Out of the Shadows: Making Shadow Art from Junk


Artists Tim Noble and Sue Webster make intricate images in shadow, often of themselves, created by trash. Their pieces are so realistic, their trash heaps so formless, that the results are almost unbelievable. (Pictured above: Wild Mood Swings.)

Things are possible in the shadow world that aren’t possible in the real world. A bit of string becomes Rapunzel’s hair. A soda can creates a skyscraper. Surely you and you kids have made shadow dogs or bunnies with your hands on the bedroom wall. Now you can take it up a notch.


Help your kids use your (rinsed and dried) recyclables and other odds and ends to create shadow art. Besides being a fun project, it will challenge them to think about shapes, spatial relationships, light and perspective. You’ll need some pieces of trash, a table or other flat surface on which to build, a blank wall for the shadows, and a strong light source. The darker the workroom for the final “showing,” the better.

Some things to keep in mind: The objects casting the shadows — in this case the trash— must be between the light source and the canvas (the wall.) The closer the light and an object get to one another, the bigger the shadow. You can also make two items of disparate size appear to be the same size in the shadow world, by placing one closer to the light. Kids can experiment with these principles by moving the light source around or, if it’s easier, the stuff.

If you have access to an overhead projector, use it to project an image onto a wall. While the picture is projected, kids can pile up the trash to match the shapes and lines of the outline on the wall. Then take the picture and projector away, and use a strong light, like a flashlight, to show off your new shadow picture. Try copying a cityscape. It’s an easy outline to reproduce.


If you don’t have an overhead projector sitting in your garage, you can set up another way. Tape a large piece of paper or poster board to the wall, then use a marker to sketch out a city skyline or silhouette of an image. It’s OK if it’s rough, as long as it’s recognizable. The kiddos just need a picture to shoot for while building their stack of junk to create the shadow to fill the space.

Alternately, you can just set up your light source and let them wing it. If you have a clip light, work light or one of those garage-style spotlights, these work great. You can also tape a flashlight to the back of a chair, setting up the perfect angle. Older or hyper-imaginative kids can create a shadow tableau without a template.

Squirrel Shadow

When your artists are finished, turn the light off and on, inspecting the unassuming trash heap and comparing it to the beautiful shadow picture they’ve no doubt created. You can even move the light source around, to create movement and various configurations. But make sure you first mark where it starts, or you could lose the shadow picture forever.

They can even get involved. putting themselves in the picture with the junk pile, their shadows interacting with what they’ve created. The possibilities are only limited by their imaginations.

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