Create a Stylish Mixed-Media Collage with Words

Have you been bitten by the collage paper bug yet? Susan Black has, and her bold and unique artwork is sure to inspire you. In this article from our September/October 2012 issue of Cloth Paper Scissors magazine, Susan shows you how to create a stylish mixed-media collage by combining typography with pattern and paper, then drawing and/or painting on top. She also shares helpful tips on her process for creating commissioned art.

Susan Black's mixed-media collage art creatively combines typography with patterned paper and artful techniques. (Photo by Larry Stein)
Susan Black’s mixed-media collage art creatively combines typography with patterned paper and artful techniques. (Photo by Larry Stein)

Collage to Order: Create with Words, by Susan Black

As a former graphic designer, I’ve always had a big love for typography and for using words to communicate visually and creatively. Add to that love a big pile of vintage books, a few old atlases, a stack of decorative paper, a shoebox of tissue paper in vivid colors, scraps of wrapping paper, postage stamps, some paint and drawing pens, ink, scissors, glue, a passion for collage, and “poof” my own typographic mixed-media style began to emerge.

I love combining typography with pattern and paper and then drawing and/or painting on top. This piece “Call for Art” was commissioned for Cloth Paper Scissors magazine, but this technique works perfectly to capture a favorite inspirational sentiment, a line from a poem, a child’s name for easy wall art, a special date, and just about anything else you can think of.

COMMISSION NOTES: If you’ve ever considered working on commission pieces, follow along to get a few tips on the process.

  • Watercolor paper (I prefer hot-press, bright white watercolor paper.)
  • Pencil
  • Eraser
  • Tracing paper
  • Tape
  • Decorative papers: sheet music, patterned, colored, etc.
  • Watercolors
  • Paintbrushes, detail
  • Craft knife
  • Cutting mat
  • Scissors
  • Glue (I like to use Zig® glue pens and gel medium.)
  • Drawing pen, fine
  • Gouache or acrylic ink, black
  • Optional:
    • Light box
    • Scanner/copier

NOTE: I use a small tabletop light box and have found it to be an indispensable tool. If you don’t have a light box you can use a window and lightly trace your final design onto the top layer of watercolor paper so you’ll have an indication for positioning the letters.

COMMISSION NOTES: Once a client contacts you about the commission, meet with them or exchange emails to get a sense of the final piece.

1. Roughly sketch or trace a few ideas in pencil on paper, refining the design as you go. (Figure 1) Add patterns to the letters, like the leaves in the top = row “L” and the rose pattern in the letter “A.” (See opening image)

FIGURE 1 (Step-out photos by Susan Black)

COMMISSION NOTES: Now’s the time to get some client feedback. You may have to tweak one or two elements. If you do, make sure to run the final piece with the changes by the client.

2. Once you have a design you’re all happy with, redraw the design to size or use your scanner and computer (or photocopier) to enlarge the design and then print it out in the size you want the final art to be.

3. Redraw your design on a piece of tracing paper. This will allow you to audition the decorative papers beneath the tracing paper, and make it much easier to cut the letters out.

4. Tape the tracing paper drawing to the back of the watercolor paper along the top edge, like a hinge, so you can flip the watercolor paper out of the way as needed. You’ll see the design quite clearly through the paper.

TIP: Try different bold-colored or patterned papers for your background. A solid sheet of vintage book paper or kraft paper looks fantastic, too.

5. Decide on your color palette and indicate these color choices on the drawing. (Figure 2) I like to keep my palette simple and prefer the pale cream of vintage book pages with kraft and black papers for my neutrals, and then I add one predominant color—in this case red. commission notes: Share your color options with the client and let them choose their favorite palette of colors.


6. Once you’ve chosen your palette, paint the areas of color in any pattern you’ve drawn into the design. (Figure 3)


TIP: I find simplifying a palette makes for a stronger design. Too many different colors can distract from the words, letters, and the meaning of the piece.

7. Tape the tracing paper onto a window or the light box and place your first paper choice over the design. Flip the watercolor paper up and tape it out of the way, if necessary. Trace the outline of the letter onto the paper with pencil. I used sheet music. Cut the letter out, erase any pencil marks, and put the letter aside. Repeat for the rest of the letters. (Figure 4)


TIP: When working with dark paper that’s difficult to see through, use a small piece of tracing paper to draw the outline of the letter. Place the tracing paper over the dark patterned paper, deciding what part of the pattern you want the letter to contain, and then cut out the letter from the tracing paper and paper while holding the tracing paper in position. You could also use a bit of repositionable glue to hold the tracing paper in place. (Figure 5)


8. I like to cut out all of the letters first and position them on the watercolor paper before gluing to make sure I’m pleased with the final composition and the mix of patterns and colors. Once you’re absolutely sure of the layout, glue the letters in place and let dry. (Figure 6)


9. Use the drawing pen to add the line details in any of the painted pattern areas. (Figure 7)


10. Using a fairly small paintbrush (or brush pen) and the black gouache or acrylic ink, loosely outline all the letters. The addition of this black line really pulls the whole design together. (Figures 8 and 9)


TIP: Imperfections add character when drawing or painting the details and outlines—the looser the better. Don’t try to follow the edges exactly. Let the brushstrokes be fluid, with thick and thin areas.

11. Trace, cut out, and embellish any top layer or overlapping shapes. I created a banner that I edged with watered-down black gouache and embellished with cut letters before adhering it to the collage. (Figure 10)


COMMISSION NOTES: Now it’s time to wrap up the piece and deliver it to your sure-to-be-delighted client.

A Note on Papers

Choosing the paper

I used hot-press bright white watercolor paper because it has the smoothest surface, and I wanted to add painted elements. If you’re just collaging elements, use any type of background material: cardstock, canvas, cardboard, furniture, etc. Experiment with different materials.

Gathering your paper stash

• Decorative papers, especially those with small prints or neutrals, are a staple in my paper stash.

• Find vintage paper. Search yard sales, vintage stores, and Etsy sellers for old books, maps, ledger paper, handwritten notes, and letters.

• Bits of packaging, wrapping paper, and inexpensive and brightly colored tissue paper are other staples. I love tissue for its translucent qualities, and it’s available in an amazing variety of vivid colors.

Once you’ve been bitten by the collage paper bug you’ll begin looking at every scrap of paper with a different eye. Let all your friends and family know that you’re collecting paper, and before you know it you’ll have your own great paper stash.

Susan Black is a designer/illustrator living the good life in beautiful Nova Scotia, Canada. She has a unique and bold mixed-media style that combines collage, handdrawn typography, gouache, and ink. Susan is a passionate photographer and keeps a daily blog of life in and around her home. Her biggest inspiration is always found in nature. Visit her online at

Ready for more? In this tutorial, Susan shows you how to make a botanical mixed-media collage!


Blog, Collage, Mixed-Media Techniques


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