A recipe for mail-art

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I have been so busy making mail lately! Cutting out little packets of handmade stickers and labels, collecting vintage stamps, hunting for postcards old and new, photocopying old recipes and household tips that once belonged to my great-grandmother, then bundling them all up together in handmade envelopes from old catalogue pages, melting green or red wax over the fold, and sealing them shut with a big, bold N.

As I’ve been gradually writing to all of you who asked me via this blog to send you mail, I’ve noticed that several of you have used the comments section to ask for tips and tutorials on how to create mail-art.

I’ll do my best to oblige you in this post but, to be honest, the beauty of mail-art is that there are no rules and no standards. No tests to pass, no clubs to join, nobody to judge the “artistry” or talent of your work. Or mine. If you put some creative effort into it, and if you call it mail-art, it is mail-art.

That being said, here’s the process of how I personally choose to whip up a batch of mail-art.

Ingredients: 

* Brown kraft paper
* Scissors
* Glue-stick
* Pencil (I use 2b)
* Eraser
* Pencil-sharpener
* Black felt-tip pen (waterproof)
* Watercolour paints
* Gouache paints
* A variety of watercolour paint-brushes
* Postage stamps
* “Via Airmail” stickers (if applicable)
* Sticky-tape
* Washi-tape (optional)
* Sealing wax and seal (optional)

Method: 

Step 1: I hand-make the envelopes out of brown kraft paper. To do this, I open up an existing envelope and use it as a template, to trace onto the kraft paper. Cut it out, and glue the sides together. Use a glue-stick or paste rather than liquid glue, so you don’t end up with lumps and bumps in your envelope.

TIP: I like to make the envelopes so that the rough side is facing outwards, rather than the shiny side, because it takes paint better later on when you come to that

Step 2: I roughly draw my design onto the front of the envelope, in pencil. This means sketching a drawing – a plant, an animal, a cup of tea, and working the address into the design. Sometimes I write the recipient’s name and address next to the drawing, but if possible, I try to fit it into the actual drawing, such as onto the petals or leaves of a flower, a mug of coffee, a speech bubble, the pots of a series of house-plants.

TIP: In your design, leave enough room on the top right of the envelope to fit one or more stamps later on

Step 3: Now I go over my drawing with a firmer hand, using a black, felt-tipped pen. I use the Artline brand, and have a pack of pens that range from point 0.1 to 0.8 in thickness, depending on what kind of line I hope to create.

TIP: Always use water-resistant ink. This way when you paint them the ink won’t run, nor will the essential details (addresses, for example!) run if the letter gets wet in the rain

Step 4: Next, I paint my design using a mixture of watercolours (Winsor & Newton) and gouache (Reeves). Gouache creates a thicker, chalkier, brighter colour than watercolour, especially on the brown paper, so I use these paints where I need the colour to stand out. I use watercolours when I want more subtlety. To help the postie read the address in my mail-art, I aim to make the parts of the picture containing addresses brighter and lighter in colour than the others.

TIP: When sending mail overseas, it’s important that the destination country is big and clear and, if possible, in the same area or colour as the rest of the address, so it won’t be missed

Step 5: Once the paint is dry, I pull my felt-tip pens back out, and go over the outlines again to give the drawing definition. This is particularly important to ensure the address is clear and stands out, even more-so if I’ve used gouache, because if applied thickly it can be quite opaque, and the writing needs to be reinforced over the top.

TIP: If I feel the postie may need more direction to send this mail where it is supposed to go, I draw little arrows pointing to the start of the address, and write the words “Kindly deliver to” above the recipient’s name 

Step 6: Now I put the stamps on the front-right. Rather than use those ugly Australia Post printed labels, I prefer to use lots of stamps to make up the postage. If they won’t fit on the front without ruining my design, I continue them over onto the back of the envelope.

TIP: If you need to do this, too, make sure that there is at least one stamp where it is supposed to be, and write the words “More stamps over” to ensure your postie knows to look there 

Step 7: If I’m sending my letters overseas, I affix a “Via Airmail” sticker to the envelope. It’s supposed to go on the top left-hand side, but fitting it anywhere is usually enough to alert the postie to the fact that this is international mail.

TIP: If your mail is travelling domestically, don’t stick a “Via Airmail” sticker on it. I’ve made that mistake before, and the postie has confused my letter for international mail and not known where to deliver it 

Step 8: Almost done! Next, I clearly print my return address on the back of the envelope. I had a stamp custom made to do this and I don’t know why, but it gives me a lot of primitive pleasure to ink it and stamp it onto each letter.

TIP: If you’ve needed to add extra stamps to the back of your envelope as per Step 6, make sure you write the words “Please return to” or “From” above your return-address, so the postie doesn’t mistake it for the destination address, surrounded as it is by all those stamps 

Step 9: Finally, I fill the envelope with all the contents I have created and collected, then close up the envelope with sticky-tape. This doesn’t look very good so, if possible, I then cover the tape with something pretty, like wash-tape, a handmade sticker label, or another wax seal.

TIP: Make sure there are no loose parts of your envelope that could catch on things and tear during its long journey through the post. Tape everything down  

And that’s it, my process for making mail-art from start to finish.

How about you? How do you like to decorate your letters? What ever you do, please know this one thing: if you get creative with your mail, you are a mail-artist.

ps. If you’re new to this blog and you’re curious, the finished products look like this. I’ll reopen my form to send more of this mail to blog-readers as soon as I’ve caught up on all the letters I’ve already promised.

19 comments

  • Jane

    This is lovely! I also love the little green drawers! I’m just moving into my new (mine, all mine!) craft room and trying to figure out a proper storage system.

    Thanks also for reconfirming to me that although I don’t (can’t) paint or draw on letters, I’m still a mail artist. Sometimes I doubt myself and think I’m being judged as not good enough by recipients. Take care!

    • Naomi Bulger

      Oh my gosh, I can’t imagine anyone judging mail they have received: if you have put effort into it, I KNOW it will give the recipient joy!

      I’m completely jealous of your craft room. I don’t even have a craft desk… oh, that would be wonderful!

  • Elena

    Naomi, I really like your mail, thank you for sharing :-)
    My “mailart” consists in making envelopes from calendars, wrapping paper, advertisement and other pretty sheets I find. This relaxes me so much! But I seldom use those envelopes, because I am afraid the post system does not like them and they are not delivered. The Italian post has very strict rules about how a letter must be formatted, addressed, stamped, so much so that I would not dare to embed the recipient’s address into a drawing, put stamps on the back or even use too fancy lettering. I have had my fair share of unacknowledged or lost mail (although I know that the reasons may not always be dependent on the post: I send mail also to strangers and they may choose not to give a feedback) so I stay on the safe and sure side: when I feel creative, if the envelope is too fancy, I slip it in a plain one.
    Should I be braver and take the risk? 😉

  • Petrina

    Wonderful post. I like all your tips and you are so great to share information. The Kraft paper I have tried comes in a roll at a local shop, and is way too dark, no shiny and dull side- both sides rough and dull – have not been able to find the nice light (color and weight) stuff you use.

    Oh good, you use a flower book at times. I thought you were always taking a photo during your outside travels- which would put you outside 24/7.

    Keep up the great works. You make a big difference and save the day more often than not.

    Happy thoughts,
    In search of shiny happy paper,
    Petrina
    New York

    • Elena

      Petrina, I once upcycled kraft paper from a big used envelope, it was rough on one side and smooth on the other. I am sure it would take paint/watercolours well.
      Thank you for the feedback to my comment :-)

    • Naomi Bulger

      Thank you! That’s a shame about the kraft paper. I started using it when I used to wrap and send copies of my book (I liked the “brown paper packages tied up with string” idea), and then just continued from there. But to be honest white paper would show up a painted picture beautifully, and other colours could make it quite beautiful. I say go for it with whatever you have to hand, and have some fun! xo

  • Elisa

    hi there! Love your mail art and thanks for the great tutorial on how to create our own! I just have a question about the paint brushes that you use. You mention an assortment of brushes, but could you mention specific sizes and brands? I’m particularly interested in what you might use for some of the smaller details with the paints. Also those green drawers with your stamps and mail components is amazing..is it vintage? What kind of drawers are they? Would love to try and find something similar here to store all of my bits and bobbles for arts & crafts. Thanks so much!

  • Kathy

    I loved seeing your creative process, Naomi! This post jump-started my brain. Thank you. Off to buy gouache . . .

  • Emily

    Thank you for sharing your process. I’m slowly working to be more artistic with my mail. I am currently experimenting with how I address the envelope (i.e. fancy lettering), and decorating with washi tape. I bought some rubber stamps that I intend to use to decorate as well. I keep thinking I’ll try incorporating some drawings after I’ve practiced a bit in my sketchbook, but I’m starting to think that I should just practice my sketching on envelopes instead!

    • Naomi Bulger

      I think people really appreciate anything creative you send them in the mail. I am sure your stamps, lettering and washi are gorgeous! I would only say that if you’re worried about the quality of your sketches, don’t. Imagine if it was you receiving your letters in the mail – would you judge the drawing, or simply enjoy the creativity? I cringe when I look at some of the mail I have drawn and sent – but I know it still gives joy to the recipient! 😉

  • kiri

    Thanks for sharing your mail art process. love your green storage drawers.

  • Deb @ Blossom Bomb

    You are a total inspiration. I read posts like these and sigh a deep wonoderful fulfilling sigh. You are amazing. x

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