How to Find the Best Artwork in Unexpected Places

Paint swatches? Recipe cards? If you have 'em, frame 'em.

March  1, 2021
Photo by Posie (Harwood) Brien

My favorite part of our house cost me only 25 cents. It’s a framed print, on our kitchen wall, of leeks, partially chopped and strewn on a cutting board, the colors luscious and rich: from deep sage at the ends to the delicate pale green and creamy white of the root. The photographer had an eye for beauty: it captures such an ordinary cooking moment, but elevates it to art.

The print is from an old food magazine, one I bought at the used book cottage run by the local library in our little town. The front porch of the cottage holds piles and piles of donated magazines all costing a mere quarter each—dusty and dating back decades. I’ve spent hours there sifting through the stacks. I push past copies of The New Yorker and Architectural Digest and Popular Woodworking to find copies of Gourmet from the 1950s and a trove of Cook’s Illustrated, complete with pretty culinary illustrations on the backs.

Food magazines, especially over the past five years, are packed with incredible photography: The composition and colors are exquisite, and often there are full-page spreads without text. Find one you love, cut it out carefully, and frame it. As a cook and baker, I love framed images from culinary magazines, but interior design magazines and travel magazines are also excellent places to look for frame-worthy prints and photographs.

Discovering that first print was a happy accident at the right time. I’d just moved into a new house, which was a study in neutrals: all white beams and white-washed floors and cool slate tiles on the kitchen floors. It needed art desperately, but I couldn’t decide where to begin—nor did I plan to spend much on décor, at least in the first few years. This one just fit the bill.

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“Supporting artists is important too. Not all art is expensive. The hunt for something that speaks to you is a tale to tell and helps to keep creators creating. 😊”
— Leslie G.

Once I had the idea to frame the magazine page, I started looking around me at more found objects that could double as art. Here are a few more of my best-loved resources:

Photo by Posie (Harwood) Brien

Wrapping Paper

Another one of my favorite pieces of décor is nothing more than a piece of framed wrapping paper! It hangs above the crib in my son’s nursery and features rows of dots of colorful paint, looking like a miniature Twister board. Each dot has a whimsical made-up name: I like to stand and read them in the hush of his room in the morning hours, smiling when I see the pale gray called “NY Times Style Section,” or a bright aqua called “Vespa in Rome”. (Bright tangerine is “Le Creuset.”)

I recommend looking for “flat wrap,” which are individual sheets of wrapping paper that tend to have a thicker texture which looks more substantial in a frame. Boutique stationery stores tend to have nice options: I love this paint swab one, these boobs (!), and this bicycle print, as do letterpress studios like Mr. Boddington’s or Bespoke Letterpress and independent illustrators and designers like UNWRP. Minted is another good source for unique and pretty flat wrap by individual artists.

Color Palette Holiday Wrap Photo by Mr. Boddington's Studio

Paint Swatches

People go wild for Pantone’s color of the year, which is how I started thinking about paint colors as art. I’ve always loved standing in front of the wall of paint chips in a hardware store, flipping through the dizzying arrays of colors and watching them fade in ombre shades from dark to light. Pick a color you like—or go with a range—and glue them in tidy rows on a white background. You could leave space between each row, showing the name and number (Pantone-style), or overlap them to form an abstract many-hued block of color. Frame it, and you’ve got a statement piece of art.

Tip: You can often buy “decks” of paint swatches from paint stores online for about $20 each.

More Ideas

Once you start thinking outside of the box for art, you can find sources of potential art all around you. In one of my first post-college apartments, I agonized over whether to spend money on art or furniture. Deciding that furniture was a better investment, I ended up framing four pieces of solid neon construction paper. I placed them in a grid above my dining room table, and they garnered more comments and attention than anything else since.

Look around you, or browse a craft website or shop for ideas. Into glitz? You could spill glitter over a piece of paper brushed with glue and frame that. Frame a handwritten letter—a friend of mine once stuck a small Post-It upon which her boyfriend had dashed a quick one-sentence love note in Sharpie on a thick matte canvas and framed it; it was gorgeous and arresting and meaningful all at once. Or frame a stack of handwritten recipe cards, if you have them.

When it comes to your space, I’m a firm believer in surrounding yourself with what makes you happy. Look all around you to find—and frame—whatever that may be.

Have an unexpected source of affordable art that we should know about? Tell us in the comments below.

Once you've framed them...

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Merrie Allen
    Merrie Allen
  • JenCooks
  • Marianna Maver
    Marianna Maver
  • ehh
  • Leslie Giuliani
    Leslie Giuliani
I like warm homemade bread slathered with fresh raw milk butter, ice cream in all seasons, the smell of garlic in olive oil, and sugar snap peas fresh off the vine.


Merrie A. December 15, 2021
One of my all-time favorite framed kitchen pieces is a linen dish towel that has a bunch of charming drawings of Fremantle, Western Australia on it. They're colorful, whimsical sketches that remind me of a funky and character-filled city that happens to be close to where my daughter and her family live. So I enjoy the double pleasure of looking at a delightfully unique framed piece and also being reminded of my beloved family - who happen to live 13,000 miles away!
JenCooks April 20, 2021
I printed fun, quirky family photos on 11x17 paper. Originally thought I was going to frame them, but when I started taping them to the living room wall for placement, I loved how they look right next to each other in a 4x4 grid. My kids friends love to check them out when they visit, and I can easily update them.
Marianna M. March 16, 2021
I have hung a gold- framed illustration of a guy dressed in Tudor costume, an expression of disgust on his face, who is holding out a pair of chopsticks, warily eyeing a shrimp with a little bit of some kind of green hanging from the tips of them, in every kitchen, in every place I've lived for almost 40 years. The illustration was from an article on "taste in food" from Psychology Today circa 1983 or so. It was so hilarious and apt. My own little kitchen in-joke. I wish I could find the original.
ehh March 5, 2021
Love all of these ideas! Not spending a lot makes it low stakes and frees you up to change artwork over time if desired.
Leslie G. March 4, 2021
Supporting artists is important too. Not all art is expensive. The hunt for something that speaks to you is a tale to tell and helps to keep creators creating. 😊
Posie (. March 5, 2021
Absolutely! It really is; we need art (and artists) more than ever. Thank you for pointing that out, and if people have great resources for places to find art they love, it would be wonderful to have those shared here. I simply hope this piece just encourage people to find anything and everything--art and "non-art"--to bring joy to their space and world.