Sell Crafts
Site Search


Using Paints in Altered Books


Altered book artists use paints of all sorts, and in many imaginative ways. Artists get their inspiration from just about anything. Look around your home and see what designs or patterns jump out at you. Are the cupboards painted or decorated a certain way? Would the patterns on the kitchen chairs look good on an altered book?

altered book painted whiteIn the book to the left, I colored the pages and the niche with several coats of white acrylic. The purple embellishment is a paper doily from the Dollar Store, colored with Luminiere fabric paint. Purple Luminiere trims the rim of the niche, which represents a meandering river.

This topic is complex. It elicits many questions from new AB artists. The information provided on this web site is a good beginning. Afterwards, you will want to read one of the many excellent books on the subject.


Paints are used to color the background, or the pages of a book, as well as to color embellishments and to decorate the cover and/or sides of the book. Other artists might create images directly on the book, or use colors to blend the edges of a transfer, picture, photograph, etc.


For our purposes,we will talk about four general categories of paint -- acrylics, oil, watercolors and tempera. All artist colors contain three elements: pigment (color), a vehicle (which brings the paint to the surface), and a binder (that makes things stick together.)

Arts and crafts people are more likely to choose acrylics for coloring in altered books. However, other types can be used if desired. Many altered book artists recommend against mixing categories in a layout. Nevertheless, there are no rules in this art form -- so experiment and discover what you like best.

If you do plan on mixing categories, the rule of thumb in the art world is "fat over lean." This means, apply your acrylics and water-based paints first; layer your oil based products on top.

Category Specific Information

Other Painterly Terms

  • Additives These substances modify the chemistry of the paint film. Some additives will increase flow and blending; other additives will thicken the color, and still others additives will slow the drying time. Use additives sparingly. Large amounts will hamper adhesion and durability.

  • Denatured Alcohol. Artists use it as a solvent. Denatured alcohol is inexpensive and readily available. It cannot be consumed, since a poisonous substance (eg acetone) has been added.

  • Enamel. A paint that dries to a hard glossy finish.

  • Fluorescent Colors. These brilliant colors are made from dyes and polymer. They glow, and will overshadow traditional colors made from pigments.

  • Gesso. Gesso is a primer made from gypsum and a binder. AB artists sometimes prime the book's pages with gesso prior to adding color. The gesso adds strength to a page, enhances coverage, and also adds tooth (ie.roughness) to help paint adhere to a smooth page. Traditionally, gesso's binder was made from animal hyde glue. AB artists favor acrylic gesso, and often use it simply to create special effects. Gesso is available in clear, white, black, and in various colors.

  • Gum Arabic. A binder dervied from hardened sap of the acacia tree. Watercolors and gouache contain gum arabic as a binder. You can buy the gum in bottles for other purposes. For example, Jacquard Pearl-Ex powders can be used as a paint when water and gum arabic is added.

  • Interference Colors. Made from mica flakes instead of pigments, this product changes its color depending on the angle from which you view it. If, for example, you are using green interference over red card stock, the finished surface might appear green in one light, but viewed from a different angle, it would display the underlying red color.
  • Iridescent Colors. These colors result in a variety of non-tarnishing metallic effects.

  • Lacquer. A clear gloss coating applied to printed material for strength, appearance and protection.

  • Matte. A dull finish. Media and various other paint products come in a choice of matte, gloss or semi-gloss finishes.

  • Medium (media - plural). Available in fluid or gel, media come in different varieties and have many uses. Mixed with paint, they can increase flow, give a matte or gloss sheen, enhance blending, extend the color, add optical effects, add strength, extend drying time, etc.

    Media made to use with acrylic paints contain acrylic resins. Therefore, they will not cause loss of durability or adhesion. Many altered book artists also use media for gluing collages or for gluing blocks of pages together.

    Other media is available specially for use with oil paints.

    Medium also means the material used to produce the art -- such as oil paint, watercolors, pastels, etc. AB artists used the word medium in both contexts.

    The plural is media although many of us, including myself, are guilty of saying mediums.

  • Mixed Media. This refers to using a mixture of media or techniques in one composition (i.e. pastels, collage, ink). Altered book artists are mixed media artists, since we mix and match at random.

  • Opaque. Colors with hiding power. You cannot see through them.

  • Pastels. The pastels most often used by AB artists are made from pigments that have been mixed with gum arabic and water, then pressed into a stick form. They are sold as crayons or chalk. Chalk pastels are more tightly bound than pastel crayons. Altered book artists use pastels for coloring background paper, embellishments, or applying directly to the page.

    If the page lacks tooth, applying gesso first is advisable. Spraying with fixative afterwords will prevent crumbling.

    Oil pastels use an oil binder instead of gum arabic.

  • Pigments. Pigments are the finely ground compounds that produce a medium's color. Depending on the nature of the vehicle and the binder, the resulting medium will be paint, ink, or dye. Pigment can be natural or synthetic.

    Pigments can be purchased separately, allowing you to create or customize your colors. However, working directly with pigments is an advanced technique. Examples are Daniel Smith Dry Pigments, Sennelier Artists Dry Pigments, Gamlin Artist's Color Pure Dry Pigments, MAIMERI Pure Pigments, Perma Color Dry Pigments, and Createx Pure Pigments. The latter comes mixed with water.

  • Primer. An undercoating that makes a surface ready to receive paint. Acrylics can be used on almost any surface providing appropriate priming is done. Gesso is a well-known primer.

  • Sealer. An undercoat used to protect a surface.

  • Sizing. Canvas artists "size" the canvas by coating it with a sealant before adding a primer. Today's AB artists might size a book's page if the page is particularly porous. Matte medium is a good sealant for sizing pages in an altered book.

  • Solvent. A substance, usually a liquid, capable of dissolving another substance. In the art world, solvents are used for processes such as cleaning, thinning or mixing. Water is a solvent, as is turpentine, paint thinner, denatured alcohol and many others.

  • Student Grade Paints. These usually contain a lower pigment load than their artist quality counterparts. They are adequate for much of the work done in altered books. The professional quality artist product is recommended if you are doing fine detail work.

  • Texture Gels. These contain particles that give a variety of unique textural effects -- such as sand, glass, stucco, flakes and more. You mix these gels with acrylic colors or mediums, or use them as is and apply color over them. They can also be used for gluing heavy objects in a collage.

  • Transparent. Colors that you can see through.

  • Translucent. Partially see-through colors.

  • Varnish. A paint containing a solvent and an oxidizing or evaporating binder. Varnish can be applied over dried color to protect the surface or to modify the surface sheen (i.e. gloss, matte, semi-gloss). Some varnishes are removable.

The Acrylics Book: Materials and Techniques for Today's Artist