3 Contemporary Artists Making Amazing Work from Materials Found in Every Art Room

students working crayon mosaic

Note: Be sure to review all resources and preview all artists before determining if they are appropriate to share with your students.

Creating great work on a small budget can be difficult. Students often get frustrated when their pencil no longer has an eraser, specific paint colors are gone, or a tool they want is missing. Encourage your students to look at limitations as an opportunity to be creative. Throughout history, artists have demonstrated that great art does not require the best of everything. Instead, it requires the artist to make the best of what they have. For example, Michelangelo’s David is among the greatest sculptures of the Italian Renaissance, even though it was carved from a mediocre quality marble that other sculptors rejected.

marker drawing

Show your students the three contemporary artists below to inspire them with fine art made of paper, crayons, and markers. 

For even more ideas to channel your inner artist so you can create great lessons on a small budget, check out the mini-series, Zero Budget Art Room. This is your ultimate resource for maximizing creativity on a shoestring budget! Join us as we celebrate the ingenuity and resourcefulness of art teachers everywhere. Led by elementary art teacher Renae Greene, our series offers innovative tips and tricks to advocate for resources you need while spending ZERO out of pocket. Work smarter and not harder and subscribe to AOEU’s YouTube channel so you don’t miss a new episode drop!

Say goodbye to wasted scrap paper and introduce Jen Stark.

Jen Stark is an American artist who works in a variety of media including painting, sculpture, animation, and installation. Millions of people admired her bright, colorful work on the MTV Video Music Awards stage, but before that, she cut A LOT of paper. While she was in college, she spent a semester abroad studying in the South of France. Like most college students, she did not have a lot of money. Rather than look for her favorite supplies, she started looking for the cheapest material. Stark bought a huge stack of construction paper and began hand-cutting individual sheets to make art. These pieces serve as a testament to her patience and persistence as well as creative problem-solving. If you want to hear more of her story from Stark herself, listen to her interview on Art Ed Radio. To keep up with her latest work, you can follow her on Instagram.

Cosmic Shift Jen Stark
Image Source

Try these lesson ideas based on Jen Stark:

  • Compose drippy line drawings to teach line and pattern.
  • Add concentric layers of cut paper around a focal point to emphasize the main subject. 
  • Make new paper from scraps to discuss sustainability and stewardship.

animal marker drawing

Bring crayons to another dimension with Herb Williams.

Seeing great art can be intimidating to students when they go to make their own art. Many students freeze or don’t put forth full effort because they are comparing their skills and work to art history masters. If this is the case, your students will find Herb Williams inspiring and relatable! Williams struggled and created what he called “a lot of bad art” before he found his path to success. While most people look at crayons as a drawing medium, Williams uses them for sculpture material. His work is a great example of how to make creative connections and repurpose objects to make something new. The beauty of the crayon as a sculpture material is that it adds a sensory element; viewers both see the sculptures and smell the wax of the crayons. It evokes a warm feeling of nostalgia which also makes the artwork more accessible for art lovers of all ages. If you want to hear about Williams’ journey in his own words, listen to his interview on the podcast Who ARTed. To see more inspiring pieces, follow him on Instagram.

herb williams art
Image courtesy of Herb Williams

Try these ideas to get your students excited about crayons:

  • Melt down old crayons in a muffin tin or silicone mold to form new ones.
  • Use a hair dryer to melt crayons for a fun drip embellishment. 
  • Make a giant papier mache crayon that is fun and functional by melting old crayons in a cup to form a real wax tip. 
  • Repurpose crayons to make a mosaic such as Hokusai’s The Great Wave or van Gogh’s The Starry Night.
  • Download the lesson, Batik Textile Design, in FLEX Curriculum for an opportunity to use familiar materials in a new and unexpected way. 

student working on crayon mosaic

Explore different ways of using markers with Tom DesLongchamp.

Every art room has at least one big bin of markers. A lot of students won’t touch a marker once the ink starts to fade, but it can be hard to throw away markers that still have ink. Try out-of-the-box marker techniques to bring new life to those tired old markers! Tom DesLongchamp is a multidisciplinary artist based out of Seattle. He uses markers to ink his fingertips and then presses his fingers like a stamp to add texture to his drawings. Show your students the work of DesLongchamp and they won’t be able to keep their hands off your bin of old markers! If you want your students to keep their hands clean, use the markers to ink styrofoam stamps or found objects instead.

marker collage
Image courtesy of Tom DesLongchamp

Show students these ideas to make the most of your markers:

  • Explore mark-making with a variety of tools by carefully smudging markers, chalk, oil pastels, and more. Control the marks with masking tape and paper stencils. 
  • Use markers to ink styrofoam stamps to save money on block printing ink and time cleaning ink plates and brayers. Press the stamp onto damp paper to draw the ink from the stamp into the fibers of the paper. 
  • Check out the resource, How to Paint With Markers, in FLEX Curriculum

marker print son of man

Introducing the three artists listed above will inspire your students to do their best with whatever tools and materials are available in your classroom. Show Jen Stark’s art to teach students about big ideas, like the element of line, the principle of repetition, or the sustainable use of materials. Use Herb Williams and Tom DesLongchamp to inspire your students to look for inventive ways to repurpose common art materials. It may seem counterintuitive when you have fewer supplies, but limitations are the perfect opportunity to hone creativity. Prepare to see your students’ innovation and imagination soar!

If you want even more ideas to bring new life to your old worn-out supplies, check out the article How to Make Good Use of Extra and Unwanted Supplies in the Art Room.

Who is your favorite artist who uses common materials in an unexpected way?

What are some of your favorite ways to upcycle underappreciated materials?

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.


Kyle Wood

Kyle Wood, an elementary school art educator, is a current AOEU Writer. He strives to make the art classroom fun through gamification and enjoys creating art history podcasts.

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