Altered Books as Utilitarian Art by Kirsten Anderberg

Altered Books as Utilitarian Art

Some altered books in the making by Kirsten Anderberg

By Kirsten Anderberg (
Written June 16, 2007

I have recently come upon the art of "altered books." You take an old book with solid binding, but defunct information, and remake the book into something else. You can take an old software manual, such as "Quickbooks 2000," and remake it into a cookbook! You can take an old children's book that is heavily scribbled upon, and turn it into a fabulous promo piece for your band! You can alter all kinds of books, by pasting, painting, folding, cutting, and sewing new things onto old book covers and pages. A book can transmute into an utterly different book via this art form.

I first stumbled on "altered books" in the binding section of a national bookstore. "The Altered Books Workshop," by Bev Brazelton, was the first book I read on the subject, and I found her work to be fascinating. She glued everything from pennies to Scrabble tiles, to old stamps, vintage photos, antique fabrics, etc. onto the pages of books she altered. She is also big on making "windows" where she cuts through one page or more, revealing an image on a page below. She also incorporates folding techniques to offer layers and pop-up effects, as well as rubber stamping, collaging...Her altered book covers often have a window cut in them, with adornments such as jewelry, novelty trinkets and toys, etc. glued to the corners and ledges. She pastes sheets of music over pages in a book, then pastes pictures and text onto the sheet music. Sometimes she glues blocks of pages together, and then imbeds objects into wells created by cutting into the stack of pages. She also takes a block of pasted pages the width of a matchbox, then cuts a hole for a matchbox in the side edge, and pastes a matchbox in the hole, along with a little bead handle on the front of the box, so the matchbox now slides in and out of the side of the book! She plasters two pages with old "Holden Red Stamps," (similar to "Blue Chip Stamps" that were around in the 1960's) and it makes for a very kitsch look. Seeing her altered pages made me start collecting everything from my Seattle bus transfers that change color daily, to stamps on mail I get from around the world.

Another book I find to be inspirational is "The Complete Guide to Altered Imagery: Mixed-Media Techniques for Collage, Altered Books, Artist Journals, and More," by Karen Michel ( This book offers a wide range of creative art experiments to help decorate your altered pages! She begins by showing us how to use a bleach pen to alter photos. You can take a bleach pen on sale at any grocery store, and make a mark on a photograph, and it will begin to change color where you put the mark. If you wipe the bleach off the photo right away, and I mean *right* away, the area will turn red. If you leave it a bit longer, it will turn yellow. If you leave it longer, it turns white in that area. With this technique, you can do things like add red dots to decorate a dark background, make a white light come into a window, or add white letters to a dark picture. She also shows a technique for bleaching a photo in a pan while keeping parts of the photo dark and intact via sticker placement. She also uses crayons on a photo (much as we used to use crayons on Easter eggs before dying them) then bleaches the photo, making an interesting effect.

One of my favorite tips from this book is one where she says to print up a black and white graphic from your computer on a laser printer. Then you put a piece of clear tape over the graphic. Then you cut the piece of tape with the graphic under it out of the whole piece of paper, and soak it in a bowl of water. After a while, the paper will get soft and you can push it off with your fingers. After you push the paper off, you are left with a transfer on a clear piece of tape. This makes for an interesting addition to any altered page. She uses layered paper in interesting ways, and uses interesting attachment options too. For example, one of her altered pages in a book shows the page whitewashed, then a piece of newspaper is glued to the page, then a smaller piece of red fabric is glued onto the newspaper, then a little smaller picture of a girl with fairy wings is stapled to the page, then the girl's clothing is cut out to reveal the newspaper, from the layer underneath, giving her clothing a newspaper print, and she has a red fabric heart on her chest over the newsprint, as well! Nice layering!

Another brilliant piece of work by Karen shows a piece of metal she found on the street, with a small rectangle of newspaper glued to it, then a smaller picture is attached to the newsprint via those little black stick on triangles that are used to attach pics to scrapbooks. Her use of rubber stamping on top of international newspapers (in many languages), pasted to painted pages is novel. She suggests things like collecting astrology columns for interesting words to use in collaged pages, as well as making your own alphabet stamp set by carving individual letters into square gum erasers with exacto knives, so that you have your own personal font for your work. She uses those labels from label guns that you can click out raised words on, to add tactile texture to pages with lines of text. What these women have shown me in their books is that *anything* can be used to make art out of old books.

A page from Kirst's altered "Art Book"

My first altered book involves an old Dr. Seuss book that I got for 25 cents at a local used bookstore. This is a pic of the inside cover of my altered art book...It had a lot of scribbles in it but was still well bound with a hard cover. I began to save pictures of classic art from the New York Times' Art section, which I had a subscription to. I also began to save small articles about famous artists and their works. I then pasted the art and stories onto pages of the book. It was fun juxtaposing great art with the Dr. Seuss characters and artwork on the pages. The front cover said "The Foot Book," so I just cut out a square over the word "foot." Then I glued the word "art" onto the inside page, so the word "art" could be seen through the hole in the cover, to read "The Art Book," now (pics of this at This book is a work in progress, it is not done yet. My son always loved going to art museums with me as a kid, so I have been making this book for my son's birthday in Fall.

Altered pages, from Dr. Seuss' "Foot Book" to Kirst's "Art Book."

Another altered book I have been making is an old Golden Book of nursery rhymes which also had a lot of scribbles on it when I bought it for 25 cents. I painted some of the pages with a yellow paint, and glued pictures and fabric over other pages. My friend Larry Steiner saw this book, and said I should paste my own text on top of the nursery rhyme text, within the picture frames for the poems, on the pages. He said I could glue my song lyrics in the areas that had Mother Goose in it before. Great idea. I have since made a few "resume books" where I have cut my own articles out of newspapers, and glued them onto pages of an altered book, to create my own book, of my own articles, out of someone else's book. I love this as a way to present a portfolio of my work to a college, as a resume to a potential employer for a gig, etc. It shows a creative mind at the get go.

I have begun making altered books for everything! I am making one now where I save the obituaries of great people and glue them into one book. Another book is full of reviews and information about vaudevillians, old jazz musicians, and circus entertainers. I also have made an old law school textbook into a cookbook, pasting in any recipe I see that I like from magazines or newspapers therein. I also have a "dream" book, where I glue pictures of things that make me think or inspire me. I am also working on a birthday book for a friend whose birthday is approaching. It just has fun birthday things all throughout a remade Winnie the Pooh book!

Altering books is a nice way to recycle old books, honoring their bindings, if nothing else. I came into altered books through my interest in binding. It is a form of binding in ways, as you are using its binding, really. It is a reclaiming of the binding that makes altering books utilitarian yet one of my friends says he is still adjusting to the shock of defacing a book when he sees my altered books. I explained to him that they were almost throwing the kid's books full of scribbles away, and that no one wanted my Windows 95 manual anymore...these books were being revived, given new life, not being destroyed or filling a landfill. In an article entitled "Tranforming Books into Objets d'art," by Sarah Feightner (, she says, "Book altering is the modern version of old recycling techniques. In the 11th century, when paper was scarce, monks would scrape the old ink from used books and manuscripts and write over them. In the late 19th century, fashionable Victorians illustrated books by pasting in pictures torn from other books and magazines. The trend popped up again as fine art in the late 1960s, when British artist Tom Phillips bought an old Victorian novel called "A Human Document" and transformed it into what he called a "treated" book. Phillips crossed out lines and pages to create a new story, and added illustrations and paintings to make it into a work of art. When Phillips' altered book was published in 1983 as "A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel," New York magazine called it "the closest a paperback book has come to being an art object."

Feightner's article continues, "One issue for altered book artists is dealing with the reaction of book lovers, who are generally squeamish about defacing books, even for artistic reasons. Historians and archivists look back on the Victorian book-altering fad with regret, fearing that rare and valuable books were destroyed. "Hopefully people aren't altering first editions," said Cyr, the author of the guide to altered books. "But I know someone who altered a first edition of a Charles Dickens and didn't realize it until they were already in the process." "I have a friend who has a used book store," Yee said. "She was appalled that you'd ever alter a book. I told her we were keeping it out of the landfill, but she doesn't see it that way at all." Then there's the question of what the author would think. In the introduction to "A Humument," Phillips apologized to the author of the original book, W.H. Mallock, for tampering with his work. "I think he'd be shocked at what was found in his very prissy text," Phillips said. "But his memory is kept alive more by what I did than what he did. So he can roll both ways in his grave."

The breadth of altered books displayed on the internet alone is overwhelming. People are coming up with an amazing array of ways to alter books. One woman collects buttons and sews them into an altered book, another woman makes her own clay covers, I have seen a whole book altered with matchbook covers from around the world, as well as a book of restaurant napkins from famous food joints. Some people center on different kinds of paper, some center on attaching things, some center on layering pictures, some center on hand-drawn art, some on souvenirs. The variety is endless.

Beth Cote's website at describes her relationship with altered books..."Life needs change. Altering might be the rebel in me or the need to have my art reflect the mass of paper that has become embedded in our society. It uses everyday objects and turns them on their ear. Recycle, reuse, and rust the ideal and the theme is wide open and always interpreted in the now." Truly, this art category has an unusual amount of DIY and recycling sentimentality. For instance, check out the shaving cream and food coloring paper marbling technique at

Altered books have their following online, as you can imagine. One site at says, "The Idea...Cut the bindings off of books found at a used book store. Find poems in the pages by the process of obliteration. Put pages in the mail and send them all around the world. Lather, rinse, repeat..." This site shows examples of altered book covers and pages and it is truly a feast for the eyes and imagination!! There is an International Society of Altered Book Artists, which was formed in 2002, and their website at says they are "promoting altered books as an art form." Their site hosts a gallery of altered books, as well articles about the art form. There is a list of online altered book galleries at and a list of altered book links at Altered books are fun and adventurous. They are great projects for kids and adults alike. One book I read suggested to get started, you just go to a book you want to alter, and rip out a few pages, paint a few pages, and glue a page or two together. Then take it from there!

For more information on BINDING, check out Kirsten's Binding Page, where she talks about many forms of binding including small sewn books, paperbacks, and French gutter screw bindings!


Kirsten Anderberg. All rights reserved. For permission to reprint/publish, please contact Kirsten at

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