Polystyrene comes in many shapes and styles.

Styrofoam Wall Art

by Amy Stanbrough

You don't have to be a trained artist to make an interesting piece, but you do need an innovative approach to materials. Start with a non-canvas canvas: Styrofoam, the brand name for polystyrene, is an inexpensive and lightweight medium with plenty of creative potential. In 2008, Brooklyn, New York artist Jason Rogenes made a polystyrene art installation with forms gathered from strip mall trash piles in Los Angeles and other places. Taking advantage of the versatility of these found materials, he created sophisticated sculptures and wall hangings that were exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Craft in Portland, Oregon. Think large as you design and work: Unlike most other media, polystyrene is inexpensive or free.

1. Supplies

With a project in mind, you will need a few supplies. Cutting polystyrene is a challenge for anyone working with the material. Using a knife results in jagged, crumbling edges. Scissors usually won't go all the way through. Use a table saw for better results, or try a foam hot wire cutter or hot knife. Both are sold at craft stores and online specialty shops. Depending on your plans, other supplies might include glue, acrylic paint, markers, bushes, wood carving tools, a brayer, dowels, thread, needles and maybe even an electric drill. Don't forget supplies for hanging up the finished piece: wire or metal wall mounts should work.

2. Printmaking

Polystyrene can be used to make a printing plate. Use sheets thin enough to cut with shears, sizing them for the wall area you want to cover. Alternatively, cut a block of foam to make a stamp. Use a blunt object such as the end of a knitting needle to gently impress your design into the surface. Integrate other objects for background texture; a wire brush, pastry wheel, pumice stone or seashell all have potential for interesting effects. Paint a light layer of acrylic paint over the foam. The plastic nature of the polystyrene will create a resist or exposure in the impressed sections. Flip the "plate" onto another surface -- paper, wood, fabric or more foam -- and use a brayer or your fingertips to press the design in place. Lift the plate up, dry it, and you have a one-of-a-kind print for the wall. You can reuse the plate several times.

3. Painting

Cut blocks of polystyrene to make a modern painting to accent a couch or buffet. Take some inspiration from an artist you like -- Rothko or Pollock, perhaps -- and make a sketch before beginning. Use acrylic paint in multiple layers over the foam for rich color. Try watercolor or gouache on foam that has a little grit or texture; the translucent paint will reveal the polystyrene pattern beneath. If you are working with small sheets or blocks, make three or more in contrasting shades to be hung together in a set. If you have some extra ambition, glue forms together to create dimension and depth. Don't forget to paint the sides of the canvas. When you have a look you like, allow the paint to dry and then seal it with clear acrylic spray.

4. Mixed Media

If you are a collage artist at heart, assemble your polystyrene forms with other materials into a mixed media composition. Try to keep your composition simple at first until you gain skill in cutting and shaping the medium. Don't limit yourself to sheets' try peanuts, cubes, strips, cylinders -- even mannequin faces. You can sew thin layers of foam to fabric or plastic in a manner similar to artist Domenick Di Pietrantonio of Italy, who uses painted polystyrene to create pop art clouds and rainbows for his exhibits and website. Another artist, Alfred Conch, uses the material to sculpt and paint liquidlike forms that look like real metal. His work is on display at the Avisca Gallery in Marietta, Georgia.

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