The Assignment
A Juried Exhibition of Book Arts Organized in Conjunction with the Meeting of the College Book Art Association in Portland, Oregon

Assignments are an age-old way to teach the book arts, but also a great way to explore a new, uncharted topic or structure or just break free of creative constraints. They are a great way to step outside our comfort zone by forcing us to reconsider our perceived notions about art in general or the concept or structure of a book arts project. We have all been students of the book arts at one point or another and we have all been inspired, challenged and even sometimes frustrated by an assignment. Some artists even create assignments for themselves as a way to get the creative juices flowing or start thinking outside the box.

What are your favorite assignments? Which assignments had the biggest impact on your growth as a book artist? Below is a selection of sample assignments submitted by both teachers and students. We invite you to submit your favorite assignment. Email Laura is you would like to submit an assignment to help inspire us all.

You can find the complete call for entries for The Assignment here.

Assignment #1
Visual Sequence

Submitted by: Barbara Tetenbaun, Oregon College of Art and Craft

Choose a single image. This will be used as the sole source for imagery in your book. Manipulate and repeat this image to create a narrative or sequential reading experience. Text can be added to support the narrative, or the book can be entirely visual. Suggestions for manipulating the image include re-drawing, tracing, isolating different parts, changing the scale, color, medium, abstracting, rearranging.

Assignment #2
Einstein’s Dreams

Submitted by: Barbara Tetenbaun, Oregon College of Art and Craft

Choose a chapter from Alan Lightman’s book “Einstein’s Dreams” which evokes for you a clear image of the world of time being described. Imagine a structure or relationship of parts that would reflect this description of time. Illustrate the content not only with images, but through a selection of materials and a specially devised structure.

For example: The first chapter in the book, on page 8, begins “Suppose time is a circle, bending back on itself. The world repeats itself, precisely, endlessly.” A structure to illustrate this chapter could be one based on a circle. Perhaps some or all of the text and images are repeated.

Once you’ve chosen your chapter, create a book/structure that illustrates the text through design, illustration, materials and form. You may reproduce the text in its entirety or excerpt essential paragraphs. Text and images can be reproduced using whichever techniques you wish. Include somewhere a citation for the title, publisher and copyright of the original text.

Assignment #3
Narrative Quality of Paper and other Materials 

Submitted by: Barbara Tetenbaun, Oregon College of Art and Craft

Create a book containing a visual and/or sensory experience solely from the choice, manipulation and sequence of paper and/or materials such as cloth, plastic, wood, metal, etc. No text except a title can be used. No imagery; this includes patterned papers or images cut into the materials. Emphasis for this is on the reader’s haptic, sensual experience of turning pages.

Assignment #4
Printing the Exquisite Corpse

Submitted by: Scott Miller, Four Hands Press

All students in the class are given a 5 x 7 mounted piece of linoleum. The instructor lines up the linoleum on the long edges and randomly marks with a line across each adjoining edge on the printing surface. The students must use these marks in their compositions. The blocks are then sequentially numbered on the back and distributed at random to the students. The students are given a theme, which is generic enough so that they can interpret it themselves. My class’ theme was “a new beginning.” They then make their image with the caveat that they cannot figure out who has the blocks next to their own so that they can align the subject matter/images. Once they are cut, they are printed - single color - in an edition sized to the number of students in the class i.e. 20 people in the class - 20 prints. The prints are then enumerated with the block number on the back, placed in sequential order and then tipped into an accordion book. I will send a photo of the finished book, which is really beautiful and is about 7 feet long fully extended.

Assignment #5
Sketchbooks of Indulgence

Submitted by: Sharyn Sowell • •

My secret to avoiding artist block is handmade books I can refer to later for inspiration.

You can make your book as simple or as involved as you wish. Here's how: Make a stack of 7 or more sheets of your favorite, most luscious plain paper and give it a beautiful plain paper cover. I bind mine in the simplest way possible— just two piercings tied with silk ribbon, but you can bind yours any way you like or give it a different form. Allow yourself an hour a day and find something lovely to sketch. It can be anything that catches your eye, but sketch and write in any way that pleases and inspires you. Make this a gift to yourself, a treat for your senses. Allow yourself to dream, to try something new or repeat your old favorite methods. This is pure indulgence, so let yourself go and enjoy the process and the subject matter. Use whatever materials or subject matter you prefer.

Remember this is for your eyes only and you must not worry about the opinions of anyone else, but simply sketch and journal, experiment and jot to please only yourself.

If you make this a regular exercise and fill simple handmade books like this on journeys as well as everyday life and explorations of new ideas that occur to you, you'll have a wonderful source of inspiration to draw from when the well of creativity seems particularly dry, and a record of your growth as an artist as the years pass.

This is for me a powerful antidote to the stresses of deadlines and critiques and the judgments that are a normal daily part of being a professional artist, and a wellspring of inspiration. It's my salvation when I feel that ominous sense of impending artist block and keeps that problem at bay.

Assignment #6
Idaho iPods

Submitted by: Tom Trusky, Boise State University

Description: One of a number of initial or “Pre-Codex” assignments in my undergraduate “Introduction to Book Arts” course that serves multiple purposes.  Essentially, students are creating cuneiform tablets, sun-dried or fired.  In the process, students are made aware to what degree scribes/artists/bookmakers are limited or inspired by the materials available to them. As well, this assignment encourages students to become “Biblio Locavores.” Accordingly, students dig and prepare Idaho clay for this assignment and devise their own styli. They become intimately aware of the advantages and/or constraints of clay on which very early (if not the earliest) writing was incised.  This assignment also raises awareness regarding pre-book and book materials, such as availability, malleability, fragility, permanence, weight /bulk, portability, storage requirements, surface/inscription area limitations—“content” limitations, etc.). 

Web site link:

Assignment #7 
“Ethiopian” Protective Scrolls

Submitted by: Tom Trusky, Boise State University

Description:  One of a number of initial or “Pre-Codex” assignments in my undergraduate “Introduction to Book Arts” course that serves multiple purposes. Inspired by “The Healing Arts of Africa,” an exhibition I chanced to see in New York City, this assignment has proved to be one of the most popular “Pre-Codex” assignments, for it allows students express their serious (or hilarious) fears and simultaneously partake of artistic and cultural traditions which expand their horizons. The assignment encourages students to think multi-culturally—to reflect how similar societies may be—how universal is the human condition. Always, however, there are Doubting Thomases. Of such sorts I ask, “If a scroll may protect, might not also a crucifix, a St. Christopher’s medal, a four-leaf clover, a voodoo doll, or Mormon undergarments?”

Students produce scrolls that basically follow Ethiopian scroll conventions, although I do not ask students to slaughter a goat for parchment, as an Ethiopian would.  This waiver (and a few others) explains why I have put quotes around one word in the assignment title. 

Web site link:

Assignment #8 
Idaho Oracle Bones

Submitted by: Tom Trusky, Boise State University

Description: One of a number of initial or “Pre-Codex” assignments in my undergraduate “Introduction to Book Arts” course that serves multiple purposes.  Essentially, students are creating Chinese Oracle Bones, notable not only because they are inked/inscribed on animal scapulae, but also because their content—in contrast to the two previous “Pre-Codex” assignments—always concerns the future.  The earliest Chinese writing does not concern itself with genealogies, recording of historical or current events:  no past or present tense, please—only what lies ahead.  Again, students employ local materials (domestic and/or wild game shoulder blades) and many of the lessons or understandings and skills in the Idaho iPod exercise are learned or gained in this assignment.

Web site link: (Includes photo and information of instructor’s Idaho Oracle Bone)

Assignment #9
April Showers/Dissolving Books

Submitted by: Tom Trusky, Boise State University

At last:  a Post-Codex assignment!  This, to help students understand possible relationships between form and content or materials and themes of a bookwork.  “April Showers” initially began as an attempt to focus student attention on their choice of a major book “substrate”—paper.  The assignment required students to in some way employ Dissolvo®, sometimes called “Spy Paper,” a paper which dissolves instantly in water.

I conceived of my dissolving artists’ book Postcard from Albania before I asked my students to make their own dissolving books, but I did not print and produce my edition until after the first class of Dissolvo® students had produced their works.

Web site links:  Complete descriptions of this assignment (and photographs of student bookworks) may be found in two installments (one, with a PowerPoint presentation) at the following web site:

Information about my dissolving Balkan book may be found at:

Please note:  more recently, I have expanded this assignment to allow students to employ other special papers, such the UV-sensitive Sun Print® (which produces Albumin Print-like images), as well as HazMat papers (used for detection of air-borne chemical agents), thermotropic papers (“Mood Ring,” heat-sensitive papers), water resistant papers, etc.

Assignment #10
The Golden Ratio

Submitted by: Janice Sapp

Examine and explore 3 to 5 ways that the Golden Ratio (The Golden Triangle, The Golden Mean) expresses itself. Your book needs to please you in terms of form, content, and sturdiness. If your book is too ephemeral it won't stand up to much thoughtful handling; if it is too tiny or too large, it will be hard to read and to hold; if the content is not clear, whom but you will understand it?

Assignment #11
Take An Object

Submitted by: Jasper Johns

"Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it."

Johns himself addressed the focus of his interest in an interview from 1964: “I am concerned with a thing’s not being what it was, with its becoming something other than what it is, with any moment in which one identifies a thing precisely and with the slipping away of that moment, with at any moment seeing or saying and letting it go at that.”

Assignment #12

Submitted by Jennifer Vignone, New York

In the very first artist's book class I took, the instructor asked us to "re-tell" a favorite story visually in book art form. I have fleshed out the parameters a bit because I don't recall all of hers, and I am added a few of my own.

Select a favorite story.

  • You may use a novel.
  • You may use a short story or novella.
  • You may use a play.
  • You may not use poetry, songs, or verse.
  • You may not use non-fiction work of any kind.

The goal is to illustrate create a visual environment/expression of a fictional story and its message, messages, people, events, etc.

In the making of the artist's book to express the core theme/s of the story, how you were affected, its impact on a wider audience…retell it.

You may use a printed version of the story (such as a copy of a novel in its hardcover or paperback form) and re-assemble it/use it as part of the overall final piece.


Assignments #13-19

Submitted by: John Risseeuw, Arizona State University

Imaginary Culture / Faux Document / What If Land
Some artists create art that mimics established forms of scholarship and research.  Beautiful books of lithographs were made in the 19th Century of the excavations in Egypt, for example, and some artists have created books of lithographs and text that look like those books but are of imaginary cultures.  There may or may not be clues to the bogus nature of the work.

Some artists are fascinated with forms and documents.  Saul Steinberg did a visually hilarious series of ink drawings based on the many official certificates that an immigrant must collect, called The Passport.  What documents might you parody?  Application for Artistic License?  New Attitude Adoption Papers?

Perhaps a book could be created that looked authentic but appeared to come from a non-existent land.

What would make any of these artist books as opposed to just imaginary or fake publications?

When you present your book in class and when you turn it in, you must have a written statement of the concept on which it is based and what your sources were.

A Significant Historical Event
The book may explain the event.
If the event is well known, the book may refer to the event without explaining it.
The content may be a reaction to the event (joy, anger, wonder, dismay, etc.)
The content may follow results of the event through history.
The content may show only the result of the event in contemporary life, or in your life.
The content may be more visual, emotional, or intuitive than academic, textual, or explanatory.
The historical event may be part of a personal history (e.g., how your parents met, the loss of a sibling, a grandparent weaving a rug, etc.) but it must be made to have universal meaning.

When you present your book in class and when you turn it in, you must have a written statement of the concept on which it is based and what your sources were.

Based on a concept learned in another discipline.
Examples: The Second Law of Thermodynamics; entropy; chaos
       “You can fool all of the people some of the time, . . .”
       Principles of Economics; supply and demand; etc.
       Newton’s laws of motion, One, Two, and/or Three
       Survival of the Fittest
       Occam’s razor
       Zeno’s Paradox
       Water expands when it freezes
       “What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculties!”
       “If music be the food of love, play on.”
        Individual human existence is unique, isolated, and unexplainable in a hostile or indifferent universe.
        Never get involved in a land war in Asia

The book may be about your concept without actually stating it. However, when you present your book in class and when you turn it in, you must have a written statement of the concept on which it is based and from which class it was learned.

Accordion/Concertina Books - Time
You must read “New Theory of Time Rattles Halls of Science” by Robert Roy Britt, online, and something from one of the following before developing your concept:
       A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking
       Of Time and the River by Thomas Wolfe
       Ideas and Opinions by Albert Einstein
       The Elegant Universe : Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory by Brian Greene
       Backward Time – Time Paradox and Wave Theory by Dr. Chaim H. Tejman at 
       The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, TIME page, at 
       Elements of the System Theory of Time by M. Burgin  (see PDF file or html)
After reading, the manner of presentation of time in this book and the actual content is your choice.

When you present your book in class and when you turn it in, you must have a descriptive written statement of the concept of time on which it is based and from which book(s) it was learned.

Landscape of the Mind
The unfolding of an accordion may represent the unfolding of a landscape, a vista. Besides physical landscapes, and remembered landscapes, and imagined landscapes, what else might a “Landscape of the Mind” refer to or imply? Does it suggest a continuous thought or series of thoughts? Might there be multiple layers to these thoughts/ideas/ memories? Does complexity suggest two-sidedness?  If it relies on entirely mental images and thoughts, are there no outside influences, no use for material from outside creative sources?  This need not be a totally visual book, although it could be.  What texts would be appropriate and how would they be presented?
       Alternative:  Blend an inner landscape with an outer landscape. Are these landscapes physical, emotional,  intellectual, imaginary  .  .  .  ?

When you present your book in class and when you turn it in, you must have a descriptive written statement of the concept of landscape on which it is based and what your sources were.

What constitutes culture? How is it defined academically and how does it work in reality? What are subcultures? Are you part of one? If a book is about culture, what would make it an artist’s book as opposed to a National Geographic book or a social studies book or just a collection of stuff? What are you saying about culture? Are you defining it, describing it for outsiders, celebrating it, inviting others into it, . . . ?
       What research will be necessary to begin this book?
       What different sources can be found?
       Once sources are consulted, must they be credited?

When you present your book in class and when you turn it in, you must have a descriptive written statement of the concept of culture on which it is based and what your sources were.

Copier Book
This book produced on a copy machine must be based on ideas that are contained within the process of copying that makes the book.
• Multiples. Repetition. Repetition with variation. Degradation of image with progressive copying. Repetition with progressive enlargement or reduction. Your concept and subject matter should relate in some way, perhaps oblique, to the copying process.
• What happens to images when they are xeroxed? What is lost, what is gained? Look closely at some xeroxed images (and text) and see if there might be the suggestion of a direction hidden in there.
• What happens when you make a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy . . . ? What if you do that 50 times, then use only every fourth page?
• What about copies of objects, as opposed to copies of photos of objects? Place your hand, your face (a classic!), your cat, your glove, a wooden board, a hubcap on the copy machine glass. Go to the copy shop late at night (with paper towels and a wet sponge) and xerox a pile of spaghetti or Kung Pao Chicken or pools of Coke, milk, and cocoa. Can you copy sand, dirt, alfalfa sprouts, marbles, radial tires, a string of pearls, alligator boots, spark plugs and a dipstick? If you could, why would you?
• How could these “copying” ideas find expression in text? Stuttering. Alliteration. An S book or a T book; single letter, repeated. “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times . . .”; quotations with references to multiples or repetition.
• This is not just a copied report (but it could be about copied reports).
• This is not just a copied collection of favorite snapshots (but it could utilize snapshots).

Assignment #20
The Tarot Project

Submitted by: Brian D. Cohen, The Putney School, in Putney, Vermont

We will create a deck of Tarot cards from our own designs, carved in linoleum, printed letterpress, and assembled into a hand-bound folder.  Each of us will be responsible for one (or two) cards from the major arcana, plus one card from Wands (Fire), Cups (Water). Swords (Air), Pentacles (Earth), or the title page and colophon (this is 28 pages total, so it works out to 2 blocks per person).

Select at random (in class) a card from the Tarot deck.  Learning about and interpreting the qualities the card represents, ponder the implications and associations of your chosen card, and develop an image that conveys the card’s character, power, and mystery.  Write down in words your own associations for the card.  List anything that comes to mind, then begin to draw. You may be inspired (and spin off from) the imagery represented on the card itself, or you may work with your own associations on the theme of the card.  I encourage you to borrow other resources or images for ideas (Internet, from the history of art, Google image search, drawings from observation, books on tarot history) that may offer guidance in your interpretation and discovery of personal symbols and interpretation of received symbols

Research the history of your card and its symbolism.  Find at least four examples of the card from historical or contemporary decks.  Read several interpretations of the card (see web resources below).

Your images are your own interpretations, borrowing, where relevant, from the historical precedents.  Draw from symbols and images in your own life. 

Your images should be very simple because they have to read clearly in black and white, (and because you have to carve them).  Strong shapes read well.  Consider a narrow border around the perimeter of your block.  Think about where and how you’ll include the name and number of the card. 

Here’s our schedule:
Wednesday - Tarot history and examples, select card(s), begin research, gather resources
Thursday - Find four historical cards, begin drawings
Friday - Complete working drawing, transfer to block, begin to carve
Saturday - Carve and proof; complete first block, begin second block
Monday - Carve and proof second block
Tuesda - Begin printing edition
Wednesday - Complete editions
Thursday - Begin binding
Friday - Complete binding, assemble folios
Saturday - Display folios



Your Favorite Assignment Here

Email Laura is you would like to submit a favorite assignment to help inspire us all.