Leather has historically been used as an important art medium. From ancient times to the present, artisans have used a variety of tools and techniques to employ leather for a multitude of functional as well as artistic purposes. Its uses include garments, book-binding material, and even coverings for furniture. While many people typically think of rawhide or animal byproducts when thinking about this material, today leather comes in many other forms as well such as vegetable-tanned leather and synthetic leather.
Of course, traditionally speaking, most leather is made from cattle; though deerskin is also used similarly. As an art form, the use of leather is often termed as leather craft. While some artists might be involved in the tanning and other preparatory processes involving leather, others craft prepared leather into objects or enhance the leather in various ways (i.e. stamping, dyeing, etc…). Sometimes leather is treated to various techniques like carving as well as painting.
Archaeologists have discovered leather craft objects that date back more than thirty-three centuries. Ancient Romans used leather as currency. During the Middle Ages leather became popularly used to create books. As a valuable material, leather crafted into items like boots and saddles was essentially reserved for the wealthy who could afford such items. Artisans who made these items typically belonged to guilds which guarded their leather crafting techniques quite strictly.
Leather craft blossomed with the discovery of the New World. Many skilled artisans traveled with the conquistadors to the Americas where they were influenced by the lush landscape. Many leather crafts from this period show the evolution of geometric-based designs popular in the Middle Ages to the floral patterns of the Renaissance.
The main techniques associated with leather as an art medium include dyeing, painting, carving, stamping, and molding/shaping. While leather may be fashioned into artistically wrought, functional items like purses or belts, it may also be framed after having been carved or painted. Leather art is collected by natural history as well as art museums the world over. Works of leather craft may be purchased from artisans as well as galleries.
Though leather is relatively universal, many decorated objects of leather reflect cultural patterns and designs. For instance, tribal artisans might create items that are decorated with patterns indicative of their region or tribe. Artistically rendered yet functional items are extremely popular today in terms of fashion and furnishings. Many artisans also specialize in custom, one-of-a-kind works.