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Singing the blues in New Orleans.

Ever sing the blues because you're looking for new materials and techniques? Necessity was the mother of invention when I discovered a new use for a product other than its intended purpose: blue board, an insulation material made of Styrofoam[R].

I was introduced to blue board when I participated in decorating a set for the drama department--a little lagniappe or something extra, as we say in New Orleans. It is lightweight, relatively inexpensive, versatile and it really is blue!

I am a teacher in the Art Talent Education Program in Jefferson Parish, La. Our program was invited to participate in a group show at the New Orleans Museum of Art. The theme called for one large piece of artwork to be done by the students in one high school.

A collage seemed a good solution for involving many students, but we needed a material that would hold paint and be light enough to hang and transport. Blue board was the answer.

I headed to the building-supply store and purchased a sheet of 4' x 8' board (about $7) and had it cut into four 2foot sections so that it would fit into my car. Back at school, students chose a detail from a favorite piece of art and drew it on a large sheet of paper. I determined the size in order to keep the arrangement in scale. For this project, the images were the florals of the Fauves, but this technique would be suitable for any subject or age from grade six and up.

Blue board is covered on both sides by a sheet of plastic. We removed the plastic from the side without the logo and primed that side with white latex paint. (I did not have a problem with warping.) The students then used graphite paper to transfer their drawings to the board.

The next step was to cut out the design. We used craft of mat knives and insisted that more than one pass be used to get through the 1/2-inch thickness. It is also helpful to explain the concept of relief cuts to the students. I happened to have a hot wire cutter that students used to clean up rough edges, and while it is a new tool for them and fun to use, it is certainly not a necessity (provide good ventilation). Sandpaper can be used for the same purpose.

At first I chose to leave the plastic on the back of the piece to prevent breakage, but this made it harder to cut, so later we removed it. If breaks do occur, they can be patched with white glue. The back side of the break can be patched with duct tape.

After the pieces were painted and cut out, they were assembled on a display board. I used an abandoned canvas, but one might also use cardboard or another sheet of blue board. In order to return the students' work after the exhibit, I searched for a way to mount it temporarily. Hook-and-loop tape, such as Velcro", gave me the flexibility that was needed. Buying hook-and-loop tape with the adhesive already in place solved another possible problem, since blue board melts when heat is applied. Cut the hook-and-loop tape to the desired length without separating the two parts and attach to the artwork. The pieces will then be matched when you press them onto the background.

Organizing the final collage can produce a three-dimensional effect if you overlap and layer some of the pieces. To do this, add small pieces of blue board to the back of the art to achieve additional height. Duct tape worked for this. Painting the sides of the cutouts with paint that matches the surface will also increase the feeling of depth. We made some of the cutouts freestanding by attaching pieces of scrap wood from the industrial arts department again with hook-and-loop tape. The almost weightlessness of blue board gives teachers the flexibility of using it on bulletin boards or in other places where a large format and visual impact is needed. It should even work outdoors.

Change of scale and a riot of color gave this collage an extraordinary punch and visual appeal. The project also gave students the opportunity to work both individually and together. Group cooperation, inexpensive materials, and the ability to experiment with an unfamiliar product--blue board--made singing the blues a happy experience.


* Blue board insulation (4' x 8' sheet, approximately $7). If it is too big for your car, the supplier will cut it in smaller pieces for a few cents.

* Art reproductions or theme of your choice

* Latex paint to use for a primer

* Saral of graphite paper

* Acrylic paints for finished work

* X-ACTO[R] knives to cut out designs

* Hot wire cutter (optional) for refining cuts; sandpaper may also be used to soften rough edges

* Old canvas, plywood, cardboard or other large surface on which to apply the collage

* Hook-and-loop tape (Velcro[R]) with adhesive backing for attaching designs to background--price varies, shop around

* Glue and duct tape for repairs, if needed


Students will ...

* explore art-historical information on the Fauves and reproduce of interpret an image of his or her choice.

* become familiar with collage as a means of artistic expression.

* use unfamiliar materials and tools.

* work as a team to produce a work of art.

* have the opportunity to show individual and group work in a public place.


1. Ask each student to choose a design and sketch it onto a piece of paper. Determine the scale of the pieces by giving paper of a consistent size. Sizes will vary in spite of the teacher's suggestions. I prefer a large format.

2. The blue board comes covered with clear plastic. Pull this off the side that will be painted and prime with white latex.

3. Transfer the design to the blue board using graphite paper or saral.

4. Cut out designs by making several passes with an X-ACTO knife. Relief cuts will help speed the process. Smooth edges now or later, but it's harder after paint is applied.

5. Paint the designs making the edges match the colors in the design.

6. Prepare the background. Although most of it will be covered up, there will be voids after you assemble the collage. Plan ahead for it.

7. Arrange the finished pieces. They may be overlapped by adding small pieces of blue board to the back. Liquid Nails[R] works as a glue; duct tape will also hold and will repair breaks if needed. Experiment before you use other glues. Glue gun and Shoo Goo will dissolve insulation.

8. To position the hook-and-loop tape, assemble both pieces, and stick them all the the same time.

9. This will be very lightweight and is easily hung. Pieces can also be freestanding. Add hook-and-loop tape to the back and use scrap wood to create a stand.

Gloria Gilliam Esthus teaches for the Talent Education Program of the Jefferson Parish Public Schools, Harahan, La.
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Author:Esthus, Gloria Gilliam
Publication:Arts & Activities
Date:May 1, 2004
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