Bringing a photograph to life with denim and freezer paper

Back in May, my husband and I went to Iceland for the first time, to photograph the bird life and explore the landscapes. We had an amazing time and I wanted to capture our memories of the holiday in a piece of fabric art. So I decided to try and reproduce a selfie we took in denim, with the help of freezer paper.

Here's the Selfie….yes, it was cold, but sunny!!

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  The first thing I did was to convert the photo into black and white. This is a good trick to help you see the different shades (light to dark) in the photo.

I printed the black and white photo out the size that I wanted the final piece to be - in this case, I chose A2 (I ended up splitting the photo in half and printing each half A3 so I could sellotape the two halves together to make size A2). It helps to work on a big scale if you want to do all the small pieces of detail in the photo.

I used a black marker pen to draw around the different shades of black/grey/white on the print-out. It's important here to draw around the shapes created by the different shades rather than draw around the different objects in the photo. To demonstrate this, I've highlighted in pink an area of my husbands face which was all the same shade.

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Once I was happy with the different areas of shade I then copied the outline onto a new blank piece of paper to create my pattern for the piece. Handy hint - if you need to trace a complicated pattern, sellotape the pattern to a window, place the blank sheet of paper over it, sellotape it in place and start tracing. The light coming through the window will show up the pattern well. 

Here's the pattern: 


From looking at the black and white photo, I numbered each shape in the pattern to correspond with the different shades, starting with the palest and working to the darkest. It's worth spending a bit of time on this to try and make sure the same shade is given the same number across the whole pattern. It's also worth checking that two shapes next to each other aren't given the same number as this would start blending the shapes together.

Once you've done the numbering you’ll know how many different shades of material you'll need - in this case I needed 7 shades from pale to dark.

Next I chose the materials for the piece. I had wanted to do something in denim for a while as my collection of denim cast offs and leftovers had been gradually taking over my fabric storage area!  

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So I choose a range of denims that looked like they were different shades of darkness. Sometimes this can be misleading - what looks like a different shade may not actually be - the different colour tones can confuse things. To check this, take a photo in black and white to check you have a good gradation from dark to light.

This can be tricky, and it took me a while to get a set of denims that I was happy with. To get the  very dark end of the scale I used a black cord fabric which also added a different type of texture to the fabric selection. I took a small sample of each fabric and glued it to a piece of paper as a reference guide to the numbering system.

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I chose a plain black piece of fabric as the background for the piece. Although I was aiming to cover the fabric with denim, following the pattern, there was a chance that the background material may be seen in places, and the black colour would act as hidden shadows in the pattern. I made sure there was enough material around the edges of the pattern to allow me to edge the work and stretch over a canvas when finished. Now I was ready to start… 

To cut out the pieces of denim I decided to use freezer paper. This is easily obtained from Amazon - It is essentially a roll of paper where one side of the paper has a waxy surface. 

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I traced the pattern out onto the paper side of the freezer paper. As the pattern was big, I had to use two pieces of freezer paper to cover it.

You may wonder why I bothered with creating the pattern in the first place - why didn't I trace onto the freezer paper straight from the photo? Well this is ok for smaller, less complicated designs. For this one, there is a risk of loosing sight of the overall pattern once you start cutting into the freezer paper, so a separate pattern made sense.

The beauty of freezer paper is that you can iron it (waxy side down) onto the fabric you want to cut out, cut round the shape and then pull the paper off with no damage to the fabric. The freezer paper can be re-ironed on multiple occasions as you work on the design. Use a medium heat on the iron - too hot an iron may make it difficult to pull the paper off, too cool an iron will give a very temporary adhesion which will be difficult to work  with.

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I started at the bottom of the pattern, working inwards from the corner. To make the task manageable, I worked on segments of the pattern in turn. Here are the cut out pieces of denim for the bottom left corner, still with the freezer paper attached. You can see that the use of the freezer paper allows a very precise cutting of each piece of fabric, such that they fit together well like a jigsaw puzzle.

To temporary fix each piece of fabric in place on the background fabric, I removed the freezer paper and put a small blob of glue on the back of the fabric.

 Here is the first segment of the pattern glued to the background.

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 Although the glue holds the fabric pieces in place, it is a fragile method which can come undone easily, particularly as more fabric is added to the background. To permanently hold the fabric in place, I used a zig-zag stitch around the edge of each piece of fabric using a black thread. 


Over a number of days, I gradually built the fabric up using the same process. I must admit that I was a bit nervous about doing the faces, and I'm not completely happy with my mouth and nose!

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You may notice that I've used a different type of denim for the sea in the background. I wanted to add a bit of texture for extra interest, so I bleached a piece of medium shade denim, creating the effect of waves on the sea.

At this stage I haven't decided on how to do the sky, so I've merely used a light coloured fabric as a position holder. I toyed for a while with the idea of putting a volcano in the background from a separate photo, but I decided in the end to be true to the original photo.

And here is the finished piece, stretched and stapled onto a cheap A2 canvas:

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I hope you enjoyed reading this blog and it has inspired you to have a go yourself at a similar project. I’d be very grateful of any comments or questions you might have on this technique - so please comment below.

Thanks Emma.