Faux Agate Tutorial

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Faux Agates Tutorial

Today’s guest post is by Kristin Jansson, who showed us her faux agates a few months ago, and agreed to let us see how they’re made. Thanks, Kristin!

©2021 Kristin Jansson

My Background:

I was a prop and costume maker my whole career, working for theaters, museums and ad agencies in Minneapolis/St. Paul. I specialized in off beat items: voodoo dolls in business suits, live chickens wearing trapper hats, fossilized Barbie dolls among them. These jobs required use of many disparate materials, from foam rubber and leather to plumbing supplies, developing the skills to incorporate them on the fly. You can see some of them on my website, www.kristinjansson.com

Completed professional projects often influenced my handmade Christmas gifts. These faux agate ornaments, for example, were inspired by a Lake Superior agate necklace that I made for a Minnesota State Fair play produced by the Minnesota Historical Society.

Actor with Faux Agate Necklace
Actor with Faux Agate Necklace

To make my gifts look like they came from one of those quirky western rock shops, I packaged them in boxes with a logo I designed from free clip art.

Gift box of faux agates

I share these directions as thanks to Jonni for her fantastic website and welcoming community.

Tutorial

If you struggle against perfectionist tendencies as I do, this is a good project to loosen up your hands and mind. They are rocks after all–pretty much anything goes! And regardless of your skill level, they look great because the photos give them a realistic look.

For my original ornaments, I covered the cardboard/Styrofoam surface with paper towels and glue, but I wasn’t happy that the embossed pattern of the paper detracted from the organic look of the rock. This photo shows the simpler, earlier version.

First faux agates

Always one to challenge myself (what better way to learn) this time I decided to enhance the rock texture by using toilet paper for the paper mache. That way, every little Styrofoam and pebble detail would show. It’s tricky though because it gets sticky fast. Using toilet paper increased the difficulty level, but I personally liked that aspect because I couldn’t obsess about details. Move fast and then hands off! Tissue paper is another option, but avoid the heavier mediums like brown paper because it blunts details. Of course, Jonni’s numerous paper mache recipes provide ample options! Choose what works best for you.

Directions

Print the supplied agate faces with a laser printer or have them printed at a print shop. Ink jet prints can smear if they get wet. I like to print duplicates as cheap insurance in case something goes awry. If you prefer to find other agates, there are lots of Creative Commons images that you can download for free from Wikimedia. Please don’t use copyrighted images without written permission. Artists work hard for their money!

  1. Laminate 3-4 layers of corrugated cardboard for a base to glue the rock faces, alternating ribbed grain-lines.

Laminate Cardboard

This will provide a firm, smooth surface for gluing the Styrofoam rock base. I used spray adhesive, but you can use Contact Cement, Mod Podge or other liquid craft glues. Avoid hot melt glue guns for this step because it is hard to cut through. Use a smoother cardboard for the top layer so that obvious ribs aren’t visible on the rock surface.

Faux Agate Tutorial
  1. Glue printed agate photos onto the smooth cardboard face

You can cut out the individual rock faces from your printed sheet (cut out with about ¼” excess for ease in cutting) or glue the whole sheet onto the cardboard.

Cut out agates for gluing

Helpful hint: I like to use PVA bookbinder’s glue, applied with a stiff bamboo brush, for paper items. You can find them where they sell bookbinding supplies. Bookbinding glue is applied from the center out. It remains “position-able” for a while so that you can move it if necessary. After positioning the image, layer a piece of waxed paper over the surface and roll with a brayer to smooth it and ensure the glue is evenly distributed.

Faux Agate Tutorial

Helpful hint: A prop maker at The Children’s Theatre Company taught me to use magazines to keep glue surfaces clean. After gluing, rip off that page to reveal another clean surface. It’s a great way to keep glue off the face of your project. And keep a damp washcloth handy. If you do accidentally get glue on the front of your image, you can gently wipe it off with your cloth. The photo won’t smear. But don’t worry if you don’t catch it in time. You can always glue one of your duplicate prints over the top, says the voice of experience….

  1. Use a jig saw, or coping saw to cut out the cardboard rocks.

Cut out shapes of faux agates

I can tip the base of my jig saw to cut at an angle, tapering the sides slightly toward the back so the rock gets smaller as it moves away from the face. I tried to get close to the edges of the rocks but you can leave a little extra.

Faux Agate Tutorial
  1. Glue chunks of Styrofoam to the back of the cardboard to add depth to your rocks.

White craft glues, like Aleene’s Tacky Glue work well. Let dry before carving.

Foam back for faux agates
  1. Shape the Styrofoam by cutting with a serrated knife …

making sure you don’t leave a ridge where the cardboard meets the Styrofoam. For authenticity, use real rocks as your guide. You can also sand the Styrofoam to shape. but wear a dust mask!

Trim Styrofoam

Helpful Hint: Line a big box with newspaper and cut or sand over that to corral the scraps and flying static debris. If the humidity is low, spray a light mist of water to counter the static charge as you clean up. (That also works for foam rubber if you ever use that for projects.)

  1. Texturize the surface by gluing Styrofoam scraps, a paste of sand mixed with glue, or actual pebbles to the surface

(I’ve done this step two different ways, either before or after the paper mache step. It all depends on how much texture shows through the material you’re using for paper mache—and how much texture you want.

Add texture
Add texture
  1. Paper mache the rock back.

Paper mache rock back

I painted matte Mod Podge on the Styrofoam/cardboard surface first before I layered torn pieces of toilet paper over the glue. Just paint a little bit of glue at a time and work your way around the rock. For ease in gluing, I stuck a couple of shish kebab skewers into the cardboard to hold and dry them.

Glue Aids
  1. Extend the paper beyond the rock face in order to get the paper flush against the edge.

(You’ll trim it after it dries.) Don’t fold it over the edge. Remember, a polished rock face is one flat plane. I only had to use one or two layers of toilet paper. The Mod Podge creates a plastic-like surface that is surprisingly firm.

Faux Agate Tutorial
  1. Trim the excess paper around the perimeter of the face after the glue has dried so that it’s flush with the edges.

If you accidentally trim some of the printed edge, it’s ok because you can paint the edge when you paint the rock back. You might need to add a little glue along that edge if it’s not completely stuck.

Trim the paper edge
  1. Paint the back of the rock to enhance the texture. This is my favorite part of any paper mache project. The inherent texture of the rock gives you clues how to paint it; low areas are darker, high areas that catch the light are lighter. I use matte finish acrylic paints to contrast with the reflective rock face. Even inexpensive craft store acrylics work well.
Painting faux agate back

I like to start out with a couple different blobs of paint in a dish—both light and dark to complement the colors of the rock face. I start to grab color from more than one color on my brush, and without mixing the colors, dab them on the back of the rock.

If you look at real rocks (and it helps to have actual samples or good photos for reference) they are made up of many colors, even if the all over color is grey, for example. As you start to paint, you’ll begin to see areas that could be built up, or areas that could look like another layer.

Don’t be too critical at this point. As the color layers begin to evolve, you can add in other colors, or paint over areas that aren’t working to your liking. I like to add in watered down washes in a couple places with unexpected color, like pink or phthalo green mixed with grey.

Color areas starting to form

Don’t cover the surface completely—leave some empty spots. I was delighted to find that some unpainted spots could be brushed lightly with a fine brush and pink wash to create a granite effect. Try adding spots of metallic pewter or silver to some of the pebbles.

Light catching accents

I paint several different rocks at once, dabbing paint on one, and then on another. It’s a way to keep loose in your creations, of allowing the surface itself to guide your choices. And it’s always good to walk away for a bit–mid-paint and unfinished. Come back later to find new ideas and discoveries. It’s the “play” in creation, the “making-without-conscious-thinking” that I find so absorbing and freeing. It’s what some people refer to as “the zone” or “the flow”.

Faux Agate Tutorial

When you’re nearing completion of the painting, that’s the time to add some very fine, white horizontal lines applied with a fairly dry brush. That makes it look like there are layers of rock, areas formed by geologic time and pressure.

White accent lines

Helpful hint: Some of the agate faces have areas that look like crystal formations. I thought that maybe some fine grain glitter, like some of Martha Stewart’s, would work. Good idea in concept, not-so-good in practice! When I sprayed the front, the gloss got bumpy in that area, and it didn’t even cover the glitter. Turns out pearlescent or iridescent paints (Golden Fluid Acrylic “Iridescent Pearl Fine”is a good one) work great! You can even mix those with other acrylics. Don’t go overboard with those accents. A little goes a long way.

  1. Turn this lump of glued paper and paint into an agate!

I’m a cheer leader for a Rust-oleum product called “Triple Thick Glaze”. It is easy to use and provides a mirror smooth, super glossy surface for just about anything from paper to wood, metal and plaster. I accidentally damaged one of the finished agates I was giving to my family. After it was thoroughly cured, I sanded the face down with 600 grit sandpaper, wiped it off and re-sprayed the surface. Good as new.

Helpful Hint: Protect the sides of your agate from the glossy spray by taping off the edges with blue painters’ tape. Make sure it’s firmly attached so that the paint spray doesn’t get on the rock base. You can even tape a paper towel around the base if you think there will be overspray.

Tape the edge

To keep the rocks level, prop them on an egg carton, or make a little nest out of a rope of craft clay or Play Dough. (However, that ends its useful life as modeling clay. Sorry kids!) Make a spray booth from a large box to contain the overspray. Follow the directions on the can to spray 3-4 coats. 8” from the surface seems to yield a good, glassy result. After a day, when completely cured, insert a screw eye if you’d like to hang the agate as an ornament

(Photo 5024_SprayBooth)

”(Photo 5043_WishYouWereHere)

Spray Booth

That’s it! Commemorate your Covid year “faux vacation” by adding these faux agates to your vacation rock collection. “Having a great time! Wish you were here.

Wish you were here

15 thoughts on “Faux Agate Tutorial”

  1. Thank you for the share! The instructions and inspiration are top-notch. That Triple gloss spray is on my ‘get’ list now. I can surely imagine these would be a good gift, especially the kind I’d have to ship- perfect timing for the holidays.

    Reply
    • Hi Lesley,
      I appreciate your feedback. Good to know that my directions are clear. I would recommend trying out the Triple Gloss on something before you spray the agates, just to see how close you need to be to the surface, how many coats, etc. Just be aware that humidity can affect it so check the recommendations on the can. I’ve had such good results overall that I think you’ll find lots of uses for it.

      With the rising postal rates, yep, this is a good project for gifts. That factor is always on my mind when planning what to give. $$$!

      Reply
  2. I love your concept as I am an avid rock lover. Will be trying your method. I will be looking at your website to find your craft book. Next to rocks I like books, especially how to books. Right now I am trying to figure out how to make faux gems. I have been using Cement to make rock like structures for my gems. I am going to try your method, it looks easier.

    Reply
    • I’m intrigued by your project Helen. Gems…that’s not an easy one to replicate, though iridescent paints sure seem to be destined for that one. Since crystalline gem structures often incorporate lots of intersecting flat planes, I’m very curious how you formed the cement. I would love to see them! You’re right, paper mache would probably be easier to structure. There is a website that offers templates for paper sculpture geometric shapes. I wonder if you could follow Jonni’s lead to use some of those, cover them with clear contact paper, assemble them, and then paper mache over that. I’ll try to find that website and will send it when I do. Keep us up to date with your progress.

      Reply
  3. Love these! Also want to comment on your approach — very laid back. I find most hinderances to creative expression is fretting about perfection. I agree with stepping back and taking breaks let’s you “true” the view. Gives whatever you’re working on a chance to dictate it’s existence. Anyone who claims the inability to create usually fall prey to overthinking.

    Reply
    • Thanks Diana! I love your comment that the inability to create is usually a result of overthinking. I agree with that and think that’s part of the reason that Jonni’s approach to art-making resonates with so many readers. There is a mystique about “art” that is off-putting to so many, and preys on insecurity. That’s why making a rock is freeing! No expectations. Simple materials, simple techniques. And if it’s not to your liking, just re-do it. So called “failure” just gives you another chance to learn a skill–and improve your ability to really see, which is at the heart of so much creation.
      My experience has revealed that much art results from play. Look at sculptor Alexander Calder’s brilliant circus (on permanent display at the Whitney in NYC) or Paul Klee’s puppets made for his son. Both are examples the sheer joy of creation.

      Reply
  4. Beautifully written and clear tutorial! Also, the faux agates are gorgeous! Though not professional, I also was a costumer and prop maker. It is amazing what we can come up with when necessary! Nice job!

    Reply
    • Indeed it is amazing! An exploding blueberry dress for “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” at Children’s Theatre come to mind… I wasn’t the engineer for that mechanism, but I helped build it. It was a sight to behold!

      Thanks for your kind comments. It’s nice to be in community with other creative people.

      Reply
  5. What a detailed and helpful tutorial for something so unusual! All the photos are really helpful. Thank you for sharing your idea and knowledge.

    Reply
    • Thank you Jean,
      It’s good to get feedback on my first tutorial for this site. I wasn’t sure if I was giving too much info, or not enough. It’s hard to know, when there is such a range of skill levels. Haha, it was also hard to photograph with an iPhone one-handed while actually performing the action with the other! Looks like some remote camera shutter/timer is in my future.

      Reply
    • Thank you so much Alan. It’s amazing what you can come up with when faced with an assignment deadline…
      I find a good way to come up with new ideas is to try to replicate a real thing. It opens your mind to the possibilities as you’re working, and builds skills. Would love to see yours if you decide to try it!

      Reply
      • Well, thanks. I normally do metal art and I have a deer posted on Joni’s site. There is something about her teaching style that I just can not resist. I have tried paper mache but not quite my thing.

        Reply
  6. Kristin, thank you so much for your tutorial! Your agates look just like the real ones my grandfather collected years ago. I just now clicked on your website, too, and found the craft book you co-wrote. The projects look like a lot of fun – what a great resource for creative kids. 🙂

    Reply
    • Thanks Jonni! I had so much fun making new agates and hope that your readers find a few tips worth their time. And thanks so much for linking my web site. Writing that craft book with my good friend and colleague, Wendy Freshman, was a dream job. Creating this tutorial brought back a lot of wonderful memories of that time. I “think with my hands”. It brings me so much joy.

      Reply

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