Years ago, I watched a prolific painter fling acrylic onto slats of plywood at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica, Calif. He was good. His wares ranged in price from $3 to $50.
It's fitting this renegade painter's name escapes me and he's impossible to Google. What remains is the realization that plywood is among the cheapest and most effective of canvases. It stands alone, hung on the wall or leaned on a long table, and you can find enough material in one construction dumpster to outfit a two-bedroom pad. Many an indie artist (not to mention Starbucks) has picked up on the power of wood grain.
Freestyle depictions of recognizable bottles (Pellegrino, Johnnie Walker Black) or other domestic comforts work best, reduced to a few tempera strokes. But say you don't want something that original. You want something a little more, shall we say, mass-produced. Here's how to get it.
1. THE CELEB PORTRAIT
Thanks mostly to a certain big-box purveyor of sleek modern design, one specific "painting" of Audrey Hepburn—her Holly Golightly charm portrayed through a few simple black lines against a taupe background—has been popping up in dorm rooms and efficiencies throughout the country. You could buy one yourself, but you'd have to brave that labyrinth of commerce. Trust us, making your own is much easier.
Choose your Hollywood power animal—for my purposes, a young Robert Goulet. Locate a large image of him online, then run it through Adobe Photoshop (you can grab a free 30-day trial at adobe.com/downloads) or your photo-manipulation software of choice.
Convert the image to grayscale and run it through the Cutout filter. Crank up the contrast as high as you can while still preserving a recognizable face.
Print the abstracted portrait on a laser printer or photocopier at maximum quality, so that you have a print that's heavy on toner. Cut around your celeb's head and ditch the extra paper.
Use a clean foam brush to apply a solid layer of acrylic matte medium to the canvas. Do the same to the printed side of your image, then press the print hard against the canvas. Use a spatula to flatten the paper.
Once the acrylic matte medium has dried completely, carefully peel the paper away from the canvas.
At this point you'll need to decide if you want to leave the remaining transparent layer of paper on the canvas or peel it all away. Leaving it on will give your celebrity mascot's smiling visage a subdued, but complete, effect. Otherwise, apply a damp cloth to the paper and use your fingers to massage away the paper. This will give the piece a rubber-stamped, or lightly printed, look.
2. FIXER-UPPER ART
Thrift-store art has long warmed the walls of many a broke twentysomething's pad, but there's always the danger that kitsch will be mistaken for actual personal taste.
To solve this conundrum, the Wurst Gallery (thewurstgallery.com), a Portland-based online collaborative, staged a Vintage Vandals show in 2005, pairing local artists with dusty, secondhand pieces. Through cartoon and collage, contributors transformed run-of-the-mill wall hangings into ominous and surreal mashups.
You can, too! Grab a textured print or original painting, and let the free association fly. The forced comfort of a Hilton lobby-ready floral arrangement might bring to mind, say, The Shining. An idyllic spread of a forested European village might compel you to fill the scene with painted additions of every imaginable mythical creature—tree people, selkies and so forth.
For our purposes, bold color complements quasi-Impressionist source material, and the more graffitilike your additions, the better. Zombify human figures. Nothing screams, "Home!" quite like an undead, second-rate Blue Boy hanging above the hearth.
What you need
A laser printer or photocopier
Acrylic matte medium
Thrift store art