Make a Vibrant Botanical Collage

Artist Susan Black makes wonderfully vibrant collages inspired by flowers and floral motifs—and in this article, she’ll show you how to create your own. Susan starts with coffee-stained watercolor paper, then layers simple geometric shapes cut from tissue paper with bits of ephemera, doodle-style drawing, and mark making. Ready to get started? Follow Susan’s instructions for the complete botanical collage tutorial. This project also appears in our July/August 2013 issue of Cloth Paper Scissors magazine.

Susan Black uses simple geometric shapes to create her whimsical botanical collages. (Photos by Sharon White Photography)
Susan Black uses simple geometric shapes to create whimsical botanical collages. (Photos by Sharon White Photography)

Botanical Collage, by Susan Black

I’m always inspired by nature and especially by flowers and floral motifs. About five years ago, I began experimenting with adding cut paper shapes (collage) to my then more conventional gouache and ink nature illustrations. It was just the thing, that extra-special something I’d been looking for to add to my already whimsical, modern style of illustration.

After discovering a watercolor artist who was using coffee as the first wash of color on her papers, I was inspired to create the same vintage effect in my work. Paper had already become a regular medium in my artwork and I had developed quite a lovely paper stash, which included worn yellowed text paper (old letters, books, atlases, ledgers, encyclopedias), tissue paper (for its vibrant color and translucent quality), and sewing pattern tissue (for its transucency, its neutral color, and the unusual printed marks, symbols, letters, and numbers. The graphic designer in me loves those random marks).

Combining all of these elements—a sheet of coffee-stained watercolor paper; a few simple geometric shapes cut from tissue paper, old book pages, and sewing patterns; a bit of layering; and lots of doodle-style drawing and some mark making—my Botanical Collages were born.

Often I find floral inspiration purely from my imagination, using stylized simple circles and leaf shapes to make up my compositions. But lately I’ve been trying to be more inspired by actual botanical sightings while I’m out each day walking with my dog, Winnie. For the pieces shown here, I took photos in the park of gorgeous, dried cone flower seed heads and picked a bouquet of them to bring home for future reference.

An inspiration photo


  • Black coffee
  • Paintbrushes
    • 2″ bristle/foam
    • Small, fine (I use size 0, 00, and 01.)
    • Waterbrush
  • Watercolor paper (I generally use either 9″ × 12″ or 5″ × 7″ sheets of hot-press Fabriano® watercolor paper.)
  • Hair dryer (One with a diffuser is best.)
  • Pencil
  • Paper:
    • Tracing (I use Canson® tracing paper.)
    • Colored: tissue, decorative, envelopes, etc.
    • Neutral, assorted: text, letters, maps, book pages, etc.
  • Window, light box, or transfer paper
  • Artist tape
  • Pens: nib, colored, gel, and paint
  • Acrylic ink (I use Daler & Rowney inks.)
  • Scissors and/or utility knife and cutting mat
  • Glue pen (I use Zig® brand.)
  • Gel medium (I use Golden Artist Colors®.)
  • Paper cutouts and/or small collage pieces
  • Optional:
    • Gouache
    • Flat embellishments: sequins, glitter, etc.
    • Rubber stamps

Making the background

NOTE: I like the slightly off-white creamy color and the smoothness (lack of tooth) that hot-press paper has, but if you like the texture that tooth provides, by all means cold-press paper will work just as well.

1. Saturate the 2″ brush with black coffee and cover most of the interior of the watercolor paper with the coffee. (Figure 1) I like to leave the edges plain.


TIP: I usually try to stain many sheets, large and small, at one time so that I’ll have a good stock of coffee-stained pages ready to go when the collage bug hits me.

2. Dry the page with the hair dryer, gently tipping the paper and allowing the coffee to run and pool as you dry it. The coffee stain will create a natural beige edge that is organic, accidental looking, and beautiful. Keep tipping and turning the paper as you dry it to create swirls and drips and some darker areas.

TIP: Imperfections add character to the piece. Don’t worry if a dribble runs off the page or an area seems too dark or gets missed completely. In the end you’ll be glad for these happy mistakes.


1. Make a rough, pencil compositional sketch on tracing paper. (Figure 2) (If you’re comfortable proceeding without a pencil sketch, dive right in.)


NOTE: I like to lay my tracing paper paper on the coffee-stained background
when I’m sketching.

2. Once you have a sketch that you’re happy with, go over it with ink. (Figure 3)


3. Transfer your drawing to the watercolor paper. (Figure 4) This can be accomplished with a light box, transfer paper, or by holding the sketch up to a window with the watercolor paper over it.


TIP: Another option is to rub a soft lead pencil on the underside of your drawing, place the drawing on top of the watercolor paper, and then trace over the drawing (on the top side) with a pencil, transferring a light copy of the drawing to the watercolor paper below.

4. With the sketch under the watercolor paper on your work surface, create a hinge with the artist tape at the top of the watercolor paper so you can flip it up and down as needed to refer to the details in the sketch underneath.

Choosing a palette

Go through your paper stash and pull out pieces that you think go well together. (Figure 5) I like to keep my palette simple and prefer the pale cream of vintage book pages and black for my neutrals, adding one predominant color or color scheme (hot colors, cool colors, all neutral with black). I find simplifying my palette makes for a stronger design. Too many different colors can be distracting.


Creating the collage

1. You can add the stems and leaves two ways: outline or paint. Use the nib pen or the fine-tipped watercolor brush to draw in the outlines of the stems and leaves. (Figure 6) This will keep the line quality looser and more natural than a standard pen, and it will add more character. To paint them, fill a waterbrush with acrylic ink or gouache, which can be used opaque or watered down to create translucent areas, and paint the stems and leaves. (Figure 7) When it dries, it’s waterproof.


2. Trace the individual collage shapes onto the chosen papers, cut them out, and audition the composition. Play with different ideas, keeping in mind the layering aspect. For example, if I’m going to layer a large translucent shape over another shape, I’ll want to make sure that I’ve added any drawing or mark making to the shape underneath so that those marks show through. This makes for a more complex and interesting finished piece.

3. Once you are happy with the composition, glue the pieces in place. I never glue anything down until I have all my elements cut out and in position. I love glue pens for the ability to glue tiny little bits and edges, but I prefer gel medium for adhering the larger elements.

4. Paint gel medium over the tops of all of the pieces to seal the edges.

5. Finish the collage by adding more marks. Add seed marks and highlights on the leaves or doodle with the pens. I like to use pens that match my palette. Paint stronger brushstroke outlines to add emphasis. Do some stamping, and consider adding other collage elements as flourishes.

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, hand-drawn 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

Check out our post A New Twist on Collage Backgrounds for more ways to enhance your drawings and images with lots of layering, depth, and dimension.

Work alongside Crystal Neubauer to create colorful collages in the video Expressive Collage Workshop: Working with Color.
Roxanne Evans Stout will guide you into the art of creating collages in her book Storytelling with Collage!
In the video Mixed-Media Collage: Working in Layers, Jenn Mason guides you through the principles of backgrounds, middle grounds, and foregrounds as they relate to mixing monoprints and collage.


Blog, Collage, Mixed-Media Techniques

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