Collage—Some Thoughts

September 28, 2009


Left: mixed media collage explained in today’s post. Journal 8 x 8 inches, handmade with 140 lb. hot press watercolor paper.

When I posted my bantam chicken with people one reader wrote in to say, “I've haven't had much success with collage (I never seem to be able to figure out what to put where), but I have accumulated lots of collage stuff over the years. This piece is inventive and fun. Maybe I'll sift through my stuff and give it another try.” 

I’m glad she’s going to give it another go, and I thought it would be a good idea to write a post with some resources for everyone in a similar position—ready to give it a second chance. Keep it fun and just go with your instincts.

To begin, we can of course ask ourselves "why collage in the first place?" But I think that’s a silly question. I think humans by nature acquire bits and pieces of stuff. If you are inclined to keep a visual journal those bits and pieces are going to make it into your journal, either as ephemera from your day, or as something wholly new, abstract or concrete, which has meaning for you, even if its meaning lies only in the fun you had playing with those materials.

It’s the latter pursuit that I’m writing about today. I teach collage in some of my journaling classes (some classes are strictly focused on drawing) and I am always encouraging my students to find materials and save scraps for collage, rather than purchase packets of “collage materials” available at scrapbooking and art supply stores. You can certainly make really inventive and cool pages in your journals with purchased materials, but I find that students are more apt to dive in and use materials when they view them as “scraps” instead of something that costs money. It is amazing the amount of scraps one person can generate in a day if you start to keep track of it, especially if you have a hobby.

Using your own scraps also allows you to relate on a personal level to your materials. And you end up with collages which reflect your tastes, your color choices, your eye for the graphic. The resultant images won’t look like the samples from the scrapbooking company—and that’s a good thing, because you will be stretching your own artistic sensibilities.

What constitutes a scrap? In the above image you will find the following:
1. bits cut from magazine advertisements (face and arm)
2. eye cut from a print of my block printing of my dog
3. line of text cut from the same magazines that were going to get recycled
4. a photocopy of the decorative paper I made to cover one of my journals

We all have printed material in our homes, even if it is junk mail! Cut it up and make a collage out of that! If your hobby involves painting or making decorative paper, or hand dyeing textiles, etc. you can take this material to the copyshop and photocopy it. I used a black and white photocopy of my decorative paper because I thought the pattern was interesting without color. Also the original scrap I photocopied was 140 lb. watercolor paper and I didn’t want that thickness of paper in the collage.

You can photocopy lace laying over something else. You can photocopy 3-dimensional objects like rocks, or feathers, or leaves. You can print text on an acetate overlay and then sandwich it to something else, making a copy which includes both text and image (of course you can also composite stuff like this in Photoshop). It’s really endless. Most copiers now also have invert functions which allow you to print "negatives" of your image, as well as other interesting "effects" controls. If you are worried about archival qualities take some archival copy paper to the copyshop (some shops do carry it).

Stop looking at your scraps as only what they are. Think how you can transform them, simply and easily. If you have a scanner and printer at home you can skip the copyshop, scan items, alter them in Photoshop and spit them out of the printer.

When you do tear bits and pieces off of your copies, keep the rest, they might come in handy. Pretty soon, from this endeavor alone you’ll have lots of scraps with which to work.

Next, before you recycle magazines or books go through them with an interested eye looking for bold typographic statements or interesting turns of phrase which jump out at you. Clip these out and keep them in a folder.

Pull faces, limbs, or other visual elements out of the same magazines you’re recycling. Don’t save entire photographs, just parts that appeal to you. Trust your instincts and cut down to that part right now. Toss the unusable scraps—yes some scraps are unusable, I’ll let you decide what that is for you.

Save your fortunes from any cookies you happen to eat. Save any paper ephemera that comes your way in the day.

If you make prints or paint and have output that doesn’t come out—such as the mis-printed print of Dottie, from which I salvaged the eye to use in this piece—save them and cut them up for use in your collages. Or save them and photocopy them to cut them up because you want to use thinner paper.

And now you’re ready to collage. That's all the prep you have to do. 

I suggest that you start with a prepainted background on a page or page spread in your journal. The above piece has a magenta gouache glaze splashed on the page. Leave these pre-painted pages alone until you reach one in the normal course of events. Then get out your three folders of collage materials, sift through the phrases, find something that speaks to you, and begin to build an image around that phrase—an image that means something to you.

In my example I created a box with my texture photocopy and ink. I used ink to draw a body. I used turquoise gouache to fill in around the body sketch to make the background recede everywhere except in the “clothing” and legs. (Note: painting over watersoluble backgrounds will reactivate the base layer, but I wasn't too concerned here because there wasn't a lot of magenta paint, and I was using a dark cover color.)

And most important, all of this was done in a matter of moments. Which is the other thing I would tell you—set a time limit. Thirty minutes is good, and manageable for most people to steal from their day. Just do it and don’t keep second guessing yourself as you work on your collage. Remind yourself you can always make another one.

Will everything turn out spectacular, nope, but that’s not what journals are for anyway in my mind at least. Journals are for experimentation, fun, record keeping, those sorts of things, but not perfection. Oh, and I use the purple Uhu glue stick when collaging in my journal. It's non-fussy, it doesn't smell, and it works. That's great. It's easier than getting out the matte medium or some other glues. Also it dries very quickly.

I have friends who run their collage bits through a Xyron and I've been known to do that—but if you do, don't do a final trim first. Run the piece in the Xyron and then trim because otherwise you end up with sticky edges in your collage.

Collaging every day for a month is a good way to start to lose a sense of perfectionism. If that isn’t one of your sticking points daily collaging for a month is also a good way to practice. With practice comes skill. Also with practice comes a sense of direction, a development of style, a discovery of your voice.

So give it a shot. On days when everything you draw comes out looking like an amoeba, or a cold has you chained to your bed, or you are wrestling with a thorny dilemma, make a fast collage to free up your brain, discover new possibilities, clear out old dictums, and most of all—to keep up the productivity.

Resources and References
I share the following books with my collage students. The authors present a variety of approaches and results, as well as fundamentals, such as successful adhesion techniques. Most are concerned with making stand alone collages but this doesn’t mean you can’t learn something useful for your journal work.

In addition to such books, look in galleries and museums at mixed media work. Analyze the pieces to determine what speaks to you: colors, shapes, textures. Note down a color palette that you might want to experiment with yourself.

Dover Publications offers a vast selection of clip art books filled with people, buildings, things, animals, in a range of styles from ancient to modern times. Find out if a particular style appeals to your visual style.

One of my favorite sources for collage bits (people, clothes, things) is an old Sears catalog. You can find these in antique stores and online.

Check out books on composition and Notan as well. (Besides that link I also write more on Notan here.) But through all of your research don’t loose sight of the objective: to play with scraps in your journal and make something meaningful for you.

And if a more organized look appeals to you, by all means check out various scrapbooking magazines and books. You may not even want to do something in the author’s “style,” but you may learn from her use of techniques, a missing component to the approach you would like to take.

The following are listed in random order:

The Collage Handbook, John and Joan Digby, Thames and Hudson, ISBN 0-500-274360-3

The Art and Craft of Collage, Simon Larbalestier, Chronicle Books, ISBN 0-8118-0806-8

The Crafter’s Complete Guide to Collage, Amanda Pierce, ISBN 0-8230-0258-6

Collage Art: A Step-by-Step Guide and Showcase, Jennifer Atkinson, ISBN 1-56496-215-6

Collage: A New Approach—Collage without Liquid Adhesives, Jonathan Talbot, (private printing, no ISBN)

Handmade Paper Collage, Dawn Ackerman, ISBN 0-8069-6877-X

Creative Collage Techniques, Nita Leland and Virginia Lee Williams, ISBN 0-89134-563-9

Bridging Time and Space: Essays on Layered Art, Ann Bellinger Hartley, editor, ISBN 0-9655890-4-8

And finally, because it is such a stunning book dealing with making things from paper, even though they aren’t strictly collages as understood by this post—a book you can learn from because the pieces are so beautiful:

Paper Sculpture: Step-by-Step Guide, Kathleen Ziegler and Nick Greco, Rockport, ISBN 1-56496-329-2

    • anne
    • September 28, 2009

    Don’t forget maps. Free if you are a AAA member.

    Dover has a weekly free clipart newsletter, with downloadable jpgs (and sometimes vector files) of pages of their myriad books
    here’s the link:

    I will never forget my experience of “express collaging” with Traci Bunkers — I filled a whole book with collage IN ONE DAY! The collage elements run through multi pages so it “reads” like a story, but has hardly any words.

    • Deborah A. Dugan
    • September 29, 2009

    Thank you so much! This really gives me a starting point. Today is background day 🙂 I think I might actually have fun.

    • Roz
    • September 29, 2009

    Hope you do Deborah!

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