Layer Upon Layer: 7 Dimensional Collage Tips and Tricks

In workshops and exhibitions, I get many questions about how I add so much depth and dimension to my work. My appetite for three dimensions comes out in my collage work as much as it does in my books. Isn't a richly encrusted surface deeply appealing? There are some wonderful ways to get that dimensional feel, so I thought I would share some ideas on the most common questions I receive.

1.  That collage is heavy!  What kind of base do you use?

If you're planning to use adhesives and mediums, or heavy found objects, you need a collage base that's strong enough to tolerate the wetness and still support your collage. In most cases, I use 100% rag artist's mat board. Starting with a thinned coating of acrylic medium on both sides to prevent warping, I lay down a base of paper or fabric and then begin to build my collage onto that. If I need greater strength, I use a sheet of masonite sealed with acrylic sealant.

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2.  What do you use to build up the surface?

I use several substances to build surface texture and thickness in my collages. Mostly, I use different types of acrylic medium. I build up the base layers with molding pastes, and often use soft or regular gel medium to soak fabrics, such as butter muslin (a fine cheesecloth), and mold them to the collage. Molding paste is fantastic for carving, and gel mediums are great for impressing texture. I often add sand or other substances to increase the surface texture. I frequently build beeswax layers onto the surface layers of a collage, in which I embed images and objects. I fuse layers until the last layer, which I usually leave heavily textured. I like both white and natural beeswax for this purpose.

3.  What IS that? Is that a bone?

Found objects are a joy, and any artist will respond to the objects that most resonate with them. It's Nature's bountiful cast-offs that attract me. I've always been a nature magpie since I was a child, when my mother refused to sew pockets into my clothes, insisting I would only fill them with rocks. Some things never change! Nature's forms fascinate me, and I incorporate any materials I find into my work. I live in the Canadian Rockies, which is a pretty wild and untamed place. When I'm out hiking, I fill my pockets with bits of moss, stones, pinecones, feathers, butterfly wings, shells, leaves, flower petals, seed heads, clumps of animal hair, and yes, bones if I find them. These cast-offs are a natural byproduct of nature's cycle and, to my eyes, beautiful. 

4.  Can I touch it? 

In my work, personal interaction is what it's all about. I want people to experience my work with a variety of senses (perhaps excluding taste).  If you're working hard to create texture and surface, you want someone to experience it. To protect any delicate objects, like wings or seed heads, I sometimes place a collage behind glass for protection. Otherwise, touch away.

Mixed media collage techniques
Collage art by Dea Fischer

5.  How do you adhere your found objects?

A lot of trial and error over the years has taught me what to use and what not to use. For example, beeswax alone is not a great adhesive for heavy objects. It can crack and then things start to fall off. For heavy, non-porous objects like stones, I usually adhere to the surface with a two-part epoxy, and then once set and dry, build up around it with beeswax or other elements. I adhere lighter objects like shells with acrylic medium—either regular or soft gel, depending on the object. It's an adhesive that would take a blow-torch to remove in most cases. For most found objects, I usually then sew them onto the collage surface with heavy silk or other threads or fine wires. To do so, I drill right through the backing board, wire or stitch as desired, and then tighten and tidy the wire ends on the back of the board, where they'll be hidden. A small piece of paper glued down over the wire ends helps keep things tidy and stops them loosening or catching.  

6.  How did you get the words in there?

Incorporating text is the most fun part. For example, you can tear or clip letters, words, or phrases from newspapers or other printed material. It can be fun to mix sizes, styles, and colors. I like to tear words from newspapers and other cheap flyers, because I like the aged appearance of the paper. I frequently type words, quotes, or extracts from my own writing using my antique typewriters. Again, I like the irregular and aged appearance. These get embedded in wax or collaged on. I've put all sorts of delicate papers, silk, and even bark and leaves into my typewriter! There are lots of other options, such as rub-on letters or words, rubber alphabet stamps, and stencils. If you can do a good hand-lettering style, incorporate that wherever you can. I'm hopeless at hand-lettering, so I tend to rely more on the other methods.   

7.  How long did that take to dry?

Acrylic mediums, especially the more liquid ones, can take a long time to dry if they are in thick layers. A good example is one piece into which I poured a lens of self-leveling gel. That took about three weeks to dry and fully clear. There are better products for that nowadays! It's a good idea to work the layers up slowly if you can, allowing thorough drying in between layers. Acrylic layers bond to each other chemically, so layering wet over a dry layer will not affect the bond between layers. If you want to incorporate paint or pigment, you can either tint the medium before you apply it, or you can paint it and age it after it dries. If you've impressed into medium, for example, you will need to wait until it's fully dry before inking or dry-brushing to bring up the texture. Beeswax is virtually instantaneous in comparison, and will bond well if you fuse it with a heat source between each layer.

Collage is almost limitless in its possibilities and styles. Experiment and play until you find what you like, and never be afraid to fail. (Tweet this!) The best lessons I've learned have been from finding a solution to something that didn't work! If you'd like to learn more, come and take a class with me at the CREATE Mixed-Media Retreats in Dallas or Seattle. I'm teaching classes in book arts, marbling, low-tech image creation and transfer, and both dry and wet collage techniques. I hope to see you this fall! 


Editor's Note: If you missed CREATE but still want to learn ways to make collage art, check out this Collage Basics Kit (limited quantity). ~Cherie


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