Project Friday—Let’s Collage

March 29, 2019
The completed collage. I did the face and collaged it onto the spread with the torn kraft paper the first evening and then went to bed. The rest happened the next day during breaks in my work.

In this post I’ll walk you through a recent collage I made. This isn’t something that I preplanned. It’s simply something that I worked on with the materials at hand, moving from one thought to the next. 

I’ve turned the step-by-step into a Project Friday because I hope you’ll get up from the computer, make a sketch, and start to build your own collage using materials that you have on hand. Without over thinking it.

Why not plan it all out and think about all the meaning it might have? Why not spend hours and hours on it?

You can do that of course, but my point today, as most days, is that it’s fun to dive in and make something and not over think it. You’ll probably learn something in the process. You might learn that you really like certain colors you thought you hated, or enjoy using certain materials you haven’t used in ages. If it’s the latter that’s a huge clue as to what to bring out when you don’t feel like getting your daily practice done!

Again, it’s something learned. Doing things for the fun of it can lead to all sorts of discoveries.

Supplies You’ll Need

You can use anything that you have on hand. I will suggest some items in a minute. First I’d like to suggest that you take a sketch you just made that maybe didn’t work out as you had planned or hoped.

Why use a sketch that you might otherwise simply treat as a warm up and move on?

Well in my case it was a no-brainer because I same my experimental sketches and because I was trying to test media on Canson Heritage Watercolor paper.

But if it isn’t a no-brainer to you I will simply say that I have found, over the years, that sketches that don’t seem great at first, can be transformed into something really fun through collage. And if you don’t end with a collage that you like you still have the fun of working without feeling that everything is “precious.”

That feeling of everything being “precious” can really tie some people up. Take a moment to step away from “precious” if you’ve had that issue before.

If you don’t have that issue (and I seem not to be burdened with it) use a sketch that didn’t work out simply because the following process will make you look again at that sketch and find new bits of it that you actually like. At the same time you’ll discover how you’ll “fix” things the next time you try this. Both are great end results.

Suggested Supplies

Any sketch that didn’t quite turn out, or even one that really, really turned out—go ahead, cut away the negative space. It helps if the sketch is on light weight paper. Mine wasn’t and I went ahead anyway. Just keep in mind the more heavyweight papers you try to collage down the more a dimensionality starts to develop with the layers. It might not be what you want.

Glue Stick—I can’t recommend a brand because my favorite, Purple UHU, was discontinued. I’m experimenting with Blue UHU right now and not very happy with it, but at least it doesn’t have a strong odor. Use your favorite. Or you can purchase a foam roller applicator bottle at a craft store and fill it with PVA.

Waste paper for gluing on.

Wax paper for burnishing and separating pages while the glue dries.

A Bone Folder or Burnishing Tool

Decorative paper scraps in many colors, thin (if possible to minimize page bulkiness). When you start this project it’s important that you don’t pre-pick a set of decorative papers. Have all the colors at hand and pick as you go and let the palette evolve.

If you don’t have a lot of decorative papers on hand the project can be about making use of the limited ones you have on hand.

If you don’t have any decorative papers on hand you can take kraft paper like I did and use it “nude.” Or you can pre-paint/stamp/decorate it in some way before you start tearing it up.

And if you really don’t have anything take some copier bond paper and make quick watercolor washes across the paper and set it aside to dry. (If you intend to paint over your collage I recommend you do these initial washes with your acrylic paints.)

If you have a Gelli Arts Printing Plate you could also use it to make some decorative paper out of plain paper. Here is a link to just one of many posts I have showing how I use the decorative papers I make with this tool.

You get the idea, you have something, even if you have to pull labels off of cans and use ephemera!

Tracing paper if you want to make masks

A Scissors. You can use an X-Acto and a cutting mat if that’s your preference.

Some folks like to have rulers around.

A Pencil or pen for making tracings.

Gentle Tape like Nichiban Masking tape to hold things in place, if you’re going to stencil.

A Rubber Stamp Reinker. I can’t recommend an ink brand for you because my brand added a fragrance. Click on this line it’s a link to that post, even if it doesn’t show as a link.

A Paint Dauber. I got my fabulously wonderful daubers from Judikins (Disclaimer, Judi is a friend—she is also a guru of everything rubber-stamp-isa, click on Judikins, it’s a link too that’s there but doesn’t seem to be showing in my browser.) the brush tool, “color dusters.” 

A Stencil. (Or you can cut your own stencil using card stock and your X-Acto blade.)

You only need the last three items if you’re going to stencil with rubber-stamp ink. You can of course stencil with acrylic paints, so then you’d need those.

Additional Supplies You Might Have At Hand

Watercolors, a watercolor brush or brushes, crayons, water-soluble wax crayons, color pencils, color pens, color markers. (Often when I’m doing something like this I’ll use my Montana Acrylic Markers.) 

You get the idea—gather the things that you have on hand that you enjoy working with. 

How I Started

This is the first stage of my collage as it was when I went to bed. If you look carefully you can see the edge of the body. Since this is thick watercolor paper I was careful to position the head so it didn’t fall into or cross the gutter.

It was late at night. I had not been able to sketch yet during the day. I pulled out the Sktchy App and found a face with a fun expression.

I was testing the Canson Heritage watercolor paper (hot press) and so I started sketching away. (The muse was an older woman, but I wasn’t concerned about a likeness—I wanted to get some ink and paint on the paper, and do it as loosely as possible.)

I actually started with some scribbling of color pencil in the left (our left) eye socket and a couple other places before I started to ink with a thin tipped pen, and then a thick brush pen.

Next I added watercolor washes in a loose fashion with a 1 inch wide flat brush.

I set it aside while I let it dry and watched a little TV.

When I looked at the dry piece I decided I wanted to test color pencil more on this paper and started to apply heavy layers of color pencil in the eyes and mouth areas.

Canson Heritage Watercolor paper takes repeated layers of light and heavy color pencil application really well.

I could have just placed the piece in the loose sheet box for this year, however I decided that it would be fun to cut the head (and neck) out and collage it into the large Hahnemühle Nostalgie journal I was just starting. 

The idea of white on white wasn’t appealing and I didn’t have access to some of my other tools. I took a large roll of craft paper, and tore off a piece. I pasted down on the page spread with no thoughts in mind. Just how could it flow in and out of the spread.

Next I pasted the cut out head down. I inserted wax paper, closed the book, added weights (some heavy art books; I also have book cloth covered bricks I can use for this), and left it all to dry over night.

Stage Two: I Start To Think About What I’m Looking At

I place tracing paper masks over the areas where I don’t want my stenciling to fall.

The next day during my lunch break I looked at the page spread and this is actually the first time that the kraft paper started to look like either a hat or hair. Previously I’d thought that I might draw hair in on top of the kraft paper. But now I saw that it would be simpler to create a “hair-like” stylized texture on the kraft paper.

I traced the shapes I wanted to resevere (i.e., not get ink on) with tracing paper. I cut out the masks. I then held them in place with a little bit of Nichiban masking tape. (It’s gentle on paper. You can also take regular masking tape and pat it several times on your sweater so it picks up link. That will make it less sticky and useful for this approach.)

Next I put the stencil in position and started to dab rubber-stamp ink all over the exposed area, which you can see from the photo is the kraft paper.

Finished stenciling with the masks still in place.

In the next image you can see the finished stenciling with the masks still in place. Also at the right of the photo you can see the stencil I used, and the ink dauber (circular item at the top right). Underneath the dauber is a folded sheet of waste bond. Waste bond is something that has run through the printer or copier and wasn’t a final. I use them for masks and “palettes.” On this one I put out my ink. That way when I’m finished I simply toss the sheet of paper.


I use these same sheets of waste bond paper to glue out collage bits. I put the collage bit down on the paper and in a sunburst pattern spread the glue outwards (so that it won’t be pulled under the edges of the collage bit and ruin the front surface).

Before the ink gets tossed and the dauber gets clean I use the dauber to stamp faded circles at the edge of both page spreads. I do this because when I’m collaging I like to introduce a little bit of the same color in different parts of the spread. If done in a pleasing fashion this will lead the eye across the page.

What’s a pleasing fashion? Well learning about design will help you there, but we aren’t over thinking remember????!!!! So know this, try something, if it isn’t pleasing you’ll know, and next time you try something else, and so on, until you find patterns or approaches that are pleasing to you.

Adding More Collage Bits

Tracing the body of the figure so that I can make a collage paper dress.

I don’t like that the whole base of the spread is mostly white paper (there are some peach daubs on the far left that weren’t included in this photo.)

I decide that this person needs a dress—a collaged dress.

Using a piece of tracing paper I draw around the neck and create the dress.

I then hold this over a piece of decorative paper with a vise like grip and cut out this shape. You can of course tape it in place, attaching tape outside the working area of the paper you’re going to use as the dress—just in case the tape pulls on the paper’s surface.

The “dress” before it’s glued down.

How did I pick which paper to use for the dress? I didn’t over think it. I reached into my pile of collage papers and pulled one out. It seemed to go well with the yellow ochre paint in the face. The circles seemed to echo the swirls in the stenciled hair and the dauber marks.   

Those things make me happy.

Other days I work hard to introduce differences. 

Work either way, just don’t overthink it.

Of course the next step is to glue out the back of the dress and stick it down. 

Notice one thing here—the dress extends down off the page and also off the page at the right.

ALL my collage bits extend off the page if they fall near the page edge. I trim them only after they have DRIED IN PLACE.

Collage Tips

If you saw my Strathmore Sketch and Collage class in 2010 you’ll have seen me do this—extend collaged papers beyond the page and trim them when dry. (I include those videos in my “By Design” class if you are ever curious. It’s on the linked page under “On Demand Classes” and you can join any time.)

Why glue and trim in this fashion? The reason is simple. It is pretty fussy to match the edge of the page with a collage bit, especially if you fussy cut some design out of it that has to fall somewhere else in the page. Glue stick dries pretty quickly and you have to get the piece in position and burnished down quickly. 

By letting your collage bits extend past the edge of the page it’s one less thing to juggle or “over think.”

Besides using waste paper as I described above to glue out your collage bits, you’ll need some wax paper on hand when you collage.

Once a large piece or several small pieces of collage are in place position a piece of clean wax paper over the entire area. Burnish the entire page. You can give emphasis to the bits you’re sticking down, but smooth the whole page. That limits the possibility that you’ll inadvertently score the paper in some ugly, random fashion.

Don’t worry if you used a little too much glue and it oozed out from around your pieces. The wax paper will protect the surface of the glued down bits. Over time you’ll learn to use less glue, or develop ways to cover any glue that shows up on your spread. (Acrylic paint is useful for that. So is pigmented rubber-stamp ink.)

With the wax paper still in place, close the book, place weights or heavy art books on top of your journal, and leave the piece until the glue dries. (That’s one of the reasons I like to work on collage a little bit at a time throughout the day. I get a lot done while the glue is drying.)

When the glue is dry you can remove the wax paper and keep working. I find that wax paper can be reused many times without damaging new papers, as long as the glue on it is dry.

More Collage Bits

Choosing between two different papers for my buttons.

At this point you’re going to be adding more and more collage bits until you’re done. Remember don’t over think it.

For me there weren’t a lot of bits to add. I like buttons, so I went and got my circular decorative punch that does small circles. (I have a circle cutter for cutting larger circles of almost any size—but for those you can also trace around a plate!)

Again, just reaching for papers I found the copper metallic paper that made the buttons at the top left. I was going to go with those because it picked up the dark tones of the “hair.” However I was looking for paper to put on the other page and found the cold “button” paper. I decided to go with the darker ones.

The home stretch. I have to decide what to do with the left page and I rethink the buttons.

This is now the home stretch for me. I haven’t really thought about what I’ll journal on this page yet. But I know that I need something more on the lefthand page. 

I’m not over thinking this, I just am responding to my gut and my own sense of design.

Part of my sense of design is that I really like the lavender in the face and neck and if I use lavender buttons instead of the copper ones and add lavender paper to the lefthand page then there is a stronger connection between the two pages of the spread.

There’s even a lead in for the eye if I place the lavender paper at the top left. 

I like that because I also found a small lilac sticker and realize it will be great to place under my text.

At this point I have a plan. Previously I have had no plan.

Now I know that in essentially 4 steps I’ll be done. Glue down the buttons. Trace the side of the kraft paper on the left where the lavender paper will go (so the paper will look like it is behind the “hair”), And finally add the text.

Note: When I cut out a piece of the lavender paper for the top left I didn’t like how it fit behind the hair so I ended up running the paper down vertically from the top left. Leave yourself open to those types of on-going improvisations and adjustments.)

I have also at this point started to think about the hair as hair. Not a hat, or an alien ship landing behind her, or anything else. I’m been committed to it as hair.

And I also realize that the loose painting and the odd hair make her look like a clown.

That’s when the text comes into my mind. Because my life seems a complete circus right now.

So the final step is of course to write the text.

Writing The Text

In general I tend to simply handwrite text. Sometimes I rubber-stamp letters, but if I’m writing the text I just go for it freehand. If I slow myself down a little I can write fairly neatly as you see in the first three lines of text. This comes from over 30 years of paste up and making copy fit a space.

If you want to tidy things up I encourage you to write your lines out on tracing paper, then compose the lines into a block of text and then move that block of text around your spread to see how it’s going to fit. You can always rule lines at the location and rewrite your text using those guidelines. You could also transfer the text using Saral transfer paper or by rubbing the back of your text block with graphite, placing it face up on the location you desire, and using a ball point pen or stylus to trace the letters. The graphite will come off on the page and you can ink that lettering. (I don’t like to do that because it seems stiff and sometimes the pressure from the transfer shows through.) 

If you’re a calligraphy artist you’ll have also sort of ideas on how to do your text. I’m not a calligraphy artist, so again I tend to just freehand things—the Brush Pen is a marvelous tool for making your handwriting look lovely!

Notice also that there is a scale to the text compared to the space it’s in and the image on the page. If I were to write a very small line of text there it would look unbalanced. Take that into consideration when choosing a writing implement.

Special Lettering

For the word “CIRCUS” I would normally have used an large rubber-stamp alphabet. However I wanted those really decorative letters you see on old 19th century circus posters. I have books of posters so I drew a base line for the word on my page and building from the center out I drew the letters in roughly with light, soft graphite. Then with a fine tipped ink pen I inked them in.

This is something that you could spend hours on and I don’t spend hours on my journal pages. (All told this spread took less than 90 minutes. The drawing was about 30 minutes because of all the layers of color pencil, but everything else went down in 5 or 10 minute increments throughout the next day, whenever the glue dried and I could take another break.)

If you enjoy lettering I encourage you to spend as much time as you want with this. I worked in publishing before the Mac and digital fonts were available so I spent years hand-drawing type on my design comps. It’s not something I want to spend more time on. I can feel my hand cramp up!

But this is another example of not letting yourself overthink it. I wanted a certain look and there was only one way to get that so I did it as quickly as possible to get the job done in what would be an acceptable way to me. 

Remember your journal is YOUR journal and it should first please you, and give you fun.

With the text in place I added that lavender sticker I found in my scrap box and placed a “button” on top of it.

The final page spread is the first image in this post. Are there things that could be improved? Fussed with? Always. On another day I might work out a way to integrate the head with sections of hair color coming off it. But on this day I liked it as it is, as if she’d pulled her hair back into a pony tail that then expanded everywhere. 

For me it is not about creating the perfect page, but trying things out. And this is a good place to stop, and avoid perfectionism.

No Overthinking

This was just me playing with a paper testing sketch that really wasn’t going to be anything, but I thought, “Why not?”

I’d like to encourage you to think “Why not?” as often as you can.

In fact why not start a sketch right now that you can work into a collage? Pick a subject that will have interesting negative space. Something that will be scaled to fit the page you want to work on. Gather some of those materials I mentioned under supplies and start collaging.

Breathe, have fun.


  1. Reply

    Hi Roz- you of course know how I love this! Have been thinking of you.

    1. Reply

      Thank you Terry, I’m so glad you enjoy it. I have been thinking of you and Ron too and hoping that all is well in your new home away from the snow (and boy did we have snow this year!). Hope you have a new art room to play in.

    • Kathy
    • March 29, 2019

    Roz, thanks for yet another excellent, motivating article! One quick question: in the case of a portrait, what constitutes “negative space”? Would that be the space *around* the figure (the space left behind if the figure was blocked out)?

    1. Reply

      Kathy, thanks for stopping by. Negative space is the space around something, around the “positive” space of the subject, so yes it it’s simplest sense negative space is the area around the silhouette of a portrait—the nooks and crannies that are described in the “background” by a nose and lips on a profile or the the shape surrounding the ears. But with the positive space of the subject it’s important to remember that there are additional positive and negative spaces that you can break down, in relation to each other. So think of it this way, there is the subject under consideration, say the face/head as a whole and it is the area around that. But it is also, if we consider the eye, the space around it, though that negative space is contained in the larger positive space of the face.

      So at the end when I write about picking a subject with interesting space I’m suggesting that you look for people with interesting ears, hair, profiles, etc. that some how create that interesting “background” area that you can then in turn play with. Or with animals, the pose that captures the interesting negative space between their legs as that stand that allows you to know instantly what animal they are and that they are ready to move, or how their weight is distributed.

      I hope that helps and you have fun!

    • Elle Gould
    • March 29, 2019

    Thanks, Roz. This is a fine idea. We’ve been traveling on our boat for two years. Not a lot of room. But sketchbook collage is always possible!! Love to read your emails.

    1. Reply

      Thanks for commenting Elle. I’m glad you found this a fun idea. I think with boat life and limited space this might be a great time for you to make two or three pieces of decorative paper (8 x 10 inch on bond, just painting with left over paints) and use them for the process so you don’t have to have a lot of supplies around. I find that I tend to keep collage materials in a gusseted folder and that when it’s empty I add to it and then it doesn’t get out of control. (Unless I’m getting ready to teach a collage class and then everything gets saved for the students, which is a good thing because I get to start fresh afterwards!)

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