Technique Tuesdays: 10 Tips for Collage

Collage is one of the mainstays of mixed-media art, but creating a cohesive, interesting piece can be daunting. Where to start? What supplies to use? How to find inspiration? Let these 10 tips for collage, all from artists featured Cloth Paper Scissors magazine and North Light Books, guide you and help make the process easy and enjoyable.

1. Many collage artists are natural collectors—including Roxanne Evans Stout. In her book Storytelling with Collage, she talks about using found objects in artwork: “The very act of discovery as you collect found objects is magical,” she says. “You have found beauty in an unexpected place. You have collected a small part of history, and you are taking ownership of being a part of this world. And using these objects in your art is a way of sharing your discoveries and inspiring others. When you experiment with using found objects in your collages, you are truly embracing the alchemist within.”

2. When it comes to composing a collage, Crystal Neubauer advises leaving out the kitchen sink. In other words, don’t feel you have to put every element on the canvas. In “The Elements of Collage” in the May/June issue of Cloth Paper Scissors, she says, “Good composition is like good writing—some of the best work comes when you edit. You’ve spent a lot of time and money on supplies and classes, but who says you have to use it all in one design?” Few artists, she adds, successfully pull off an everything- but-the kitchen-sink look and hang onto a good composition.

"Morning Glory," art and photo by Crystal Neubauer
“Morning Glory” (Art and photo by Crystal Neubauer)

3. Simple tissue paper can become a powerful collage element, especially when combined with hand-drawn doodles. In Zen Doodle Workshop Spring 2016, Angela LeClair shows how to “paint” with tissue paper; “I love the mosaic texture it adds to my work,” she says. “Tissue painting is a simple and fun way to create watercolor backgrounds.” To do this, she recommends tearing pieces of tissue in all shapes and sizes, brushing a light water wash on watercolor paper, and brushing on a light coat of Mod Podge onto the tissue. Place the tissue pieces onto the wet surface to adhere them. For best results, apply light colors first, then darker tones. You can also overlap different colors of tissue to create new colors.

4. Create an interesting collage background with book text. Ingrid Dijkers cuts up old book pages and adheres them to a journal page with a thin layer of glue, making sure the text faces different directions. “I generally go for discolored pages from old dictionaries or paperbacks,” she says in “Doodled Graffiti Journal” in the Spring 2016 issue of Zen Doodle Workshop. “The aged effect of the paper adds a subtle variety of color. When the glue has dried, she brushes on a thin wash of white or off-white acrylic paint, then adds more layers, letting each one dry before adding another. She also tweaks the paint color a bit to lend some variation. While applying the layers, you can decide how much of the text you want to show through, and stop when you’re pleased with the look.

Book text collage background
Book text makes a great collage background. (Art by Ingrid Dijkers, photo by Sharon White Photography)

5. Coffee filters make great collage elements, and Danielle Donaldson has a fun method for coloring them. In her book Creative Girl, she starts by dropping two colors of concentrated watercolors on a white board, then sprays water on the color to spread it. Next, she wipes the color up with a coffee filter, and lets it dry. This technique also works for lace and fabric.

6. Patinas, marks, and stains can lend a little mystery to a collage. Crystal Neubauer says she’s intrigued when “it looks like something has been spilled or has been left sitting on a book. There is a mystery to be solved: an accidental mark has been made by another. Who set that cup down there?” In her book The Art of Expressive Collage, she offers these tips for making interesting marks: Wet the bottom of a coffee cup with black coffee or tea and set it on top of paper; set wet tea bags on top of paper; and press thawed frozen blueberries on paper, press them to stain it, and wipe away any pulp.

7. When creating a fabric and paper collage, Cas Holmes is particular about the adhesive she uses to hold her pieces together before sewing them—and it’s not what you might think. She uses methylcellulose (sometimes found in or as wallpaper paste), since it leaves the work flexible. “It stiffens the cloth some,” she says in “Stitching a Story” in the March/April issue of Cloth Paper Scissors, “making free-motion stitching easier, but the work softens as it’s handled. It’s the stitching that holds the work long term.”

Sewn accordion collage
A sewn collage accordion book. (Art by Cas Holmes, photo by Sharon White Photography)

8. Who can resist the gorgeous decorated papers found at art and stationery stores? Not Elizabeth St. Hilaire, who uses them in her collage paintings. But she doesn’t always use the papers as she finds them—in her book Painted Paper Art Workshop, she shows how to make custom papers. Start by watering down fluid acrylic paint, then painting a wash of color over the papers. Fluid acrylics will resist any metallic elements in the paper. Also, try painting on the back of the paper—you may get another result you love.

9. Inspiration is a huge part of creating a collage, and almost anything can serve as a jumping off point—a color, a texture, a rusty bit of hardware. “I have photographs, magazines, and books within arm’s reach in the studio,” says Kelly Hoernig, in her book Colored Pencil Collage. She adds, “Wherever you go, make sure to have a camera in hand. Taking your own photographs of what you find inspiring will help you become a better artist. Your photographs are taken the way you see and experience things, so they represent you already and are just waiting to be included in your artwork.”

10. Here’s another great collage inspiration tip: Consider making a book that contains your favorite collage techniques, to serve as a handy reference. Seth Apter did just that in “Inspiration Journal” in the September/October 2016 issue of Cloth Paper Scissors, creating an easy no-sew structure from vintage book covers. “When I feel I need a dose of inspiration or have a rare creative block,” he says, “flipping through my technique journal always gives me ideas. It is also useful as a guide to teach others, and serves as a record of my art process and artistic style that will no doubt change over time. Perhaps most important of all, making the manual itself is also making art.”

Our weekly technique posts are moving to ArtistsNetwork.com, so check there regularly to find great mixed-media ideas!

Collage inspiration journal
Keep ideas in a technique journal. (Art by Seth Apter, photo by Sharon White Photography)

Want to know more? Start with these books and magazines, add your own creativity and imagination, and start making some collages today!

Cloth Paper Scissors May/June
The May/June issue of Cloth Paper Scissors has great ideas for collage.
Creative Warm-Ups and Techniques video
Get great ideas for collage warm-ups in Crystal Neubauer’s new video.
Storytelling with Collage
Learn how to create a narrative in Storytelling with Collage by Roxanne Evans Stout
Colored Pencil Collage
Combine drawing with collage in Colored Pencil Collage by Kelly Hoernig.

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Blog, Collage

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