Wednesday, October 5, 2011


I was asked to explain what you should think of when you make collages. I will only talk about the traditional paper based collages (possibly with the odd 3D object here and there), and assume that the reader wants to make serious art work. Some of the definitions of collage that come up on the internet are "An artistic composition of materials and objects pasted over a surface, often with unifying lines and colour" and "A form of art in which various materials such as photographs and pieces of paper or fabric are arranged and stuck to a backing".

First of all, I would like to make a distinction between different kinds of collages the way I understand it. Firstly, you have collages comprised of ephemera which you find in every day life. These could be bus tickets, theatre tickets, old letters, old cheques... My collage "Ephemeral Ways" has many such documents that I collected in a derelict house in Kansas. In it you also find old photographs, old wallpaper, and a photo of a graveyard that I took in the same area. I have used acrylics and crayons on top of these.

"Ephemearal Ways", copyright 2008
You need to be aware of the copy right of pictures you might want to use. The collage above will have no issues of copy right because the photo is my own, and the rest of the material are things so old that no one will even remember they existed. There are different rules of copy right depending on the country you live in, but generally speaking you shouldn't use images until 70 years after the death of the author! You should always keep in mind that you could be sued for using someone else's property.You really need to use common sense a lot of the time. As there are photos of the past that belonged to advertising companies and it is very unlikely that anyone will remember them. 

Another type of collage uses modern magazine cuts, and seems to be the most common. Generally speaking people seem to get away with using such images, but technically speaking they do belong to someone and you could get in trouble for using them. There is a common misunderstanding that it's alright to use less than 25 % of an image... this is not true. If you do want to use someone else's photo, please make sure you disguise it well! While I personally do not want to walk down this alley to any great extent, I do sometimes take calculated risks. Since I acquired a colour laser printer I try and integrate more of my own photos into my artwork. This is a piece that I made using photos of myself, either taken by my mother or my husband (in which case they have agreed to grant me copy right). I ended up having problems working the photos by hand because the paper and laser ink is quite glossy. I need to look for better paper.

Use the excellent Finnish Fiskars sewing scissors for a neat cut!
At the top of this image you see a woman flying/lying in the sky; she is an old engraving from a book with copy right free images. Jim Harter, a friend of mine, started to collect these kind of images back in the 1970s and Dover has published a great number of collections on different themes. You will find a wealth of images that you can use freely. The only thing is that you have to like the way the look! For me personally, they represent something nostalgic and very beautiful that I enjoy incorporating into my work... I used to go to the University and copy the books for very little money. Nowadays I scan them (or use CD's that come with the newer books), then working them in a photo editing program such as Photoshop.

I have changed the hair so that it is flying in the wind
I increase contrast, play around with sizes and may even change a detail here and there. I then print them out on good quality laser paper. The problem with some papers is that they are very glossy and not so easy to deal with later if you want to add colour and other effects by hand. On the other hand the paper may be too thin and fragile, and impossible to work with as it will tear too easily. You need to think about this and try what works best for you. 

"Loose Promises", copyright 2008
Nowadays many people prefer to do digital collages, in which case all the imagery is assembled in the computer and no scissors or glues are involved! I don't personally want to do this, as I want to retain a maximum of my own personality in my collaged images as well as incorporate hand drawn elements. I want my art work to have that extra dimension of a craft done by hand. I feel that because I spend a lot of time by the computer, I should also do something with my hands. 

We now get to the final version of collages, which I call mixed media collages. These incorporate a wide variety of other elements and often involve so many different techniques that they might as well be called just "mixed media". While some of my collages have only very few hand drawn elements (the collage above only has a hand painted background, a hand drawn heart, clouds and some colour added to the copy right free images), some collages are more complex. The one below incorporates copy right free engravings, a border made out of magazine cuts, a hand drawn figure, hair made out of some photographed grass found in a magazine, hand drawn honey, hand drawn pills, an old letter, scraps and a couple of images found in a book.

"Grazing A Maze", copyright 2006
(Formerly "The Alchemy of Nutrition")
There are various decorative papers for sale that you can use freely, you can get them in hobby shops (they are mostly meant for scrap booking or for decoupage, the art of decorating objects with images). There are also images online that are free to use. I use gift wrap as well, I don't think you need to worry too much about copy right in this case.
"The Melancholy of Ambivalence", copyright 2008
This collage contains a lot of giftwrap
as well as images from sheets that were intended for decoupage.
The very basics of the technique of collaging is knowing how various media mix and how papers react to the products you want to use. For instance, magazine cuts are usually made of very thin paper that may react very badly to wet glue. You need to spread the watered down glue very thinly and be very careful when you apply it to your background. I usually spread out the glue with my fingers, but intricate or large images I hold down to a piece of paper used for this purpose only, spread glue onto the back and then spread it out with a wet brush. You also need to think about what kind of background you want to use. Only use good quality, acid free paper. There are nowadays papers meant for mixed media, for instance one made of bamboo. If you wish to colour this paper in some way, it may be a good idea to wet it thoroughly first, much as you would when working with water colours. This way it will not buckle too much. It will also ensure against further reactions to glues and other media. Remember that some papers will deteriorate with age. If you want for your collage to last, you need to be using good quality papers all around, and varnish the images afterwards.
I started off by painting he ground and the background for the clouds
with Ecoline inks. They say these inks are not very durable.
I have always used them and as long as I keep my artwork out of the sun
(as you should)
they seem to be alright.
The ABC of collaging is that you have to be very careful not to apply water based products on top of oil based products. 

I do use PVA glue a lot, but nowadays commonly used for collaging is actually Matt Gel Medium. This is normally added to acrylics to change their consistency, but doubles as a glue and a varnish. It is one of the few products that have a matt finish. It will make it look as if you haven't glued anything at all! You can also "mend" spots with PVA glue where you don't want it to show by using this on top. The good thing about this varnish is that on top of it, you can draw with crayons Just be careful when you use it as a varnish as a thick layer will make the image look milky. This actually goes for all commercial varnishes. It's always best to test a product properly before risking a finished collage! I have been using spray varnishes as a finishing touch just to make the collage more durable, but I am not always pleased with the effect it has on some surfaces. Some spirit based varnishes can ruin your paper, so be careful!

Now one of the very great problems you will encounter if you use different media is gluing pictures on top of a background that contains oil (for instance wax or oil crayon), as well as applying a water based varnish on this kind of surface. There is a great solution for this problem, and it is Shellac. This is a traditional varnish originally meant for furniture (usually in the form of French Polish). You can buy Shellac flakes in shops that sell ecological paints. It comes in a variety of shades, from dark brown to light yellow. You need to soak the flakes in methylated spirit for a while. Alternatively, you can buy it ready made. Soak the used brush in methylated spirit to clean. The brown mixture will obviously give your collage a darker tint, while the lighter one will not show so much. This is a good way of making your collage look older. Shellac sticks to almost any surface. Only make sure the surface is really dry when you apply it. It may be difficult to draw on top of it, but paints such as ordinary acrylics will stick to it. While I'm not so keen on synthetic products such as acrylic paints, I find they make life easier and for the moment I prefer it that way. You can also use acrylics as a background as PVA glue will stick to it without problem (they are both similar products). You can of course attempt to be 100 % ecological and use only traditional or hand made products. In this case you need a book about making natural paints. There are many old methods meant for interior decoration that can be used in mixed media art work. My inspiration came in fact from the art of decoupage.

Making intricate collages is as you can see not an easy affair. You have to be very focused, as small mistakes in composition when you glue down your pictures, and carelessness regarding the products you use, can ruin your efforts altogether. I make lots of mistakes as I am not always able to be focused enough. I often find myself desperately repairing them. Well, the good news is that it's not always visible to other people!

When it comes to composition, in my case it's mostly intuitive. It's a good idea to lay the images out first and think how you want to combine them. There is no easy advice to give, you just have to try it out and see what approach works best for you. Try and make the images overlap as little as possible, as this will not look very neat. The thinner the paper, the better the images will mix and look seamless. Of course, you may have a "rough" style that requires a different approach. If possible, glue the thinner papers first and the thicker ones on top. You can also tear the edges so they will blend better as the edges won't be sharp. Among the different media I use are coloured inks, watercolour crayons, and the American Prisma pens that have a fantastic consistency and finish (they are quite greasy). Luckily you can now buy them online within Europe. I like precision, so I don't use pastels a lot. I just purchased some Sennellier pastels to try though, as they looked very pleasing. In general, the Sennelier products are fabulous. Their inks are interesting as they contain some Shellac!
Acrylic paint, Sennelier inks, Prisma crayons...

The finished collage "In Search of Herself", copyright 2011.
The background is made using a secret ingredient...
The ground is made using Ecoline inks and black crayon.
The Tree and clouds are made using Prisma crayons.
The meteorites are made using Sennelier ink and white Prisma crayon.
The border is assembled of a copy right free Celtic pattern -
sadly I didn't find quite what I was looking for.
The figures are photos of myself, made sepia in Photoshop
 and also resized to create a sense of perspective.
All in all I am not 100 % happy with the result,
 as I had trouble with the paper I printed the figures on.

Perhaps I will still give it another go... sometime.

Does it all seem terribly complicated? Don't worry, start in a simple way and the learn more as you go... Don't feel overwhelmed by it all, just enjoy the process. Only remember that the copy right issues are important if you want to sell or exhibit your work in public. Otherwise just go for good quality magazines like I did in the beginning... 

Good online shops in the UK are Great Art and Art Discount.

Read more about my artistic process on my website.
A good source of inspiration are the collage groups on Flickr. Here are a few:


NOTPAPER (There is a BLOG in connection to this group which features interviews with collage artists - in 2008 I was featured here)

RETROCOLLAGE (a website by Eric Edhelmann)

Check out this book on contemporary collages by Robert Klanten and look for more e.g. on Amazon:

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