A New Twist on Collage Backgrounds

When it comes to mixed-media art, I’m a wee bit obsessed with layers. Paint and texture layers, collage backgrounds, 3-D cut paper effects—they all make me happy. When I started reading the new Art Lesson Volume 16: Field Notes by Dena Ann Adams, I knew I had to explore Dena’s collage background technique that kicks off the project. The entire lesson is a gem, incorporating painting and mark making and storytelling, but this method is a standout in so many ways that I had to share it with you.

Discover how to enhance your drawings and images with lots of layering, depth, and dimension in Art Lesson Vol. 16: Field Notes, by Dena Ann Adams.

We’ll start with a bunch of papers, plain and patterned, plus waterproof black ink and a dip pen. I amassed some patterned papers that didn’t have too much contrast, along with vintage papers like ledger and graph paper. For this technique you can use vintage papers as long as they’re not too thin and crumbly—you’ll need something more substantial for printing.

collage backgrounds
Intriguing collage backgrounds start with a variety of printed papers. Try using different types of papers for this technique.

For the ink, I used Dr. Ph. Martin’s Black Star Hi-Carb India Ink. This ink is waterproof when dry and very opaque. Dena suggests using a variety of pens and mark-making tools to doodle and draw in ink on the papers. She likes using an inexpensive bamboo dip pen for its unpredictability, adding that that trait is desirable “when you hope for random and uncontrollable outcomes and varied, rich mark making.” I didn’t have a bamboo pen handy, so I used a couple of different dip pens with metal calligraphy nibs, plus a twig, a scruffy paintbrush, and a porcupine quill. Fun fact: waterproof ink didn’t stain the porcupine quill—it came off completely with a baby wipe.

As Dena suggests in the lesson, I let go and drew whatever I felt at the moment—doodles, scribbles, words, shapes, marks. I found this exercise incredibly freeing. Usually when I draw I’m hyper-conscious of every detail, focusing on perspective, shading, and line work. Everything about drawing with a dip pen felt good. Since you can’t erase mistakes you have to just go with it and have fun. Doing this also made me think that ink may be the unsung hero of mixed-media art. Its qualities are unlike any other color medium, giving marks and lines a unique look: loose, expressive, varied. Using ink with a dip pen or other tool ups the randomness factor. I made a pact with myself to incorporate it more in my work.

Let go and draw anything that comes to mind, and let the ink do its thing.

Already I could see this was changing the game for collage backgrounds. My go-to technique is usually to cover a substrate with book text or hand-written text, then gesso over that. But drawing designs, marks, and words makes your work that more unique, and helps build a narrative.

When the ink was dry, I set an 8″ x 10″ Gelli Arts Gel Printing Plate on my worktable, and grabbed some acrylic ink. I used white and off-white, magenta, and phthalo turquoise acrylic paints, and some Golden OPEN Acrylic Medium in matte. If you don’t have this medium, I highly recommend you add it to your supplies. Acrylic paint, which is perfect for making gel prints, dries really quickly. The OPEN medium extends the working time, so you don’t have to rush like a crazy person to make prints. I mixed the two neutrals on the gel plate with a brayer, then added tiny drops of the two brighter colors. I was going for a very thin paint layer, so if the paint was too thick I took some off with a palette knife. I created ghost prints, too; these are second-generation prints that have less paint, but great visual texture. You can always over-print a sheet if you want to add more color.

You can’t make a mistake with gel plate printing, but you can make gorgeous prints to use in collage backgrounds.

I began printing the individual sheets and loved seeing the paper, ink, and paint working together to create the collage backgrounds. The goal here is to make the ink drawings a little more understated, so they don’t compete with the main image. And of course, printing over the drawings contributes to the layers. In partially obscuring the patterns, words, and images, viewers are subtly aware of them, as they’re encouraged to linger over the artwork. Here is the result of the printing:

After printing, the complexity builds.

In addition to making ghost prints on paper, I grabbed a few tags for other projects and printed them as well. These pieces always come in handy.

When you have the gel plate out, print as many things as you can. It’s time well spent.

I selected key images I wanted to work with, tore and cut them from the printed papers, and adhered them to an art journal page with gel medium. Dena says this is where you may start to notice themes or patterns for your artwork.

collage backgrounds
Creating collage backgrounds begins with adhering the printed papers to a substrate; in this case, an art journal page.

When the medium was dry I covered the printed papers with a layer of white gesso, using a brayer, a plastic hotel card, and a palette knife. Each offered a different texture and opacity, which added a lot of interest. The patterns were still visible underneath, and the layering was even more intense.

collage backgrounds
Gesso helps to build yet another layer into collage backgrounds.

This Art Lesson has so many more fantastic techniques and ideas for bringing your story into focus, including suggestions for creating a focal image and enhancing key elements in the artwork. This lesson is all about discovery—of techniques, ideas, and even aspects of yourself. It’s a must-have for your library, and you’ll love seeing even more of Dena’s gorgeous artwork.

See how Seth Apter builds up background layers with paint, ink, and more in this guest blog post!

Learn techniques for creating a dynamic, layered background and so much more in Art Lessons Vol. 16: Field Notes, by Dena Ann Adams.


Blog, Collage, Mixed-Media Techniques

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