Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Mixed Media–Wheelchair Spoke Guards

Warning: Picture-rich post!

My mixed media spoke guards are now finished and duly installed on the wheelchair, just in time for the craft show last Thursday. I lost count how many lovely comments I received about them, and was surprised how much interest was expressed – people were amazed when I pointed out the materials I’d used, and several people asked if the spoke guards were made of felt! They all had a good feel at the quite tactile surface, and were surprised how hard they were, despite the fabric-like appearance. A question I was frequently asked was if they were waterproof – I’m afraid I don’t know the answer to that one, except that I think they are probably shower proof, with all the gel medium etc., but I wouldn’t immerse them in water.

Since I became a wheelchair user, I have noticed some very interesting psychology when it comes to decorations. My first Christmas, I adorned the wheelchair with tinsel and baubles and everyone smiled, pointed, came and chatted, and were generally very positive. After Christmas I removed the decorations and I was invisible again. I then decided I would always decorate it, and again I got the positive response. It seems to break down barriers of embarrassment in the face of disability, and even though people’s eyes are drawn to the badge of disability (the wheelchair), what they do is to relate to the user as an individual, rather than “someone-in-a-wheelchair.” It’s fascinating. I wrote an article about this for the quarterly journal of Invest in M.E. a few years ago.

My previous post on my new spoke guards gave details of the beginning of the project. Although the result was successful, I learnt a lot of things along the way, and will make subsequent spoke guards more efficiently, and with a better end result. Enough to say at this stage that they were constructed from papier mache. This post is all about the mixed media treatment they received, in creating a background and surface embellishment.

This first picture shows a collection of materials to be used in the project. In the end I didn’t use all of them; instead of building up texture with the Polyfilla One Fill, I used acrylic gel medium exclusively for adhering the various background and texture elements, and some of the materials I’d thought of using to provide extra texture proved surplus to requirement – sometimes one needs to know when to stop, in order to produce a cohesive whole!

09 Materials for Decorating

I am sure that Judy of Judy’s Fabrications blog will be thrilled that at long last, I have used the beautiful fabric flowers she sent me when we did our flower swap last year. I have been wondering how best to use them, and this way, lots of other people get to enjoy them too, as I take my art with me wherever I go!

You can watch the whole process in the videos at the end of this post.

This picture shows one of the spoke guards ready for decoration, with some of the flowers laid on – I marked their position in pencil, and built up the rest of the design around their placement.

11 Mock-up with Fabric Flowers

You can see that I have pierced holes around the outside of the guard for attachment to the wheel with cable ties, and the centre has been cut to size to allow for the wheel hub. The three large notches cut from the rim would not normally be necessary for regular wheels, but I have a Yamaha power-assist system on my wheelchair with motors in the large wheel hubs, with three extensions to the push rims; when I push on these, the power is transferred to the motors in the hubs and augmented, greatly reducing the energy I need to move the wheelchair. The notches are to allow for a small amount of play in the mechanism; without them, the system will not operate properly.

The creation of the background began with the laying down of some flowers cut from an old piece of gift wrapping paper. They were stuck down with Golden Regular Matte Gel Medium.

12 Paper Flowers Applied

When these were dry, I began laying down torn fragments of tissue paper, also with gel medium (I eventually used soft, rather than regular, as it didn’t lift the paper so much). You can see the two blank areas where the fabric flowers will eventually be applied.

13 Applying the Tissue Paper

The next picture shows the spoke guards with the tissue paper application completed and dried.

14 Tissue Paper Application Completed

To soften and blend the effect, I added three applications of acrylic glaze, using my Pebeo fluid acrylic paints, mixing them with some acrylic polymer, first using a creamy-white colour. This before-and-after photo is the result; it has reduced the pinkness a little, and softened the hard edges somewhat.

16 Before and After First Glaze

It still needed something extra, and I used some yellow glaze, and then some beige, and blended with the use of further polymer, this is the result. I was careful to rub back the glaze over the paper flowers, so that they continued to show through, but in a nice soft, subtle way.

18 Glazing Completed, with Materials

To add a bit more interest to the background, I did some reverse stencilling, using my honeycomb stencil which I cut using Sheba, my Black Cat Cougar cutting machine. (For details of this machine, see my sidebar.)

19 Beginning the Stencilling

I began by painting a small area with a light brown acrylic paint, and laid the stencil over the top. I then wiped it carefully with a piece of damp kitchen paper to remove the paint from the areas not covered by the stencil. I cut some red sequin waste into basic leaf shapes, and using the fabric flowers as a guide to position them, I stuck them down with regular gel medium – they required a fairly heavy application to make sure they were secure.

20 With Leaves and Stencilling and Mock-up with Flowers

Following this, I added some swirls cut from brown card using Sheba, again placing them correctly with the aid of the fabric flowers laid on temporarily.

21 With Swirls

The next step was to add some stems (these eventually turned into roots!) to connect the various elements into a continuous whole around the spoke guard. To do this, I took a small quantity of nice slubby yarn in my stash, cut into shorter lengths and stuck down with regular gel medium. I found it easiest to lay the yarn roughly where I wanted it, and to adhere the slubs first, and then the rest of the yarn, making sure it was well and truly soaked with the medium and pressed down onto the surface.

22 Laying Down the Yarn

I used this technique, applying yarn with gel medium, on the small seaside-themed box I made for a friend last year – this project also utilised the tissue paper collage process as well.

23 Tidying the Yarn

As the gel medium began to dry, I went round the applied yarn and scraped back any excess, and finally rubbed away any residue with my finger. When dried, this is what it looked like. You can see the pale pink and green of the yarn through the clear gel medium.

24 The Yarn Drying

Adding some texture around the yarn was super-fun! With generous amounts of regular gel medium, I stuck down several air-dry clay pebbles I made a while back, and also some poultry grit, which I bought at our local agricultural merchants when my hubby and I went a few months ago so that he could get something for the garden – I went on a little wander with “art” uppermost in my mind, and found all sorts of things to create texture! Poultry grit consists of small broken fragments of seashell, which chickens eat (unbelievable but true!) and somehow manage to absorb and utilise to form shells on their eggs. This poultry grit looks far from appetising to me… but then I’m not a chicken.

25 With Pebbles and Poultry Grit

It’s fabulous for texture, though!

Another thing I found in that place was a packet of small orange rubber rings, that farmers use to dock the tails of lambs! I popped those in my basket too, and here they are, in a different incarnation, embellishing Shoshi’s wheelchair!!! I applied these with a generous amount of gel medium as before, and it squeezed up in the centre of the rings, which looked interesting.

26 With Rubber Rings

After applying all the texture elements, I stippled soft gel medium over the whole thing with a hoof-oil brush (also obtained from the agricultural merchants) just to seal everything in, and prevent any potentially loose bits of poultry grit from falling off. The whole thing ended up feeling very firm and secure, and you can apply quite hard pressure to the various elements and there’s no movement at all. The flatter elements (leaves and swirls, and the original paper flowers) feel welded to the surface, and you cannot get a fingernail underneath any of it, so there is no danger of these lifting. The acrylic gel mediums are excellent for this sort of work and give superb results.

The next step was to add gesso to all the texture elements that would be painted – this was everything except the poultry grit, which looks gorgeous as is, with its natural shell colouring.

27 Gesso on Texture

Once this was dry, the next step was one of the most fun parts of this whole technique – adding shading to the texture. I have seen various mixed media artists on Youtube using this technique, and it is most effective. Cheap black acrylic paint is applied roughly over all the textured areas, making sure it goes right down into all the crevices.

28 Adding Shading to the Texture

Working in small areas at a time so that the paint doesn’t dry, you then wipe it off the surface and clean up the surrounding area. Initially I used a piece of damp kitchen paper to clean off the textured areas but later discovered that a wet sponge was more effective (and also saved on kitchen paper!). A piece of damp kitchen paper is best for cleaning off the background areas. What happens is that the black paint is left in the crevices where you can’t wipe it off, and this gives tremendous depth to the work, with very little effort.

29 Shading Complete

Here is a close-up of the shaded texture. You can also see how effective the poultry grit is as a texture.

31 Detail of Shaded Texture

The roots were painted with a selection of brown and cream fluid acrylics.

33 Painting the Roots

When I rubbed the black paint off, the gesso started to come off the rubber rings, which was a nuisance, but I decided to apply some Treasure Copper (like Rub’n’Buff) onto them and this, combined with the patchy gesso, gave a nice distressed effect. Someone at the show asked me if they were made from Cheerios!!

34 Copper Rub'n'Buff on Rubber Rings

This more or less completed the decoration of the spoke guards. Before adding the fabric flowers, I gave the backs of the spoke guards two coats of cream emulsion paint, and then painted the whole spoke guard, front and back, with matte acrylic varnish to seal everything.

36 Painting the Back

Here are the finished spoke guards, with the fabric flowers laid in place, ready to be stuck down with hot glue.

37 Mock-Up with Flowers

This is a detail shot, showing how all the elements work together. You can just see the original collaged paper flowers, and the soft effect of the overlaid tissue paper. I love how Judy’s flowers complement the darker, more neutral texture elements, and bring out the soft colour of the background. Thank you Judy! I am thrilled with how your flowers have worked on this project.

40 Flower Mock-Up Detail 1

Mounted on the wheels, they look like this.

43 Completed Spoke Guards on Wheels

Finally, the wheelchair with the new spoke guards installed on the wheels.

44 Wheelchair with Spoke Guards

After taking this picture, the final step was to replace the tired floral decorations down the front frame. I used new silk flowers and the remaining few fabric flowers not used on the spoke guards.

45 New Front Frame Floral Decorations

Though I say so myself, I am extremely pleased with the result of this project. At the outset, I wasn’t at all sure that it would work, as I had never made anything like this with papier mache – I wondered if they would be firm, yet flexible, enough to stand up to the task, and also to enable the power assist system to function properly. Overall, everything has come out better than I could have expected, and it’s given me the confidence to make some more, and try my hand at some other styles – Zentangle? Steampunk? Marbling? The possibilities are endless!

Here are the videos, covering first the background, and then the embellishments. Enjoy!

Edit: Some time after making these, I was given some old estate agents’ “for sale” boards as the company was changing its logo. These are made of a double layer of corrugated plastic, each layer having a flat skin top and bottom. They are just large enough to cut a 24” circle for a spoke guard out of each. I can then cut out a gusset and attach the edges together with duct tape in order to make the convex shape. Painted with gesso, these will then be ready for mixed media application. This should be a lot more straightforward than constructing them from papier mache, and it will make them more lightweight, and also more waterproof.


  1. Go girl! What an amazing project, and how great to have your art with you wherever you go. I do hope it gets you a LOT of attention (of the right kind!) I couldn't bear to think of you being 'invisible'. It does sound like you had fun doing it as well. Very best wishes, Cindy

  2. I've been trying to comment on this since yesterday morning and keep getting interrupted..he he :) ... so at last.... this so brilliant and inspirational. Watched most of the videos.. and really love how you have created this and I did have a good chuckle at some of the things you used..especialy the poultry grit - but it works fabulously..and I've now found the sequin waste so might try heating it and see what happens - if I'm not around next week it might mean that the fumes got me .. Gill x :)

  3. OMG!! Its really was a great work of art, loved the video too!



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