tools:
Storage - this one's pretty obvious, but cardboard can be really helpful for art teachers on a tight budget looking for ways to store supplies!
Recycling Bins - We use the boxes that reams of paper come in to hold recycled paper scraps leftover from art units. The box can then be taken directly to the recycling bin outside!
Protective Work Surface - Flatten large cardboard boxes and lay them on the table or floor to protect from messy materials such as paints and permanent markers or to protect from sharp materials like exacto knives and carving tools.
Drawing Boards - When I run out of clipboards I like to use firm, thick, flat cardboard cut into rectangles. Sometimes my students prefer them, since they allow for bigger sheets of paper. And when you're done with them, you can use them as bases for collages or sculptures.

Art Supplies:
Cardboard can pretty much be used in any art assignment that would normally involve paper, such as drawing, collage and painting. It is also strong enough to be used as part of a 3D form. The possibilities are endless, but here are some ways you can use cardboard for art:

As a Canvas - You can create a clean slate capable for use with any material - permanent markers, acrylic paints, oil pastels, etc. To get the "canvas" ready, there are a few options:
With little prep: Use the plain, brown side of a cardboard box. Use an exacto knife, paper cutter or scissors to cut the box into the desired rectangular shape, or let the students cut their own unique shape for their "canvas."
With more prep: After trimming the cardboard into the desired shape, coat it one or more times with gesso. This helps to cover any print on the box, can add extra tooth to the surface, and give the students a white surface to create on. Certain materials will show up way better on a gessoed surface. Gesso keeps paint from absorbing into the cardboard, which mean you can use less paint to get a greater opacity. Materials like colored pencils and charcoal will show up and hold better on a gessoed surface.
To find out more about our murals created on large cardboard boxes, click here.

As a Collage Element - We used thin cardboard A LOT for collage last year. We sorted it into colors and cut & glued pieces to create free form collages of animals which were later added to our large cardboard mural paintings. In other units, we ripped apart corrugated cardboard as an element to add texture to our collages. We cut and glued shapes out of thin cardboard and glued them to paper along with other recycled materials. So many possibilities!

As a Relief Sculpture - You can cut shapes out of semi-thick cardboard using scissors or exacto knives, glue them together with Elmer's glue or hot glue, then cover the surface with any variety of materials such as acrylic paint, oil pastels, or spray paint. Two years ago, we gathered all the cardboard boxes in our school and cut them up to make relief sculptures in the style of Frank Stella. The students created sculptures that described a sport or hobby that they liked to do. We used children's scissors, Elmer's glue, and oil pastels. Here's where we got our inspiration for that unit.
- You can also use thick or thin cardboard as a base for a mixed-media relief sculpture. Keep in mind, the heavier a material is, the more likely it will need a stronger glue in order to stay intact. Last year, my kinders cut cloud shapes out of thin cardboard and used Elmer's glue to attach lots of found materials such as bottle caps. The final sculptures were painted with tempera paint. While I would recommend acrylic paint for overall quality, thick tempera worked well for this grade level. To learn more about our cloud unit, click here.

As a Printing Plate - Create calligraph printing plates using thick cardboard squares as bases. Details can be added to the plate using thinly cut cardboard, string, soda tabs, bubble wrap or other items with a similar thickness. All items can be attached using elmer's glue. In order to print from the plate multiple times, coat the plate with a thick layer of gloss medium. This will allow you to clean the plate with a wet sponge and reuse it a few more times. I will be posting our calligraph plates and prints soon on the BG Art Page. When I do, I will post a link here.

As a Stamp - This is really just a modification of the Printing Plate. Cut shapes from cardboard and simply glue a bottle cap to the back to use as a handle. Then use as stamps!

As a Sculptural Element - Cardboard can be cut, ripped, stacked, layered, and joined. It can be used alone, or combined with other 3D materials. Almost all glues work when constructing with cardboard. Duct tape and packing tape are the only tapes that really hold well over time. Masking tape and clear scotch tape generally peel off or are not strong enough to stay put on cardboard. We used all types of cardboard last year as part of our bird sculptures and eco-friendly machines.

I would love to see some of the units other green art enthusiasts have created using cardboard! Please tell me about what you have done with your students, post a link to your lesson, or point me in the direction of an artist who uses cardboard! Part 2 of my Cardboard Spotlight will include some of those resources!


  1. Katie-
    I just posted a new recycled art project that I think turned out really cool.


    I love everything I'm seeing on your blog. It looks super cool and I definitely want to use some of them in my classroom.

  2. I have one I'll post later this winter, that I do with first graders. I use the cartons that supplies arrive in. On an old workhorse paper cutter, I cut 4"x6" rectangles for a base for abstract sculpture. Then I hack up the rest of the boxes into small rectangles, triangles, etc. Kids are shown how to use Elmer's glue to build wonderful abstract sculptures. They turn out great.
    We've also done a spooky house projec with these boxes, that was found last fall in Arts & Education magazine.
    But my favorite might be making teddy bear chairs. I cut 7" squares for the base of the chairs and for the backs (sometimes I've cut slats for the backs, or other dimensions as appropriate). We use TP rolls as legs, plastic wrap or tinfoil cardboard rolls as back supports. The kids take the ferry across Lake Champlain to tour the Vermont Teddy Bear Factory, where many kids make a Build-a-Bear. They use the chairs forever! We've also made tables to go w/the chairs. I did a post about the chairs last spring. Here is is: http://plbrown.blogspot.com/search/label/teddy%20bears